The importance, for minor league prospects, of age relative to level isn’t a new concept to avid baseball fans. We know that a 24-year-old tearing up Low-A doesn’t mean much, and that a 19-year-old putting up merely decent numbers in Double-A is very promising. Beyond individual situations, though, you may wonder what it says about a farm system if it’s teams are habitually younger or older than the norm for their leagues.
This is an interesting question in connection with the Pirates due to the sharply divergent experiences of their current front office, under Neal Huntington, and its predecessor, under Dave Littlefield. As you’ll see below, since its early years, when the prospects in the system were signed under Littlefield, Huntington’s farm system has generally had relatively young teams. (As recently determined by Baseball America, the Pirates have the tenth youngest farm system as of the start of 2017, despite having one of the oldest Low-A teams. Indianapolis has the youngest team in the International League.) Under Littlefield, it was just the opposite. I’m guessing that I don’t need to argue that the farm system under Huntington has been substantially better than that under Littlefield. (If I do, you’ve been getting your information from sources that are either seriously misinformed or hopelessly biased.)
I think it’s at least a little interesting to consider how indicative the relative ages of the system’s teams may be of their talent. Obviously, it’d be misleading to suppose that a team averaging half a year younger than its league is necessarily well stocked with prospects, or that a team that’s half a year older is necessarily barren. For instance, having a team with a few very young, high-ceiling prospects and a bunch of older non-prospects might be a good thing, if the younger guys were good enough. But persistent trends over an entire system for a number of years might say something in a more general way about how well the system is being run.
There’s also something of a chicken-or-the-egg issue. Specific to the Pirates, I think there two principal reasons why the current front office’s system has been considerably younger, relative to levels, than the one they inherited. The first is the obvious one: They do a much better job of scouting and obtaining amateur talent. Better players advance more quickly.
The second is organizational philosophy. Littlefield’s staff, primarily farm director Brian Graham, made it clear that they wanted to be sure a player was ready to dominate once he reached a particular level. Players thus often repeated levels, or even got demoted, despite passable or sometimes even fairly good performances. (Here are just a couple random examples.)
The current staff follows more of an “up or out” philosophy, where players are pushed aggressively even when their performances aren’t very good, at least on paper. J.T. Brubaker, Tyler Eppler, and Michael Suchy are examples of that this year.
Of course, another factor is the use of veteran minor league free agents. I’ll get into this a little bit more below, but it’s very common, almost universal, for Triple-A rosters to have a number of minor league veterans signed as free agents. Often they make up most of the team. No team can fill up its entire Triple-A roster with legitimate prospects and, even if they could, teams want experienced depth options in case of injuries or other problems in the majors. Under Littlefield, though, the Pirates loaded the Double-A roster with veteran free agents and often brought in older, experienced players to round out the rosters in High-A and even Low-A. (A few more examples.) The current front office employs veteran players only sparingly in Double-A and never at lower levels.
The following charts show the weighted average ages of the batters and pitchers at each full season level of the Pirates’ system since 2005, as well as weighted averages for the relevant league. (Weighted averages can be found at Baseball-Reference.com.) Littlefield was fired during the 2007 season and Huntington hired after the season. Huntington’s first draft was in 2008 and his first full international signing period started that year, so it wasn’t until a few years that “his” players populated the middle levels of the system (Low-A and High-A). The orange lines are the Pirates’ affiliates and the blue lines are the league.
Low-A: Hickory and West Virginia
The two class A teams show a similar pattern. The ages for both teams, batters and pitchers, were almost always above league average, often well above, during the last few years under Littlefield. After Huntington took over, the ages more or less started dropping until, after a few years, they were mostly lower than average for a while.
The downward spike for West Virginia hitters in 2012 represented one of the most talented groups the Pirates have had at any affiliate in a long time. It included Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, Willy Garcia, Jose Osuna and Elias Diaz, although Bell missed most of the year with a knee injury.
The two low points among the pitchers were 2011 and 2013. The former year included Jameson Taillon and the prep pitchers (Zack Von Rosenberg, Zack Dodson, Colton Cain, Brooks Pounders and Trent Stevenson) whom the Pirates drafted in 2009. That draft seemed promising at the time but didn’t work out at all.
The 2013 team included a group of prep pitchers from the 2011 draft, among them Tyler Glasnow and Clay Holmes. It also included 18-year-old Luis Heredia, who still looked like a very good prospect at that point.
The ages at West Virginia have shifted to the older end in the last couple years as the Pirates’ scouting efforts in Latin America have largely foundered and, in some years, their early draft picks have focused on college players who’ve mostly skipped Low-A. The Power batters in the early going in 2017 have been the second oldest group in the league, well above the league average. Not coincidentally, the team is heavily populated by players who struggled to earn promotions out of the short season leagues or who are repeating the level. Regardless of what sort of numbers these hitters post at this level against younger competition, that’s cause for concern moving forward.
High-A: Lynchburg and Bradenton
The High-A teams have followed the same pattern: Older than average, often by a lot, under Littlefield and dropping to younger than average within a few years after the front office change.
Obviously, the low point for hitters at Bradenton in 2013 was the talented group from West Virginia in 2012. The 2015 team had 20-year-olds Austin Meadows, Reese McGuire, and Harold Ramirez.
Of the two youngest group of pitchers, the 2014 team had Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow, while the 2017 team has a rotation that features Mitch Keller, Taylor Hearn and Gage Hinsz.
That very old 2005 Lynchburg team was nearly devoid of talent unless you count Neil Walker, who played nine games there after an end-of-season promotion.
The patterns at the two upper level affiliates have been a little different. Huntington inherited Double-A and Triple-A teams with chronically old rosters, but the average ages of both quickly dropped below the leagues and mostly stayed there. Obviously, that wasn’t because of Huntington’s draftees or because the lower level affiliates at the end of Littlefield’s tenure had young rosters. It was because the Altoona roster under Littlefield was loaded with veteran free agents.
The 2007 team, for instance, gave 44 starts to veteran free agent pitchers. By 2009, there were none (unless you include one by a rehabbing Phil Dumatrait). In 2016, other than rehab starts, the oldest pitcher to start a game for Altoona was 24, except for two spot starts by 25-year-old John Kuchno, a Pirate draftee. The team didn’t have a single veteran free agent, hitter or pitcher, on the entire roster.
The difference from the Littlefield years, though, isn’t just free agents. The Pirates now are pushing their prospects more aggressively, even when the prospect’s performance isn’t stellar. The result is players playing at Double-A at much more appropriate ages. As an illustration, in 2006 Altoona’s rotation included Landon Jacobsen, who was 27, and Shane Youman, who was 26. Both were Pirate draftees, but Jacobsen had been at Altoona since 2003 and Youman was repeating the level despite doing reasonably well there the previous year. Starting third baseman Brandon Chaves was 26 and in his third year there, and would return for another as the starting shortstop in 2007. Of course, Chaves was hardly the oldest Altoona player in 2006. The regular catcher, first baseman and DH were 27, 29 and 27.
The only Altoona starter in 2016 above age 24 was Stetson Allie, at 25. Two starters who were both very young for Double-A, Reese McGuire and Edwin Espinal, had been promoted from Bradenton despite weak numbers the previous year. Not surprisingly, the 2016 Curve had the league’s youngest group of hitters.
The pattern at Indianapolis has been similar to that in Altoona, although more erratic. This is undoubtedly due to the heavy dependence, common in baseball, on veteran depth-type players at the Triple-A level. Indy had some old teams just prior to Huntington taking over the organization, the last one being an extreme example. Ten major league teams had younger batters than Indianapolis in 2007; fourteen had younger pitchers. By that time, the farm system was in dismal shape, ranked near the bottom, specifically 26th, by Baseball America.
The consequences may have been more profound than fans appreciate. A normal system for a team that had been drafting near the top for years should, at worst, have a lot of Grade C-type prospects who could be plugged in while the team rebuilt. Huntington, however, had to trade for players who were close to the majors just to field a team, which probably limited his options when he started trading away veterans for prospects. He wasn’t in a position to trade for lower level prospects, which might have netted him some players with higher ceilings. This could be one reason those trades worked out so poorly.
The Pirates quickly reduced their dependence on older players at the Triple-A level under Huntington. Dramatic change, though, came about in 2016, when Indy fielded the league’s youngest batters by a wide margin and second-youngest (by one-tenth of a year) pitchers. (The latter likely would have been the youngest, maybe by a lot, if Nick Kingham hadn’t been hurt and a pitching meltdown at the major league level hadn’t required the Pirates to call up several prospects earlier than they might have preferred.)
The trend continues this year. The reasons this didn’t happen sooner are beyond the scope of this article, but it’s clear that the Indy roster has been heavily loaded with players who have a good chance of contributing, possibly long-term, at the major league level. The charts above reflect the change very clearly.
Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.