2011 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Recap
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Thanks to MLB’s misbegotten efforts to control draft bonuses, August 15 has become nearly as important an event as the draft itself. That’s the deadline for signing draft picks, with the exception of players who have no college eligibility remaining. The deadline has more than the usual significance for the Pirates this year, because their draft is remarkably easy to sum up: If they sign both Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell, it’s a great draft. If they fail to sign Bell . . . well, Cole had better become that dominant starter the Pirates haven’t had since . . . um . . . forever.
But there were some other interesting aspects to this draft besides the top two. Here are a few (numbers in parentheses are draft rounds):
The Pirates have focused heavily on prep pitchers in the last couple drafts, leaving their system weak in hitting, especially power hitting. Going into the draft, Neil Huntington stated publicly that he hoped they could add some hitting. Having chosen Cole in the first round, the team went against its recent trend and took Bell and Alex Dickerson, a one-dimensional slugger, in the next two rounds. It’s easy to imagine the scouting department in the war room, clutching their computer mice and muttering, “Must . . . . . . . take . . . . . . . hitters.” It’s also easy to imagine the sense of relief when they were able to revert, in round 4, to their pattern of taking 6’ 4” prep pitchers.
The bottomless appetite for projectable prep pitchers may serve the Pirates well in the long run. The last several drafts have been heavily tilted toward arms. Next year’s may be the same, although it does seem to offer some good prep bats. The MLB.com commentators spent much of their coverage of the first five rounds of this year’s draft marveling at the number of outstanding arms, including pitchers with mid-90s heat who lasted several rounds into the draft instead of disappearing by the middle of round one. The historical cycle is already trending strongly toward the mound at the major league level. The average OPS in MLB is .709 so far this year, down from .728 just last year and .751 just two years ago. Jose Tabata’s seemingly paltry 253/351/361 line right now is good enough for a 101 OPS+. The Pirates aren’t going to be able to build a pitching staff through free agency, so they’ll need a constant supply of arms coming up from their farm system.
Whether their approach will serve their needs remains to be seen. As in other recent years, the prep arms in their draft this year are primarily pitchers who are currently sitting in the upper 80s. The Pirates draft mostly young pitchers who are 6’ 4” or taller, with lean frames. Of this year’s ten prep righties, all but two are at least that height, and even the three prep lefties include one who’s 6’ 4” and one who’s 6’ 6”. The Pirates are counting on a few of these young pitchers getting stronger and developing better stuff as they mature. Whether that approach will work remains to be seen. There’s not much evidence so far and I’ve never seen any data that suggests it will, or won’t.
The peculiarities of the MLB draft have led to some odd drafting patterns, where a player’s draft round often bears little relation to his talent. That’s specifically been true of the Pirates since the overdue departure of Kevin McClatchy and Dave Littlefield has meant a sudden willingness to pay above-slot bonuses to later round picks. This may change dramatically if the next collective bargaining agreement implements hard slotting, as expected. For now, though, it’s a challenge to decide which players you most want to see them sign.
Case in point: If I had to choose between the Pirates signing their picks from rounds four through six or their picks from rounds seven through nine, I’d take the latter. In fact, Clay Holmes (9) may be the most intriguing player they selected apart from Cole, Bell and Dickerson. Colten Brewer (4) and Tyler Glasnow (5) look more like eighth to tenth round picks, and Dan Gamache (6) . . . well, I’m not sure I get that pick at all. It’s possible that the Pirates wanted to ensure that they could sign several earlier round picks without having to go far over slot, especially given what it’ll take to sign Cole and Bell. Meanwhile, Kody Watts (15) and Taylor Nunez (19) appear to have more potential than any of the prep pitchers taken in the first ten rounds, with the possible exception of Holmes. With the significant uncertainties inherent in signing prep players, teams may need to balance the goals of getting a sufficient number of players into the system and getting the best possible players, leading to a sometimes backwards-seeming draft order.
Of course, identifying which players from the later rounds are the higher priorities is a lot of fun by itself. We don’t know how the Pirates have prioritized them, although we do know from past experience that the team will focus primarily on their top ten or so picks and turn to later picks only as they fail to sign the earlier ones. It’s not easy, though, to tell for certain which later picks have the higher ceilings. If a player is in the Baseball America top 200, like Watts, Nunez and Holmes, sure, that’s easy, but some legitimate prospects aren’t, for various reasons. Jarek Cunningham, for instance, wasn’t even mentioned in BA’s draft previews, much less listed in the top 200.
Watts, Nunez and Holmes, of course, are very projectable pitchers much along the lines of Nick Kingham and Ryan Hafner, both of whom the Pirates signed last year. Holmes actually is a bit more than that because he’s already sitting in the low 90s. Among other picks, outfielder Aaron Brown (17) has a bat with a lot of potential, including power potential, although he hasn’t realized much of it yet. Brandon Zajac (28) has very good size for a LHP at 6’ 4” and has already reached the low 90s at times. Another lefty, Eric Skoglund (16) is even taller at 6’ 6” and has also reached the 90s at times, but his draft standing fell due to a late hand injury and signability questions.
Aside from prep players, the Pirates took a few interesting college players in the later rounds. Derek Trent (31), from East Tennessee State, has more upside than the typical college senior because he’s shown some pop with the bat, hits left-handed, and was drafted as a catcher, although he needs more experience at the position. Hommy Rosado (34) is a junior college corner infielder with good power potential who failed to sign after the Rockies drafted him in the 11th round last year. The Pirates drafted RHP Jordan Cooper (23) as a high school senior in 2009, but he chose to attend college. He’s been highly erratic but has shown good potential on his better days.
STOCKING THE FARM WITH – GET THIS – PROSPECTS!!
Every team in MLB drafts college seniors, mainly to serve as organizational players. There simply aren’t enough legitimate prospects available for any team to fill all its minor league rosters with players who have the potential to be major leaguers. Unfortunately, former GM Dave Littlefield’s seemed to think that college seniors and other organizational players were the main feature of a farm system. For example, in Littlefield’s last draft in 2007, the Pirates selected and signed eight college seniors among the twenty-six draftees they signed. (That’s over 30%, in case you’re counting.) And that’s not even accounting for the fact that three of the team’s top six picks were dubious college juniors who failed to advance beyond class A.
This year the Pirates drafted only four college seniors. This obviously reflects the fact that they’re able to stock the system more fully with actual prospects, including players from Latin America who’re good enough to get past the Gulf Coast League, something that few Latin American players did during the Littlefield years. The absence of a need to load up on college seniors—who are, of course, easy and inexpensive to sign—may mean that the Pirates will sign fewer players from the draft, and it may also mean that their lower level teams will post weaker W/L records as they are required to play younger, less polished players. But these are good things.