The Pirates' minor league affiliates have finished their regular seasons. Let's examine the developments on the farm that are likely to affect the big-league Pirates in the near future.
In many respects, the upper levels of the farm system were very successful - several top prospects were as good as or better than we might have expected at this point last year, and many made their big league debuts on schedule or even a bit early. Zach Duke and Paul Maholm had to be added to the 40 man roster, and both pitched well in the big leagues (in Duke's case, this is an enormous understatement). Ian Snell soaked up innings for the Bucs after pitching well in Class AAA Indianapolis. Brad Eldred went all the way from Class AA Altoona to the big leagues and hit for power the whole way, although he has struggled with strikeouts. Ryan Doumit was fantastic at Indianapolis and is finishing the season hitting well as the Bucs' semi-regular catcher. Chris Duffy hit like crazy after being promoted to Pittsburgh. And Nate McLouth joined the Pirates as well after hitting decently in Indianapolis.
That's seven rookies who all showed at least flashes of the ability to help at the big league level. Duke, Maholm, and Doumit all look like they'll be solid contributors in the near future; the others all have a good shot at doing so as well. For a mediocre Pirates team that has relied on veterans way too much over the past several years, these are very positive developments.
The problem is that five of those players - all except Maholm and Eldred - were acquired by the Cam Bonifay / Mickey White administration that was run out of town four years ago, and the Dave Littlefield administration hasn't done a very good job stocking the shelves. To illustrate this, let's make a tentative list of the Bucs' top 10 prospects, while excluding anyone who has logged a significant number of major-league at-bats or innings. (This isn't a "Top 10 prospects" list; I'm just trying to illustrate a point.)
- Neil Walker, C (Littlefield)
- Andrew McCutchen, OF (Littlefield)
- Tom Gorzelanny, P (Littlefield)
- Ronny Paulino, C (Bonifay)
- Bryan Bullington, P (Littlefield)
- Jose Bautista, 3B (Bonifay gets credit for this one)
- Matt Capps, P (Littlefield)
- Craig Stansberry, IF (Littlefield)
- Steven Pearce, 1B (Littlefield)
- Jason Quarles, P (Littlefield)
In the last two years, it has become a cliche to point out that the Pirates had lots of prospect depth but not a lot of star talent. That's not true anymore; now, they have an opposite and more extreme problem. They have two outstanding prospects in Walker and McCutchen. After that, they have two pretty good ones in Gorzelanny and Paulino. After that, the quality drops significantly, and after the first seven names there's hardly anything left.
The picture is even worse in the low minors. Class A+ Lynchburg has lots of firepower in its lineup, but its sluggers are all age-inappropriate; after Walker, there's not much there. Class A Hickory is practically barren. And while it's too early to tell what's going on with the players at short-season Williamsport and Bradenton, the Pirates had few age-appropriate players having success there.
The point is that the Bonifay moochfest is about to come to a sudden stop, and the Pirates need to be planning what they're going to do when it does. If one of their players gets injured in three years, there probably won't be a Paul Maholm or Nate McLouth to call up. The Pirates have a core of cheap young talent in the majors now, and that's a very nice thing to have - but they need to hope that nearly all those guys are everything they're cracked up to be, because if they aren't, there are going to be a lot more cheap free agents and minor league veterans playing in Pittsburgh. If the Pirates are lucky in the near future, they'll have Jason Bay, Oliver Perez, Duke, Doumit, Jose Castillo and players their age at nearly every position; if not, they'll have the '08 equivalent of Jody Gerut, Chris Stynes, Graham Koonce, Alfredo Amezaga, and Jose Leon. I don't mean to be overly pessimistic - overall, the developments of the Pirates' young players have been very positive. But the Pirates don't appear to have as much margin of error as they could have if the Littlefield administration had drafted well.