First Pitch: Are the Pirates Slow to Promote Players?

I received a comment on Twitter tonight which was a response to the Prospect Notebook looking at when Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon would be moved up. The comment is one I see all the time: the Pirates are slow to promote their players.

I don’t think the comment is accurate. I know exactly why the theory exists. Part of it is because the moment a player gets on a hot streak, people start asking when that player will be called up. Another part is because people will see aggressive promotions in another organization, and will want to see the same for the Pirates, regardless of whether that sort of promotion would be appropriate.

I think the Pirates are actually aggressive with their promotions. I have the same fault that pretty much every Pirates fan has: my focus is only on this organization. So I could be wrong. But consider some of the recent promotions in the organization.

**They sent 16 year old Luis Heredia straight to the Gulf Coast League. This year he is ticketed for the New York-Penn League, which is a league that is usually well stocked with college hitters.

**On that same note, they constantly send their top prep pitchers to State College for their first full season to go up against those college hitters.

**One level down, the Pirates have had their GCL team loaded with international talent the last few years. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Pirates have had the most international players in the GCL the last few years. They’ve been pretty aggressive promoting guys stateside.

**The Pirates have also been aggressive with international hitters in the lower levels. This year they promoted Alen Hanson, Jose Osuna, Gregory Polanco, Willy Garcia, and Jodaneli Carvajal to West Virginia, basically skipping them past State College. I was talking to an opposing scout earlier in the year, and he was asking me, one by one, where those hitters ended up. After telling him that they all started the year in West Virginia, his response was a shocked “All of them?!” This aggressive promotion to West Virginia isn’t new. They did the same thing with Starling Marte and Ramon Cabrera.

**Last year the Pirates skipped Matt Curry over high-A, sending him to Double-A. That was one of those situations where the line went from “they’re too slow to promote him” to “they’re being too aggressive with Curry”.

**The Pirates have seen a lot of injuries in Bradenton the last few years, leading to half seasons from some of their hitters (Marte, Brock Holt, Tony Sanchez, Jeremy Farrell, Jarek Cunningham). Even with the reduced seasons, all of those guys have been promoted the next year to Altoona.

There needs to be some perspective when looking at the potential promotions. Too often the analysis comes down to “the player is performing well, promote him”. Getting an idea of what other teams are doing is a good thing, as long as you’re not just looking for the one case where another team made an aggressive move.

Take Jameson Taillon, for example. He’s been dominant this year, but it’s only 36.2 innings. Is that enough time for him in high-A? Is it too little? Too much?

By comparison, Shelby Miller threw 53 innings in high-A before making the jump to Double-A. That’s three more six inning starts for Taillon. Jacob Turner moved quickly through low-A, making it to high-A in his first full season. He pitched 61.1 innings in high-A. Casey Kelly threw 46.2 innings in high-A before moving up, and his numbers weren’t nearly as dominant as Taillon’s. Jake Odorizzi threw 78.1 innings in high-A before his mid-season promotion to Double-A last year. And that was his third full season in the pros.

These are just examples I found looking for prep pitchers from the last few drafts. It seems that 36.2 innings is a few starts short of an expected promotion. The Pirates would actually be aggressive promoting Taillon this early. An expected promotion would come around the 50 inning mark, which is three starts away for Taillon. If he’s still dominating in high-A after that point, then a case could be made that the Pirates are slow to promote players.

I’d think that Gerrit Cole would be quicker to move, due to coming out of college. But that’s not really a guarantee. I remembered that Brian Matusz moved quickly, but I was surprised to see that the college left hander spent 66.2 innings in high-A to start his pro career. Alex White pitched 44 innings in high-A to start his career. Drew Pomeranz threw 77 innings in high-A to start his career.

There have been other players who have moved quicker. Mike Leake went right to the majors. Trevor Bauer moved up after three starts. But it’s not unnatural for a top college arm to spend a little bit more time in high-A than the token few starts before making the jump to Double-A. Prior to the season I said I would be surprised if Cole is still in high-A in June. I still feel that way. But that means the Pirates still have some time.

This also extends to Alen Hanson. He’s had a hot start to the year, which started the “when could he move up to Bradenton” questions. Those questions ignore the fact that Hanson was just moved up in an aggressive promotion. He skipped over State College and moved to West Virginia, and he’s only had 145 at-bats at the level. By comparison, Starling Marte had 221 at-bats in low-A before moving up a level. That was still a different scenario. Marte moved up because West Virginia’s season was over, and Lynchburg was playing in the playoffs. If Hanson continues this hitting, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s moved up this year, but I don’t think it will be before July.

Overall the Pirates have some aggressive tendencies when promoting players, especially in the lower levels. They seem to take a bit more time in the upper levels, which is probably a good thing, since those are important jumps. But looking at other examples, it doesn’t seem like the Pirates are slow to promote players in those cases. It just seems like they promote players at a normal pace, which can seem slow if you’re hoping for a lot of aggressive promotions.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates minor league system hit 17 homers last week, which means an $8.50 discount on the Pirates Prospects books. That’s the biggest discount yet, and is only available for one week! Use the code “HOME RUN” on the products page of the site to get your discount.

**The Pirates won 3-2 in extra innings. Game story here.

**Prospect Watch: Alen Hanson and Jose Osuna both homered for West Virginia.

**Daniel McCutchen was placed on the disabled list, and Joel Hanrahan was reinstated from the Bereavement list. I noticed a few people suggesting it was a phantom injury for McCutchen. There’s no incentive at all to do this. McCutchen was only called up to replace Hanrahan. If he would have been optioned to the minors, it would have been totally predicted. He’s already been down enough this year to use an option year. He’s not a Rule 5 pick, so they don’t need to stash him on the roster. And they have to pay him a major league salary while he’s on the major league disabled list. So as odd as the injury sounds (didn’t throw a pitch, injured in batting practice), there’s no reason to assume it’s an injury to keep McCutchen in the majors, because there’s no incentive to do so.

**Prospect Notebook: When Will Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon be called up?

**Live chat tomorrow at 2:00 PM. You’ll be able to submit questions at 8 AM.

About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • john.alcorn

    Tim, there was a study on this subject on Baseball Prospectus looking at a 5 year span. If I remember correctly, the Pirates were one of the quickest teams promoting pitchers and one of the slowest with hitters, Of course this was a year or two ago and covered the current and DL regime.

    Ha found it – 2005 to 2009

    http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=13018

  • Lee Young

    ” It seems that 36.2 innings is a few starts short of an expected promotion.”

    That almost sounded like one of those “few fries short of a Happy Meal” type comments.
    :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

    I’m pretty sure the charge w/ more merit is how the Pirates handle their Pitchers and their innings limit during the games. For instance, I’ve read K-Law and Sickel (the former negatively, the latter positively) write about the ‘kid gloves’ treatment that the Pirates have used w/ Taillon. They aren’t saying that he should be promoted or that the Pirates are being too conservative w/ his placement, they are saying that pitching 3 innings at a time (in his first year) didn’t give him the benefit of facing hitters a second time through the lineup. I happen to agree w/ the Pirates approach but thought this criticism is more prevalent and has a more sound argument (though not one I agree w/ per se).

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

    That is a different argument. The Pirates aren’t the only team that does this. Look at Dylan Bundy. For all of the hype that has surrounded him and his incredible start in low-A, he’s pitched 3-4 innings per start.