This is the first of three articles on the demographics of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm system over the years, specifically 2001 to the present. It mainly consists of a graph, as you see below. This one looks at the positional makeup of the Pirates’ top 30 year-by-year, using Baseball America’s rankings. In some years it’s actually 31 or 32, as BA sometimes includes a bonus insert. The next one will chart the origins of the team’s top 30s — i.e., prep, international, etc. — based on when they first signed a pro contract, whether or not with the Pirates. The last will chart how the Pirates acquired each prospect — trade, draft, etc.
I don’t know whether this exercise will support a lot of broad conclusions. Maybe a few specific to the Pirates; I’ll have some comments below. It’s mainly something to do for the sake of curiosity, or maybe for reference.
I used the positions BA listed in the specific ranking. That means, for instance, that Neil Walker is reflected here as a catcher for a couple years and then a third baseman, and Josh Bell as an outfielder initially and then a first baseman. In just a couple cases, with players who played all over, I just had to make a call, like with Josh Harrison. One other note — BA’s 2022 preseason top 30 isn’t out yet, so I used their 2021 midseason rankings for 2022. And keep in mind that BA’s rankings for, say, 2010 came out before the 2010 season started.
**As we see, the Pirates once had catching and left-handed pitching prospects. Yes, they exist! Hard to say why the steady decline in both groups, although the catching situation has improved dramatically in the last year. I tended to think the lack of LHPs under Neal Huntington resulted from the team’s relentless focus on 6’4″ pitchers with hard sinkers. You have to focus more on secondary stuff with LHPs, especially the change, which the Pirates always seemed to assume they could teach, so no need to scout for it. But there could be other reasons. With catchers, it was just bad drafting and an unproductive Latin American program. Ironically, the Pirates’ best homegrown catcher in ages, Jacob Stallings, never made a BA top 30.
**The system was weakest near the end of Dave Littlefield’s dismal tenure (2001-07), spilling over into Huntington’s early years. It hit a second, slightly lesser slump near Huntington’s departure in 2019, spilling over briefly into Ben Cherington’s time. I think it’s mildly interesting that the system hitting the skids was accompanied by a spike in the number of RHPs in the top 30. Imbalance is bad most of the time anyway, but an overabundance of RHPs among a team’s top prospects has always struck me as an especially bad sign. When a prospect writer, assessing a bad system, runs out of prospects around the 20-25 range, the easiest solution is to throw in a few guys with decent fastballs or sliders who might get brief stints in the majors as bullpen fodder.
**Numbers of corner infield prospects probably tell us very little. A guy like Ke’Bryan Hayes will come along now and then, but many major league third basemen and most first basemen started off somewhere else.
**On the other hand, I’ve generally thought it was a good sign to have a lot of middle infield prospects. Scouts do usually understand that the bat is the most important ability for a position player, so they won’t usually get too interested in glove-only guys. If a middle infielder makes the top 30, the scouts probably at least think he’ll ultimately hit decently, and he’s generally going to have a good glove and some athleticism. In the chart above, though, there isn’t a recognizable correlation between middle infielders and the system’s stronger periods, which came at the beginning of Littlefield’s tenure, the middle of Huntington’s and just now. I’m not sure the number of outfielders says much, either.