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Tim Williams, Editor, Pirates Prospects

January 22, 2014
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First, can you let readers know about Pirates Prospects – and what they should expect in terms of coverage and new features in 2014?

Pirates Prospects has been covering the Pirates for five years, with a focus on the minor league system. The past year has been exciting in that regard because we’re now starting to see top prospects arriving in Pittsburgh and helping the Pirates to become contenders. The 2014 season will see two big arrivals in Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon. We will be providing daily updates for both players during their time in Triple-A, along with live reports on those two and every other player in the system. I don’t know yet what kind of new features we will have, but we will continue our usual coverage of every level of the system, including the majors.

What do you say to those that feel so much went right for the Pirates last season – banner seasons from Alvarez, McCutchen, Liraiano, etc. –  that duplicating the team’s success of last season seems unlikely?

When it comes to young players like Alvarez and McCutchen, I don’t buy into the theory that a good season can only be a career year. A lot of people said that McCutchen wouldn’t repeat his 2012 season in 2013, and the Pirates would struggle as a result. McCutchen actually had a better season in 2013. Does that mean I expect him to match his 2013 numbers, or improve on them? No. But I don’t think it’s a given that all of the players who had good seasons last year will see their numbers decline this year. A lot of the projection systems that have come out are giving favorable numbers to the top performers in 2013, which is an encouraging sign that says the numbers for these players won’t decline.

First base is still a bit of a hole for this team, especially with Jones’ departure. How do you see that position shaking out, ultimately, and can Andrew Lambo become a big part if the solution?

I think Andrew Lambo can be a short-term solution. It’s definitely not as comfortable of a situation as adding a “name” player at first base. But Lambo combined for 33 home runs last year in his age 24 season. The Pirates are always going to be a team that has to give chances to guys like him with those types of numbers. It looks like they’ll be going with Lambo and Gaby Sanchez in a platoon, with Chris McGuiness as a Plan B to Lambo. Long-term, I think that Josh Bell could be the answer at first base. He still needs to realize his potential with the bat, but once that happens, he could arrive in the majors quickly, after getting some work at first base.

How much does this team lean on statistical analysis compared to other MLB teams? And how exactly does it do so, from your perspective?

I’m not sure how they compare to other teams. I know the Pirates do rely on stats in a big way, and you can see that on the field. Last year the defensive shifts were a big part of the success the team had, and those shifts were largely due to the stats department. The fact that they have an entire department for statistical analysis shows that this is a big part of their decision making process.

Are fans and the media too unappreciative of the job Mercer has done at SS. He seems to be a solid player there and a position that’s not easy to fill. Thoughts?

I don’t know if anyone is being unappreciative of Mercer. If anything, I think that people don’t realize just how thin shortstop is across the league. That’s not just in the majors, but in the minors. It’s hard to find a shortstop who can hit and play good defense. Most teams are choosing between a guy who can do one of those things. Mercer doesn’t bring a lot to the table defensively, but he does have a good bat for the position. His defensive skills are also good enough that he won’t be a liability at the position. I don’t think he’s the long-term solution, but I do think that a lot of teams would like to have a guy like him as a short-term solution.

Is the media overhyping OF Polanco and his potential impact for this team when he joins the roster this season? And when do you expect that to happen?

I view Polanco’s arrival in the same way that I viewed Andrew McCutchen’s arrival back in 2009. He’s a potential impact player who could immediately start to produce when he arrives in the majors. A big difference between the two is that McCutchen was a first round pick and spent many years as the top prospect in the system. Polanco was signed for $150,000 and has only been a top prospect for the last two seasons. So people were anticipating McCutchen’s debut for a lot longer. If you look at where they both were right before arriving in the majors, you’ll see that they both profiled as potential impact guys. I think Polanco could arrive in mid-June.

The front office has placed a great deal of emphasis on defense – seemingly more so than most other teams do. Is that accurate, first of all, and is that due to the stadium dynamics or other issues?

Just like the stats question, I can’t really speak to the strategies of other teams. But I would agree that the Pirates place a big emphasis on defense. I think that the stadium dynamics create a need for a good defensive outfield. You pretty much need two center fielders due to the spacious left field at PNC. However, the infield has the same dimensions in every park, and the Pirates have placed a big emphasis on infield defense. They signed Clint Barmes for two years, then brought him back. They’ve signed a lot of guys off the bench who have no value other than defense. Then there’s the defensive shifts and the focus on ground ball heavy pitchers. Add in the focus throughout the entire system on catcher defense and pitch framing and you can see that they’re placing a big focus on defense all over the field.

Will Taillon, as you’ve written, be this season’ s Cole? Can he contribute that much to this team this season?

As far as a top young pitcher who could arrive in mid-June and provide a boost to the rotation, I think Taillon is comparable. Cole came up and had immediate success, and looked like an ace by September. I think Taillon could have the immediate success, but expecting him to reach his upside by the end of the year might be a bit much. If the Pirates only get “Gerrit Cole June-August” numbers from Taillon, that would be a good thing.

This front office has invested a good deal in international talent/players. Why has it done so and how successful has this approach been, to date?

The approach is just starting to show success, which makes sense as they didn’t really start investing until 2008/2009. Last year Starling Marte made an impact in the majors. Gregory Polanco is next. Alen Hanson won’t be too far behind. They also added Dominican left-hander Joely Rodriguez to the 40-man roster this off-season, and have Colombian outfielder Harold Ramirez breaking into the top ten prospects this year. I think a big part of the success hasn’t been the spending, as much as the scouting in areas where teams don’t usually scout for players. That is why four of the five players I just mentioned received $150,000 or less when they signed. As for why they’re taking this approach, all you have to do is look at the production from Marte, and imagine the future production from Polanco to answer that question. Those two cost a combined $235,000 to sign, and could make up two-thirds of the best outfield in baseball over the next several years.

Many look at the teams’ poor performances as an excuse for the team’s solid drafts, as they were able to pick high up in the draft. But you’ve shown that many of their big successes were not top picks. Can you shed more light/detail on this?

The Pirates have the top farm system this year, but it’s not a product of high draft picks. In the top ten, they have some first round picks (Jameson Taillon, Austin Meadows, and Reese McGuire). They have just as many picks after the first round (Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, Josh Bell). They also have several international prospects in the group (Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Luis Heredia, Harold Ramirez). If you take away the first round picks, they still have a lot of impact talent. Gregory Polanco, Tyler Glasnow, and Alen Hanson would be top five prospects in almost any system, and could challenge for the top spot in most systems (especially Polanco). Guys like Kingham and McGuire aren’t top five prospects in the system, but would be top five prospects in a lot of other systems. The Pirates are getting talent from all avenues. It’s not just first round picks.

What will surprise fans most about this upcoming season do you think, and why?

After the 2013 season, I don’t think it will be as surprising if the team contends in 2014. But there have been some feelings that the 2013 season was a fluke and they could revert back to losing in 2014. Or there have been feelings that they didn’t “act like a contender” this off-season and didn’t spend the money needed to contend. I see this team as a group that could make the playoffs once again. It’s basically the same team, minus A.J. Burnett, and plus an extra half a season of Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and an extra month of Francisco Liriano. Add the mid-season arrivals of Taillon and Polanco, and this team can definitely contend. Anyone expecting the Pirates to go back to losing might end up surprised.

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