2/14/12

Q & A With Michael Rodgers of Buried Treasure: A Pirates Blog

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Stephen Guilbert: We are joined today by Michael Rodgers of Buried Treasure: A Pirates Blog. Michael is a law student with a passion for his Pittsburgh Pirates. Along with his affection for the Bucs, Michael also has a deep knowledge of farm systems across baseball, as well as in-depth insight into the amateur talent for the upcoming 2012 draft. Definitely check out his blog if you have a moment to spare.

 

We will talk with Michael today about the Pirates system and in a later post, discuss the 2012 draft and what he thinks is in store for the next class of players to get excited about.


Thanks for joining us today, Michael. First up, could you give us Mets fans a sense of the status of the Pirates' minor league system?

 
Michael Rodgers: To understand where the Pirates system is now, it's important to know
a bit about where it came from and a bit about the journey between the two points. For example, this article does a good job explaining where we were. Summarizing it, in 2007, the year before current GM Neal Huntington took over, the Pirates had a shortstop named Brian Bixler, who is now an Astro I believe, who was a consensus top 10 prospect. Now, the Pirates have a similar player named Brock Holt who isn't a top 20 or even top 30 prospect. That's a stark and promising comparison.

Now, the next question is, what fueled the journey? The answer is money. Trades have done their small part, as Neal Huntington has traded a multitude of Pirates during his tenure. Well-known names include Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Freddy Sanchez, Ian Snell, Zach Duke and Jack Wilson. It must be noted that those trades have merited some success, with current Pirates Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton and Joel Hanrahan all coming to Pittsburgh via those trades. However, few of those return pieces are important prospects in the Pirates farm system right now.

Of my top 20 Pirates prospects, only two came via those trades - Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernandez, both of whom were part of the McLouth trade. Pitcher Bryan Morris is still an intriguing relief arm and was part of the Bay deal. But again, it’s been draft spending that has bolstered a formerly decimated farm system.

Under Neal Huntington, the Pirates have been first in draft spending in all of baseball. Part of that has been the Pirates drafting early in every draft – Neal Huntington has had one #1 pick, two #2 picks, and one #4 pick – but the other part has been the Pirates propensity to spend big on overslot high school players.

In fact, in the last four drafts, the Pirates have given a total of seven bonuses of more than a million dollars to players drafted in the second round or later. That lists consists of OF Robbie Grossman, P Zach Von Rosenberg, P Colton Cain, P Stetson Allie, OF Josh Bell, and P Clay Holmes. Pitcher Quinton Miller got just under one million in 2008 and pitcher Zach Dodson got a approximately three-quarters of a million in 2009.

The Pirates have also increased their spending significantly in Latin America. Until Neal Huntington, the Pirates rarely paid international free agents more than the measly sum of five figures. Under Neal Huntington, the Pirate paid a substantial bonus to young pitching phenom Luis Heredia, and also gave outfielders Harold Ramirez and Elvis Escobar over $1 million and over $500,000 bonuses, respectively.

This infusion of money into the farm system, the best way for a small market team to compete, has done wonders for a farm system that definitively ranks in the top half of baseball right now. An argument could be made that it’s a top 10 system. Plus, the system overall is very young with tons of upside. Considering the fact that the Pirates will most likely only graduate one player in my top 20 (Jeff Locke) this coming year, the Pirates could easily have a top three farm system a year from now.

SG: The combination of upside, talent, and depth is what makes this system impressive to me and Pirates fans certainly have a lot to look forward to. Is there a specific player or couple players Pittsburgh fans are especially excited about?
MR: I’ll give you three answers for that: one top tier player, Jameson Taillon, one middle-tier player, Nick Kingham, and one sleeper, Alen Hanson.


Jameson Taillon: Taillon was the #2 overall pick by the Pirates in 2010. The right-handed prep pitcher from Texas was selected ahead of the other option for that spot, Orioles shortstop Manny Machado.

Taillon was treated with kid-gloves in 2011 as he pitched for the Low-A West Virginia Power. His innings and pitch limit were monitored judiciously and he mainly threw fastballs. Despite that, he still put up good numbers, including a very low walk rate, which was indicative of elite control. Taillon did struggle with his command, which was a result of inconsistent mechanics and caused him to give up some gopher balls.

However, it’s not Taillon’s numbers but his scouting report that excited Pirates fans. He has an excellent fastball that sits in the mid 90s, even deep into game, and can touch the high 90s. Taillon also flashed a solid changeup when I saw him pitch about a half-dozen times this summer. He had trouble locating it, and it was very inconsistent, but when he threw it correctly it had plenty of speed change, usually in the low-to-mid 80’s and the off speed pitch showed significant fade and drop.

However, the most exciting thing about Taillon is his curveball. It’s an absolutely filthy, plus-plus (80 on a 20-80 scale) pitch. I saw him throw at least two dozen curveballs in six starts and I never saw a batter make contact. One AL scout called it the best curveball in baseball, including the major leagues. I don’t usually buy into hyperbole, but I honestly can’t argue too much with that scout. For Taillon, who will pitch this entire upcoming season at age 20, the sky truly is the limit.


Nick Kingham: - Nick Kingham was also drafted in 2011 as the Pirates 4th-round selection. He was fairly well regarded coming into the draft. Baseball America rated him as their 186th best draft prospect. The Pirates signed him for slightly less than half a million dollars.

Kingham already has exciting stuff. The young kid throws his fastball in the low 90s and can touch 94. He also has the makings of two plus secondary pitches, a curveball and a changeup. On the season, Kingham put up an excellent ERA of 2.15 and showed a very good walk rate, showing rare control for a high school pitcher.

Peering into the future, Kingham is even more exciting as a prospect. Kingham is 6’5 and only weighs 210 pounds. Combine that with good athleticism and fluid, clean mechanics and Kingham has no health red flags and is a great candidate to add velocity as he gets older and stronger. As a finished product, Kingham could be a #2 starter.


Alen Hanson: - Hanson is diminutive. The kid out of Dominican Republic stands at 5’11 and is listed at only 152 lbs. The switch-hitter was not a high-profile signing. That’s why it was bit of a surprise to see him come stateside to play for the GCL Pirates as an 18 year-old. Hanson raised even more eyebrows when he got a significant amount of starts at shortstop over bigger names Jodenali Carvajal and Yonathan Barrios, both of whom got six-figure bonuses.

Hanson is a superb athlete who has a very good chance to stick at shortstop as he gets older. Hanson shows great bat speed which should allow him to hit well for average and produce more pop than expected due to his size. He also showed rare plate discipline as a young Latin American ballplayer, walking 9% of the time and only striking out 14.5% of the time on the year. In a farm system with few shortstop prospects, Hanson is an intriguing sleeper.

 
Thanks to Michael for taking the time to do this. We will be doing a series of these posts as the email exchange continues between Michael and me. Check back soon.
-SG

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