There was a time not long ago where the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system was perennially ranked amongst the best in all of baseball. However, after the promotions and trades of many of the team’s top prospects, the Pirates can no longer lay claim to having a premier minor league system.
This is a critical issue for a small market team that is predicated on having a strong farm system to have any chance to compete on an annual basis. Without the television revenue that the larger market teams can utilize to fund free agent acquisitions, the strength of the minor league system serves as a prime indicator for the likelihood of future success is for the Pirates.
With former top prospects such as Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, and Josh Bell all at the major league level, coupled with the fact that the Pirates traded away high-level prospects such as Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz in the deal with the Tampa Bay Rays for Chris Archer or the deal with the Texas Rangers that sent Taylor Hearn in exchange for Keone Kela, the Pirates minor league system is a shell of its former self.
Tyler Glasnow was the top-ranked Pirates prospect in 2015 and 2016 and Austin Meadows was their top-ranked prospect in 2017. Trading young prospects of that high of caliber will certainly hurt any organization. Especially when the team does not receive the return on investment from the player they receive as the Pirates have seen with the abysmal performance from Archer thus far.
Currently, the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system sits firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack amongst Major League Baseball franchises. Major League Baseball ranked the Pirates minor league system 15th out of 30 teams, while Baseball America ranked them 18th and Bleacher Report ranked them 17th.
Currently, the team has only three prospects currently ranked among the top 100 in baseball. Those three are pitcher Mitch Keller (28), third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes (39) and shortstop Oneil Cruz (62).
Another cause for the slide in the rankings for the Pirates minor league system was due to the production of some of its top prospects last season. Ke’Bryan Hayes showed significant regression, Mitch Keller did not perform well at the major league level, Ji-Hwan Bae had a lengthy suspension due to domestic violence and Oneil Cruz missed two months of the season with a fractured foot.
If the Pirates can see some of their top candidates bounce back this year, it should help boost their rankings. Many analysts are projecting pitchers Stephen Jennings and Tahnaj Thomas to take major steps forward this season.
In addition, last year’s top draft pick and the second-best pitching prospect of the Pirates, Quinn Priester, who is only 18-years-old, should see a significant jump in progression from having a full season in the system.
With Keller, Hayes, Kevin Kramer and potentially Travis Swaggerty all expected to be called up to the majors this season, the rankings could take a major hit in the immediate future. However, the major league team should benefit from adding elite young talent, which is the ultimate goal of any franchise.
After finishing the 2019 season in the basement of the National League Central Division, there isn’t a great deal of optimism that the Pirates will be able to legitimately contend next year or in the immediate future.
As a result, the focus of new general manager Ben Cherington should be to do everything in his power to rebuild the farm system to its previous elite status so that it can compete in the future. The team needs to examine how teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays manage their teams in small markets and mimic it.
The Pirates would be wise to sign free agents with a high upside on team-friendly contracts to catch lightning in a bottle. If they can find veterans who perform well for them, they can trade them away for prospects at the deadline to bolster their farm system.
While this is easier said than done, signing free agents with this sole intention must become a priority for a team that relies so heavily on a strong system to compete. Bullpen help is needed every season and can be found at a lower rate and should be where the Pirates look first to accomplish this feat.
In addition to working to find players to trade for assets at the trade deadline, Cherington and the Pirates ownership must take a long look at the current roster and determine if they can move valuable pieces to replenish the minor league system.
While painful in the short term, it may make sense to trade players such as Josh Bell, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Joe Musgrove, Keone Kela, Trevor Williams, and Chris Archer if they can get an adequate return for them.
Unfortunately, the worst position in professional sports to be in is neutral. Teams have to determine if they are competing or rebuilding for the future. For the Pirates, they should be rebuilding, but with the lack of a farm system to supplement the major league team any time soon, it may be time for the new general manager to sell off any assets he has and do a complete rebuild now.