Look at the Pittsburgh Pirates as constructed. Be brutally honest with yourself. What are the strengths of this team? What are their weaknesses. What can you say about them for sure entering 2013?
If we're starting with strengths, we can say for sure that the Pittsburgh Pirates do not need a center fielder. Andrew McCutchen has that job locked down until 2018, and if he stays healthy he'll be one of the premier players in the National League from now until then. His outfield companions are less certain. Travis Snider is talented and fairly young, but he's already hit a few stumbling blocks in his early career and there are plenty of questions about him. Starling Marte is talented and fairly young, but he's still very raw and it's hard to say anything for certain about him. It's easier to make strong statements about Alex Presley and Jose Tabata, but it's harder to say nice things about them. Tabata still might make a decent non-traditional leadoff hitter, but he's got a number of issues on and off the field that need to be worked on. Alex Presley might be a pretty good fourth outfielder for someone, but it's hard to think that relying on him for more than that is wise.
Let's move into the infield. What do you want to say about Pedro Alvarez if we're talking in absolutes? The power is real. The strikeouts are real. That let him be a pretty good hitter in 2012 and a pretty bad one in 2011. That sort of profile has resulted in a pretty uneven career arc for Mark Reynolds. Counting on a player that strikes out in 30.7% of his plate appearances is tough. And what about Neil Walker? He's a pretty good second baseman. Definitely in the top half of the league, maybe in the top ten. He has thus far improved at the plate and in the field every year, but he's 27 now and that's probably not going to continue much further. He's got back issues. Back issues are scary.
The rest of the infield is tougher. Clint Barmes is not a long-term solution at shortstop. Jordy Mercer is probably not good enough defensively or offensively to justify an every day job, though it's hard to draw a conclusion from the way the Pirates failed to use him in 2012. Brock Holt is a utility player. Shortstop is an issue, both in 2012 and beyond. Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez probably make an acceptable but not exceptional first base platoon. Jones can hit consistently if put in the right situations (read: against righties) and Sanchez isn't quite good enough for the job on his own, but can carry the short end of a platoon and shore Jones up defensively. Mike McKenry probably deserves 120 starts in 2013 to determine if he's an every day catcher. He might be, but I'm not sure I'd pencil him in long-term based on 275 plate appearances in 2012.
This is what that leaves us with in the field: a star center fielder, talent and uncertainty in right and left field as well as third base, a solid every day second baseman, an acceptable first base platoon, a gaping hole at shortstop, and a catching situation that probably (but not definitely) could use an upgrade. Let's move on to the rotation.
The Pirates' rotation for 2013 currently includes AJ Burnett who is most assuredly AJ Burnett at this point. He's talented and solid enough and getting old. He will keep you in the game every five turns of the rotation and he will win a game by himself once every three or four starts. He's not a horse or an ace or a stopper. He'll be 36 in January, and so he's not a long-term solution. James McDonald is an enigma. The talent is there but the je ne se quoi that separates the talented pitchers from the successful starters is often absent. Sometimes his changeup is good. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes his slider is sharp enough that he looks like Good Young AJ Burnett. Sometimes he's a two-pitch pitcher that can't locate and serves up home runs like crazy and he looks like Yankee AJ Burnett. He's 28, and the clock is ticking on him every completely figuring it out. Jeff Karstens is the living embodiment of that old story about Ray Miller: Work Fast Change Speeds Throw Strikes. That's gotten him further than I ever expected, but I'm not sure it can take him far beyond where he is at the moment, which is a solid mid-rotation guy that probably can't handle more than 150 innings in a season. Wandy Rodriguez is an aging lefty who's replacing swings and misses with craft. He'll likely get by on that for at least two more years and be a solid upper-middle-rotation type of pitcher. Charlie Morton is unknowable, practically an adjective all to himself. Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson are not ready. They might not ever really be ready to start.
The summation of all of this is easily encapsulated in what could be a description of the 2012 Pirate season. There is talent in Pittsburgh right now — moreso than just about any point in recent Pirate history — but that talent on its own is not quite enough to put the Pirates over the top and they need help. Pretend for a moment that all you know about the Pirates is what was written in the prior paragraphs of this story and that they are a small market baseball team hoping that they're hitting the peak of a rebuild. In short, that they're talented and flawed but that they hope that they have a minor league system that will provide enough for them to put them over the top in the immediate-to-near future. Pretend that you know nothing at all about that minor league system. Now answer this question: What would you hope was on the way?
Removing bias like this is an impossible task, really, but let's try to complete it. I would want pitching above everything else. I always want pitching. It's true that this is because I like thinking about pitching and talking about pitching and writing about pitching. It's also true because the Pirates, as currently comprised, have a rotation that you can talk yourself into but that is almost certain to let you down in the end. I would hope that a real, reliable, powerful bat to couple with Andrew McCutchen in the heart of the order. Walker is more of a complimentary piece and Alvarez and Jones are capable of being that bat, but I'm not certain either should be relied on. I'd hope that bat was a corner infielder, though a corner outfielder would be acceptable (I'm more than willing to give Marte in particular and also Snider a chance, though, so corner outfielder isn't high on this list). I'd want a shortstop, because a 1 WAR shortstop is not acceptable no matter how good his defense is. And finally, I'd be hoping for a catcher to pair with McKenry to create the sort of rotation that Barajas and McKenry didn't last year. That's a long wish list for our theoretical minor league system, but that's probably the order of priority for me: pitching, power bat to round out the lineup, acceptable shortstop, acceptable part-time catcher.
Here's what the Pirates have coming in the immediate-to-near future: pitching. Gerrit Cole is coming. Jameson Taillon is behind him a little ways. Those two, should they reach their potential, have the ability to completely re-make a pitching staff. A rotation similar to the 2012 Pirates' rotation only with a fully-realized Cole and Taillon at the top of it has the ability to drag a team places, kicking and screaming if necessary. Of course, the "fully-realized" part is the huge variable here; if we assume that Cole makes his debut in 2013 and Taillon in 2014, how long does it take to get both of them to start really realizing their potential at a big league level? They still have rough edges as things currently stand. Do we need to wait until 2015 until the rotation really hits full stride, should it hit it at all?
There's not much else in the upper minors, either. Tony Sanchez kind of might sort of maybe be an acceptable part-time big league catcher, but his bat has dropped off a ton in the last two years and the glowing reports about his defense have slowed up. Maybe that's part of the Pirates' organizational hatred of catchers playing defense and maybe it's not; it's hard for me to say without seeing him play. Matt Curry is a sort of fringe first-base prospect. Right now it looks like he could be a Gaby Sanchez-type player if things break well for him, but even that might be a bit optimistic. There are no shortstops worth discussing ahead of Alen Hanson besides what we've already seen in Chase d'Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, and Brock Holt. Of that group, my hunch is that Mercer has the best chance of being an acceptable shortstop in a younger Clint Barmes kind of way; pretty strong defense and at least some pop, but not really a standout in any way.
Getting into the lower minors, Hanson and Polanco are obviously very good prospects that have a lot of maturing to do and will almost certainly not arrive in Pittsburgh before 2015. Alex Dickerson has shown some pop and might be able to provide something from the first base position as soon as 2014, if you're the optimistic type. Gift Ngoepe has a great glove at shortstop but can't hit at all; he's still something of an unknown. The danger with these guys is that once you get to 2015-2016 as arrival dates, you're pushing awfully close to the end of the Andrew McCutchen era in Pittsburgh, which is tentatively penciled in for 2018, though it could come a year earlier depending on the option.
That means this: if you go by what the Pirates have right now and what the Pirates have coming from the upper minors, any hopes for extended contention during the Andrew McCutchen era rest pretty squarely on Cole and Taillon, plus Alvarez and Marte blossoming into star players. Meaning being good and staying good and really contending for a playoff spot from, say, 2013-2017 and not making one final blow-out run at contention in 2017 or 2018.
That doesn't seem so bad, really, since Alvarez has had some big league success and Marte and Cole and Taillon are all talented as hell and we know that McCutchen is capable of being other-wordly for extended stretches. My trouble with it is that it still requires a lot of dreaming, and honestly, at the five year point of any GM's tenure my gut feeling is that we should be past the dreaming stage. It's easy to come up with plenty of reasons and excuses and explanations as to why the top of the Pirates' system isn't overflowing with prospects right now, but the buck has to stop somewhere. The reality is that the Pirates could have Gerrit Cole turn into a Justin Verlander style ace, and that still might not be enough to get them over the top. That's very, very worrisome to me.
The bottom line here is that the Pirates' system is definitely better off than it was five years ago, but that building a minor league system is both about accumulating talent and working towards a final goal. The Pirates have done at least a decent job of accumulating talent under Neal Huntington and Greg Smith, but after five years on the job there are still a ton of questions about how to make the next five years better in Pittsburgh. That's not good.