If the Pirates didn’t give right-handed pitcher Bubba Chandler a $3 million bonus — plus the opportunity to also hit — he would have gone to Clemson.
Lonnie White Jr. would have gone to Penn State to play baseball and football, had the Pirates not signed him away.
Owen Kellington was going to UConn. Braylon Bishop to Arkansas. Anthony Solometo was going to North Carolina, and is now in Single-A.
The Pirates ended up landing an impressive recruiting class, adding these prep players to number one overall pick Henry Davis.
Davis, coming from college at Louisville, went straight to Greensboro, and is now in Double-A in his first full season.
The prep players find themselves mostly in the FCL. Had they gone to college, they would have been eligible for the 2024 draft, at which point they would have likely followed the path Davis took to Double-A, with a brief stop in High-A.
The Pirates now have the job of creating a development path to Greensboro for these young players, giving them everything they would have picked up in college, minus the bad habits from a win-now atmosphere.
Jim Horner, the assistant field coordinator for the Pirates, oversees both the Florida and Dominican complexes. He’s managed all the way through the minors, played for ten years in the minor leagues, and even coached current Pirates prospect Andres Alvarez at Washington State.
“Jim’s got great eyes and is a baseball tactician,” said Pirates farm director John Baker. “His task, which is a big one, is training these really young players, like putting them through what they would experience if they got to go to college, as far as baseball tactics go. Jim’s focus is on that, and that’s our focus this year in the FCL.”
Baker said that the Pirates cut down from two to one team in the FCL to allow for more “fundamental practice days” for players who aren’t in the lineup that day.
“You’re thinking about a college baseball developmental track, you’re playing Tuesday, Saturday, Sunday, generally,” said Baker. “You’re playing 54 times. And then, on those other days, Wednesday-Thursday-and sometimes Monday, you’re practicing. So, we’re trying to mimic a similar cadence on the field and on the field outside of competition.”
These levels are so far away from the majors that it’s hard to grasp how raw and inexperienced the level of play is, even for professional players.
When you think about it more, it makes sense. Do you really expect Lonnie White Jr. to catch touchdown passes, hit home runs, and be a fundamentally sound defensive outfielder at the age of 18? Do we expect Bubba Chandler to lead his football team as the quarterback, while also playing all over the field in baseball, and doing all of those things well?
Ultimately, teams draft athleticism, attitudes, and adaptability at this level. They want someone who has shown an advanced ability, a willingness to be coached up, and a demonstrated ability to learn. Even with all of that, the play at this level can be rough, due to the lack of experience.
Baker noted the amount of walks and errors at the level as something to be thoughtful of when evaluating the games and stats. Ultimately, players at this level don’t fully know the fundamentals of baseball. They don’t know how to line up a cutoff, where to be on bunt plays, which bases to back up from which position, or how to talk to each other on the field.
“All of those things should be handled by the time our guys get to Greensboro,” said Baker.
The Pirates have Jose Mosquera managing their single FCL team. Mosquera managed his Colombian team to a Caribbean Series victory last year. That team included Pirates prospect Tsung-Che Cheng as the shortstop. In the championship game, they beat a team with Robinson Cano and Marcell Ozuna.
“Mosqie has been in some big spots, and he knows the game of baseball,” said Baker, who highlighted how much showcase baseball can distort our view of the knowledge of these young players.
“I look around baseball – and I know this is a Get Off My Lawn style comment, yelling at the clouds – there’s been so much showcase baseball that we often forget that people don’t know what they don’t know,” said Baker. “It’s not their fault. It’s just that no one has taught them. These travel ball teams are too focused on the bottom line, and not focused enough on teaching the game of baseball.”
The Pirates are tasked with identifying the things players didn’t know they needed to know, and then teaching those things in a way that is more effective than if those players went the college route.
“It’s why we position people that really know the game at the lowest levels, like [Single-A manager] Jonathan Johnston and Jim Horner, to make sure that when our guys get to Greensboro, they know exactly where they need to be, and we don’t have to worry about it anymore,” said Baker.
Baker said that the Pirates are focused more on tactics here, rather than pitching mechanics. Don’t expect a lot of overhauls and adjustments. This is more about teaching players how to play the game — almost like teaching how to walk before you can run, from my perspective of this approach.
The 2021 prep class is notable for the financial commitment and the system-building strategy that the Pirates employed. Ultimately, they will be the first true test to measure the success of this approach in the complex league.
THIS WEEKEND ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
The Pirates Are Modeling a College Baseball Development Track in the Lowest Levels
Ten Players to Watch on the 2022 FCL Pirates
Ten Players to Watch on the 2022 DSL Pirates
Shalin Polanco Earned His Spot in the Florida Complex League
The Pirates Are Converting Daniel Rivero From Outfield to Pitcher
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.
I’ve been intrigued by what they are doing in those low levels with the young kids. I like it, think it could take set the stage for better development once they hit A ball and above.
Tim You have been an advocate for better player conditions in minor leagues for a while. Are conditions and salary improving over the scenario below?
this article scares me. You have what should be the best armature players in the world and they don’t know how to play the game properly. Don’t know where to go to back up a play or be in the right position to take a cut off throw. If this is true, I have lost faith in what these players are capable of accomplishing.
Probably worth differentiating hitters from pitchers here.
Bubba Chandler has just as little experience hitting as pitching, but will almost certainly end up on the mound like almost all players in his situation.
Anthony Alford was a standout football player who tantalized Front Offices for a decade with his athleticism, and yet the fact remains now as it was on Day 1: the man just can’t hit.
As the old saying goes, you can’t teach the hit tool.
I’m not sure if that’s been Clevelands model or someone else’s but they were prioritizing high contact guys and trying to teach the power later. Not sure if they’re right or wrong in that approach but it definitely makes sense bringing in guys that can actually hit
Related but unrelated…
For those of you that like to *Netflix and chill* with your girl. There’s a new movie on Netflix called *Hustle*. Adam Sandler plays a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers and finds a unicorn in Spain, with a bit of a dark past. Anyhow, Sandler tears the young man down and builds him up. Really gets into the evaluation process and the cast has tons of former and current NBA players. I was real skeptical going into the movie as I didn’t think Sandler had the acting chops to pull it off, but he did and then some. Probably the best work he’s done.
Acting chops…catch, have you seen Punch Drunk Love and Uncut Gems?!
Yes sir, I’ve seen both. He was really good in Punch Drunk. Also good in Funny People and Reign over me.
I concur. My wife, who is anti-sports, liked the movie as much, or more, than I did.
Really nice work, Tim.
Four of our top 5 picks in ’21 were prep kids. And 9 out of 21 overall, which included 2 junior college kids. If BC is convinced he has the right instructional coaching in place, that could influence his mix of picks. Although I think it’s the International kids that will most benefit from what they’ve set up.
“All of those things should be handled by the time our guys get to Greensboro,” said Baker.
Uhhm, can we borrow a couple of these coaches for the MLB club?
Life is hilarious and the thought of teaching some 18 year old kid the fundamental tactics of baseball AFTER you’ve given him millions of $ is breathtaking. Pirates management doing everything they can to figure out a way to win without spending competitive money on player salaries. That’s also hilarious.
The signing bonuses are pretty incredible. A lot of teenage millionaires or $500k-inaires based solely on speculation. Haven’t followed the minors closely, I wonder what year(s) and what prompted teams to start doing this?
I was also wondering the high vs low priced international signings since projection at 16 even before puberty is over is crazy to me. I wonder how much higher, if at all, the hit rate for the big signing bonuses are
Not sure if this is the place to put this but I saw this quote from an article on MLB rumors today: “the Guardians opened this season with an approximate $68.2MM player payroll. That’s the league’s fourth-lowest mark, ahead of only the noncompetitive Orioles, A’s and Pirates.”
Will these high school draftees or the upper level prospects or any of all this “build” ever contradict the use of the word “noncompetitive” when describing the Pirate franchise? As many have indicated, prospects alone will not make a competitive, let alone championship, team.
You say that, yet the Guardians at $68 million in payroll lead their division and have a “decent” shot at winning a title. Sure, spending big on FA’s and having those players play well dramatically increases the odds of winning a title, but to say that’s the only way to win just defies actual results.
The Braves won last year because they drafted and developed well, and happened to make a few good under the radar deals last summer to shore up holes on the roster. Even when the Dodgers won the year before, they were led by homegrown talent, and the team they beat was the Rays and their minuscule payroll.
My guy, he literally said prospects alone.
Do you even read these or just have stock responses ready to rinse and repeat?
I like Scott, but there’s certain topics that trigger him and this is one of them.
I’m so guilty! But my comments on this subject always trigger NMR. You’d think by now we’d just know not to open our mouths. 🤦
I agree, but do so with enough self awareness to know I’m probably in the same boat!
Word. Hell, I’m probably worse than Scott when it comes to trigger points and I’m oblivious. Like the gameday crowd throwing fits that Shelton can’t pencil 11 rookies into the lineup daily. That triggers me lol
Hahaha dude its taken everything in my power not to snipe those Shelton comments every morning.
Y’all know you can just watch minor league games if you wanna see minor league players, right?
Fascinating exploration of this topic, Tim. Thank you.
This quote makes little sense to me; “Baker said that the Pirates are focused more on tactics here, rather than pitching mechanics. Don’t expect a lot of overhauls and adjustments”.
They’re not putting people through mechanical overhauls here and adjusting their game. They are teaching tactical approaches for the game instead.
They don’t want people over-thinking about what their body is doing, or focusing too much on that. Instead, they want players focused on things outside the body that you need to know in the game. The tactical approach to playing.
Clearly Rodolfo Castro missed that memo, because after failing to catch up to a runner caught in a rundown between 1st and 2nd last night, he made an I’ll advised throw to the Pitcher covering 1st , causing Blake Weiman to have his knee steamrolled by the runner. I wouldn’t be surprised to read Weiman is out for season.
And this is after Castro made an I’ll advised throw towards 2nd base to Cruz in a failed attempt to get the lead runner on a ball hit in the hole between 1st and 2nd earlier in the game. Thankfully, Cruz was smart enough not to get between the runner and 2nd base in an attempt to catch the ball, otherwise he may have needed to be carried off the field, too.
Castro appears more and more to be a “me guy” who seeks making the hard play instead of a “team guy” who makes the right play.
Pirates would be better off spending more time developing players from the neck up than the neck down. They’d damn sure win more games.
If I reread it it sounds better, is focusing more, so there’s a focus, I just thought about the arm health for those with bad mechanics and how counter productive it would be if they only pitch an inning every time out due to poor mechanics (control.)
i guess they save those for the offseason?
Whether or not it’s intentional, this was absolutely my first thought.
Almost all these dudes have high-end private offseason coaching now that explicitly works on things like mechanics and pitch design.
Great insight and some things I had not thought about regarding how a lot of 18 year olds are developed. Keep these articles coming!
I had graduated HS before another catcher showed me the proper footwork for the throw to second. I don’t think these sorts of gaps are uncommon. Most teams for young players don’t have knowledgeable coaches for every position.
But I played for a rural HS and no one invited me to play on a travel team (and I could not have afforded it even if some deranged coach made an offer).
I also went to a rural HS “82” our manager was so bad his idea of practice was to throw him batting practice to see if he could still hit HR’s
OK, mine weren’t that crazed. One did teach me how to catch a pop up to the catcher. Not easy, despite how routine MLB catchers make it seem.
It is so cool to get these features that are so often focused on Baker’s point of view, what great content!
It will be interesting to see if Buc management shies away from a prep emphasis in the next couple of drafts. Stars obviously aligned a bit for that 2021 draft.
Tim, this is great insight. Now that this is up and running, do you think they will leverage it by drafting even more toolsy high schoolers? Maybe they think the high schoolers trained this way will be healthier and more complete players than the college players?
Also, how do you think this approach might impact prospect depth in the future? Will players move through the system faster? Will it let them evaluate players differently before they need to be protected from Rule 5 drafts? Will these fundamentals allow them to call more complicated and aggressive tactics in games? Or maybe it will be easier for players to learn multiple positions, new pitches, etc?
Thé Rule 5 issue is really about Latin players. They are so young and have so much growing to do.