I’ve noticed a pretty strong wave of negative sentiment focused towards minor league performance recently both in the comments here and on other sites. I’m not sure if this is a reaction to the Pirates’ ugly play, Pedro Alvarez’s terrible start, or the fact that three of the four affiliates currently playing have losing records. Probably, it’s a combination of all three factors, but whatever the case, there are some pretty common misconceptions about the minor leagues (both the Pirates’ system and in general) that I think could use some clearing up.
The fact that three Pirate affiliates currently have losing records is meaningless. Somewhere in my old closet back in Hermitage, I have a 1995 or 1996 vintage On Deck magazine with a big story about how both the Jason Kendall-lead Lynchburg Hillcats and whoever the Pirates’ AA affiliate was at the time (the Carolina Mudcats, I think) won league titles the previous year. And don’t forget the several years in the earlier part of this decade that Dave Littlefield would trump things like, “All of our minor league affiliates are in the playoffs” or “Our minor league affiliates have the best combined record in baseball.” These teams exist to get players ready for the big leagues and nothing more.
That’s not to say that we have a great system because we certainly don’t. And it’s certainly frustrating to see the strikeouts rack up for Pedro Alvarez in Lynchburg and to see Jose Tabata hurt again in Altoona and there’s certainly way too many “downs” in Charlie’s rundown of how his top 20 prospects have performed. And when all of those things start piling up, it’s easy to lose sight of the long-term picture. There’s still a lot more talent in the system than there was at this time last year, and many of the guys that aren’t underperforming are picks from 2008. Rebuilding a minor league system doesn’t happen overnight and even when it’s done well, there are large portions of it that are going to be hit or miss.
As frustrating as things are right now, just think back to last May. Behind McCutchen there was Walker, Steve Pearce, and Brad Lincoln, who hadn’t even thrown since his Tommy John surgery. That was the entire system. Now there’s Alvarez and Tabata, who are still blue chip talents despite their early struggles this year, Grossman, Lincoln is healthy and throwing well, Chase D’Arnaud and Jordy Mercer both seem at least worth keeping an eye on, and there are a handful of other guys from last year’s draft (Quinton Miller and Wes Freeman at the top of the list) that are interesting as well. It seems to me that that’s a pretty big step forward for just one year. Let’s see where we are after the draft and trade deadline this year.