We posted our Q&A yesterday and got some interesting questions, which we will answer in separate articles over the next few days. Today we look at the strategy of the Pittsburgh Pirates for international signings, the prospect rankings of Conner Uselton and Nick Burdi’s usage by the Pirates last year.
joe s: After years of international talent acquisitions the Pirates do not seem to either sign talented players or if they do, they can not develop them so that they can impact the major league team. You have indicated numerous times that it is impossible to evaluate players that are 15/16 years old to determine what they will be in a few years, so the Pirate approach of taking quantity over what others deem quality players is the proper approach. I, like others on this site, disagree with this method of talent evaluation. With the hundreds of such signings using this approach the Pirates have nothing to show for it. Forget Marte, Polanco and given I think Santana will be a good one if he recovers from TJ surgery but what else is left, little or nothing. Now we are seeing that past high end signings by Pirate standards (which are minimal in comparison to what other teams offer and pay) are not very good and are now, after a few years of being in the minors, are being purged from the system. Is it time for the Pirates to sign a very high end talent and see how that works out? If not, why not since the Pirate philosophy does not seem to produce results or players making it to the majors.
This is a complex question with some misconceptions in it. Addressing the first sentence quickly before I really get into the answer, I believe the Pirates have had an issue developing international players, but there are a lot of players who are too new to the system to tell if that area has improved recently. They have also made some changes in that area, so it could still be an issue at the lower levels or they might be on their way to improvements.
Now on to the big problem with this question, which needs to be cleared up:
“you have indicated numerous times that it is impossible to evaluate players that are 15/16 years old to determine what they will be in a few years, so the Pirate approach of taking quantity over what others deem quality players is the proper approach”
We have never said any approach on the international side is proper. We have also never said it’s impossible to evaluate 15/16 year old players. There are a lot of problems here because the international landscape has drastically changed since I started here in 2010. My thinking has evolved with those budget changes specifically for the Pirates. There is no proper approach to international signings because they have a tremendously high failure rate in every bonus range. If someone knew a proper way to do, 30 teams would like that information.
The mix up here with player evaluation is not an MLB issue, it had to do with prospect rankings on the international side. Some people worry about a signing being a top 30 prospect. These rankings are going by very limited information in the early years of development.
Anyone who follows the amateur draft closely knows that a lot can change in the final two months before the draft on the prep side. A top 30 list in April will look a lot different than a top 30 list in June. On the international side, players sometimes agree to deals at 14, then disappear from the scouting circuit. If prospect rankings change drastically with 17 and 18-year-old players, imagine what could happen with 14 and 15-year-old players who aren’t even being seen by the people doing the rankings.
The lists are interesting and the people doing it put a lot of time and effort into it, but it’s just a limited snapshot of players who would be high school freshmen and sophomores in the U.S., minus the ability to fully scout them.
On to the real point of the question. The comment about what the Pirates have produced misses a lot of players who either made the majors or were traded, so it’s not just three names and nothing else (Elias Diaz anyone?). It also ignores the fact that many of the players signed are too young to judge as either hits or failures.
The decision by the Pirates whether to go quantity over quality is something that can’t be viewed as a general statement. First problem with that is the way the international side has been run. The budget was extremely limited when Starling Marte signed back in 2007. They were working with $750,000 a year. You can’t exactly decide between quality or quantity when you have two teams to fill out and not enough to spend on one major signing.
The Pirates then increased their budget and it wasn’t long before Luis Heredia was signed for $3M, which was their entire set budget for the year, though they went over budget to get a few others. They went quality that year and we all know how that turned out. The next year, Harold Ramirez and Elvis Escobar, two guys who reached minor league free agency without reaching Triple-A, took over half of their budget. They went quality again and it didn’t work out.
Those years were followed by the bonus pool era, where the Pirates couldn’t even spend what they did in previous years because of poorly thought out MLB rules that punished them for being good during that five-year stretch. In 2012 when they had their biggest pool of this stretch, they went quality again signing two players, Michael de la Cruz and Julio de la Cruz ($700,000 bonus each), who took up half of their budget. Three years in a row with quality signings over a huge group of smaller signings and not one player reached Triple-A.
Once the bonus pool system was fixed, the Pirates went out and signed Ji-Hwan Bae to their second biggest bonus ever. They also signed some middle tier players like Juan Pie ($500,000) and Angel Basabe ($450,000) and spread out the rest. That was both quality and quantity. We won’t know how this works out for at least 3-4 years.
This current signing period saw the Pirates give eight players at least $350,000, which has never been done by them. One of their biggest signings was considered a top 50 prospect by at least one source and Jesse Sanchez had multiple players they signed as the “best of the rest” outside his top 30. Over 60% of their budget went to those top players.
There have been four different types of bonus pools in a short time and the plan of attack has changed over the years. The Pirates have gone all in on a few players with no success, yet that’s what some people want. They have signed MLB players for under $100,000, yet some people think it’s wrong. There is no right way on the international side to do things. When you go all in, you limit your chances to hit. The list of top signings all-time is filled with failures and a few success stories. The list of lower signings hitting is huge, but it’s also a huge group of failures.
What you should look at over the years is that the Pirates have always spent their budget, which can’t be said about numerous teams in baseball. This year, their bonus pool is running on fumes. Last year, they actually spent more than their pool when you factor in that signings from Mexico only counted the 25% that players got from their bonus and not the 75% teams took.
I believe development is (or at least was) a main issue and that has been addressed, mostly recently with the huge expansion in progress at the Dominican Academy. There’s also the fact that they overhauled the international scouting system, so worrying about the past under completely different people and completely different bonus restrictions doesn’t make sense. These current players being signed with be judged with different standards.
PhillyJake: Conner Uselton’s stock seems to be rising? MLB Pipeline has him at 22. Keith Law has him at 17. Fangraphs has him at 26. Can’t see BA. He’s not even top 50 for you. What do they see that you don’t? What do you see that they don’t? Or has he just not fallen as fast with the others as he has for you?
It’s not that Uselton has seen his stock rise, it’s that those two sources are giving him the benefit of the doubt based on his high school track record and his season-ending injury in 2017. They haven’t dropped him. We are not doing that.
Part of the problem is that they believe he may not have been 100% this year. The Pirates actually had him playing in the Dominican during the late fall in 2017 and he was deemed to be healthy then, so we aren’t giving him that doubt that he was still suffering from the injury eight months later.
Uselton showed one tool in 2018, his arm. It was a plus tool too. The reports we got on his defense were very poor (besides the arm of course) as a corner outfielder, while others are still going by reports that said he was athletic enough to possibly play center field. He showed absolutely no power or speed at Bristol in 2018. Uselton was also old for his draft class, so he should have been advanced for the group. By comparison, fellow 2017 prep pick Mason Martin is over a full year younger.
The final straw(s) for him were the benchings for lack of hustle. He would have been the worst hitter in the Appalachian League last year if he didn’t get benched enough times to avoid reaching the minimum plate appearances to qualify for league leaders.
He’s supposed to have the tools for success, though there were some questions about his swing coming out of high school. At this point, he has shown nothing that says prospect. He’s old for his draft class, but age is still on his side and his bonus buys some patience as well, so he isn’t a lost cause.
PhillyJake: Travis Swaggerty seems like the type of player who’s not long for the minors and will climb very quickly. Am I reading him right?
I added in a second question from PhillyJake because this is an easier one to answer. Swaggerty is a toolsy player with no real flaws, such as high strikeouts, which would possibly hold him back. He went to a major college and put up strong stats as a freshman, so he was a top player for three years. He should be with Bradenton to begin this season and could move up to Altoona in the second half if all goes well. You never assume that everything will go perfect in real life, but we can assume it for this answer and a best case scenario has him in the majors by September of 2020 or by 2021. I wouldn’t worry about his small sample size at West Virginia.
JamosLN50: While Burdi was on the team in Sep it didn’t seem that he was 100% back… rather it felt like the Bucs were trying to rack up MLB service time. How has Burdi looked? Is he fully healthy?
The Pirates were most definitely just accruing service time for him in September. He received 30 days already, which means that they need just 60 more before he can be sent down this season. The reason he didn’t get mound time is that he really wasn’t big league ready.
Before his Tommy John surgery, he threw a total of 20 innings in Double-A between 2016-17. A Double-A player returning from missed time isn’t going to be big league ready. He probably wasn’t even Triple-A ready. Having just 20 innings also meant that they wanted to be extra conservative with his return. They actually wanted to use him more in the minors on rehab to help him along, but a strained left quad kept him out of action for two weeks in early August.
Burdi is healthy this spring and has been throwing bullpens regularly. It’s now up to the Pirates to decide if they want to keep him around for two months in a mop up role. That will shorten the bullpen, but allow them to keep a high quality arm, who can then go back to Indianapolis in late May and get the proper work he needs to continue to develop.