Some people are already starting to talk about the Pirates system being a top rated unit in the coming years. I’m not here to dump on that thought, it’s probably true. As we all should have learned through the years MLB games aren’t won in the minor league system, they’re of course won by developing those players into MLB talent.
Losing the 2020 season of MiLB took the opportunity to develop the vast majority of these players off the table, and for the Pirates an important part of the plan was all but put on hold.
It’s easy to take a number one pick like Nick Gonzales and plop him at the number one position on the club’s top prospect list because the pedigree says he’s exactly that. Instead of getting a year of rookie ball under his belt, Nick was sent to the Altoona training site, after 16 games early in 2020, where they struggled to ramble together enough pitchers to have anything resembling a game, or even simulated games. That’s not to say he learned nothing, but it’s not the same experience and if anything you hope he grows from not facing Single A arms and beating the hell out of them. Instructs add another bit of action, but still not comparable.
It looks like the Pirates will start him in Altoona again in 2021, this time as a member of the Curve. It’ll be his first competitive baseball since 2019. It’ll be just about the same situation for everyone he faces or plays with who didn’t play Winter Ball.
Maybe he’ll be fine. He’s a natural hitter and from all accounts can handle the glove without much thought too. But we can’t forget what all these guys missed.
The minor league system in baseball is unique among sports leagues. Think of it like shutting down a giant machine in a huge factory in the middle of winter. Then everyone shows up for work on Monday and nobody except a few remember the last time it was shut down and those guys weren’t all that involved with getting it going again back then. Eventually the machine groans back to life, a few puffs of smoke, a few rattles, tighten a few bolts and add some grease. Then everyone looks around not sure where they belong or what is expected of them. A few guys know their place and try to lead the way.
Once it get’s rolling, we’ll get to begin seeing all the new toys and methods Ben Cherington has added to the development system, but I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how seriously we should really take stats from the first half. I don’t know if pitchers will have suffered worse than hitters. I don’t know if there will be a host of players who didn’t keep themselves in shape.
I can tell you the team (and not just the Pirates) didn’t check in with all these guys throughout the process. I’ve heard from way too many MiLB players in multiple organizations who are dying for scraps of information. So desperate to understand things as big as where might I be living next season.
Many were given training plans, many went and got personal training from independent companies like the Cincinnati Throwing Club our friend Eric Minshall is involved with.
How did it affect guys who weren’t invited to the training site? Do they feel less important than the guys who went?
I know, I know, they’re professionals and should all be ready. That’s true, they’re also professionals who went largely unpaid. I literally know 2 prospects who took jobs at Panera Bread. And if you’ve worked for any stretch of time in restaurants, working out after a shift isn’t always something that comes easy.
In a season where the focus is going to be squarely on how the future looks, it’s going to be a struggle to not overreact if some guys take a noticeable step back before fighting through the rust.
Think of how we think of a free agent who didn’t play last season. It’s the first thing you say, you look at the resume and say looks good but he hasn’t pitched since 2019. I mean people said that about Taillon before even mentioning the two TJ surgeries.
The only real thing I can point to is that every team in the league is dealing with it, but not every team in the league has spent the majority of 2 seasons building it and focusing on it. Safe to say the Pirates have more riding on the success of this effort than others.
None of this has adjusted the mental ETAs many have for these players, but if you thought that hot prospect was going to jump from Single A for a puddle jump over AA on their meteoric rise to AAA, I might advise you slow down a bit. I might also advise the team be a bit more cautious on that sort of thing too, because there is no accounting for how the competition has prepared either.
As we’re all learning in our personal lives, getting back to normal stands to be almost just as, if not more difficult than turning the switch to off was.