With the beginning of spring training approaching and free agency pretty much wrapped up, we've hit the portion of the off-season where the prospect-ranking people do their prospect ranking. In turn, that means that it's time for me to start paying attention to prospects and to swear that this is the year that I do a better job of following prospects on WHYGAVS, only to abandon that by the third week of the season. But it's still January, so let's dig in!
The news that has people buzzing the most this week is John Sickels' farm system rankings, which places the Pirates fifth. Earlier this month Jim Callis said in a chat at Baseball America that he's got the Pirates eighth overall. BA's official system rankings won't be released until their annual comes out next month, but it seems like a safe bet that the Pirates will probably be in the bottom half of their top ten when it does. We don't have Baseball Prospectus's organizational rankings yet, but they'll presumably be ranked fairly well there since Jason Parks called the Pirates' system "one of the most impact-heavy systems in the game" back in December. Last year, Sickels had the Pirates' 12th, BA had the Pirates 11th, and BP had the Pirates 8th. Obviously we'll have to wait for all of the lists to be certain, but it seems to me like it's probably fair to say that the current consensus is that the Pirates have one of the ten best farm systems in baseball, and that it's gotten a little bit better over the last 12 months with breakouts from Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco off-setting the loss of Starling Marte's prospect status (meaning that he no longer qualifies for prospect lists, not that he's no longer considered a promising player).
There was quite a bit of talk about how good the Pirates' system is versus how good it "should" be given the huge draft bonuses given out when Neal Huntington's job security was discussed last fall, but I'm not sure that frames the question quite right. Entering the 2013 season, pretty much every minor league player of consequence has been acquired by Neal Huntington and the scouting staffs lead by Greg Smith and Rene Gayo. Figuring out how good a system "should" be based on money spent is a fool's errand and so the question is this: do the Pirates have a good minor league system that will lead to future success? What are the most encouraging things happening in the system right now? What are the most worrisome things?
At the very end of last year, Charlie wrote at Bucs Dugout about how the Pirates' 2013 roster seemed to be filled with "high-beta" players; guys that have a wide range of possible outcomes from the very good to the very bad. I think that the Pirates' system right now is built very similarly. There are very few teams in Major League Baseball that have five prospects with the ceilings of Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, and Luis Heredia because I don't think any of those guys really have ceilings. The problem is that Polanco and Hanson are exceedingly young and haven't even played one game in Advanced-A between them, Heredia is even younger and hasn't pitched in full-season league yet, and Cole and Taillon are pitching prospects. Those five guys could be superstars or the Pirates could end up with two injury-prone starting pitchers and three guys that never materialize above Double-A or anything in between. It's incredibly hard to forecast the future of the franchise because the range of outcomes for their best prospects are so wide.
This is why every write up of the Pirates' system mentions their lack of depth or top heaviness: if Cole or Taillon gets hurt or Polanco/Hanson/Heredia fail to develop, there's not really much in terms of second-tier talent that could fill in the gaps that that would create. There are guys like Clay Holmes and Nick Kingham and Josh Bell, but they're all far away from the Majors, too, and there are guys like Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke, but they're fringe prospects at best. Every single minor league system has to deal with degrees of uncertainty, but the Pirates' system has a pretty huge amount of it right now.
If you look a little further into the way the system has been constructed, it's not hard to see how this has happened. Greg Smith had four top five draft picks handed to him before the new draft constraints started and while it's too soon to make a real judgment on any of them, from where we stand today it looks like the Pirates made pretty good picks in three of those four drafts (not perfect picks, necessarily, but good ones). I don't think that's a bad track record given the way that even the best prospects develop. The problem is that they haven't added much depth behind those three players from the draft, despite spending a lot of money trying to do so. The reality is that if Cole and Taillon both pan out, misfires like the Zacks (Von Rosenberg, Dodson, Fuesser) of 2009 won't make much of a difference.
Of course, this takes us down two different roads. How likely are Cole and Taillon to pan out? Do the middling-to-bad draft results after the first round bode poorly for the future if the Pirates stop having a top five pick every year? You can sort of start to construct an answer for the first question: it seems to me that the Pirates have a pretty clear organizational philosophy in regards their pitchers and that they've done a pretty good job (thus far, at least, knock on wood/fingers crossed) of keeping minor league pitchers free of serious arm injuries, which means that while no pitching prospect is a slam dunk, which I think bodes well for Cole and Taillon. The second question is murky and pretty much unanswerable from where we are right now, but it's definitely something worth keeping in mind.
Talking about what Smith has done only considers part of the system, though, and the most encouraging thing that's happened to the Pirates in the minor leagues in the last two years isn't Cole or Taillon. Instead, it's Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and Alen Hanson. For a team to succeed in Latin America, their scouts have to have an ability to see things that other scouts don't see. Because Dominican and Venezuelan prospects are signed at such a young age, slam dunk signings (check out this slightly aged list for reference) are hard to come by on the international free agent market and that for every Miguel Sano there's probably more than one Michael Ynoa. Gayo's always had a reputation for unearthing hidden gems and Marte, Hanson, and Polanco have all come from off of the radar (of the trio, only Hanson's signing bonus was above $100,000) to turn into legitimate prospects in the last two seasons. Given the budgetary restrictions on international signings after last winter's CBA agreement, being able to find players like this is going to be hugely important in the next few seasons. Now that we're starting to see some early results from Renee Gayo's operation, it seems like the Pirates have the beginnings of a very encouraging international and Latin American scouting program. Outside of Andrew McCutchen, this is probably the best thing that's happened to the Pirates in 20 years.
Given that the minor league system belongs entirely to Huntington and that the Pirates have quite a few key pieces in place in Pittsburgh, prospect development is going to take on a new sense of urgency in the immediate future for the Pirates. This year, Gerrit Cole is going to get his first taste of big league baseball. Jameson Taillon has been highly rated based mostly on promise over results to this point, but 2012 was probably the last year he can get away with that. How he pitches this year will be very important to determining what kind of pitcher he's going to be. Another strong year from Hanson and Polanco will transform them from interesting young players worth watching into exciting prospects. All of these things are important to a Pirate organization that wants to get a winning team on the field during the Andrew McCutchen era.
The top heaviness/depth issue shouldn't be downplayed, though. Neal Huntington took over a team in late 2007 with limited big league talent and a bad farm system. Without a ton of money to spend on free agents, the remedy in that situation is pretty universal: build up the farm system and then through a combination of trades and prospects, create a winning team. From where we stand in 2013 the Pirates' path to a winning team in the near future is clearer than it's been in a while, but there simply aren't all that many paths. That means that the the farm system is good and it has the Pirates in a better place than they've been in for a while, the dependence on a few prospects still makes it a less than ideal situation.