Pirates' Spring Training Primer: Player development a thorny issue
The Pirates' future pitching corps? From left, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia and Stetson Allie pose for a photo at Pirate City in 2010. Allie has since moved from pitching to playing infield.
Right-hander Gerrit Cole, left, in 2012 warms up in the bullpen with Jeff Locke at McKechnie Field at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Share with others:
Sometime this morning, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon will enter the major league clubhouse at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Pitchers and catchers officially report today, and those two -- $14.5 million worth of right-handed power pitching -- were invited to spend a portion of spring training with the big-league club.
They are the A-listers of the Pirates' minor leaguers, bona fide movie stars. They are expected to reach the majors -- Cole as early as this season, Taillon perhaps in another year. But, for every star in the system, there are dozens of lower-level character actors, some with the potential for a leading role and others forever cast as sidekicks.
The Pirates' job is to get as many of them to the Show as possible.
The small percentage of young baseball players who graduate to the majors, combined with the time required for those who do make it, work against front offices such as the Pirates who try to improve their franchise through the draft yet need help at the major league level. The difficulties are evident elsewhere as well.
The Kansas City Royals, whose minor league pitchers haven't helped the major league team in recent years, earlier this winter traded their best prospect, outfielder Wil Myers, and other young players to the Tampa Bay Rays for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. The implied message: As much success as the Royals have had in player development with Myers, first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas and outfielder Alex Gordon, they need to compete in the American League Central Division now.
Despite a major league payroll perennially among the lowest in baseball, the current Pirates front office, which took charge after the 2007 season, has spared no expense in signing young players from the amateur draft and international market. But to compete on the field with a low payroll, the Pirates must outdo other teams in developing such players.
"It's what the bottom 10 markets have to do," general manager Neal Huntington said. "It's the reality of our environments. We do have to scout well, we do have to develop well, for us to play well at the major league level because there isn't the ability to go out and sign a top-tier or even sometimes a second-tier major league free agent that's going to make an impact on your club because of resource allocation."
The direct impact
In the four amateur drafts between 2008-11, the 30 teams in Major League Baseball selected roughly 6,000 players. Of those players, 206 of them, or about 3.4 percent, have appeared in a major league game.
That means each team has had, on average, about seven players they drafted in those years appear in the majors. The Pirates have had six: Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, Chase d'Arnaud, Justin Wilson and Matt Hague, all selected in 2008, and Brock Holt from 2009. That number becomes seven with 2008 second-round pick Tanner Scheppers, whom the Pirates did not sign because of medical concerns but who went to the Texas Rangers the following year.
The number of major leaguers from those drafts will increase over time. The amateur draft in baseball, unlike the NBA, NHL or NFL, rarely produces players capable of contributing immediately.
"In the NHL, that first-round pick not only becomes a key to your future, it becomes a key to your present," said Huntington, using the Penguins to contrast the long-range style of the MLB draft. "You draft Marc-Andre Fleury, [Evgeni] Malkin, [Jordan] Staal and [Sidney] Crosby. Those fewer good players in hockey have a bigger impact on you right away. In baseball, it takes four to six years for those players to have an impact. Just because those players get to the big leagues doesn't mean they're going to have an impact."
Of the 206 who have made the majors, arguably 60 have had an "impact," either contributing on the field or bringing back a regular contributor in a trade.
The graduation rate doesn't always correlate to major league success. The Detroit Tigers, who made the World Series, had 12 players drafted from 2008-2011 reach the majors, the same as the Chicago Cubs. None of the Rays' draft picks in those years have made their major league debut. The World Series champion San Francisco Giants had seven, fewer than the Cleveland Indians and the Toronto Blue Jays.
Three to five years must pass, according to some in the industry, before a draft can accurately be evaluated.
"I think, realistically, in three years, you have a pretty good idea of what you have," said Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America, which covers the draft and minor leagues extensively. "Guys are still going to play out their major league careers, but three years down the road, a bunch of guys will fall by the wayside or level off."
The value of the Pirates' minor league system, of course, goes beyond those who have made the majors.
Cole, the first overall pick in 2011, and Taillon, selected second behind Bryce Harper in 2010, represent the top talent in the system. Outfielder Josh Bell, a second-rounder in 2011, and international players such as outfielder Gregory Polanco, shortstop Alen Hanson and pitcher Luis Heredia add to the solid upper tier. After them, though, the talent level drops.
"They do have some blue-chip talent," Callis said. "There is a lot of good to say about their system. I think the criticism would be that you'd like it to be a little bit deeper, especially with the money invested."
The Pirates spent $47.6 million on signing bonuses from 2008-2011, according to Baseball America. They spent $17 million in 2011, including $8 million on Cole and $5 million on Bell. Their $52 million of bonus spending from 2007-2011, according to Baseball America, is more than any other team.
About $28 million accounts for Alvarez's major league contract plus the signing bonuses for Cole, Taillon, Bell and Stetson Allie, the Pirates' second-rounder in 2010 who since has converted from pitching to playing the field.
Outfielder Robbie Grossman, a sixth-rounder in 2008, helped bring in starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez in a trade in 2012. Shortstop Benji Gonzalez, a seventh-rounder in 2008, repeated Class A Bradenton in 2012, and eighth-rounder Jeremy Farrell, a third baseman, compiled a .628 on-base-plus-slugging percentage last season between Class AA Altoona and Class AAA Indianapolis.
The 2009 draftees have not fared as well. Tony Sanchez, a catcher out of Boston College taken with the fourth overall pick, reached Indianapolis last season and had a .316 on-base percentage and .233 average.
The Pirates loaded up on high school pitching in 2009, selecting Brooks Pounders, Zack Dodson, Zack Von Rosenberg and Colton Cain in the first 10 rounds. Cain went with Grossman in the Rodriguez deal and Pounders also left the organization via trade. Dodson was pitching at Class A West Virginia in 2012, after making 13 starts there in 2011, before he was suspended after a second violation with a drug of abuse. Von Rosenberg also repeated West Virginia.
The Pirates added Vic Black, whom they selected in the first round in 2009 with the compensation pick they received for not signing Scheppers, to the 40-man roster this offseason after he struck out 12.8 batters per nine innings as a reliever in Class AA Altoona.
"The '09 draft has not turned out all that well so far outside of Mike Trout," Huntington said. "We still believe Tony Sanchez is going to be a good player."
Slow progress does not necessarily mean failure in baseball.
"Especially with our younger players, we're constantly preaching patience to our minor league coaching staff," said St. Louis Cardinals minor league director John Vuch, using Pete Kozma as an example. Kozma played shortstop for the Cardinals down the stretch after Rafael Furcal got hurt.
"Heading into last season, he was a first-round pick several years ago and then didn't have a lot of success coming through the system and ended up playing a big part of what we did in St. Louis this past year."
Outfielder Mel Rojas, and pitchers Nicholas Kingham and Tyler Waldron, selected after Taillon and Allie in 2010, are progressing well.
Bell injured his knee in April and required surgery. Two other high draft picks in 2011, third-round outfielder Alex Dickerson and ninth-round pitcher Clay Holmes, have performed well so far. Dickerson hit .295 with 13 home runs in Bradenton last season and Holmes, who received a ninth-round record $1.2 million bonus, had a 2.28 ERA for short-season State College in 2012.
In 2012, the Pirates jumped at the chance to select Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, projected by many to go first or second overall, with the eighth selection. Appel declined the Pirates' $3.8 million offer, the most they could spend without surrendering a future draft pick under the new collective bargaining agreement, and returned to Stanford. The Pirates received the ninth overall pick in the 2013 draft as compensation in addition to their regular selection at 14th overall.
The lack of correlation between draft-day success and major league promotions means the Pirates look elsewhere during self-evaluation. Pirates chairman Bob Nutting conducted an organizational review after the 2012 season, when the Pirates were 16 games over .500 in early August yet finished 79-83. That process employed statistical analysis as well as individual evaluations of players, coaches and scouts.
"We took a metrical approach to it," Huntington said. "Are we handling the baseball defensively? The answer is a sweeping yes across the board. Our pitchers throw strikes, they get ground balls, they don't walk a ton of players."
According to statistics compiled by the Pirates, the organization ranked first in the minor leagues in turning ground balls into outs. Their pitchers ranked fifth in ERA and third in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Minor league statistics, however, tell only a small portion of the story, so the Pirates looked for subjective signs of growth from their players and staff.
"The reality is we're in a people business," Stark said. "There is uncertainty in evaluation. There is uncertainty in progress. It's not linear."
The Pirates saw room for improvement in their minor leaguers' performance at the plate -- the organization ranked 14th in offensive productivity, an all-encompassing statistic that the Pirates calculate -- and on the bases. Their pitchers struggled to hold runners on, an issue that plagued the major league team as well.
"We made an organizational commitment to quality of pitch first and foremost, and then controlling the running game secondarily," Huntington said. "That probably got out of context and became too far out of balance."
Judging the scouting staff required a deeper body of work.
"To evaluate a scout on what he saw last year is not a realistic picture," Huntington said. "You need to go back over his time with you and, was he right, and how did he get to that? The process creates the results in our system."
Nutting said he saw room in the organization for scouts who rely on their eyes and instincts, rather than analytics, after his review. The Pirates hired four additional scouts over the winter in addition to Bill Livesey, a former scout with the New York Yankees, as a senior adviser to Huntington.
The Pirates aren't the only ones evaluating their system. Baseball America ranked the system as the eighth-best in Major League Baseball before this season. They ranked 11th in 2012, 19th in 2011, 15th in 2010 and 18th in 2009. ESPN's Keith Law ranked them seventh.
"We're ultimately judging it based on how much long-term major league talent is in the system," Callis said. "You want both blue-chip talent and depth."
Vuch, whose Cardinals earned the honor of Baseball America's top system, equated a high ranking to winning minor league championships: Nice if it's the product of solid player development but not a goal in itself.
"We feel good about the process and the way we're going about developing our players," he said. "If the by-product is getting good recognition from Baseball America, then that's fine."
Alvarez meshed minor league system potential with major league production last season. Cole soon might do the same. Come August or so, if an injury or poor performance opens a spot in the rotation, Cole, after a solid half-season in Indianapolis, could debut at PNC Park and never look back.
Or he could go the way of Bryan Bullington, the Pirates' previous top overall pick, or Daniel Moskos or John Van Benschoten or several other top draft picks across baseball who never delivered. Such is life in baseball: Even the sure things sometimes aren't.
Largest bonuses in club history
GERRIT COLE (2011)
Baseball America prospects ranking after signing: 12th
Now: Pirates, Class AAA
JAMESON TAILLON (2010)
Baseball America prospects ranking after signing: 11th
Now: Pirates, Class AA
PEDRO ALVAREZ (2008)
Baseball America prospects ranking after signing: 12th
JOSH BELL (2011)
Baseball America prospects ranking after signing: 60th
Now: Pirates, Class A
BRYAN BULLINGTON (2002)
Baseball America prospects ranking after signing: 52nd
Now: Nippon Pro League
First Published February 11, 2013 12:00 am