Every year, especially around this time, fans around baseball tend to cry for the call up of a major prospect. The thought process is that the player still in the minors is better than a certain player that is on the major league club and that the team needs that prospect to reach their full potential in trying to win. There is absolutely no exception to that within the Pirates fanbase.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have invested heavily into their farm system, and because of that, they seem to always have a top prospect or two ready for ‘The Show’ each season. Take 2013 for an example. Gerrit Cole was a 22 year old top prospect coming off of a MiLB season where he pitched wonderfully over three leagues. In 2014, it was Gregory Polanco everyone was anticipating for the majors. This year, we are awaiting the likes of Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon. Though every single one of these players were on every MLB top prospect list and exceeded where they played, neither of them made the team out of spring and found themselves pitching in Indianapolis come April. This has begged the question by many fans – Why?
Let’s first look into the positive reasons to make that move early. In most cases, these prospects have succeeded at many different levels and seem poised to make a difference for their big league club. By bringing them into camp and making the roster out of spring training, the club should be better from day one. In Cole’s case, it is very possible that he would have had more success over Jonathan Sanchez or James McDonald. Realistically, it is possible to say that Cole could have earned the team an extra win or two in the place of them. In a situation where the division is very close and there are now two wildcard spots open for a play in game, this certainly is something to think about.
Now, let’s visit the drawbacks to an immediate call up. There are financial ramifications to consider. By not waiting, the player in question avoids reaching whats known as Super Two status. Super Two status is when a player hasn’t accrued enough MLB service time and will avoid reaching arbitration after the third season. Essentially, this gives the team an extra year of control over the player before they have the ability to reach free agency. Aside from the financial motives, there is an actual baseball argument to keep them in the minors. Many of the teams, including the Pirates, like to have their players reach a certain amount of playing time at each level before making a promotion. The Pirates are very deliberate with their farm’s approach and typically like to see their pitchers get around 100 innings at each level and their hitters to see around 300 at bats. This ensures that the player has seen a very solid sample size of that level and is ready to make the leap to the next one. In many cases, the player has dominated the league and can get by with the flaws they possess. Once they reach the next level, the competition gets greater and they finally get exposed to their flaw. By enabling the player to get a quality amount of innings, they are able to make the necessary tweaks towards their progression.
When talking of Tyler Glasnow or Jameson Taillon, you need to know the path they have taken to be where they are at. Glasnow has been a coveted prospect over the past two season, but finally saw his first taste of triple A last year. When you factor in his two starts this season, he has only pitched a total of 51 innings. We all know the potential Glasnow brings with his swing and miss stuff, but his control and walk rate has been an achilles heal for him throughout his entire professional career. As for Taillon, he is coming off of back to back missed seasons due to injuries. He was moving along the ranks with Cole and set to be a perpetual piece to the Bucco’s rotation, but after not pitching since 2013, there is surely some rust that needs to be brushed off. Since neither of these players have had an ample amount of time in Indianapolis, they have been sent to Triple A to start the season.
I firmly believe when dealing with these top prospects, being patient is the best scenario for them. Yes, we all know the Pirates make many of their choices because of finances, but there is no reason we must blame them in doing so. They do not have the financial flexibly the bigger market teams have. Making sure they have a Gerrit Cole for an extra year is crucial to maintain a winning culture in this city. Aside from the financial aspect though, Pittsburgh can’t afford to see many prospects not reach their potential. As pointed out, it is safe to say that Gerrit could have given the Pirates an extra win or two if called upon in April. However, it is also very possible that after only seeing just 70 innings of triple A baseball, he could have felt the pressure and faltered. Cole himself has gone on record saying he was good with that decision because it enabled him to work on a few things and get on a hot streak before he had to make his big league debut. By giving him more confidence, he felt the adjustment was easier on him than being put right into the fire.
If Pittsburgh were to rush Glasnow and/or Taillon to the majors, you could have a good argument that the club will be better from day one. Sure, Glasnow could probably do better than Jeff Locke, and putting Nicasio in the pen might be wiser. However, there is a very good chance this could backfire for the team in the future. What if the Pirates bucked their trend and made an aggressive callup here? Without the extra work Glasnow would get in Indy, he would enter the majors without tweaking his flaws. It still would be good enough to beat the current fifth starter, but think about the long term impact it could also set. There is a very good chance that without this progression, Glasnow could never live up to his hype and potential. This wouldn’t be the first time something like this has been mentioned. Huntington wanted to keep Polanco in the minors still to work on things, but the pressure around him to call the youngster to Pittsburgh and the teams struggles ultimately made his decision. We ended up seeing Gregory falter and sent back down to triple A. Also, teams such as the Detroit Tigers have been very aggressive with their prospect promotions, and many of their players have either not reached their potential, or it took them a few years to finally get there.
Back in 2009, the Tigers promoted a young pitcher who never pitched above A ball to the big leagues. The pitcher, Rick Porcello, was rated the #21 prospect in baseball and had comparisons to Brandon Webb and Carlos Zambrano. In his first full season, he ended with a 3.96 ERA. Not too bad for a rookie pitcher in the AL. Woefully, for the next four seasons he combined for a 4.64 ERA. Now that he is in Boston, he still isn’t pitching well. Detroit also had über prospects in Cameron Maybin and Nick Castellanos. Maybin was as high as the #8 prospect in baseball while Castellanos was the #10. Both were rushed to the big leagues, and neither have lived up to their potential either.
You can see examples of this in other systems as well. Arizona’s Trevor Bauer and Max Scherzer each saw just 2 years in the minors before they got their call to the majors. Sure, Scherzer is one of the best in baseball right now, but it wasn’t until after a few years when he was traded to Detroit until he became the pitcher he is today. As for Bauer, he is now with Cleveland and pitching in their bullpen.
If you take it back even further, you will remember how aggressive the Royals were in their promotions as well. Though they now are coming off of a World Series championship, it took them some time for their core to get to the level they are playing at. Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Luke Hochevar, and Alex Gordon all struggled mightily upon their promotion. Before these players even made their mark, Jimmy Gobble and J.P. Howell were two top pitching prospects in that organization who did not amount to anything near their projections placed them. Kansas City had Gobble skip triple A altogether while Howell made just one start. After playing just seven MLB seasons, Gobble left with a 22-23 record and a 5.29 ERA. Howell is still in the league, but only because he found better success as a bullpen arm rather than a starter. As a starter, he holds an ERA of 6.34 during his first three years.
Though there is a chance that there could be no damage done to Glasnow or Taillon if they enter MLB today, there is a real chance that there could be some long term drawbacks in doing so. Glasnow has the ceiling to be an Ace with a lot of swings and misses from potential batters, but with his control problems and lack of a quality change up as his third pitch, it seems more logical to make sure those kinks are all worked and improved upon before he is beckoned to succeed and push the Pirates into a division winner. As for Taillon, without seeing any game action for two years and not knowing how his arm is going to hold, it would be foolish to rely upon him in Pittsburgh’s rotation right away.
With all of these factors on the table, what is it truly worth to rush prospects to the majors? Just because a prospect could be better than another player on the roster from day one, knowing you could gain an extra win or two that year should not sway you when you factor in the potential you do not get the player you have envisioned carrying your team in the future. The Pirates are where they are at today because of their strategic motives they carry in their development. We take Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gerrit Cole almost for granted, and due to their successes, the team has been successful. However, what if these three were Cameron Maybin, Nick Castellanos, and Rick Porcello? It’s easy to see that the team would be struggling and the talk of the town would be that this front office has been terrible, can’t develop players, and has to go.
The fans of Pittsburgh should once again have more faith in the organization and appreciate what they have before them. Not all, but many of the team’s prospects have become quality major league players. If the strategy must cost them a possible early season game or two to make sure they have 5-6 years ahead of them in a successful player, then that is something worth waiting for. Almost every other team acts upon this motive, or else you would be seeing Julio Urias in the Dodgers rotation any of the other 3 options they have not named Clayton Kershaw and Kenta Maeda. The Pirates have a real chance to be a very good team this year. They also have an even greater chance of being better next. With the proper development, the 2017 rotation could consist of Cole, Liriano, Glasnow, Taillon, and Locke. There are four potential Ace type pitchers in that rotation that could all cost under $21 million combined. Ask yourself, is it worth giving up that rotation’s potential to beat the Reds and Brewers one extra time this season?