In the last week, I’ve written about the projected 2018 rosters for all four full-season minor league teams in the Pirates’ system. This process allows the chance to not only see where everyone in the system could start off next year, but also where the strengths and weaknesses are in the system, and the state of the overall system.
If you missed those articles, you can find them here:
Now that I’ve covered each individual level, I want to take a look at the overall system, focusing on the areas of depth, the weak areas, and the potential breakout guys in the lower levels.
Where is the Depth?
The depth in the system was obvious at two positions in particular. The first was with pitching, specifically right-handed starting options, and back of the rotation/bullpen candidates. It’s common for teams to have a lot of these types of pitchers. You’re not going to see a team loaded with Mitch Keller type prospects, and most of their pitching prospects will be back of the rotation guys in the future.
But the Pirates have a larger amount of these guys than normal. It’s to the point where they have ten starting options for Indianapolis, along with more starters than spots in Altoona. The Bradenton rotation is a little easier to manage, although there are two college guys being held back from Altoona for the time being due to a lack of space. Then, in West Virginia, you’ve got another talented group with more starters than rotation spots.
It’s not a bad thing to have “too much pitching”, if that’s even a thing. But realistically, the Pirates won’t have space for all of these guys. Even if you factor in injuries, promotions to the majors, and moves to the bullpen, there are too many guys. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the team relieves some of this depth with a few trades in the offseason.
That’s something they have done in the past, trading away some of their fringe options for help in the offseason, or in-season. I’d expect that to continue this offseason. These types of prospects won’t land a big power hitter or a top of the rotation pitcher, but they could land a helpful bench or bullpen piece.
The other position of depth was the shortstop position. The Pirates have Kevin Newman at the top level, with Kevin Kramer looking like a candidate for the position. They have Cole Tucker in Altoona, with arguably more upside than either player in Indianapolis, but also with things to work on at the Double-A level.
Stephen Alemais is the best defensive shortstop in the system, but is blocked by Tucker, and should start back in Bradenton. I’d project Adrian Valerio at the same level, splitting time with Alemais. Valerio showed more consistency last year, and has some strong defensive skills, along with some offensive potential to make him a legit prospect. Behind all of those guys, I’d expect Rodolfo Castro to get a push to West Virginia, adding another talented, young shortstop option with potential on the field and with the bat.
The shortstop position isn’t like the pitching situation. There’s not really a rush to trade away one of the shortstops in order to make room for the others. Also, the Pirates are well set on back of the rotation options in the majors, with guys like Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams having a grasp on rotation spots, and several others looking Major League ready in Triple-A. Meanwhile, the Pirates will definitely need a starting shortstop to emerge soon in the majors, which means they should be maximizing their chances by keeping their options around until someone does emerge.
If they do trade a shortstop, they should get a better return than they would with the pitchers, although none of these guys individually would be enough to land an impact talent, as you’d need multiple top prospects to do anything like that. And while the Pirates have been known to trade from their back of the rotation stock, they haven’t been known to trade multiple top prospects, and very rarely deal top prospects at all.
Where are the Weak Areas?
When looking at the weak areas in the system, you could focus on individual positions, or specific skill sets. The Pirates are thin at the catching position. Elias Diaz is the only potential starter from A-ball to the majors, and his chances aren’t close to guaranteed. They’re weak at third base, although they do have Ke’Bryan Hayes as a potential starter, with his defense and contact skills being good enough to give him a strong shot at being a league average starter at least.
The outfield is also weak throughout the system, but only comparatively to what we’ve seen in the past. There are still some top prospects like Austin Meadows, and a lot of talent growing in the lower levels, led by Lolo Sanchez. Not to mention the Pirates don’t need outfielders in the majors for a few years, with the exception of Meadows eventually taking over for Andrew McCutchen. And if Meadows doesn’t work out, there are a few contingency plans, with Jordan Luplow leading the way in that area.
As for skills, the system is weak on power in the upper levels, but that is changing in the lower levels. The most recent draft put more of an emphasis on power, leading to some interesting prospects from the prep ranks like Calvin Mitchell, Conner Uselton, and Mason Martin. There are even some interesting power options from the college ranks like Bligh Madris. This new power focus carried over to trades, leading to the acquisition of Oneil Cruz in the Tony Watson deal. So while power is a weakness in the short-term, it looks to be improving for the long-term.
A System in Need of Breakouts
The Pirates have seen a lot of promotions to the majors in recent years, with a lot of top prospects losing their eligibility, which led to the current rebuilding system. From what I’ve seen, the system should end up ranking around the middle of the pack in the majors. That can feel like the bottom of the majors for a few reasons.
The first is due to a simple comparison between the old system and the current one. The Pirates had a ton of talent in their system in previous years, with guys breaking into the top 50 every year, and a top 50 prospect ready to step into the majors year after year. This led to some of their best MLB talent, such as Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Gregory Polanco, and the lower ranked prospects have stepped up in important roles, like we’ve seen with Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and others.
Going from that system to the one the Pirates have now, especially when looking at the top levels, can feel like a massive decline. But it also feels like the Pirates might be lower than middle of the pack due to the nature of farm systems these days. You’ve got teams like the White Sox who are going all-in on rebuilding their farm system and stocking up on prospects. Because of this, the gap from the top farm systems to the middle farm systems is wider than it was in years past. So while the Pirates are legitimately a middle of the pack farm system, that top tier is now further away than before.
Fortunately, the system looks to be on the way to a good rebuild. They still have prospects in the upper levels, with starting options in the form of Meadows, Newman, Tucker, Kramer, and Hayes. They have plenty of pitching talent, and that extends beyond the back of the rotation guys, as they’ve got one of the best pitching prospects in the game in Mitch Keller.
Lower in the system, we’re starting to see the old formula for breakouts. The West Virginia group in 2018 is loaded with young talent, more than any team I’ve seen dating back to the 2012 group, and possibly more than that group. There are plenty of breakout candidates there, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see at least two of those guys emerging as top 50 prospects by this time next year (my candidates right now would be Shane Baz and Lolo Sanchez). There are also some breakout candidates in Bradenton, with many of them looking to follow-up on big seasons in West Virginia last year.
The Pirates will need this to play out like it did the last time around. They will need the breakout candidates to step up and propel the farm system to the top of the majors again. They will need to continue adding talent like they’ve done in recent years with the drafting of guys like Baz and Mitchell, or with the signing of international guys like Sanchez, or promising lower guys like Samuel Inoa or Sherten Apostel.
The upper levels will still provide some starting options in the short-term, and a few impact players in the process. In the long-term, the Pirates need those breakout guys in the lower levels to start stepping up, in order to make sure the system starts trending back up, rather than further down when guys like Meadows, Keller, and so on eventually graduate.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.