If you currently spend $2.99 a month to hear about how great a 21st round pick can be in five years, this article may upset you. I’m not going to sugarcoat how poor this year has been for the Pirates’ minor league system. Coming into the year, Baseball America ranked their farm 7th overall; I personally put them at 4th. The reasons for the downfall are myriad.
This is as good a place to start as any. Injuries started early for the Pirates, as Brandon Cumpton succumbed to Tommy John surgery in March. Cumpton was nothing special, probably a #4 starter as a ceiling, but he was the start of the injury parade. In early May, Nick Kingham fell victim to Tommy John. Those two were legitimate options to be called up as depth options for Pittsburgh in 2015. Promising 2014 draftee C/OF Kevin Krause went under the knife himself for elbow issues.
The kicker, however, is the sad tale of Jameson Taillon. After undergoing Tommy John in April 2014, it was thought that Taillon would be fit enough to open the 2015 season in AAA Indianapolis, scrape the rust off, then come up in late June after the Super 2 deadline had passed. Well, Taillon didn’t even make it to a team until mid-June, itself a sign that his TJ recovery was not going well, and then was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia that will keep him out the remainder of the 2015 season before he even pitched.
Tony Sanchez has apparently demonstrated to the Pirates that he’s unable to defensively be a starter in the Majors. Fellow catcher Elias Diaz has put up a 700 OPS in Triple A this year. Luis Heredia continues to slide off the radar of being a prospect (47 IP, 5.89 ERA, 18 BB, 22 K).
It’s difficult to say that Josh Bell is disappointing (.312 AVG, 811 OPS), but his lack of power (4 HR, .119 Isolated Slugging Percentage, .140 is minimum you really want) is odd. It’s hard to see him being a valid Major League starting 1B with that lack of power. When 5′-10″ Alen Hanson is out-homering you, that’s not a good sign.
Fellow 2013 1st round draft picks, Reese McGuire and Austin Meadows, have both been disappointing for different reasons. McGuire has an empty bat that portends no power (.270 AVG, 9 extra base hits in 259 AB’s, 622 OPS), while Meadows (.300 AVG, 759 OPS) has been underwhelming with little power (.094 ISO) of his own.
2014’s draft class has been a no-show this year. SS Cole Tucker has slap-hit his way to an empty .290 batting average but with a 682 OPS. Sure, he has 21 shiny stolen bases, but there’s no power there. And if he grows into some power, he’ll probably outgrow the shortstop position and his bat won’t be enough at another position. The trio of high school pitchers — Mitch Keller, Trey Supak, and Gage Hinsz — have combined for a whopping total of 20 innings in 2015, with Keller not even pitching yet this year. All three are at short-season Bristol, which is disappointing in its own right, as previous high-end high school pitchers were challenged at the more advanced short-season New York-Penn League (the new West Virginia affiliate). This year has been a complete lost year for all three of them.
INSUFFICIENT DRAFT CLASSES
The 2008 draft has been Neal Huntington’s most successful draft class to date. The ascendancy of the Pirates to perennial playoff contender has been augmented by Pedro Alvarez (1st round), Jordy Mercer (3th round), and Justin Wilson (5th round), who was flipped this past offseason in a 1-for-1 deal for Francisco Cervelli. Getting two starters and one bullpen guy out of a single draft is a success; typically, if you can get 1 starter and 1 bench/bullpen guy that’s good.
Since then, the drafts have not directly produced much talent. Yes, it takes at least 4-5 years to properly assess a class, but it’s not too early to make projections on some of them:
- 2009 — Terrible. No direct major contributions. Tony Sanchez (1st) doesn’t have a future here because of his defense. Pirates have used picks in trades like Vic Black (supp 1st), Brooks Pounders (2nd), Colton Cain (8th), Brock Holt (9th), Aaron Baker (11th).
- 2010 — Up in the air. Most production from a healthy pick is from 25th rounder Casey Sadler, which is both positive and sad. Jameson Taillon (1st), Nick Kingham (4th), and Brandon Cumpton (9th) can sway this pendulum greatly if they return healthy in 2016. This was the draft where the Pirates gambled on signing some premium high school pitchers and missed — Jason Hursh (6th), Austin Kubitza (7th), Dace Kime (8th), and Zack Weiss (10th) all didn’t sign.
- 2011 — Success. Thanks to Gerrit Cole (1st) becoming an ace, even if Pirates don’t get anything else out of this draft, I’m happy — setting aside my 1 starter, 1 bench/bullpen theory. Tyler Glasnow (5th) seems on the verge of joining Cole as a front-line starter. Josh Bell (2nd) is overrated, in my opinion, but could contribute. Jason Creasy (8th) and Clay Holmes (9th) could also be contributors in a couple of years.
- 2012 — Could get interesting. Mark Appel (1st) left a gaping hole when he didn’t sign, but the Pirates are getting some potential out of down draft picks like Adrian Sampson (5th) and Max Moroff (16th). Overall, I don’t think draft this will produce enough.
- 2013 — Odd draft. Austin Meadows (1st) has hit, but not much power. Reese McGuire (1st, for Mark Appel not signing) has the makings of a bust. Blake Taylor (2nd), Buddy Borden (7th), and Shane Carle (10th) have already been used in trades. Adam Frazier (6th) could be a bench guy and Chad Kuhl (9th) could be a middle reliever.
- 2014–2015 — Way too early to judge, but not looking good. This is the worst part — the Pirates have had back-to-back drafts with little to no upside picks. The 2015 draft resembles a mid-era Dave Littlefield draft in terms of lack of upside and appears to be shaping up as a wasted effort (yes…I’m calling it after a whopping one month, it’s that bad). Getting little out of consecutive drafts would be a terrible outcome for a team that needs to rely on the farm system for sustainability.
HOW THIS AFFECTS JULY TRADES
Unlike last year when the Pirates were riding high on industry perceptions of certain players, this year the Pirates do not have any high-end prospect performing at peak level, as even Tyler Glasnow was injured for a month this year. As a result, they can’t sell the allure and upside like in years past. Every one of their top 6 or 7 “blue chip” guys is either injured, coming off an injury, or just plain have had a down year.
So when Neal Huntington enters trade discussions, he’ll have to work extra hard to sell opposing GM’s on taking these damaged goods. Or, even worse, he risks getting sandbagged by an opposing GM who is feigning disinterest in the Pirates’ prospects, all the while trying to squeeze an extra player into the potential deal to make up for the supposed drop in prospect value.
It’s time to face the facts that the Pirates’ farm system has peaked. Setting aside Tyler Glasnow, all 6′-8″ of him, there are no more high-impact prospects like McCutchen, Marte, Cole, and Polanco (he’ll get there). There are some complementary pieces like Hanson, Bell, Kingham, and Meadows, but I don’t foresee any of them being frontliners. Taillon, for me, is downgraded to a mid-rotation arm with the lost season of 2015 and one TJ surgery under his belt already. He’ll be 24 next season and in need of AAA time to make up for 2015 — his clock is ticking.
The Pirates can make a play for any player they want on the market. They could get Cueto, Hamels, Chapman, or whatever high value target comes on line. But they may have to overpay just a touch more in 2015’s midseason than they would have in the offseason leading up to it.