You don’t have to look too far into the past, the off-season between 2016 and 2017 to be exact, to find a time when the Pittsburgh Pirates had a minor league system ranked among baseball’s elite. At the time the Pirates were ranked fifth in Major League Baseball.
Number one prospect Tyler Glasnow had spent the previous season breezing through AA/AAA with a 1.93 ERA, 144/68 K/BB in 117 inning and allowing just 69 hits. He did struggle in his 23 MLB innings - posting a 4.63 ERA, but his 97 MPH fast ball, along with a plus curveball could easily make you look past that small sample size.
Austin Meadows was battling his way through AA/AAA, struggling with injuries and posting a 266/.333/.536 slash line with 12 homers.
Mitch Keller had performed very well in low and high A. In 130 innings the young Keller struck out 138 batters with a 2.35 ERA.
Josh Bell had shown glimpses of his potential in his first taste of the majors during the previous season, especially with a Grand Slam against the Cubs in only his second game. He had 121 at bats, just under the threshold of 122, so this could skew the numbers a little bit, but not enough to really matter.
Over the past three years the Pirates have quickly fallen from the elite ranking of 2016-2017 to the completely average ranking of #15 this offseason. Several promotions (Josh Bell, Kevin Newman, Steven Brault, Elias Diaz and Trevor William), a glaring swing and miss (Nick Kingham) and an ill-advised trade (Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz) have led the Pirates to this point. Regressions for Will Craig, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Kevin Kramer also have not helped the Pirate’s cause. For some teams this would not have been as detrimental as it has been to the Pirates, but with a limited/restricted MLB salary and less players that have fit the top prospect mold (only 3 currently in the MILB top 100); it has been absolutely devastating. How are the Pirates supposed to compete with this level of lost talent, along with the restrictions (real and imagined) that have been placed on them? Well, their 69-93 record of 2019 should tell you that as the roster, both in the majors and minors, is currently constructed it is a long shot to say the least.
The question now is, how do the Pirates get back to the place they were in prior to the 2017 season? My advice is to look toward some of the successful organizations that both new Pirates’ President Travis Williams and recently hired GM Ben Cherington have mentioned during their press conferences/meet and greets over the past couple of weeks; specifically the Tampa Rays and the Oakland A’s.
The Tampa Bay Rays have long been the gold standard as to how to put a competitive product on the field, while maintaining an extremely low payroll. And, what about the Rays? For one, they always have an elite-level farm system. Currently they are ranked #2 with such highly touted prospects as SS Wander Franco (#1 overall in MILB), LHP/DH Brendan McKay (#15), 2B/SS Vidal Braun (#44), RHP Brett Honeywell (#75) and of course RHP Shane Baz (#96). Over the past five years the lowest the Rays have been ranked is #11 and this only lasted for one off-season before they climbed their way back up to #2. They have also been able to identify, acquire and develop players that other major league teams have set aside, given up on or just haven’t been able to get the best out of.
The A’s on the other hand have steadily moved up and down through the farm system rankings based on promotions/graduations. However, they regularly returned to the top 10; settling in at #7 currently. They have done this through diligent player development, as well as through trades. Currently 10 of their top 30 prospects have been acquired via trade.
So what’s the next step? For now it will be up to Cherington and Williams to assemble an organizational team that recognizes the strengths and weakness that exist under the current structure and is able to move forward in the framework that teams such as the A’s and Rays have created. Or, if they really want to make a difference, one that is on the forefront of player development and acquisition that would make even these teams jealous.
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement