First Pitch: Speeding Up Bats to the Majors

It only seems appropriate to be discussing Jose Tabata on a day when we’re breaking down the corner outfield positions for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In looking up some information for this article, I learned that Tabata stands out for a very significant accomplishment during his career with the Pirates. In Neal Huntington’s 12 years as General Manager of the Pirates, Tabata was the youngest player to play in the majors for the Pirates. Tabata was 21 when he got the call to the majors in 2010, making him the only under-22-year-old to play in the majors for the Pirates under Huntington.

The Pirates have had very few players who were under 23. Aside from Tabata, there were only five other players to arrive in the majors under Huntington before their 22nd birthday. Those players were Andrew McCutchen (2009), Gerrit Cole (2013), Gregory Polanco (2014), Tyler Glasnow (2016), and Cole Tucker (2019).

The Pirates were accused of moving their prospects slowly through the minors, which was valid criticism in some cases. Looking at the lack of young players in Pittsburgh, it would seem on the surface that the Pirates moved their players slowly through the system. Looking at the individual players tells you it might not have mattered.

Would Andrew McCutchen have been any better in Pittsburgh if he came up in 2008 at age 21?

Might he have been worse? Could Tabata have been better if he stayed in the minors until 22 or 23?

Gerrit Cole could have arrived in 2012 at age 21, but wasn’t even dominating the minors at that point. I doubt he would have performed better if he came up later, and what we know in hindsight is that a later arrival gives him one less year under the Pirates when they knew what they were doing with pitchers.

You can argue that Polanco, Glasnow, and Tucker are all cases of guys who could have used more development in the minors. The question is whether the Pirates could have done anything with the additional years.

From a systemic view, the biggest thing that held Pirates prospects in the minors longer was the desire for a complete player. There was always something to work on, whether it was a defensive position, an adjustment that wouldn’t make or break a game, or the final steps needed to become an impact player before stepping foot in the majors.

It’s not a bad strategy for a small market team to make sure you have your best prospects as close to fully developed as possible by the time they reach the majors. The clock is ticking at that point, giving you six seasons of control, and likely 4-5 seasons of having the actual player on the field for you. You don’t want to waste 1-2 of those years on a guy who needs to make massive adjustments to the highest level.

In all of this, what remains unsaid is that the Pirates haven’t really had a player who warranted being rushed to the majors.

I bring that up because they now have an assortment of shortstops who project to be good hitters, but don’t all project to play shortstop in the long-term. Under Huntington, those players would stay at their most valuable position until their bat absolutely had to be in the majors, at which point they would spend time in the big leagues developing half their game just to get their bat in the show.

So why wait?

We haven’t seen Ben Cherington in a real season yet, meaning we don’t know how he’ll place the different shortstops. We don’t know whether he’ll immediately move guys to new positions, or if he’ll keep them where they are at their highest potential value. Complicating matters further is the realignment of the minors, which will adjust the purpose of each level.

The Pirates have a few cases of players who could develop quicker by moving to less valuable defensive positions. Oneil Cruz moving to a corner outfield position and Nick Gonzales moving to second base are prime examples.

The normal approach here is for the bats in each case to rush the player to being on the verge of a callup, at which point the defensive position for the majors is assigned. In cases like with Josh Bell, this means a position change carrying over to the majors, while the bat tries to adjust to the top level.

A better approach would be to get the development of the lesser position out of the way in the minors. If you’re going to use the majors for defensive development, do it in a positive direction. Use that time to teach Gonzales or Cruz how to play shortstop — a position they’ve each already played, only after their bats have shown the ability to make the jump. Until then, use the minors to develop the bats, while having a smaller priority on defense.

I single out Cruz and Gonzales specifically because I don’t think spending the 2021 season at shortstop would improve the long-term defensive outlook for either player. Both would have questions about their ability to stick at shortstop in the majors when they arrived — Cruz for his height and Gonzales for the lack of arm strength. Both would need to continue their development in the majors in either scenario to answer questions about the shortstop position.

By that point, you might not even need either guy for shortstop. Looking back at what the Pirates did with Josh Bell, it was inevitable that they would eventually move him to first base. They had Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte in the majors to start the 2013 season, with Gregory Polanco breaking out in the minors. Bell didn’t move to first base until the end of 2014, after Polanco arrived. Bell might have never been a good first baseman, but giving him two extra years of development might have made it possible for him to arrive by the end of the 2015 season, in time to help the Pirates in their playoff run.

Instead, he hit well in the upper levels in 2015, but worked on his defense, and didn’t arrive until mid-2016, after the Pirates had signed John Jaso to a two-year, $8 M deal as their stopgap.

How much could Cruz be delayed by spending extra time in the minors working at a position where he’ll very unlikely play?

How much do you have to slow Gonzales’ bat to dream about him being a shortstop?

And if you’re going to end up developing them at a new position in the majors, why not save that for when you really need it, like when you need one of Cruz or Gonzales to move to shortstop because you have no other options. Until that scenario comes up, the Pirates should spread their shortstop depth across the field by moving the questionable defenders to positions they’re more likely to play in the majors.

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