Pirates building pitching depth in Minors
Huntington continues to acquire arms that could contribute
PITTSBURGH -- Though to date it hasn't affected the Pirates' Major League roster, general manager Neal Huntington continues to be vigilant and active in acquiring new Minor League players -- particularly arms -- for the system.
For the average fan, these transactions may be nothing more than agate page material. But yes, there actually is a method to Huntington's madness.
Acquiring depth would be the obvious answer, and that is certainly playing a role. The recent acquisitions of Steven Jackson and Eric Hacker have bolstered the Triple-A staff. Both are also seen as potential Major League arms -- Hacker as a starter, Jackson in the 'pen.
But the recent roster moves, which, in the last two weeks, have also included the addition of right-hander Randy Newsom and outfielder Jeff Corsaletti, both of whom are now with Double-A Altoona, have continued to help the Pirates achieve two goals.
One, the farm system needed more pitching flexibility at the Triple-A level. Two, there is still the ongoing process of weeding out -- as pointed as that may sound -- those who didn't buy into the organization's philosophies, and therefore, aren't a fit.
The Hacker and Jackson acquisitions are both evidence of the first point. The two righties, coincidentally both from the Yankees organization, may not be among the most talented prospects in the system, but their status provides flexibility. Each has three option years remaining, a luxury that some of the other Pirates' upper pitching prospects don't have.
"We talked a lot about how our roster is limited and how we have to be a lot more creative when we make a pitching move," director of player development Kyle Stark said. "For a long time, much of our bullpen [in Pittsburgh] was out of options."
That's a scenario that the Pirates hope to avoid more successfully in the future.
In acquiring Hacker and Jackson, the Pirates released Jimmy Barthmaier and traded Romulo Sanchez. Barthmaier was out of options. Sanchez was down to one.
"Talent-wise, we saw them at around the same level as some of the guys we had, but our guys were running out of option years," said Huntington, who added that both Hacker and Jackson were scouted extensively last summer when the Pirates were looking at the Yankees as a potential Trade Deadline partner. "We don't want to be filling our system with 32-year-old Minor League players, but if there is a guy who is an established player who we think can potentially help our Major League club, we'll take him."
As for philosophies, it's been no secret that the way things are done in the Minor Leagues under this new management team has changed. The expectations are different, as is the mind-set instilled. And as has been the case since Stark and Huntington assumed their positions before the start of the 2008 season, they haven't been hesitant to part ways with those who don't conform.
Dave Davidson was moved off the 40-man roster and eventually lost on waivers in April. He had admitted to resisting the philosophy change in the organization last season. Sanchez, who was traded away in the Hacker acquisition, had not showed initiative to follow the Pirates' conditioning regimen.
Certainly, performance also played a factor, too.
"I think from the overall health of the organization, we are further along because even though we have had significant turnover [in the last year], we have a group of guys who want to be a part of this going forward," Stark said. "The road blocks of different philosophies that we ran into last year are a lot less prevalent. Everyone in the system wants to be here."
With insight into management's thought process, that begs a follow-up question: How does the pitching depth look in the Minor League system?
"As far as the pitching specifically, as you look at the external rankings of our lists, pitching is an area that probably lacks behind the position players," Stark said. "But I think there are some pitchers in there that have a chance at doing more than maybe what is thought of them outside the organization. I think we have some interesting arms. We just have to make them interesting pitchers."
From the outside looking in, Stark is right. The consensus is the Pirates lack significant pitching depth. As ranked by Baseball America, the Pirates have only four pitchers among the organization's top 15 prospects. One of those four (Bryan Morris) has yet to show that he can stay healthy for an entire season.
The statistics don't do much to disprove that outside perception, either. At the start of the week, two of the team's four affiliates ranked last in their league in team ERA. Indianapolis was at the bottom of the 14-team International League with its 4.49 mark, while West Virginia's 4.62 ERA is the worst among the 16 teams in the South Atlantic League.
Class A Lynchburg is ranked fourth of the eight Carolina League pitching staffs. Double-A Altoona's 4.00 ERA is good for eighth in the 12-team Eastern League.
Still, led by 2006 first-round pick Brad Lincoln, who is currently leading the Altoona staff, Stark identified some potential hidden talent.
He called the Altoona rotation the most intriguing, at least once starters Jared Hughes and Tony Watson return to the field. Both have been sidelined with elbow injuries, but both are expected back soon. Lincoln, Michael Crotta and Daniel Moskos, who has recently rebounded from a shaky season start, round out that rotation.
"I think there's some legitimate Major League arms there as far as potential starters," Stark said of the group.
The other affiliate to keep an eye on, Stark said, is low Class A West Virginia. The Power's rotation is one that includes Duke Welker, Maurice Bankston, Gabriel Alvarado and Rudy Owens.
"If you look at starters one through five, all of those have a chance to be a Major League pitcher," he said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that it will play out that way, but again, there are some intriguing arms."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.