If you asked even the rosiest Pirates talking heads, no one would argue the Pirates minor league system is in a better position than it was a few years ago when it ranked among the most promising in baseball. A solid majority would argue that it has gotten considerably worse, depleted by trades, player graduations, and lackluster drafting particularly during the Pirates competitive window. However, I’d point out that worse doesn’t mean bad, and that the drop may not be as severe as many think. While the Pirates system certainly has some significant issues, it’s not all bad.
One of the most recurring complaints I hear is the lack of impact prospects after Mitch Keller. I made the argument myself following the Chris Archer trade, but I’m really questioning the validity of that statement now. The Pirates have routinely had three prospects land in top 100 rankings, and a few others make a cameo appearance here and there. Ke’Bryan Hayes probably lands on the top 100 lists for his perceived high floor rather than his ceiling. He had his best offensive season in 2018 as a 21 year old in Altoona. With a pitcher friendly home park, I do take notice when players manage to break out there. While he still hasn’t flashed big home run numbers, his total extra base hits spiked and his ISO nearly doubled from his time in Bradenton. I still don’t think he’s a superstar, but his progress at the plate to go with the plus glove we’ve heard so much about, makes me think he could become a steady producing, average to above average third baseman.
Oneil Cruz has also appeared on most top 100s rounding out the back end of the lists. He is a shortstop for the time being, but his 6’6’’ frame and his thirty-three errors in 2018 have me questioning how long he’ll stay there. If he can stick, his ceiling is almost unlimited. Cruz possesses some of the best raw power the Pirates have had in their system in some time. His .201 ISO ranked thirteenth among all hitters with 300 or more PAs in the SAL and fourth among those under the age of 20. He posted the third best ISO for a middle infielder in all of A-ball. Sure, he repeated the level, but he still was quite young for it. Most importantly, he decreased his K-rate by twelve percentage points as his power spiked a bit. He still has work to do, but he’s an impact prospect with some star potential.
I’ve seen a couple of Pirates outfielders included on the stray top 100 list. Travis Swaggerty’s first round pedigree helps outshine his rougher-than-expected transition to minor league ball. He struck out quite a bit more than I expected, but he does have upside especially since he looks set to stay in center field. His prospect grade is incomplete, but I liked him on draft day and still do. Calvin Mitchell got off to an impressive start in April and had a solid May before slumping for much of the summer. While he unfortunately doesn’t profile to play up the middle, he did post strong numbers for age and level and showed positive signs with both his hit and power tools. I think he has breakout candidate written all over him.
Then there is AFL superstar Cole Tucker. I wouldn’t put too much stock into his fall ball performance as I noted here, but the postseason combined with his final months with Altoona have his stock rising again. He’s still young, and it’s not crazy to think enough power will develop to push him beyond average at short.
While I have some oddball prospects that I’m high on, that’s where most conversations end. I really like JT Brubaker, and I think he could force the Pirates hand if the second breakout of his career in 2018 proves legit. He has a big fastball with solid control, and I think he could become a bullpen staple if they can’t find room for him in the rotation for him. Like Tucker, Will Craig also enjoyed a nice AFL season. Travis MacGregor had a hot start in West Virginia derailed by injury. He still finished with a strong 3.25 ERA and K/9 over ten. Jason Martin fizzled in AAA, but he’s young enough that repeating the level won’t reflect too badly on him. He has interesting power potential for a guy with his frame. I don’t put a ton of stock into production before full season ball, but I plan to watch Jack Herman, Samual Inoa and Jonah Davis closely as they make the jump. While he struggled mightily in his first go at A-ball, I’m also looking forward to seeing what Mason Martin will do in his second go if the Pirates push him again.
Of the prospects I mentioned so far in this piece, over a third have either reached AAA already or will likely start the year in Indianapolis. Roughly 20% haven’t debuted in full season ball. One of the biggest flaws of the Pirates system at the moment is the gaping void of prospects in the middle levels. Bradenton should have some names this year, but not a ton of depth. Altoona might field its least interesting team since Neal Huntington took over as GM. At this point, the Pirate farm system talent mostly fits into to two categories: well known, familiar commodities or the largely unknown. The Pirates have seen the familiar at their best and their worst. Their worst keeps us from getting too ahead of ourselves on upside. We don’t have enough information about some of the younger guys to go crazy about them yet.
Most of the major publications have slowly rolled out their top prospect lists and a few have gotten around to organizational rankings. Bleacher Report did almost immediately after the season finished, but their tedious formatting annoyed me off before I could get to the Pirates. That said, the Bucs weren’t among the five worst systems. Craig Edwards who created the successor system of prospect valuation at FanGraphs to ours puts the Bucs 11th. Fair depth and some balanced upside seem like they keep the Pirates afloat for him.
I don’t think the Pirates have a particularly good system, but there is probably more potential there than we give it credit for at the moment. I expect Fangraphs’ 11th ranking to probably be towards the high end, but at the same time, I don’t see them in the twenties very often either. That said, I think there could be more there than we often think about. Past Keller and Cruz, there isn’t much star power, but there are a handful of players with the potential to peak over three WAR. There might be a surprise or two out there in the system as well. Will all of them reach that potential? Absolutely not and it’s also possible none will. However, I wouldn’t gloss over the minors as a complete rebuild either.