If you read The Point of Pittsburgh on a regular basis, you’ve seen the phrase “prospects fail” more than once and for good reason. Even some of the best prospects in baseball routinely fail to become much more than replacement players. I won’t go into any arguments of what I think franchises should do with that crucial piece of information, but on a case by case basis, it should not surprise anyone when a given prospect misses. However, what happens when an entire system does?
In 2014, the Pirates had one of the best systems in baseball. Baseball America had the Pirates tops in the league and Baseball Prospectus rated them the third. John Sickels had them fourth. Depth with some high end major league talent seemed the most common tropes describing the state of the farm that year. Granted, not everyone in a system in the minors in 2014 will reach their prime within four seasons, but it does feel like this cohort has done painfully little to contribute to winning.
So far in 2018, 8 position players who were eligible prospects in 2014 have seen action so far this year for the Pirates while 6 pitchers have. Roughly half have played a significant role while the rest have gotten a cup of coffee or have worked to establish themselves. Only one hitter Elias Diaz, whose name you won’t find on any top Pirates prospects lists that season and one pitcher have potted more than one fWAR so far this season. By and large, they’ve both been solid or at least Taillon’s advanced numbers have been. The problem is, everyone else hasn’t distinguished themselves. Four, including regular first baseman Josh Bell, have produced a negative fWAR.
For their careers this group hasn’t produced much more. Polanco, rated the 10th best prospect on BA’s top 100 list that season and sandwiched between Kris Bryant and Francisco Lindor, has a pair of average seasons in 2015 and 2016, but has struggled the last two particularly in the field. Unfortunately, he’s fallen well short of the star potential some thought and might still think he possesses. Taillon has shown year over year improvement, but not the front of the rotation results the scouting reports projected. Neither has peaked but both are 26 and aren’t far off.
Most of the rest are a little younger with more time to straighten out. Bell has a sub one career fWAR in three seasons, but will continue to get opportunities to succeed as no one seems like they’re clawing at his heels. Austin Meadows probably doesn’t know how to get from the North Shore to the Ross Park Mall without GPS yet. Chad Kuhl is surprisingly only 25 and despite his struggles at times this year has the makings of a reliable back of the rotation starter. Though older, Nick Kingham looks to have a somewhat realistic shot of realizing his middle of the rotation upside. Tyler Glasnow still has upside but his career trajectory reads like a riddle the Pirates have few answers to solve.
Then there is attrition. The rest are either gone or have little shot. Each of the top six on Sickels Pirates top 20 for 2014 are still in the organization. Only two of the remaining ranked players are still in the system. Some were traded, but the majority were simply released. Of those cast aside, only Alen Hanson is having a surprising breakout in San Francisco. Jacoby Jones, who yielded some value as the return for Joakim Soria, is playing as a utility outfielder for the still struggling Tigers. Reese McGuire reached AAA but still looks like a backup at best. Though he wasn’t well regarded at the time at the time of the top system ranking, Shane Carle has departed the Pirates both by trade and waivers. He’s now showing considerably more in Atlanta than most would have expected and could certainly help the Bucs at the moment.
The Pirates have gotten more out of the players that stuck around than the ones who have departed, but for a top system they really haven’t gotten enough out of either. I think there are a few factors here besides the already stated “prospects fail.” Tommy John surgery certainly hasn’t helped the Pirates and it appears to have been contagious since 2014. Taillon and Kingham were the highest profile, but Casey Sadler, Clay Holmes, Brandon Cumpton and a couple of others have had their elbows and/or shoulders reconstructed. Cumpton had a particularly grueling comeback. He missed three full seasons, and got cut by Pittsburgh before the 2018 season. He’s played some independent ball before getting picked up by the Blue Jays organization very recently. I won’t suggest that he’d have worked his way through his pre-arb years by now as a solid back of the rotation starter, but I suspect he’d have a regular job with the Pirates if not for his UCL tear and shoulder surgery. Taillon and Kingham would both have considerably more experience and may have enhanced the 2014 or 2015 teams in some role. Sadler and Holmes are both still kicking around and have a chance to help, but neither seems likely to lock down a major role.
Something that often gets overlooked when we consider the validity of farm system or prospect ratings is how well a player defends his respective position. While the highly rated position players have struggled at the plate at times, they have defended their positions poorly. Sure, there were always some questions about Josh Bell’s glove and where he would ultimately fit. In 2014, publications still portrayed him as a passable right fielder with the potential to move to first. Polanco was billed as a five tool monster. Yes, defense gets a spot among the tools. Both have struggled mightily in the field and it has diminished their overall value. Truth is, no one from any of the publications making these lists have seen enough player defense to make much of an judgement on how well they defend. Most scouts probably haven’t either. One nice play and a few routine plays over a weekend series might not provide the sample required to really make the call on how to accurately rate a player’s defense. The only people who likely have seen a large enough sample to get good handle of where their prospects might actually fit on the good to bad defensive spectrum have positions in front offices or in minor league dugouts. They won’t dole out honest appraisals as it might hurt trade value should they ever need the prospect to have it. Honestly, a minor league usher probably has a more complete opinion on player defense than a Baseball America evaluator.
In the end, the book still isn’t written on what the Pirates 2014 prospects will become, but the group notably lacks the real star power it needs and could have potentially provided. That’s a huge part of what’s holding the Pirates back right now. Taillon is the closest, but he hasn’t even established himself as well above average. Polanco has shown flashes of star power with the consistency of the Taco Bell experience from one location to another. You just never know what you’re going to get. A number of players need more time to say what they are or aren’t. Ultimately, I think the depth of average or below average, but capable contributors will be sufficient from this. However, without the star at the plate or on the mound, it’s difficult not to be disappointed with this group and the resulting performance from the major league club.