With the MLB draft coming up in a month, this will be the first of a five-part series examining the Pirates' organizational depth at each position. We start with pitching, which is one area where the Pirates are well stocked at the system's upper levels. In particular, they have several pitchers with significant ceilings who could be rotation fixtures for the foreseeable future. This fits well with their approach to veteran pitching, which has been to look for undervalued pitchers or reclamation projects, an approach that will work best if its purpose is to fill in around a strong core. An Edinson Volquez or Vance Worley works out best if he's not starting on Opening Day, like Ron Villone did in the dark days.
The Pirates may be in the enviable position of having the pieces of a good rotation locked up for the next several years. While A.J. Burnett is expected to retire after this season -- although he's pitching well enough that he may be encouraged to come back for another season -- the team has Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton (yes, Morton is typically a genuinely good pitcher for about half a season) under control through 2017, Gerrit Cole through 2019, and Worley and Jeff Locke for whatever period of time they can continue to find a role in the majors, since they have no options.
To bolster the rotation and provide the potential top-of-the-rotation starters that are generally (and dubiously) assumed to be necessary to winning, the Pirates have high-end talent close to being ready for the majors. Jameson Taillon, currently working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and phenom Tyler Glasnow, currently in AA, are probably a year away. They have the potential, though, to combine with some permutation of Cole, Liriano, Morton, Locke and Worley to leave the Pirates with a settled rotation through at least 2017.
In the likely event that somebody gets hurt, or Taillon or Glasnow experiences some bumps in the road, the Pirates are still well positioned to fill their starting needs from within. Nick Kingham has struggled with his command so far this year in AAA, but he has a K/9 of 10.0. There's no reason to think he can't harness his pitches and approach his mid-rotation ceiling. Adrian Sampson is pitching well in AAA and may be very close to providing a 4th/5th starter option as an alternative to Locke or Worley. They also have credible depth options in Casey Sadler and Brandon Cumpton, although the latter will miss this season due to TJ surgery. Each will go into next season with one option left. Finally, there's still the possibility of Clayton Richard, now building up his shoulder strength, turning into this year's Worley. The bottom line is that it's unlikely the Pirates will be making desperation moves, like putting Jason Marquis in the rotation.
Below AA, the farm system lacks the established, high-end talent found at the upper levels. This has resulted from a combination of the Pirates going more heavily with position players at the top of the last two drafts, and their international scouting program scouting focusing heavily on hitters for quite some time now. The system as a whole is also short on left-handed pitchers, which explains the trade of Travis Snider for Stephen Tarpley, who has a high ceiling, and Steven Brault, who probably doesn't. Unfortunately, Tarpley is still working his way back from shoulder problems and Brault has been unimpressive at Bradenton in the early going. Cody Dickson is a another LHP with mid-rotation potential, if he can improve his command. Otherwise, significant ceilings in class A are probably limited to Luis Heredia, who's looking less and less likely to develop into more than a 5th starter, and Clay Holmes, who's coming off Tommy John surgery.
For pitchers who project beyond the 2015-20 time frame, the Pirates' best possibilities for mid-rotation-or-better prospects are three above-slot right-handers taken in the draft last year: Mitch Keller, Trey Supak and Gage Hinsz. It would make a significant difference if a couple of them would step forward, as Kingham and Glasnow did.
I haven't said anything yet about relievers. That's because bullpen projections should be measured in months, not years. The Pirates' bullpen now is manned entirely by reclamation projects (Mark Melancon, Arquimedes Caminero, Radhames Liz), converted starters (Tony Watson, Jared Hughes), a reasonably priced veteran whose former team wanted to be relieved of his contract (Antonio Bastardo), and a marginal AAA pickup (Rob Scahill). Teams seldom develop relief prospects, at least not on purpose. Relief "depth" is something you find year-by-year, typically on minor league contracts. The Pirates have a couple pitchers who probably could fill that role if needed, as Blake Wood and Deolis Guerra are pitching very well in AAA. And, of course, John Holdzkom hopefully will relocate the strike zone.
In addition to the more high-profile prospects, the Pirates are well stocked with pitchers who have some ability and could end up as useful role players. Pirate fans have seen how important this sort of depth can be, as the team has gotten good contributions from unheralded prospects like Cumpton and Sadler, which beats calling up Yoslan Herrera to join your rotation. Potential Cumptons in the system now include Jason Creasy and Chad Kuhl, who are pitching well in AA, and Tyler Eppler, who's expected to join Bradenton before long. Angel Sanchez and Zack Dodson may also be reviving their prospect status. There are also a few pitchers at the lower levels who've shown some potential to advance, including lefties John Sever and Hector Garcia.
In short, the Pirates are very well situated at the upper levels of their farm system to provide the needed talent to stay in contention. The lower levels are short on high-end talent unless last year's draftees come through. Throughout the system, there are wild cards who could turn into good depth options or possibly relievers.