By John Franco
Earlier this week, I introduced the idea of a “big three” – a trio of highly ranked pitching prospects within the same organization that are (or might be) expected to vault the team into contention. Using the criteria of a top-15 pitcher OR an average rank of 30 or less in Baseball America’s Top-100 prospects rating, there have been 10 qualified trios since 1990. Can we learn anything from these trios that can be applied to the Pirates’ big three (Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Luis Heredia)? Here’s a quick rundown of each trio, roughly in chronological order:
The Braves were the only team to have their big three fronted by a number one prospect: Steve Avery. Avery got off to a hot start and flamed out quickly, providing 11.2 WAR to the Braves in his first six seasons and finishing his career with only 10.8 WAR. He was joined by a pair of pitchers who offered most of their value later in their careers: Mike Stanton (#18) and Kent Mercker (#47). If either of Taillon or Cole’s team-controlled seasons go as well as Avery’s, the Pirates will be happy, but I’m sure they want more than two solid relievers out of their other two pitchers.
The team that started it all; the Mets had Bill Pulsipher (#12), Paul Wilson (#16) and Jason Isringhausen (#37). The trio eventually produced 13.4 WAR, but almost all of it came after all three pitchers left the Mets. Wilson contributed -2.0 WAR to the Mets, Isringhausen added 0.8 WAR and Pulsipher 1.3. The Mets’ trio is just about the worst-case scenario for the Pirates.
Like most teams on this list, the Indians had a pair of highly-rated prospects (Bartolo Colon (#14) and Jaret Wright (#22)), and paired them with a solid #3 prospect in Willie Martinez. Martinez wasn’t much of a contributor (0.1 WAR), but Colon posted 35.2 WAR and Wright added a modest 3.5 WAR of his own. The Pirates would love for one of their pitchers to match Colon’s achievements, but hope they can get more from their other two pitchers.
This group represents the best case scenario for the Pirates: three productive major league starters with occasional top-of-the-rotation seasons. The Marlins didn’t have a top-15 prospect, but the highly ranked trio of Josh Beckett (19), AJ Burnett (20), and Brad Penny (22) had the best average rank outside of the Rays. Beckett is a common comp for Taillon (Texan, big curve) and Burnett’s superlative arsenal and up-and-down results are reminiscent of Cole’s minor league performance. This trio has produced 71.5 WAR to date, a result the Pirates would love to see. Of course, it would be great if Cole also went on win the World Series with his first team, have a long career, sign with the Yankees, and end up with the Pirates as a contract dump three years later.
2008 Rays / 2010 Rays / 2011 Rays
I’ll group these together for simplicity’s sake. The 2008 crew featured David Price (#10), Jake McGee (#15), and Wade Davis (#17), while the 2011 group featured three different arms: Jeremy Hellickson (#6), Matt Moore (#15), and Chris Archer (#27). The 2010 trio didn’t have a top-15 prospect, but Hellickson (18), Davis (34) and Moore (35) sneak in under the required average of 30. Clearly Baseball America loves the Rays. It’s too early to assess most of these arms, but if the Pirates get one pitcher as good as Price and another with the upside of Moore or Hellickson, I think they’ll be happy. The trio from 2008 has already accrued 12.7 WAR according to baseball-reference.com.
The A’s also had a pair of highly-ranked prospects in Brett Anderson (#7) and Trevor Cahill (#11). Anderson had a promising start derailed by Tommy John surgery, and Cahill put together three solid years before being traded to the Diamondbacks. Michael Ynoa was signed as a 16-year old (like Luis Heredia), underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, and finally returned to the minor leagues this year. He is still just 20 years old and could still reach the major leagues someday despite his setbacks.
It’s too early to evaluate the Rangers, who placed the enigmatic Neftali Feliz (#9) and the even more enigmatic Martin Perez (#17) high in BA’s rankings, along with Tanner Scheppers (#42). Feliz has already accrued 6.8 WAR, but most of that value came as a reliever. Perez and Scheppers have yet to make their mark, and neither looks like a star, but it’s too early to call either of them a bust. The Rangers have developed (or signed, traded for, etc) that this trio’s failure hasn’t doomed their franchise, but the Pirates lack their financial wherewithal and are a lot more dependent on their big three.
These Braves are another team that is hard to evaluate, since Julio Teheran (#5), Randall Delgado (#35) and Mike Minor (#37) are still a work in progress. Teheran has struggled with the long ball at Triple-A this year, while Delgado (4.52 ERA) and Minor (5.69 ERA) have been regulars in the Atlanta rotation. Their ceilings might look a bit lower because of their struggles, which are typical for young pitchers, but all three still project as worthy of a rotation spot in the major leagues. The Braves’ trio serves as a warning to those expecting the Pirates’ prospects to dominate from day one.
Several of these ten groups are too recent to evaluate, but the results are generally encouraging for the Pirates. The Braves, Indians, Marlins and 2008 Rays all got an ace-level starter and some other contributors. Only the 1995 Mets really failed to get any value out of their trio. Of course, only the Marlins got three solid starters from their trio, so maybe the Pirates should temper their expectations a bit if they expect Cole, Taillon and Heredia to be 1-2-3 in their rotation by 2015.
The Pirates just have to hope they can do better than the trio of Pirates that came closest to making the list: the 2003 Pirates featured John VanBenSchoten (#24), Sean Burnett (#25) and Bryan Bullington (#52). That trio has actually contributed positive WAR thanks to Burnett’s work with the Nationals: 4.8 WAR for his career, just barely enough to counteract JVB (-3.9) and Bullington (-0.5).
Then again, the ultimate trio didn’t even make this list. The 1997 Blue Jays had a trio of well-regarded prospects who turned out OK: Roy Halladay (ranked #23), Chris Carpenter (ranked #27), and Kelvim Escobar (ranked #67). The trio has combined for 118.8 WAR thus far, and Halladay is far from done. While Cole, Taillon and Heredia are tearing up the minors, the Halladay trio remains a possibility, however unlikely.