Despite many dramatic changes, talent pool still shallow
September 2, 2008 8:00 AM
Neil Walker, a Pine-Richland High School graduate, had a team-best 16 home runs for the Class AAA Indianapolis Indians this summer.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One must dig deep to uncover positives in the Pirates' minor league system for 2008, and that applies across the board:
• The six affiliates, with the top four having their seasons end yesterday and only 16-53 State College still plodding along, have a combined record of 296-392. The only cumulative record worse in all of Major League Baseball is that of the Houston Astros.
Game: Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds, 7:10 p.m., Great American Ball Park.
TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (5-10, 5.77) vs. RHP Josh Fogg (2-7, 7.29).
Key matchup: A chance, at last, to breathe offensively? Opponents are batting .301 against Fogg, with 16 home runs in just 75 innings.
Of note: In the reverse race for the No. 1 draft pick next year, the Pirates have the fourth-worst record in Major League Baseball, the Reds the eighth-worst.
• The only affiliate to qualify for playoffs was rookie-level Bradenton. That lasted one game.
• The Pirates' past four first-round draft picks in the system -- outfielder Andrew McCutchen, third baseman Neil Walker and pitchers Brad Lincoln and Danny Moskos -- took no great strides.
• The overall pool of talent, considered one of baseball's worst before marginally improving with the Xavier Nady/Jason Bay, still counts only three players -- McCutchen, Walker and outfielder Jose Tabata -- among Baseball America's top 100 prospects.
So, what was to like?
Mostly, as the Pirates' front office will stress, it was procedural ...
The foundation might have been laid with general manager Neal Huntington's philosophy that minor league team records mean little. The affiliates under his predecessor, Dave Littlefield, often had good records and made the playoffs but tended to be plugged with journeymen, to the extent that Altoona's roster last season had an older average age than the Pirates.
"If we wanted to win in the minors, we could push prospects down or load up on experience," Huntington said. "Our focus was on opportunities for our prospects."
The methodology was up to Huntington's choice for director of player development, 30-year-old Kyle Stark, who initiated a total overhaul of instructional techniques, a break-a-few-eggs disciplinary approach to make them count, and a wholly new computer-based framework for communicating and storing scouting and statistical information.
"I think we have made huge strides in creating a cohesive system," Stark said. "The talent level and mentality of this organization needed and continues to need an overhaul."
One critical area for Stark, given the Pirates' history of major pitching injuries, was the creation and strict adherence to pitch-limit guidelines. Game by game, inning by inning, pitchers -- especially at the lower levels -- could not exceed the limits until they had demonstrated through numbers that they were ready.
The obvious plus was that no prospect had an arm injury requiring more than a shutdown.
The minus, as some might see it, was that plenty of ruffling had to occur to make Stark's point. That included the docking of pay for Lynchburg's staff for allowing Moskos to exceed his limit by a half-dozen pitches in a game April 23.
Most of the ruffling, by many accounts, was done by Troy Buckley, the roving pitching coordinator hired by Stark.
Top 10 prospects
The Pirates' top 10 prospects, minus unsigned draft pick Pedro Alvarez, with input from the team's evaluators:
Buckley wielded an autocratic hand beginning with spring training, to the extent that pitching coaches of the lower-level affiliates were told when they could or could not address their pitchers. Experienced pitching coaches Bob Milacki and Wilson Alvarez soon resigned from Lynchburg and State College and were replaced by Mike Steele, a 29-year-old who had been Michigan State University's pitching coach two years, and Brian Tracy, the 24-year-old son of Jim Tracy who had just retired from playing.
Were those two mere clipboard-holders for Buckley?
"The reality is, our coordinators always are responsible for the big-picture development of every player," Huntington said. "No, our pitching coaches are not clipboard-holders. They're responsible for day-to-day matters and seeing that all plans are implemented."
Another ruffling came with a no-sinker rule implemented for young pitchers. The idea was to emphasize simple fastball command, but sinkerballers such as Mike Crotta at Class A Lynchburg initially were handcuffed -- and hit hard -- and some outside observers wondered if such a plan might kill careers prematurely.
As it was, Crotta and others gradually were allowed to use sinkers and performed better in kind.
"Development is a progression," Stark said of the sinker matter. "We believe strongly that you must accomplish certain steps before advancing to the next one."
Some privately grumbled about Buckley regarding the sinkers, too, but Stark staunchly backed him on all counts.
"Troy Buckley is part of the solution, part of the increase in accountability," Stark said. "Troy is not operating as a mercenary. These concepts are the Pittsburgh Pirates' philosophy and, ultimately, I'm responsible for the culture change in development."
Stark referred to other areas when discussing such change.
"We saw battles fought and won over how we wore our uniforms, players needing to get bunts down, people forced to get out of their comfort zone, possibly taking a step backward before going forward and so on," he said. "People are being challenged and being held accountable."
Stark cited the example of one prospect -- without naming him -- who had been set for a prestigious fall-league assignment but had that stripped away "due to a consistent lack of professionalism displayed during the last month or so."
Ultimately, any system is as good as its most talented individuals, and the Pirates had mixed results there ...
INDIANAPOLIS (68-76) won at Louisville, 5-2, to finish its International League season last in the West Division. RHP Daniel McCutchen (7-9, 4.03) pitched seven scoreless innings and allowed five hits. He struck out nine, walked none and threw 67 of 104 pitches for strikes. LF Chris Duffy (.275) hit his first home run and went 3 for 4 with a steal. CF Andrew McCutchen (.283) went 1 for 5 with an RBI. 3B Neil Walker (.242) went 1 for 4 with an RBI and a steal.
ALTOONA (65-77) beat Reading, 8-2, to finish its Eastern League season fifth in the Southern Division. RHP Derek Hankins (2-11, 4.54) allowed two runs and five hits in seven innings. 2B Shelby Ford (.285) went 3 for 4 with a double, two RBIs and a steal. CF Jose Tabata (.272) went 1 for 4 with a double and RBI.
LYNCHBURG (58-80) beat Salem, 3-2, to finish its Carolina League season last in the Northern Division. RHP Mike Crotta (9-10, 4.67) allowed one run and six hits in six innings. 3B Eddie Prasch (.271) went 2 for 3 with a double, walk and RBI.
HICKORY (53-87) won at Greenville, 8-2, to finish its South Atlantic League season last in the Northern Division. RHP Duke Welker (4-13, 5.51) allowed one run and three hits in five innings. 3B Matt Hague (.321) went 3 for 4 with a walk and two RBIs.
STATE COLLEGE (16-53) lost to Batavia, 13-0. RHP Brian Leach (1-2, 4.20) allowed six runs and five hits in 3 1/3 innings.
McCutchen, the consensus No. 1 prospect, had a mostly sideways first full season with Class AAA Indianapolis, but that was not necessarily a negative for a 21-year-old.
"He more than survived," Stark said.
McCutchen batted .283, regained the fine strike-zone command -- 68 walks, .383 on-base percentage -- he had displayed early in his professional career, and cemented his status as a superior center fielder. But he showed little of the power -- nine home runs, 26 doubles, 50 RBIs -- that must come to live up to elite-prospect status. Management also wants to see an upgrade in small-ball facets: He stole 34 bases but was caught 19 times.
Walker, 22, had a strong finish -- 21 for 67 in his final 17 games -- that raised his average to .242 and surely influenced his selection as Indianapolis' most valuable player. He also had a team-best 16 home runs and 80 RBIs.
That is preferable to fading, as had been Walker's history, but it does not diminish the low average or, with just 29 walks, the .280 on-base percentage.
"Neil made some adjustments early and solidified his swing," Stark said, "but the approach has been an ongoing challenge."
Tabata, 20, did not disappoint after his arrival in the Nady trade: In 22 games for Altoona, he batted .353 with three home runs. He could open 2009 with Indianapolis.
Two pitchers from those trades, Ross Ohlendorf and Daniel McCutchen, got rave reviews for their time in Indianapolis, and each is being considered for the major league rotation next spring. Another, Bryan Morris, billed as having the highest ceiling, was shut down after three starts for low Class A Hickory by a strained biceps.
The previous top pitchers in the system went separate ways ...
Lincoln, 23, made a surprisingly effective return from elbow reconstruction with Hickory, earning a promotion to high Class A Lynchburg and finishing 6-10 with a 4.69 ERA. Most important, given the surgery, he walked only 17 in 103 innings.
Moskos, 22, was converted to a starter in his first full professional season but sent back to the bullpen in August because he physically wore down. Bottom line: 5.95 ERA and 43 walks in 110 innings. Still, he will resume starting next year.
There were a few mildly pleasant surprises: Power-hitting outfielder Jamie Romak, 22, led the system with 25 home runs after climbing up to Altoona. Third baseman Jim Negrych, 23, formerly of Pitt, took the same path with a system-best .359 average. Flame-throwing reliever Jeff Sues, 25, fanned 55 in 43 innings at Altoona. And, from the June draft class, third baseman Matt Hague batted .321 with six home runs despite starting out two levels up with Hickory.
Still, it probably speaks loudest about the state of the system that management sounds most excited about the teenagers all the way down the ladder in Bradenton, a group that represents the first real infusion of Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo's prospects from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
"We see players there who have a chance to contribute in Pittsburgh," Stark said.