How good is the Pirates’ minor league system? Is it good enough?

"Manny Machado is awesome." 

That's the tweet I sent out during the Yankees/Orioles series after the 20-year old infielder hit his first playoff home run. There was no deeper meaning to it than the words I typed. The reason I like watching the playoffs so much is to see players I don't regularly watch for all of my regular-season Pirate-watching. Machado was high on the list because he's such an exciting prospect and because he plays for the Orioles, who I can never ever watch through Bud Selig's Blackout Curtain Of Doom. Machado didn't have a great series against the Yankees, but he came up with a couple of big hits and it's always cool to see young players do things like that. 

I closed the computer down shortly after I sent that tweet out and went out for a bit. When I came home, I realized that a bunch of Pirate fans had responded to it with some pretty heavy bitterness that Machado was an Oriole and not a Pirate. If you recall, the Pirates had more or less narrowed their choice with the #2 pick in the 2010 draft down to Machado and James Taillon; for a while it seemed like they were leaning Machado, then Taillon emerged as the pick a few days before the draft. At the time, no one had much criticism for the Pirates. The general consensus was that both players were stars in the making, that Machado was going to be a heck of a hitter as a third baseman or shortstop and that Taillon was one of the best right-handed high school pitchers in the recent history of the draft. Really, there's still not much criticism for the pick. Machado entered 2012 as Baseball America's #11 prospect, Taillon came in at #14. Machado had a pretty good year at Double-A and earned his promotion because the Orioles needed him for a playoff run. Taillon had an uneven-but-solid year with High-A Bradenton, then made a few brilliant starts with Double-A Altoona to end 2012. Taillon will probably be somewhere in the 10-20 range in this year's Baseball America list. Machado no longer has prospect status, but would probably be somewhere in the top ten if he did. 

Still, I thought on this some and I realized that a very similar situation played out in the 2011 draft, too. The Pirates looked in on a bunch of players with the first overall pick in that draft and seemed to strongly consider a few of them, including Dylan Bundy, before finally deciding on Gerrit Cole with that pick. The Orioles, picking three spots after the Pirates at #4, took Bundy. Cole is still a great prospect; he's usually listed by prospect-watchers as one of a handful of minor leaguers with the talent and build and makeup to become the elusive "true ace." He's still got some rough edges and that lead to a few ugly performances in big spots in 2012, but he breezed through High-A and Double-A and will, without any unforseen setbacks, probably be in the Pirates' rotation by sometime around the All-Star Break in 2013. 

Bundy, of course, has been even a little bit better than that. He started in Single-A, where he struck out 40 hitters and walked two and gave up five hits and no earned runs in 30 innings, jumped to High-A where he was flat-out dominant, made three fairly solid Double-A starts, and made two appearances out of the Orioles' bullpen down the stretch. When the prospect lists come out this winter, he'll probably be ahead of Cole for the second year in a row (Bundy was #10 and Cole was #12 at BA last year; Bundy will be close to #1 this year, Cole will probably be in the 5-10 range). 

It is way too early to be making value judgments on Machado vs. Taillon or Cole vs. Bundy; Machado has 202 big league plate appearances and Bundy has 1 2/3 big league innings. Machado turned 20 in July, Bundy turns 20 in November, Cole just turned 22 in September, and Taillon will be 21 in November. All of these players are young and talented and as of today, they all have the world at their fingertips. It's more than fair to argue that Machado and Bundy are better prospects right now, but it's not nearly as easy to argue that they're certain to have better careers than Taillon or Cole. 

This is, in some regards, pretty much the exact same thing as the criticisms that are being leveled at the Pirates drafting and prospect development this winter. The Pirates' farm system is much, much better now than it was in 2007. This is not up for debate. When Baseball America listed their top prospects in every league, the Pirates placed 14 players on the various lists, which was as many as any team in baseball. When Baseball America releases their top 100 this winter, the Pirates will have Cole and Taillon and Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco and Luis Heredia all on the list. Starling Marte flew up the mid-season list before being called up and exhausting his eligibility for the 2013 list. Josh Bell will be able to get himself back on the list with a strong year in 2013. With teams in the Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League winning their leagues, there's plenty of reason to hope that there are more Polancos and Hansons on the way. The Pirates do not have the best system in baseball and they do still have some top-heaviness, but they have some excellent, excellent prospects that are making their way closer and closer to Pittsburgh. 

And still, there's a definite perception that the Pirates' system isn't good enough and I don't think that criticism is necessarily undeserved. It's true that the Pirates have spent more on the draft than anyone since 2008, and that it seems like their best minor league prospects are increasingly coming from Latin America. It's true that their "projectible high school pitcher" strategy is seeming more and more like a failure, and it's become increasingly clear that Tony Sanchez was a really bad pick at #4 overall in 2009. Still, it's not at all easy to know where to point the finger for this. We can criticize Greg Smith and the scouting team for poor drafting, but they still managed to pick two of the top 15 or 20 current prospects in Taillon and Cole, plus Pedro Alvarez, plus a wild card in Josh Bell. It's easy to blame them for Sanchez, but the player drafted right before Sanchez (Donovan Tate) hasn't reached the Majors, nor have the two picked right behind him (Zack Wheeler and Matthew Hobgood). Most of that first round now looks like a vast wasteland, except for Stephen Strasburg (who went before the Pirates picked) and Mike Trout (who 21 other teams passed on). 

So what about development? It's easy to point the finger at Kyle Stark's crew because they're obviously unpopular with a lot of people and their methods are unconventional. It sure seems like they haven't done a great job developing the Zack Von Rosenbergs and Zack Dodsons and Trent Stevensons to this point, but it's also true that someone helped turn Rudy Owens from an also-ran into a fringe big league prospect and that Nick Kingham and Clayton Holmes are both worth watching at this point and that someone has done something with Luis Heredia. Since Heredia's pitched almost exclusively in America since his signing, you can't give credit for his 2012 success to the international staff. Both Hanson and Gregory Polanco, along with Starling Marte, blossomed from toolsy guys into legitimate prospects after coming to the Pirates' American facilities. Someone put finishing touches on Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, both of whom you could argue have become better pros than their minor league careers at the time of Huntington's hiring might have suggested. 

If it seems like I'm going out of my way to defend Huntington and Stark and Smith, I'm not. I'm pointing out that there are valid criticisms and that all of those criticisms have valid defenses. Of course every scouting department that passed on Mike Trout needs to ask themselves why they didn't see what the Angels saw in Trout. Trout went from the 85th best prospect before 2010 to the 2nd best prospect before 2011. It wasn't even a slow process; he started playing and was awesome. Of course the Pirates' scouts need to ask themselves if the upper-middle rounds are best spent drafting gangly projectable pitchers when they chose those sorts of players over both Brandon Belt and Paul Goldschmidt in 2009 (Nathan Baker over Belt in the fifth and Colton Cain over Goldschmidt in the ninth). And of course the development team needs to ask themselves why their "projectable" pitching projects don't seem to be progressing and why it took Pedro Alvarez so long to find a groove and Sanchez has crashed and burned and why their employees are so willing to sell their bosses out in the press at the drop of a hat, apparently. 

The larger point is that you can't judge a development team or a scouting team or a draft class or a minor league system by each prospect that makes it or doesn't make it. The Pirates spent a ton of money from 2008-2011 on their drafts, sure, but they also didn't have a lot of high picks in those drafts and so, to some extent, that money was spent on improving their fishing expeditions after the first couple of rounds. It doesn't look like that's born a ton of fruit, but it's also still a little early to say given the nature of all of those picks. Some of what the Pirates have done since the start of the 2008 season has worked and some of it hasn't. That's the nature of scouting and development, even for the best teams. The Pirates need to be constantly evaluating their process. it's fair for us as fans, bloggers, reporters, analysts, what have you, to be asking questions about these methods, but I'm not sure this is the sort of thing that we can really, truly evaluate while we're in the middle of it and it'll be much easier to judge when we're five years out from now.  

Of course, this is what leads into the big question that I think occasionally gets lost for the trees when we squabble over the smaller questions or focus on one data point in a set of thousands. The Pirates' system is better than it was in 2007 and I don't think that's worth debating. Most prospect-watchers would probably call it a good system at this point, though probably not a great one. No one anywhere argues that there's some real top-notch talent in the Pirates' minor leagues. The quality of the Pirates' system may or may not match the level of spending that's been done in recent years; this is certainly a topic worth discussing. The bigger question for me, though, is if the Pirates' system is adequate to put the current Pirate team over the top during the Andrew McCutchen era in Pittsburgh. In short, the system is better, but much of that talent is very young and very far away from Pittsburgh. Does the talent that will help the Pirates in the immediate future (Taillon, Cole, Mercer, Holt, Sanchez, Locke, Wilson, Black, Welker, etc.) propel the Pirates from fringe contender to real contender in the next year or two or three? If the answer is yes, the follow-up is "Well, are you absolutely sure?" and if the answer is no, the follow-up is "Well, how do we get there?"

And that's the question that I'll try to look at in more depth tomorrow. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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