An unexpected summer of contention has had much of Pittsburgh focusing on something it had previously rarely worried about after the first of May: big-league baseball. But summer will soon turn into fall, and the Pirates are in the midst of a 10-game losing streak. The excited crowds that turned out to see the Bucs get swept by the San Diego Padres this past weekend were heartening. But if history is any guide, this summer's fans will soon begin to disappear unless the Pirates turn things around, and fast.
In the meantime, many hardcore Pirates fans, including myself, have neglected some of their traditional duties: fussing about the draft, scouring minor-league box scores, and defending Bucs owner Bob Nutting from baseless charges of thievery.
But now that the Pirates are more or less done in the N.L. Central, we can get back to work. Let's begin with a look at the farm system.
It isn't pretty. By the time the deadline to sign draft picks passes next week, the Pirates will surely rank in the top half of many experts' rankings of farm systems. But that will be due almost entirely to 2010 second-overall pick Jameson Taillon (whose pitching this year at Class A West Virginia has been excellent for a player his age) and 2011 first-overall pick Gerrit Cole, plus 2011 second-round pick Josh Bell, if he happens to sign.
After that, though? In GM Neal Huntington's tenure, the Pirates have spent lavishly on amateur talent, mostly in the draft but also in Latin America. It's too early to judge most of the players the Bucs have acquired in that time. But it's not too early to wonder why there have been so few breakout players.
Here's a list I made in May of the top 30 prospects in the Pirates' system. No. 1 is Taillon. No. 2 is Tony Sanchez, the fourth-overall pick in the 2009 draft, who has hit .236 in Class AA Altoona, with a .340 on-base percentage and a .307 slugging percentage. There's no getting around it - that's simply a horrific year for an early first-round pick, and at 23, Sanchez is well past the age where an awful Class AA season can simply be waved away.
Nos. 3 and 4 are pitchers Luis Heredia and Stetson Allie. Both have bloated ERAs and high walk totals at short-season leagues. Those aren't fatal blows to their statuses as prospects, particularly in the case of Heredia, who doesn't even turn 17 until later this week. But neither has there been anything especially exciting about their seasons.
No. 5 is Starling Marte, who's hitting .312 with a .346 on-base percentage at Altoona. He still isn't drawing walks, but he still hasn't found a level at which he can't bat .300, so it's hard to complain much.
No. 6 is Rudy Owens, who has run into a wall at Class AAA Indianapolis after dominating at Altoona last year. No. 7 is Bryan Morris, who has had control problems at Class AA Altoona and has been moved to the bullpen.
Out of the top seven prospects, then, two (Taillon and Marte) are developing pretty much according to plan. One more (Heredia) is so young that it's too early to worry about him. The other four have struggled.
The No. 8 prospect on the list is Colton Cain. Cain was one of many pitchers the Pirates selected in the 2009 draft and signed to bonuses of over $100,000. Cain has pitched reasonably well, striking out 78 batters and walking 30 in 100.2 innings at West Virginia. Unfortunately, the best one can say about anyone from the 2009 pitcher class is that he's pitched reasonably well, doing enough to move up a level next year and keep his prospect status alive. Brooks Pounders, Zack Dodson, Cain and Zachary Fuesser have all been fine, but that's all. Meanwhile, other big-bonus pitchers from that draft, including Victor Black, Nate Baker, Zack Von Rosenberg, Trent Stevenson and Jeffrey Inman, have already struggled with injuries or ineffectiveness.
The Pirates' draft strategy since 2008 has been built around youth and upside. This season has seen many, many young players perform acceptably. What it has not seen is many players having great seasons.
There have been a few exceptions. Kyle McPherson stepped out in a big way at Class A+ Bradenton, striking out 10 times as many batters as he walked. The Pirates then promoted him to Altoona, and he hasn't missed a beat there. 2010 draftee Matt Curry crushed the competition at West Virginia, a level for which he was probably too advanced, before skipping a level to Altoona, where he has held his own. Outfielder Robbie Grossman returned to Bradenton this season and has produced a ton of offense in his second time through the league, although I think his performance so far has been mildly problematic.
There might be a few other players worth including in the "breakout" category, like catcher Ramon Cabrera and infielder Elevys Gonzalez from Bradenton. But these players were so far down the list of Pirates prospects that their strong seasons don't necessarily add much to the system unless they can repeat them at the higher levels. Infielder Jarek Cunningham, also from Bradenton, has serious power and might also be included, except that he has a low batting average and has struck out five times as often as he has walked.
(Some readers might like me to include Indianapolis first baseman Matt Hague in that category too, but I'm not really buying it – his lack of speed or first-base power will make it hard for him to maintain his batting average in the majors, and he doesn't offer much defensive value. Basically, if all goes well for him, I think he'll be something like late-career Travis Lee.)
As is typical of Huntington's farm systems, the Bucs' lower-level teams are packed with interesting players. There are very few players there who are just taking up space, and that's to the Pirates' credit. Unfortunately, the State College team has been awful – the only player at that level whose performance is really worth getting excited about is 2010 fourth-round pick Nick Kingham, perhaps along with catcher Samuel Gonzalez.
Some of the performances in the Pirates' rookie-ball Gulf Coast League entry have been better, but those players are so far from the majors that their stats hardly mean anything. The performances of kids like Willy Garcia, Yhonathan Barrios, Jose Ozuna and Luis Urena have looked good so far, and it's great to see big-bonus players like Garcia and Barrios hitting, but it's far too early to draw conclusions.
That's not those kids' fault, of course. My general point here, though, is this: I see a lot of youth in the Pirates' system. I see a lot of players who could, one day, become something. What I don't see right now is many players who are, well, actually becoming something. That's probably more disturbing to me than players like Sanchez or Owens or 2008 bonus baby Quinton Miller who have actively not played well. The point of acquiring all these young, lottery-ticket players is that you're supposed to be getting chances to strike it rich. But the Pirates still aren't rich – not even close.
Of course there's still time, and it would be unwise to write off most of these players. This might all turn around next year. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all if it did.
But we're also reaching the point where there should be more minor-league breakouts than we've seen so far. The Pirates are out-spending nearly everyone else in the draft. Their Class A teams should be loaded with players who are turning into really good prospects. But they simply aren't. In March, I was at Pirate City, darting around watching lots of these young players on several different fields at once. A Phillies scout had been watching for a couple hours, and I asked him if he'd seen anyone from the Pirates who impressed him. He said something like, 'No, not really.' They were all in a cluster, he said. Five months later, that's mostly still true.