When the 2012 season ended and we started looking back on what went wrong and where things needed to go to get the Pirates out of their ugly rut, a lot of the focus was on Greg Smith and the job the Pirates had done accumulating talent through the draft (this was before the topic of conversation was changed to training practices) much more than it was on Kyle Stark and the job the Pirates had done developing talent (I wrote these two posts). The reasoning was pretty straightforward: the Pirates have done a seemingly good job of fixing guys from trades (Jeff Locke is a good example of this) and a great job of molding extremely raw Latin American players into prospects (first Starling Marte, then Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson, now Dilson Herrera), but there was little to show from the drafts lead by Smith beyond an accumulation of talent from players taken in the first five picks of the draft. In particular, the team's strategy of spending freely on "projectible" high school arms took a beating. There was quite a bit of discussion about whether the Pirate farm system was "good enough" given the place where the team had picked and the money spent on the draft picks.
When the season started, the Pirates' farm system was generally ranked from 4-8, mainly on the strength of Cole, Taillon, Polanco, and Hanson. No matter how much drooling there was over those four players, there were still real some concerns from national writers about the system being top-heavy and so, again, there was some talk about whether being a top five or ten system was "good enough" for the Pirates at this point in their rebuild. With just about every prospect of consequence besides Gerrit Cole off to a good or great start in 2013, that topic of conversation has shifted again. This is how Jeff Passan's latest "Heat Check" (his regular look into the world of prospects) starts:
For all of the plaudits the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins' farm systems receive, one longtime scout insists neither has the best cache of prospects around."It's the Pirates," he said. "And I'm not sure it's close."
You can read Passan's whole piece yourself, but a big reason for the praise of the Pirates' system is that it's no longer possible to consider it a "top heavy" system. The Pirates still have guys that just about any other team in baseball would love to have (Cole, Taillon, and Polanco top that list and Hanson and Luis Heredia are probably both on it, as well), but now they've got Josh Bell rounding into form and prospects like Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and Stetson Allie the Hitter emerging in the low levels of the minors, while every year it seems like another player or two from the Latin American department makes a splash in the States.
I think that Glasnow and Kingham are particularly interesting to the Greg Smith discussion. There's been a lot made about the "high school pitcher strategy" that the Pirates started in earnest in 2009, when they chose to save bonus money by taking Tony Sanchez with their first round pick, then spending the saved money on pitchers like Zack Dodson, Zack Von Rosenberg, and Colton Cain in the middle rounds. In short, the idea was that if the Pirates took perceived hard signs in the early-middle rounds and paid them like late-first or second or third round picks, they could get them to skip college and end up with a much deeper draft. Because Sanchez has taken a long route to the Majors and because Dodson and Von Roseberg and Zac Fuesser and Trent Stevenson (who's now retired) all failed to become prospects, that strategy has been viewed as a pretty serious failure by Pirate fans for quite some time.
Both Kingham and Glasnow are products of that drafting philosophy, though, and I think that makes it worth re-considering the approach. Here's a quick chart of the high school pitchers drafted from 2009-2011 (the last year before hard-slotting more or less ended the practice) in rounds 2-10 by the Pirates. I left Stetson Allie off of the list because he seemed more like a "Holy crap, I can't believe he fell to us" pick and not a "Let's spend some money to cast as wide a net as possible" pick at the time, though you can feel free to consider his $2.25 million bonus as a part of this strategy as well because I'm obviously making a subjective distinction here.
Signing bonus data all from Pirates Prospects
The Pirates drafted 14 guys with this approach and signed 11 of them for just under $7 million. That's a little more than Jameson Taillon ($6.5 million) and a little less than Gerrit Cole ($8 million). As it stands today, that $7 million bought the Pirates two very intriguing young prospects (Glasnow and Kingham), a piece of the Wandy Rodriguez trade (Colton Cain), and Yamaico Navarro (Brooks Pounders). Yamaico Navarro jokes aside and accepting that Glasnow and Kingham are both a looooong way from the big leagues and that plenty of things could go wrong for them, doesn't that seem like a pretty good return on $7 million of draft money spread out over three different drafts? The reason the Pirates spent the money the way that they did on the draft is that draft picks are so ridiculously undervalued that it's fine if most of them don't turn out. The Pirates could've paid Cole three times the signing bonus that they did and if Cole hits the ceiling that's still being projected for him, that money would've been well-spent.
This isn't meant as unconditional or effusive praise of Smith; I think that there are plenty of fair questions to be asked about his time on the job. Certainly, the Pirates could've picked Shelby Miller instead of Tony Sanchez in 2009, but essentially decided that Sanchez + Von Rosenberg/Cain/Stevenson/Dodson/Fuesser was a better use of funds. I still think Sanchez can be a useful Major League player, but Shelby Miller looks spectacular right now. In 2010, there was quite a bit of debate about Jameson Taillon and Manny Machado and while that debate is yet to be decided, it's definitely fair to say that Machado would look pretty good wearing black and gold and playing shortstop at PNC Park right now. We could literally spend hours debating Pedro Alvarez's future and if the Pirates should've been more concerned about his college strikeout rates and how different the franchise would be today if they'd picked Buster Posey instead of Alvarez. Given that we're four years removed from the start of the team's focus on projectible high school pitching (five, if you count the pick of Quinton Miller in 2008) and the two prospects that the strategy has yielded are still in A-ball, there's plenty of room for criticism even within the admission that the approach hasn't been the complete bust that many people seem to think that it is.
Instead, think of it like this: drafts are judge almost completely with hindsight, and it's easy to make almost any scouting director look bad with the benefit of three or four years. It seems to me, though, that as it becomes clear that the talent in the Pirates' system is deepening, Greg Smith's drafts deserve at least some of the credit.