Pirates aim to keep top 4 affiliates in the fold

December 9th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- Although baseball’s player-development structure is being altered and updated, the Pirates plan to keep their top four Minor League affiliates in place next season.

 The Pirates confirmed on Wednesday that they extended invitations to continue their full-season player-development affiliations with the Indianapolis Indians, Altoona Curve, Greensboro Grasshoppers and Bradenton Marauders. Those affiliations aren’t yet official and won’t be until the affiliates sign Professional Development Licenses, which will be sent in the coming weeks.

 If the teams accept Pittsburgh’s invitation, Indianapolis would remain the Triple-A affiliate, Altoona would stay in Double-A, Greensboro would move from Class A to Class A Advanced, and Bradenton would shift from Class A Advanced to Class A along with the rest of the Florida State League.

“We are excited and proud to present the opportunity to continue our long-standing partnerships with the Indianapolis Indians, Altoona Curve, and, of course, the City of Bradenton with the Marauders. We are equally excited to have the chance to continue to build upon our relationship with our newest affiliate the Greensboro Grasshoppers,” Pirates president Travis Williams said in a statement. “The player development system is always going to be critical to our future success at the Major League level. It is more important than ever that we partner with affiliate organizations that share in this commitment to our players and facilities.”

This arrangement would continue the Pirates’ long-standing relationships with Indianapolis (17 straight seasons), Altoona (23) and Bradenton (12), and it would keep Greensboro -- an affiliate since 2019 -- in the fold as well.

The Pirates will also maintain their Short-Season complex teams in the Gulf Coast League and the Dominican Summer League, giving young players a place to begin their careers.

Speaking on the MLB Pipeline Podcast with MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo, general manager Ben Cherington said he expects these changes “will be really good for players entering the game.” Specifically, he believes that the reduced number of Short-Season teams in every system could expedite the development process for players who are drafted out of high school.

“In theory, hopefully if we do our jobs well in development, that means you can advance more quickly and get to those full-season teams more quickly and not have to spend as much time in Short-Season baseball,” Cherington told Mayo. “That’s certainly where I hope it goes.”

In addition, Cherington hopes that these changes will create an easier introductory process for drafted players. Typically, a top Draft pick will rush through a post-signing physical evaluation -- which often comes weeks or even months after his most recent game -- then be whisked away to a Short-Season team to almost immediately begin his professional career.

“That never made much sense to me,” he said. “It always felt like we were kind of holding our breaths, really, that first summer: ‘Hey, let’s hope guys don’t get hurt.’ That’s what it felt [like] to me, so I think there’s a better way to do that. I think we should have a true on-boarding experience for players coming into professional baseball, and there ought to be an opportunity to kind of continue the assessment period for some period of time.

“Let’s really get to know where players are physically, where they are mentally, where are the opportunities going forward, introduce them to programming, introduce them to people, facilities, and kind of take competition out of it maybe for a little bit with the expectation that there’s going to be a lot of competition as they get into their first full year. I think the Pirates and a lot of teams are still working on exactly what that looks like, but I’ve always felt like there’s a better way to bring players into professional baseball.”

As it stands, Major League Baseball’s efforts to streamline the player-development process will leave the Pirates with two fewer affiliates. But both of their former Short-Season Minor League affiliates have already been integrated into MLB’s new system.

The West Virginia Black Bears, a former Short-Season Class A team in Morgantown, W.Va., will be part of the MLB Draft League. The Bristol (Va.) Pirates will join the rest of the Appalachian League next year in a new collegiate summer league within the MLB and USA Baseball Prospect Development Pipeline.