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I’ve had an interest in prospects and minor league systems for as long as I can remember. As a young sportswriter, I had the opportunity to cover the Oakland A’s California League teams in the mid-1980s and watched Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, among others, work their way up the ladder. But my interest goes back much further than that – all the way back to my boyhood in the late 1960s, when the Pirates’ top “farm club,” as we commonly referred to them at that time, was the Columbus Jets. While the major league team in that time period was nothing special, the next wave of solid contributors was matriculating through the system – and it was fun to dream on what guys like Richie Hebner, Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen and Dock Ellis – all who suited up for the Jets in 1968 – might become.
All of them, as it turned out, became very productive big league players. Oliver would be a charter member in the Hall of Very Good, if such a thing existed, and Sanguillen is no worse than the second-best catcher in franchise history. Hebner hit a solid .277 in his 11 years with the Pirates and finished with a .792 OPS during that time. Ellis was a character if there ever was one – we all remember his claim that he pitched his no-hitter against the Padres while tripping on LSD – but he won nearly 100 games with the Pirates and posted a career 3.16 ERA in 231 games over nine years in Pittsburgh.
All of them gave signs of being outstanding players during their prospect years, and they fulfilled that promise, at least to some degree. But it doesn’t always go that way, as Pirate fans know all too well. But I’ve always been fascinated by the question of where to point the finger when a system fails to produce solid major league players. Is it drafting? Or is it player development? And how would one ever know the definitive answer to that question?
It would seem that it’s too easy for one camp to blame the other when a prospect doesn’t reach his so-called ceiling as a player. In the case of the most recent Pirates’ past, though, it seems clear that more of the blame should be assigned to the player development side of things. If you look at the players who’ve left Pittsburgh and performed well recently, that would seem to serve as evidence for that side of the argument. You can start with Gerrit Cole, who after a solid but hardly spectacular couple of seasons with the Pirates has gone on to become perhaps the top pitcher in all of baseball. And although the jury is still out on Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow — two other former prospects who’ve seen their fortunes take a turn for the better since leaving town – they seem to be two more pieces of evidence for the player development argument. People often point to Charlie Morton, but I don’t include him in the same category because I’m not sure anyone could have predicted he’d have the success that he’s had over the last three years. And the Pirates weren’t the only club unable to tap his potential; the Phillies also swung and missed at Morton.
There are other examples of players who failed to develop in Pittsburgh and did not go on to succeed elsewhere. The first player who comes to mind is Pedro Alvarez. The second overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft out of Vanderbilt, Alvarez reached the big leagues in 2010. And while he was productive to some degree, he didn’t come close to delivering at the level you would expect someone taken No. 2 overall. We all know what happened with Pedro’s throwing issues and his inability to find a defensive position. Did those issues cause his offense to stagnate – and essentially drive him to Baltimore and ultimately back into the minor leagues?
Was it a poor selection on the part of the Pirates’ drafting unit, or did the player development folks fail to turn a physical stud into the all-star third basemen we all thought Pedro might become one day? Or can you simply point the finger at the player himself and say it’s on him to reach his potential?
All of this leads us to where we are today. Pirates fans can point to several young players who seemingly have the potential to be solid contributors for years to come – Mitch Keller, for example. And Ke’Bryan Hayes. Oneil Cruz. And, deeper into the system, last year’s first-round pick Quinn Priester. Sammy Siani. And Ji-Hwan Bae.
One of the exciting aspects of the regime change is that there is new blood – and new sets of eyes – in the player development ranks. Kyle Stark is gone. And while some of his staff members remain, perhaps new GM Ben Cherington is just using this year to see what he has, and he’ll make more changes if need be. Whoever ultimately populates the player development ranks, perhaps those new views and new approaches to teaching the game will enable Keller, Hayes, Cruz and the others to actually perform to the best of their abilities.
Perhaps we’ll look back on today’s top 10 prospect list like we can look back on the Columbus Jets’ 1968 roster and say four or five of those players truly did live up to their potential. And helped the Pirates compete at a high level for nearly a decade.