Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) ranks Major League Baseball's farm systems and places the Pirates 22nd out of 30. The author, Kevin Goldstein, isn't the sort of prospect hound who writes like he has a bone to gnaw, so his conclusion is disappointing, particularly after reading stuff like this:
Pedro Alvarez crushed a ninth-inning, two-out, three-run, pinch-hit, home run that traveled somewhere between 440 feet and, were it not for the high center-field screen, the Atlantic Ocean. Andrew McCutchen made a diving catch in center field and had an extra-base hit where even he heard most of the 6,968 patrons in Charlotte Sports Park gasp audibly as he sped around second to stretch it into a triple. Jose Tabata had a sacrifice fly to score McCutchen, a double and a throw to home plate that nailed one of the major league's fastest baserunners, Carl Crawford, by an easy 6 feet.
I'm as big a fan of Alvarez and Tabata as there is, and I'm thrilled with the improvements the Pirates' new front office has made to the team's minor league system, but Goldstein is basically right. I might argue that the Pirates' system is closer to the middle of the pack, but I'd do so halfheartedly, because the fact is that right now the Bucs have three genuinely excellent prospects, and a bunch of suspects after that.
The new administration has acquired a number of high-upside players (Bryan Morris, Robbie Grossman, Quinton Miller, Wesley Freeman) who have a ton to prove before they even make any Top 100 Prospects lists, much less make an impact in the majors. There's also Brad Lincoln and Neil Walker, top draft picks left over from the Littlefield/Creech era who still have some promise but have mostly been pushed off the map by injury or poor performance. Everyone in the Pirates' system is a Grade C+ guy or worse. Other than Lincoln and Daniel McCutchen, there aren't any legitimate pitching prospects above Class A.
None of this reflects badly upon the Pirates' current management. The issue is simply that these things take time. Depending on how you define "prospect," the average prospect probably spends about three or four years in the minors, so it will take three or four good drafts to really fortify the system, and Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly have only had one. The Pirates' best-case scenario for the next few years involves more good drafting, the emergence of Alvarez as a superstar and of Tabata and Andrew McCutchen as lineup staples. If those things don't happen, the Pirates will probably struggle.
That's not a particularly rosy outlook for the near term, but the good news is that Huntington and Coonelly are doing things the right way. They need a number of lucky breaks to compete in 2011 or 2012, but if they continue drafting, signing amateurs, and trading as they did in 2008, their odds of success for the years after that will increase greatly.