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Pirates Farm Overview: Not a Disaster

Oneil Cruz is still a rough diamond, but his upside in Pirates system is very high.

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.

Steve is a naturalized yinzer hailing originally from just north of Allentown, PA. He came to Pittsburgh to attend Duquesne University and decided to stick around after graduation. Steve is best known for his contributions to Duquesne hoops community as the owner of the Duquesne Dukes forum on Yuku and as the former editor of We Wear the Ring on the Fansided network. He is an avid Pirates fan, home cook and policy nerd. He is the co-founder of the Point of Pittsburgh. Easily irritated by people who misuse the word regress.

19 Comments on Pirates Farm Overview: Not a Disaster

  1. Nice to see some semi-good news. Of course with farm systems, one draft could make a ton of difference, but if you then trade away some of your best picks (Meadows) before they even have a chance to contribute, maybe it doesn’t matter how you draft. I like some of the current prospects quite a bit and I still haven’t given up on Newman and Kramer making big contributions, though it seems the team has.

    Great article!

    • Steve DiMiceli // February 1, 2019 at 10:23 AM //

      I don’t give up on prospects easily, but I do have doubts. Kramer’s AAA K rate concerns me as an everyday player even at 2B. I like Newman’s chances better because he plays a more important position, and has a hit tool that SHOULD play in the majors. If he ends up as half a shortstop platoon, I have my concerns about how he handles the pressure. He’s never been quick to adjust to a new level, but he’s never had to adjust with people paying serious attention.

      • Rick Edwards // February 3, 2019 at 9:39 AM //

        I doubt Newman winds up playing long at SS in the MLB…his arm strength is sub par. He should be placed where he belongs and stands best to succeed – second base.

  2. Thank you for writing this! I’ve actually been in a little Pirates depression over the last few weeks. My guess is that I’m not alone. I will say 2 things and then make a minor (pun intended) request!

    1) I’m extremely bullish on Hayes, and I’m excited to see what he can do. In a recent chat on FanGraphs Kiley or Eric said that his defense at 3B is so good, they basically value it at SS levels. Putting that in Pgh on Day 1 in 2019 would be a massive upgrade at 3B. I obviously know they won’t, but I’m just saying. If he can bring his bat up to AAA, I think he could be a star from this farm.

    2) Tucker is another hinge point in this system. It’s all about his development of power. If he develops, then that side of the infield is set (w/ Hayes) for 5.5 years. This projection of power development is widespread. Is it based on his swing or his frame? I don’t see it in his frame, just yet.. but I’m absolutely not an expert in that department.

    My request: I honestly don’t know how I missed it, but I read Kevin’s article from last January about the SSL, and I came away extremely intrigued! I hate to ask, but would he be willing to divulge any breakout candidates that are seemingly under the radar in the Pirates system? Would be an interesting study and a good test of the algorithm!

    Thanks again for this article. As a 31 year old Pirate fan that lived through the 1992-2012 years, the farm is deeply ingrained into my fandom. You always need to know what’s on the horizon and where hope springs eternal!

    • Steve DiMiceli // February 1, 2019 at 10:13 AM //

      With Tucker, I think it’s his age and his frame that make me think he still has some power to add.

      I don’t know if Kevin’s updated the numbers for SSL, but I would guess Ke’Bryan Hayes performed quite well this past year. Looking at things from an SSL standpoint, Francis Del Orbe was probably the biggest breakout in 2018 / potential breakout for 2019. Young for A-, good K rate, decent walk rate. Avoiding names I already mentioned, Jared Oliva, Arden Pabst, and Cam Allred would also look good in SSL.

  3. Martin will not repeat AAA

  4. Cruz may be the most exciting wild card in the system that I can remember. A guy with 70-80 raw power who might be able to stick at short at 6’6″ or 6’7″–now that’s,/I> what I call intriguing.

    • Kevin Creagh // February 1, 2019 at 2:52 PM //

      Even if he gets shunted out to RF with that arm, I’d be pretty OK with a cut-rate Aaron Judge.

  5. it is better to have high ceiling prospects than a bunch of guys that are going to be Jordy Mercer. Tucker, Cruz, Keller, Hayes, Swaggerty might be all stars some day. For the sake of winning in Pittsburgh the system needs to come up with some very good players. Thanks for writing about ones you think have a chance.

  6. John simmons // February 2, 2019 at 11:27 PM //

    Why are we not drafting for power like Alvarez? Why don’t the pirates draft Scott borris clients any more? I think the pirates don’t want to be competive. All they want is to put a team on the field. I think there needs to be a shake up from the top down in order to have another winning season.

  7. Martin Welborn // February 3, 2019 at 4:34 AM //

    It’s good to see that you think the system isn’t too bad, and you didn’t even include switch-hitting center fielder Bryan Reynolds in the article.
    He was the other player (besides pitcher Kyle Crick, who did quite well as a set-up man to the closer this past season, and looks to have closer-like abilities himself) included in the Andrew McCutchen deal last year. Reynolds is a possible breakout candidate in my book, since he will start the season healthy after needing arm surgery last season to begin the year.

    Also as far as Crick goes, if he continues to pitch so well as a late-inning reliever, it could allow the Pirates to deal off their current closer for a decent return of prospects to re-ignite the Pirates minor-league system.

  8. Lee W Young // February 3, 2019 at 8:40 AM //

    Until they do it in the majors, they are not impact players. The Pirates have always had Top 100 prospects under Huntington’s watch, but not one of them has become a perennial All Star. So, until that happens, forgive me if I don’t get too excited.

  9. Norm Cubellis // February 3, 2019 at 11:25 AM //

    I agree that we never seem to be able to bring anyone up who is an all star. In fact we don’t seem to be able to bring anyone up who is an instant success. The Cardinals always have a new guy who outperforms what evaluators think of him. After a year or two they seem to drop back and are traded, sent down or shown to be just average, but they appear to be better prepared for the majors than our guys.

  10. Saw Tucker in AFL this year. He went 2 for 5 in the game, but all of his at bats were good. However, what impressed me the most about him was his attitude. He seemed to be enjoying playing immensely but also very serious about what he was doing.

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