As we all know, next season, in whatever form it comes, is going to bring major changes to the Pirates’ and everybody else’s farm system. At this point, we don’t have much firm knowledge about those changes and, according to the reports I’ve seen, the Pirates don’t know much more. To present a (speculative) picture of the potential decisions the Pirates are going to be facing, I’ve done an alternate reality version of the depth chart we (well, I) maintained at P2, and even before there was a P2. I should mention up front that I fully realize not everybody is as fascinated by the process of maintaining a farm system as I am. If you’re not, you are hereby absolved of any responsibility for reading further.
Just to recap, it’s fairly clear — and everybody involved supposedly has accepted this — that the short season leagues, apart from the so-called “complex leagues” (the Gulf Coast and Arizona Leagues), will disappear. In Pirate terms, that means no more Appalachian League (Bristol) or New York-Penn League (West Virginia) affiliates. Without getting too deeply into it, from a developmental standpoint, the contraction makes sense to me. It means reducing the size of the system by something like 50-60 players. Personally, I think the Pirates (or any other team) can easily eliminate that many players without running any meaningful risk of hurting themselves at the major league level. (I’m not going to make a list because that seems mean-spirited.) It might even help the Pirates by forcing them to focus more on the potential major leaguers and push them more aggressively.
That’s not to say I think eliminating 40-odd minor league teams is a good idea. I haven’t the slightest doubt that the sole purpose behind the move is cost-cutting. It’s incredibly naive to think MLB ever does anything for any reason other than increasing profitability. But it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to reduce the game’s nationwide footprint and continue moving the sport closer and closer to the day when nothing remains but people watching the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox on the internet.
A lot remains unsettled, but in my alternate reality I’m positing five US affiliates. Indianapolis and Altoona would continue as is. The Advanced Class A team would be Greensboro. One of the proposed changes MLB is expected to implement is “demoting” the Florida State League to Class A from Advanced A. That would increase convenience by moving many Class A teams very close to the parents’ training facilities. Advanced A would be reconfigured in some as-yet undetermined manner. (I actually don’t think the Pirates will have a Greensboro affiliate next year. They own the Morgantown, WV, affiliate and, although the NYPL is on the chopping block, Morgantown was not on the one list of targeted franchises that surfaced. It may survive as something other than an NYPL team.)
I’m also projecting one team in the GCL. Baseball America, which has provided a lot of reporting on this issue, has said it’s unknown whether MLB will allow parents to operate more than one complex league team. (The Yankees, Tigers and Phillies, for instance, had two GCL teams each last year.) The Pirates had a ton of players in the Dominican Summer League last year, many of whom did quite well, so they probably could operate two GCL teams in 2021. My guess, though, is that MLB won’t allow it. (BA has reported, by the way, that the DSL will be unaffected by the minor league reorganization.)
So, the Alternate Reality Depth Chart can be found here. What I’ve tried to do, as I’ve always done with off-season depth chart, is to show players at the levels where I think they have a reasonable chance of winning a job. I don’t try to predict where players will end up. Obviously, that means the chart will show too many players at some positions at some levels.
With the GCL, I’ve always listed DSL players who show up in the Fall Instructional League. That usually just about covers promotions from the DSL; in most years, just a few guys who didn’t come to instructs will end up in the GCL the next year, so I add them then. This year obviously is a mess. I have no earthly idea what the Pirates will do, although we may get some indication when we find out who’s in instructs this year, which are expected to be held in some form or other. For now, I’m just including guys who were in instructs last year.
I should note that, in this alternate reality, there’ll be a minor league season next year. I have no interest in trying to guess what will actually happen.
A few points should be pretty clear from the chart (and this is mainly why I went through this exercise):
–There’s going to be very little room for organizational players. Of, I suppose, some teams could simply sign fewer players who project as prospects and continue to add organizational players. I certainly hope the Pirates don’t. Some of the players who ended up as org. guys could go to the independent leagues instead, which from MLB’s perspective, would give them a chance to develop without being paid by MLB teams. And MLB has in fact entered into a partnership arrangement with the independent Atlantic League.
–The Pirates are going to have to push players upward more quickly than they have up until now, probably even more quickly than I’ve projected in the chart. For one thing, I think they’ll have to move college draftees to Advanced A for their first full seasons, which should be interesting given how badly their college draftees have done the last couple years. Prep draftees and DSL guys won’t have short season leagues to linger in, so they’ll have to be pushed to full season ball quickly, something the Pirates generally have done only with the top prospects.
–Ultimately, players will have to get pushed to AA and AAA more quickly, because there’s only so much playing time in Class A. I’m not at all sure how the Pirates are going to accomplish that, but I think they’re going to have to do it more aggressively than my alternate reality chart shows. Moving players up more quickly shouldn’t result in them getting overwhelmed because every team will have to do this. It could also force more of an up-or-out mode, with fewer players sticking around at the upper levels until they become minor league free agents.
–The Pirates have a major task ahead of them in finding innings for Class A pitchers.