When Neal Huntington and Co. went to Pittsburgh in late 2007, they hoped to turn things around at the big league level by overhauling and rebuilding the farm system. The idea was to create a pipeline of talent that would allow the Pirates to contend as a lower-revenue/small-market team.
Though prolonged success in the Majors has remained somewhat elusive, it does appear that the construction of a new and improved system is moving along, full steam ahead.
"You're excited and encouraged with the growth," farm director Kyle Stark said. "The influx of talent from the scouting department [has been terrific]. There's a lot of value in the system. Impact difference-makers [are] what separate a system and an organization. We think there's more of those added to the system than in years past."
Nowhere will that be more evident than on the mound, quite possibly in the same rotation in Bradenton and the Florida State League. If things go the way many think, that's where both Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole will start the year.
Taillon, the 2010 first-round pick, will almost certainly be there after spending his first full season in the Class A South Atlantic League. Cole, the No. 1 pick last June, potentially has the stuff to make his professional debut in Double-A, but there's a good chance he'll begin in the warmer climate and make his way to Altoona at some point after that.
"They may be starting in the same spot and have the chance to be front-line starters," Stark said. "They both throw hard; that's where the development path ends. They are coming from different perspectives, even if they're starting in the same place."
The good news for the Pirates is that it doesn't end with Cole and Taillon. There are arms just about ready to contribute in Pittsburgh and other intriguing ones who may join the dynamic duo on the Marauders' staff.
"There's a buzz about the system overall and a buzz about what that Bradenton rotation may look like," said Stark. "You need above-average players in the big leagues to win. Whenever you have the chance to have a couple of them in the system, that's an exciting thing for anyone in development."
Top 20 Prospects
Though the focus of late has been bringing in pitchers, particularly high-end high school hurlers -- six of the top 10 and 13 of the Top 20 are pitchers -- what might be more exciting for fans is that there are some bats with impact potential on the way as well. The outfield in particular could be well stocked, with some impressive talent just about ready to break through and some just getting started. Both are in the Top 5 in the system.
Starling Marte hasn't necessarily flown under the radar, but he hasn't always gotten his due. Considering that he carries a career .309/.366/.453 line, it's well past time. Better late than never, though, with Marte coming in at No. 40 on the overall Top 100 list and No. 3 on the Pirates' list. He'll be in Triple-A Indianapolis, ready to knock on the door.
At the other end of the spectrum is 2011 second-round pick Josh Bell, who has yet to play an official professional game. The Pirates created a stir by first drafting the seemingly unsignable high schooler from Texas and then signing him to a $5 million bonus. It may take a little while, but thinking about Marte and Bell in the same PNC Park outfield is hard to resist.
pirates' top prospects
"They are very different players," Stark said. "Marte is a guy, despite questions, [who] has just gone out and performed everywhere he's been. For a guy who played Double-A [last year] to hit in the middle of the order in winter ball, that says something about his potential and the maturity he has to handle those types of pressures.
"With Bell, we're excited to have him get a full season under his belt and deal with the daily grind. He's a guy you can dream on in a lot of different areas. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out. We have high expectations for him and think the talent level will allow him to survive the challenges he faces."
Under the radar
Matt Curry, 1B: Alex Dickerson, a 2011 Draft pick, may get more attention as the "future at first base" in the system, but Curry shouldn't be forgotten. Had the Pirates left him in A ball all year, where he was hitting .361/.477/.671 in the Florida State League, he would have had monster end-of-year numbers and created more buzz. But he jumped up to Double-A in his first full season and could put up big stats again in another go-round in Altoona.
Jeff Inman, RHP: Once upon a time, Inman was a highly regarded prospect, a Stanford pitcher who could have been one of those college arms taken early. But injuries kept that from happening -- he went in the 12th round of the 2009 Draft -- and he has had trouble staying healthy as a pro. He missed the 2010 season because of an elbow malady (it had been his shoulder his junior year of college). He came back in 2011, as did his low- to mid-90s velocity, and though he threw just 36 innings, the Pirates were encouraged, particularly with his 0.90 ERA in his relief outings, not to mention a gaudy GO/AO ratio. If he can stay healthy, he could be in the big league bullpen by the end of the year.
Hitter of the Year
Bell: It was tempting to go with Marte, but he could end up seeing time in Pittsburgh, and the switch-hitting Bell is a fine choice. The 2011 draftee will show what all the fuss was about and tear up the South Atlantic League.
Pitcher of the Year
Taillon: It's a tough call between Taillon and Cole. Both could pitch together and even move together, but Taillon will get the nod, with the thinking he'll really take off in his second year of pro ball and jump on the fast track.