First Pitch: The Final Piece of Development

That final piece of development is crucial for the Pirates, now more than ever.

What is the final piece of development? I can’t tell you. I can’t even tell you where it is taught.

For some players, it might be a lesson they missed in the lower levels. For others, it might be an adjustment they need to make in the majors.

For all of them, it might just be a mentality change or a confidence boost needed.

Some players might figure it all out right away. Some might figure it out after a year or two. Some might never figure things out. And some might surprise out of nowhere and find the missing piece sitting in the majors in their late 20s.

There’s almost a perception that prospect development is linear. The system is set up that way from the start. You go to high school, where you’re facing better talent than you ever have before in Little League or junior high. You then graduate to college, which is the best players from all of the high schools, and suddenly you might not be the best on the field anymore.

Or perhaps you’re the best, and you’re good enough to emerge to the minors after college. Now you’re part of another group of “best-ofs”, which includes players from all over the world. Every step of the way you go from being the best in your league to questions of how good you’ll be in the better league.

And yet some players jump right from high school to pro ball, skipping college entirely.

Once they’re in the minors, players can skip levels, although that’s more calculated as an exception and doesn’t happen as a rule.

The top level is obviously Major League Baseball, and while development still takes place at the level, you’re hoping that guys in the majors are either close to or at their peak potential. Their potential is relative to the other MLB players, so it’s easier to gauge their talent level here versus the lower levels.

The lower levels are about to be readjusted, with many of the short-season leagues disappearing. This will result in more short-season league players going to full season A-ball than ever before. That will result in the best Low-A players going to High-A for a challenge. That will continue up the system, which will result in younger players in Double-A and Triple-A than you would have seen before.

Teams will need to adjust how they develop prospects in the minors. The current system leads to most prospects arriving by ages 23-24. If a guy hasn’t worked out in the majors by ages 25-26, he becomes a candidate for waivers. At this stage, he becomes a project, where rebuilding teams give him a shot in the hopes that he finally figures everything out in their system.

The best teams tend to be the ones who can consistently help those 25-26 year old MLB journeymen find their missing pieces. Those teams also seem to get the most out of every other age level, but get the biggest returns turning minor league free agents or waiver claims into players who are above replacement level.

With the new changes to the minors, there will inevitably be bad development teams who get worse now that they need to rush players through an abbreviated system. There will be some teams that slip in development initially as a result of the adjustments. There will also be more and more players arriving by ages 23-24 or earlier, all coming up the next few years under a trial-by-fire approach that these new system changes will bring.

That last change will lead to more opportunities to find value with the 25-26 year old cast-offs for teams who can find that final missing piece.

Are the Pirates one of those teams? They used to be on the pitching side for a few years under Ray Searage. They have plenty of their own 25-26 year old “cast-off” type prospects to revive, along with a few they’ve picked up in the last year. If they can find a way to deliver the final piece of development in the majors, it could lead to instant returns with the current system, along with a lot of chances for value with the impact of the changes coming to MLB.

For a system that has been poor at development, and hasn’t been able to find that final piece for its own prospects for years, the realignment of the minors could provide the Pirates with an opportunity to start from scratch. This could give them a chance to build their development system up, while making sure all of the development pieces are in place before a player arrives — but also available in the majors should a player miss a piece along the way.

The 2020 Prospect Guide returns to print for our tenth  we are releasing three variant covers, featuring Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes. Visit our shop page to order these extremely limited items!


First Pitch