First Pitch: Why Don’t the Pirates Trust Their Prospects?

Ever since Neal Huntington and company took over prior to the 2008 season, they have gone with a plan I agree with. Build the farm system up through the draft, trades, international market, and any other method of adding young talent. Use that talent to put together a young team that can contend for multiple years. Throughout those years, keep bringing up new prospects to try and expand the “window” to compete.

Not every deal the Pirates have made has worked out. Some have been horrible, and some have been excellent. But they find themselves contending this year, currently 12 games above .500, and holding a half game lead in the Wild Card race. So they’ve reached the point where they’re contenders, although it’s too early to say that they will do this for multiple years. Yet for some reason, after dedicating themselves to building the system for this moment, the Pirates don’t seem to trust their prospects.

That happened tonight when the Pirates called up Kyle McPherson and Justin Wilson — both options to start, and both on five days rest — and then proceeded to give Kevin Correia the nod as the starter, despite the fact that he threw two innings yesterday.

I could see not giving McPherson a start. In hindsight he pitched well in his debut. But prior to the outing he had just two starts at the Triple-A level. But I can’t see why Wilson wasn’t given a shot. He’s one start removed from an eight inning, rain-shortened no-hitter, which is the second no-hitter he’s participated in this year.

Maybe McPherson or Wilson don’t fare any better than Correia, who gave up three runs in 4.1 innings. But I can’t imagine a situation where it makes sense to start Correia. I understand Correia offered to start, and that’s admirable. But that doesn’t mean you start him. He threw two innings the night before. Even if he’s got his best stuff, he’s not going deep in to the game. And how likely is it that he has his best stuff, one day after throwing two innings?

If Correia was on five days rest, I could see not showing trust in two rookies to take the mound in a playoff race. But opting to go with Correia pitching back to back days, rather than one of two starters who are fully rested, shows a lack of confidence in prospects.

The Pirates aren’t like this in every situation, but they do this enough to raise questions and make their approach frustrating. Sure, they gave Starling Marte a shot. But there’s also been a lot of stories where they haven’t turned to the prospect tearing up Triple-A. And I’m not talking “Brock Holt hitting .400 in his first 50 at-bats”. I’m talking “this guy has made over 20 starts and has an ERA under 3″ success. Consider three examples from the pitching staff in recent history.

**They call up Jeff Locke, then use him as a long man, rather than a starter. Kevin Correia struggles in the rotation. Locke throws 4.1 shutout innings, allowing one hit and no walks. Yet Locke is sent down to Triple-A.

**When the Pirates decided they needed starting help at the deadline, they traded three prospects for Wandy Rodriguez, who had seen a decline in his strikeouts in each of the last three seasons, and was struggling in June and July in Houston. Rodriguez has continued those struggles, and the Pirates would have been better off turning to someone like Jeff Locke or Justin Wilson, who both looked ready at the time. Instead they dealt away prospects, including Robbie Grossman, who is hitting for a .295 average and an .858 OPS in Double-A with Houston.

**The Pirates traded for Chad Qualls. Yet Bryan Morris sits in Triple-A on his last option year, despite numbers that would warrant a major league call up.

Then there’s some examples last year.

**Lyle Overbay was struggling all summer, while Matt Hague was tearing it up in June. It made no sense to keep going with Overbay, yet the Pirates left Matt Hague in Triple-A. Hague might not have been the answer, but it would have been hard to do worse than what Overbay was doing. The Pirates are in this situation again this year. They’ve got Jordy Mercer as an option to take time from Clint Barmes, and Michael McKenry has played like he should be a starting catcher. Yet Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes are getting too many starts.

**I’m not a big believer in Pedro Ciriaco’s success in Boston. He has a .333/.345/.463 line in 108 at-bats. Ciriaco never had over a .741 OPS at any level in the minors. The numbers might not be legit, but what if they are? What if they’re close? The Pirates had Ciriaco last year. They sent him back and forth about 100 times between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Yet he only received 33 at-bats. And that included time in September. The team was out of it in September. They were also about to move on from Ronny Cedeno. So why not give Ciriaco a shot to see what he could do? If he does end up being legit (again, I doubt it), then the Pirates are going to look foolish giving at-bats to Ronny Cedeno in September, in a losing season, right before they cut him loose in the off-season.

As far as this year goes, the only thing that would make sense is if we were over-rating these prospects. But so far that hasn’t happened. It’s been a small sample size, but Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, and Kyle McPherson have all looked good in their time in the majors. And not just from a numbers standpoint. They’ve all looked good with their stuff. Yet instead of bringing up Locke to start, the Pirates opted to trade for Wandy Rodriguez, who hasn’t looked good since May.

There’s a certain amount of trust that comes with veterans, and I could see how a team would expect someone like Rodriguez to bounce back in a new organization. But what about the actual prospects that were called up? That just confuses the matter even more.

Starling Marte was called up, and immediately started. The team traded their best reliever for Travis Snider, who was far from a guarantee, and had struggled previously in the majors at a young age. Both of these moves pushed Alex Presley to the bench. Yet Jordy Mercer comes up and barely plays, even though the numbers from Barmes were much worse than Presley, who was replaced by prospects. And how long can Kevin Correia keep getting starts with so many young options available? Finally, why is Bryan Morris in Triple-A, and Chad Qualls is in the majors?

Maybe the Pirates are just gun shy here. The truth is that prospects aren’t a guarantee. As bad as Barmes has been, Mercer could be worse as an every day starter. Jeff Locke might not be better than Kevin Correia. Bryan Morris could be worse than Chad Qualls, and that’s hard to imagine. All of these could very well be true, leaving the Pirates in the exact same situation they’re in, only with prospects instead of veterans. But that’s the worst case scenario, and it doesn’t sound that bad, considering the alternative of upgrading over your worst players in the majors.

You might point out that the Pirates are 12 games over .500, and half a game up in the wild card race, despite these strategies. And because of that, it might not seem like there’s any reason to complain about the usage of prospects. But the Pirates have a chance to upgrade here. They can potentially upgrade the rotation by hoping one of Locke, Wilson, or McPherson can pitch better than Kevin Correia. They could help the shortstop position by giving Jordy Mercer more time when he returns. They could start Michael McKenry more often, and hope his numbers continue, giving them a great starting catcher.

All of these involve risk, but the Pirates need to take risk if they want to contend. And it seems silly that they wouldn’t take the risk at this point. The whole process of building through the farm system, and trading for unestablished players is a big risk. It’s not guaranteed. We’ve seen that over the last 19 years. But that’s what teams like the Pirates have to do to compete. And it’s pointless to go through the risky process of building through the farm system if you’re just going to be shy about the final step of calling those young players up to the majors.

For whatever reason, the Pirates appear to be hesitant to turn to prospects. Rather than turning to Jeff Locke, they traded for Wandy Rodriguez. Kevin Correia keeps getting starts, despite better options available. Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas are getting the majority of the playing time, while Jordy Mercer is benched and Michael McKenry is OPSing over .800. Guys like Juan Cruz and Chad Qualls keep getting innings in the bullpen, while Bryan Morris waits to throw his first major league pitch.

The Pirates might be winning despite these moves, but they could increase the wins by playing the best options available. And it’s not hard to see that some of those options are prospects.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost to the Padres 3-1.

**Pirates Notebook: McPherson and Wilson Shine in Their Debuts; Upcoming Rotation Set.

**Prospect Watch: Garcia Homers Twice; Holt’s Hitting Streak at Nine Games.

**Jeff Clement Homers, Brock Holt Extends Hitting Streak in Indians Win.

**Wyatt Mathisen Hits First Homer in GCL Pirates Win.

**Top Pirates Minor League Hitting Performances: Week Ending 8/19.

**Top Pirates Minor League Pitching Performances: Week Ending 8/19.

**Pirates Promote McPherson, Wilson; DFA Cruz.

**Alvarez Showing Good Signs After Lengthy Session With Hurdle.

**The Forced Meaning of the Pirates and 19-Innings.

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.
  • Kirk Lee

    I agree with pretty much all of this. I can understand the Rodriguez trade. I can tolerate (if not enjoy) keeping Correia around, as he’s put up decent results even with bad peripherals, and there is a human element beyond the stats. But there was no earthly reason to start him last night. The Chad Qualls trade infuriated me, not because we lost McGehee (don’t care), but because we committed to a stupid waste of a roster spot, with a plethora of options screaming for a chance in AAA. I have always been irate over Mercer’s absolute shafting for playing time. This is a puzzling pattern, to say the least.

  • Andrew Smalley

    This is analysis based on sample-sizes that not even SSS-users would use. We’re judging McPherson on 2 innings; Wilson on 1 inning; and, Morris on zero innings. I will not argue that Correia should be used as a SP – as he clearly should not. But, to assert that the worst that could happen would be the aforementioned prospects would at least perform as well as those veterans that the Pirates are using (Correia, Barmes, Qualls, etc.) is not only based on flimsy evidence, but it is a complete unknown that Tim is asserting as a ‘known’.

    In essence, this seems like a rant and a diatribe based on last night’s game, specifically last nights last three-four innings. McPherson has pitched twice above AA (as Tim mentions but seemingly ignores); Wilson is still averaging a BB every other inning in AAA; and, Morris – while he should probably be up, I agree – isn’t setting AAA on fire that *demands* his recall.

    The veterans in front of them aren’t very good, particularly Correia and Qualls and Barmes with the bat. But, to say that the worst outcome would be equal performance from three unknowns with issues themselves (performance, track record, experience in high-minors, etc.) is not only based on nothing of consequence but a complete assumption.

    • Bob Ross

      The prospects in question are all in their mid-twenties. Morris is 25, so is McPherson. Regardless of sample size in the majors, it is time to see what they can do. Men with any kind of potential at that age should be on a major league roster.

  • ecbucs

    this post is an argument for saying that NH and Hurdle are not the right people for their jobs.

    • salempirate

      Heresy towards the Best Mgmt Team in Baseball from Tim.

  • leadoff

    I agree with the overall theme of your post Tim. We can agree or disagree on the individuals involved.
    I think that Hurtle has a lot to do with who comes and goes for the Pirates and I believe he leans more toward the mature, experienced player almost every time. I don’t think Hurtle has to tell Huntington who he wants or does not want, I think Huntington just has to look at the track record when it comes to who Hurtle will play.
    Catching…….Older Player
    SS……………..Older Player
    Pitching………Older or experienced Pitchers
    Neal can give Hurtle Mercer, but he is not going to play him.
    Neal can give Hurtle Ciriaco and he would not play him.
    Neal can give Hurtle Hague and he barely gave him a chance.
    Neal can give Hurtle McHenry and he is always going to be the backup
    Neal can give Hurtle Locke and he is not going to pitch him

  • st1300b

    I agree with one thing about this article – Put your best 25 on the roster and go where it takes you. Who those 25 are is up to Neil, Bob, and Clint.
    Personally I will still point out that Cole is one of the best 25 available and should be on the roster. Period. No Question. Maybe in the pen at first, but still better than Resop and Hughes… Although I like Hughes too.
    Usually with the Pirates the young players aren’t as talented as these guys, but the arms are bigtime and justify the spots. That’s the point of a minor league system and the point of the article.

  • john.alcorn

    Exactly my thoughts/concerns the last two years. Why build the system with such fervor only to not trust the products of the labor? They have been extremely hesitant to believe their own players minor league successes. Its true of established regulars like Cutch and Walker who waited longer than should have been to play.
    What is weird is that they love to trust other teams propsects. NH has routinely traded for guys on the cusp of the bigs and immediately handed them a lineup/rotation spot.

  • Chris Gray

    It all comes down to money! I did not like any of the trades because things were not broke, if anything these trades ruined the chemistry of this team. Wandy just plain stinks, Qualls over Lincoln not. Snider ehh Gabby why? Bring these young dudes up . That Indy team is loaded judging by their record its true. I am glad someone wrote this, I am a big fan of promoting within. Same goes for the Pens too. Promote them while they are young. If you own a business and someone does not perform you get someone else to do the job. It all comes down to money!

  • szielinski

    I agree with Tim’s analysis. I did not mind the Snider trade because the Pirates traded a player they could replace — Lincoln — for a player they lacked — a lefthanded corner outfielder with power. I expected more from Rodriguez, and now suspect he’s closer to washed up than to his prime. They may have overpaid too boot.

    But I wanted the Pirates to work to build a future contender, a team that has more than one superstar. It’s unfortunate that the Pirates surged forward this year. I wanted the Pirates to put together a trade with the Tigers that would have brought Nick Castellanos to the organization. McDonald and Hanrahan might have worked. But the Pirates can’t make that trade when the team threatens to best the McClatchy Line and even win a division title.

    But considerations like these won’t matter a jot when organization treats some prospects like hazmat cases. In hindsight, I would have preferred Locke to Rodriquez, Morris to Qualls, etc.

    Managers seem to trust veterans too much. They likely believe they know what they are getting. Yet using them includes confronting the risk that they will perform below — well below — expectations. We Pirate fans have had to endure season after season of Littlefield diving in the dumpsters, looking for vets with a track record, with a name the Pirates could sell to the fans.. The Pirates compiled quite a list of bad players earning good money to perform at a replacement level or worse. Huntington has his Overbay’s and needs to answer for these blunders.

    I would have preferred a Wilson or McPherson start last night. Putting one or the other on the mound made more baseball sense than using Correia.

  • Lee Young

    Almost makes you think they don’t think our pitching prospects are legit?

    I’m with you, except I wanted McPherson to start last night. He looked great.

  • piratemike

    This management team is putting too much pressure on a handfull of players who have carried this team all year, expecting them to complete the job without any help from them. Lets face it Hunington didn’t do this team any favors at the trade deadline and Leadoff is right HURDLE has a thing about veteran players on their last legs because I think he expeirenced the same thing as a player himself.
    This team is in a mess. I really question if they can get to 82.

  • John Lease

    Why Locke went back down is beyond me. I don’t care what AAA’s pitching needs are, the Pirates are the team that counts.

  • Bob Ross

    The absolute best spin I can see with this is that they are afraid to lose and screw up their best chance since 1997 of finishing over .500, so they are saving the prospects til next year. However, unless they turn it around in a hurry, the veteran guys up here look to be no better and are fading.