Sean Meyers discusses the Pirates minor-league system with former contributor to the blog McEffect, Zack Chakan. They highlight some of the top prospects, as well as players Pittsburgh could potentially deal in trades.
Sean Meyers: For the majority of the 20 years of futility for the Pirates, the developmental system has failed to produce quality major league players. That trend began to change when Neal Huntington took over as general manager in 2007, however. Now, many experts consider Pittsburgh’s minor league system one of the best in baseball. What has led to this turnaround?
Zack Chakan: There are several reasons for the minor league system’s turnaround for the Buccos, but perhaps the most important has simply been owner Bob Nutting’s determination to open his wallet like his predecessor Kevin McClatchy never did (or couldn’t do). Thanks to mostly finishing with horrendous records since Nutting became the majority owner and Huntington the general manager in 2007, the Pirates came out with the following selections from the MLB Draft: Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, and now Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire. These players anchor the organization (although Sanchez had some bumps in the road in 2011 and 2012 but would now be in the team’s top 10 prospect list again).
Right from the get-go, Huntington and current assistant general manager Greg Smith wouldn’t let Scott Boras intimidate them like the infamous 2007 draft where Dave Littlefield passed on catcher Matt Wieters to draft Danny Moskos (pause for collective groan for the 1,753rd time from Pirates fans). The Pirates signed Alvarez in Huntington’s first draft, and from 2008 through 2011, before baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement limited each team to a pool of money that couldn’t be exceeded without paying a tax or forfeiting draft picks for the 2012 draft, Nutting’s Pirates were one of the highest spending teams through the draft. Although the rule change led to Mark Appel slipping to and then not signing the Pirates in 2012, the Pirates still found enough high-ceiling talent in later rounds that they could pay a little extra for since some teams would pass on certain guys who were expected to go to college, or would need a high dollar amount to bypass it. Not all of the high-bonus guys have panned out, but this strategy brought Robbie Grossman, Colton Cain, Jarek Cunningham, Nick Kingham, Tyler Glasnow, and especially Josh Bell into the system. Adding players who oozed of potential allowed Huntington to swap Grossman and Cain as part of a package for Wandy Rodriguez last year, while Kingham and Glasnow are likely Top 100 prospects for next season while they succeed while being young for their levels.
There are obviously other reasons for the Pirates’ minor league system turnaround (Latin American lead scout Rene Gayo finding Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, and Luis Heredia for example), but the extra lunch money from mom and dad is certainly the largest.
SM: Certainly, it appears as though that approach has paid dividends so far. With an array of talent throughout the minors, what is the greatest strength of the system currently?
ZC: I’d say the greatest strength is the depth of high-end pitching prospects, most of whom can throw in the high 90s. We won’t even count the graduated Cole, which puts Taillon atop of the Pirates prospect hierarchy. Taillon is posting good, but not dominant numbers with AA Altoona, sort of like Cole posted good, but not dominant numbers with AAA Indianapolis. Taillon is only 21, and will be a top 20 prospect whether or not he finishes the season in Indianapolis, which he likely will. Kingham and Glasnow have come on strong this season, with Kingham having a great strikeout-to-walk ratio between Bradenton and Altoona and Glasnow striking out over 13 batters per 9 innings as a 19-year-old for low-A West Virginia. Luis Heredia is another Top 100 prospect who is still 18 and in West Virginia. This fearsome foursome gives the Bucs a bevy of potential No. 1 or No. 2 starters, which is necessary as they climb the ladder and run into injuries or some struggles (and some will). But it sure is nice to have that luxury, and that’s without counting Cole. And if you count the strong performances from players a tier behind them like Stolmy Pimentel (acquired in the Joel Hanrahan trade), Brandon Cumpton, Casey Sadler, Orlando Castro and Joely Rodriguez, pitching doesn’t look like it’ll be a problem for a while.
SM: You highlighted that Taillon has now ascended to the consensus top prospect in the organization. At this juncture, however, he still has a lot of work to do until he is ready for the major leagues. I know his velocity is a major asset, but do you have any concerns over his control or his complementary pitches?
ZC: I’m not worried at all about Taillon’s control or his offspeed pitches. Many scouts believe his curveball is his best pitch and could even play in the majors right now. And he’s only walked 2.6 batters per 9 innings in his minor league career, so his control has been above average. He has fallen into a little of the “Gerrit Cole syndrome” in the minor leagues, where his stuff is obviously among the best at his level but too often he’ll leave pitches up in the zone, even his fastball (which can reach high 90s but usually settles at 93-96) and those will get hit.
SM: Pirates’ fans have caught a glimpse of how talented Cole has been in the first month at the big league level. How does Taillon compare to Cole in terms of potential, and what is your timeframe for the former second-overall selection?
ZC: Taillon is only 21, a year younger than Cole, and is probably on a similar path to the big leagues. Taillon had three dominant starts in Altoona last year and has been very good (but not stellar) there this year in 16 appearances. I would guess that he makes a late season cameo in Indianapolis for a few starts and the playoffs, with the belief that he’ll need a half-season in AAA like Cole did this year before bursting through to Pittsburgh.
I’d rate Taillon’s potential as slightly behind Cole’s, but not that far behind. Cole does have the clear advantage in velocity, which gives him the common Justin Verlander comparison since both can exceed 100 mph with the fastball. But Cole and Taillon have similar builds (Cole is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, Taillon is 6-foot-6, 235), both have dynamite breaking pitches, above-average control and developing changeups that are improving all the time. I like to think of Cole as a 1a starter and Taillon as a 1b, but I’d give Cole the slightest of edges over Taillon in terms of potential. It would not surprise me in the least to see Taillon develop into an ace, but if his velocity drops at all he’s more likely to be a No. 2 or 3 starter.
SM: Fans should also keep in mind that top prospects like Taillon don’t always achieve success as soon as they arrive at the majors. Homer Bailey and Chris Tillman, both elite pitching prospects, took several seasons in the majors to reach their massive potential. When Taillon does arrive in Pittsburgh, however, what is the likelihood that Tony Sanchez will be his battery mate? I know Sanchez has hit well in AAA, but does he project as a starting catcher in the future with the Pirates?
ZC: Tony Sanchez is the future starting catcher of the Pirates…unless he’s involved in some type of trade either this summer or next summer at the trade deadline. But I doubt that Sanchez will be the full-time starter before 2015, regardless of how well he hits. He struggled mightily in 2011 and only mildly improved in 2012 while split between Altoona and Indianapolis, but he rediscovered his hitting stroke this year in AAA. Sanchez has kept it up all season long, making it unlikely that this is a small-sample-size fluke. He’s adjusted his approach so that he’s driving more balls the other way, and driving them very, very far.
But thanks to the incredible performance by Russell Martin in his first year in the black and gold, Sanchez will likely be relegated to backup duty in September and 2014 until Martin’s contract runs out. But if Sanchez keeps hitting, he will replace Michael McKenry soon on the big league depth chart, while McKenry will still be nice to have as depth. If he can hit around .250 with a .320-.330 on-base percentage and slug close to .400, that will be more than enough to start for the Pirates in a few years.
SM: Performance behind the dish may be equally as important as hitting for many catchers, as evidenced by Russell Martin with the Pirates this season. To that point, how would you evaluate Sanchez’s defensive prowess?
ZC: His defense is well-regarded in the scouting world. He has a strong arm, a good “pop” time, and pitchers love how he calls a game. He has had some slight issues throwing the ball around the diamond after a strikeout of late, but that’s likely a small case of the yips. From what I’ve seen, he’s not at the defensive level of a Yadier Molina or even Martin, but Sanchez projects as an above-average defender behind the dish.
SM: During last offseason and into this regular season, the Pirates have been reportedly involved in talks to acquire another bat for the lineup, likely an outfielder. If the Buccos were to trade for a significant player, which prospects do you believe would likely be included? Additionally, who would be the most expendable due to depth at the major league level or in the system?
ZC: By “significant player”, I’m assuming you mean Giancarlo “get me the heck out of Miami” Stanton. Unfortunately, Stanton probably isn’t even a pipe dream at this point, as Miami has been steadfast in its assurances that he’s not going anywhere. But if that were to somehow change, the Pirates would have to give up at least three of their top prospects to get it done, and likely more. I doubt the Marlins would even look at the offer unless it included Taillon. Gregory Polanco would be another name, and as exciting of a player as he appears to be, the outfield is already crowded now and adding Stanton to the mix for the long term means Polanco would be on the outside looking in unless Stanton was moved to first base in a few years.
My personal attempt at a Stanton deal wouldn’t include Taillon (which again would likely be a deal breaker) because his upside is impossible to ignore, and a pairing with Cole for the next six or seven years is enough to make you sweat with excitement in the middle of the night. I’d try to pry Stanton away for Polanco, Alen Hanson, Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham. Those are essentially the Pirates two top position prospects and two of the top four pitching prospects (along with Taillon and Heredia). Unfortunately, this is why the trades that are accepted in MVP 2005 rarely occur in real life. I think Stanton stays a Marlin, regrettably.
But if the Pirates do try to upgrade right field, Alex Rios, Andre Ethier and Michael Morse are all possibilities. I think Ethier needs a change of scenery and could move to first base in a few years, but he has at least four years and $69 million left on his current contract. Rios might be the most optimal upgrade between his salary, likely improvement over the current starters, and who would have to go to the White Sox. And really, the positions in the Pirates’ system with the most depth are in the outfield and right-handed pitching. Players such as Andrew Lambo, Barrett Barnes, Clay Holmes, or even better prospects like Josh Bell and Kingham or Glasnow could be served up in such a swap.
But getting a right fielder in a deal would pose a problem for Jose Tabata or Travis Snider, as both are out of minor league options and it’s unlikely that both would be kept if a player like Rios is brought in at the deadline. Perhaps one of those two could be part of a package in return. But both Tabata and Snider are still young with great minor league pedigrees, so it’s about 50-50 that Neal Huntington decides to stay put in right.