The Pirates have a rebuilding farm system. That kind of stuff happens when you graduate as many players as they have graduated in the past two years.
Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Adam Frazier, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Glasnow are just some of the names who have left the prospect ranks. That takes a toll on the top of the system, and on the farm system rankings.
Those rankings really only mean so much when you’re trading a high ranking for guys who are performing in the majors. The guys who have graduated in the last year or two all have five or six years remaining in the system. They didn’t go anywhere. Some of them are still working on their development, even if they aren’t technically “prospects” anymore.
But all of those graduates raise a question as to who will make up the next wave. The Pirates have guys like Taillon and Bell under control for at least five more years, but they will eventually need replacements for them, or for other players who have arrived in recent years.
Fortunately the Pirates have the start of what they need for that to happen. Between the last few drafts, and the emergence of international talent signed over the last few years, they have a group of promising young players forming in the lower levels.
It started with the draft from the last few years. The Pirates went heavy on prep pitchers in 2016, signing Braeden Ogle, Max Kranick, Travis MacGregor, and Austin Shields with over-slot deals. They followed that up in 2017, taking over-slot prep pitchers Steven Jennings and Cody Bolton, along with prep outfielders Calvin Mitchell and Conner Uselton in the top ten rounds, along with Mason Martin and Jacob Webb outside of the top ten. The prep ranks got a big boost with first round pick Shane Baz.
This is no new approach for the Pirates. They went heavy on prep pitchers in 2014, and that seems to have worked out very well, as one of those prep pitchers was Mitch Keller. They also went heavy on younger players from 2008-2011, adding notable prospects like Josh Bell, Tyler Glasnow, Clay Holmes, and Nick Kingham.
Those players add some perspective to the approach. For one, you need to draft and develop a lot of players in order for a few to make it to the upper levels and have a shot at the majors. But also, it takes a long time for these young players to arrive in the majors. All four of those players were drafted in 2010-11, and they are now on the verge of making the majors, or just getting established in the majors, seven years later. So it’s a good thing the Pirates have already gotten started adding players in the lower levels, since they will need plenty of time to develop replacements for guys like Taillon, Bell, and others.
It’s not just the draft though. The international market is starting to show promise again, after struggling for a few years. Lolo Sanchez was the top signing in 2015, and looked like a legit prospect this year, with the chance to continue his power development and become one of the top prospects in the system, maybe as soon as next year. Rodolfo Castro and Jeremias Portorreal have also shown promise. And the Pirates have seen some promise with pitchers like Domingo Robles and a few other guys who profile more as relievers and back of the rotation starters.
The last time the Pirates had a wave of young talent coming through the lower levels, it led to most of their current MLB team. Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco were in West Virginia, along with guys like Jose Osuna, Elias Diaz, and Nick Kingham. As you moved up the ladder, you had Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, and Starling Marte, with the latter two on more of a fast track. Behind the West Virginia group you had Glasnow and Holmes.
The young guys really start to stand out once they reach full season ball in West Virginia. That is where the numbers start becoming legit, and the tools are put to the test. If a guy can perform at that level, he gets on the radar as a legit prospect to watch, with a potential timeline to the majors, and an upside that becomes a bit more clear.
West Virginia should see a loaded team next year, with players from both the 2016 and 2017 drafts, along with several of those top international hitting prospects. If all goes well, the Pirates should have a good wave of prospects making their way through the lower levels. And based on their history, I don’t expect them to stop taking high upside guys any time soon, which means there should be more guys following the players currently in the system.