You’ll never hear me saying that the Pirates have too much pitching depth.
That’s actually an impossible thing for a team to have. Pitching depth can be incredibly fleeting, and the attrition rate of pitchers is so high that you need several of them in the lower levels just to get a good chance of one or two of those pitchers to become viable MLB options. And the hope is that of the many pitchers breaks out and becomes a top of the rotation candidate.
The Pirates have always been an organization looking to bring new pitching depth into the system. They did this in a big way between 2008 and 2011, spending a lot of money on over-slot prep pitchers. That approach didn’t work as well the first few years, but led to prospects like Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and Clay Holmes. Granted, none of those guys have done anything noteworthy at the big league level yet, but they helped build a reputation.
Around the game, and definitely outside of Pittsburgh, the Pirates are seen as an organization that knows what they’re doing when it comes to developing young pitchers. Scouts I talk with from across the game praise their approach. New pitchers who come in to the system discuss the positive things they’ve heard about the organization. It happened again yesterday with first round pick Shane Baz, who had a lot of praise for his potential new system.
When MLB changed the draft rules to limit spending after the 2011 draft, they removed an advantage the Pirates had to stock up on pitching. But they have still managed to add pitching along the way. They hit on a few mid-round picks out of college, most notably Chad Kuhl in the ninth round in 2013, and Tyler Eppler in the sixth round in 2014. They have also continued to load up on prep pitchers.
The 2014 draft saw them go big on prep pitchers, taking Mitch Keller, Trey Supak, and Gage Hinsz. They did it again in 2016, drafting Braeden Ogle, Max Kranick, Travis MacGregor, and Austin Shields. Out of this group, Supak was traded, and the 2016 group is largely valued on projectability and upside. But the Pirates have still found a way to amass a young group of arms, and they added two more yesterday in Shane Baz and Steve Jennings.
Of course, the Pirates don’t just rely on the draft to gather pitching depth. Their current rotation shows that. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Chad Kuhl were all drafted, but Ivan Nova was originally acquired in a trade (sending out minor league pitcher Stephen Tarpley as part of the deal, who was acquired with Steven Brault in an earlier trade for Travis Snider), and Trevor Williams was compensation for losing pitching guru Jim Benedict. The Williams addition was especially interesting, as the Pirates had plenty of upper level pitching depth already, but still sought a pitching prospect as compensation.
Williams also shows why you need so much pitching depth. He was supposed to be behind Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, and Chad Kuhl. The first two are currently in Triple-A, and Kuhl has been struggling this year, while Williams is having some early success in the rotation.
The Pirates have a lot of pitching depth in the upper levels, but most of that depth is like Williams — capable of pitching in a major league rotation, but unlikely to be more than a back of the rotation starter or a strong depth option. The exciting development lately is the depth that is growing in the lower levels.
Mitch Keller has obviously been a big story, emerging as a top prospect in the last year. The way he has been treated in terms of promotions, and when evaluating his stuff and maturity on the mound, he looks more like a first round pick out of college last year than a former prep pitcher a few years into his career. I see more similarities between Keller and Gerrit Cole — at least in terms of development and prospect status at this point in their careers — than I see between Keller and other mid-round prep pitchers who have come along.
Likewise, it’s hard to avoid drawing comparisons of development between Baz and Jameson Taillon. Both were drafted out of high school in the first round, both have the potential for multiple plus pitches out of the draft, and both will likely be moved more aggressively than your standard prep pitcher.
Keller and Baz should lead the way with the next wave of pitching prospects, and if the Pirates can get a result anything close to what they’ve seen so far from Cole and Taillon, then they’ll be in good shape.
But prospects are far from guaranteed, especially when talking about pitchers. That’s why it’s good that the Pirates have other options. Gage Hinsz has looked like he’s a step behind Keller every stage of his career, and has top of the rotation stuff, with the potential for at least two plus pitches. Taylor Hearn has an electric fastball from the left side, and the potential for two plus pitches when his slider is on. Luis Escobar is another hard throwing pitcher who has the potential for two plus pitches, along with a good changeup.
Then there’s the group of Braeden Ogle, Max Kranick, Travis MacGregor, Austin Shields, Ike Schlabach, Nathan Trevillian, and now Steve Jennings. Those prep pitchers drafted in recent years give the Pirates additional depth in the lower levels, and a lot of lottery tickets. If just one of those pitchers can emerge to join Keller and Baz as top of the rotation prospects, then the Pirates will have another nice wave of pitching depth emerging from the lower levels, just like they had a few years ago with Cole, Taillon, Glasnow, and all of the guys who make up the rest of the current rotation or rotation depth.
I don’t expect the Pirates to stop there. I’d expect them to continue adding pitching, either tomorrow in the draft, or on the international side, or in future trades. You can never have too much pitching depth. What you want is strong pitching depth that you can build upon. The Pirates have that, and they are definitely still working to add to the group.