It’s no secret that the bulk of the rebuilding process by the Pittsburgh Pirates has been primarily focused on the MLB draft. The Pirates have spent more than any other team in the majors over the last four years, including a single season record in 2011. In the process of spending this money, they’ve gone with a lot of over-slot deals. To be exact, the Pirates have had 26 over-slot deals from 2008-2011, an average of almost seven per year.
There is an expected amount of pressure involved for the drafts to produce major league talent. Those expectations are raised when a team is using the draft as one of their primary means for rebuilding. Add in the fact that the Pirates have spent more than any other team in the draft, and expectations go through the roof.
Those expectations might be warranted, but they also bring impatience. People want to see immediate results. That makes sense, as they want to know that the draft is actually producing results. Charlie at Bucs Dugout pointed this out when talking about how 2012 should be a crucial year for Neal Huntington. Charlie called the drafts underwhelming so far, with the disclaimer that it is too early to judge the drafts conclusively.
So when is a good time to judge the drafts conclusively? I’ve always felt that grading a draft is an on-going process. Too often the tendency is to put a final grade on the draft, and that final grade is suggested way too soon. For example, many are calling the 2008 draft a bad one. That’s mostly due to the struggles from Pedro Alvarez in the majors. It’s also due to the fact that after three full seasons, the draft hasn’t produced anyone at the major league level.
These types of assessments are often thrown out with the assumption that this isn’t normal. The assumption is that the Pirates should have at least one player from the 2008 draft performing at the major league level by now, if not more. But that assumption isn’t correct. As of the end of the 2011 season, only eight players from the entire 2008 draft class have produced a career 2.0 WAR or better, according to Baseball-Reference. That just shows that it’s too early to be expecting any team to have a player in the majors at this point, especially guys after the first round.
You could make the argument that Pedro Alvarez should be one of those eight players, and I’d say you’re right. Alvarez was drafted with the expectations that he would be up by now, and would be producing at the same rate as someone like Buster Posey. But it’s even too early to give a final grade to Alvarez. All you have to do is look at the struggles of fellow first round picks like Brian Matusz, Justin Smoak, and Brett Wallace to see this. I’m sure there’s a lot of Pirates fans who would gladly have the upside and potential of these players, even with their initial struggles.
Grading a draft should be an on-going process, but how do you grade the draft throughout that process? At what point do you focus more on results, and less on tools and potential? How do you factor a bad year by an individual player in the equation? What are the expectations for players out of high school in their first few years? Most importantly to the above discussion, at what point can you grade the General Manager on the draft? Everyone has a different method of evaluating moves, so I wouldn’t expect any consensus on how to grade a draft. Here is how I look at things.
Grading Prep Players
Since the Pirates have focused so much on prep players, I figure this is a good place to start. I’ve mentioned my process for grading prep players a lot in the past. I don’t care what happens with prep players until their third year as a pro. With college players we don’t care what they did in their freshman and sophomore years. We only start paying attention when they’re about to be drafted. So why punish prep players for learning in the pros, rather than learning at college?
We saw this in 2011 with Robbie Grossman. Grossman was completely over-matched in 2009, which would have been his freshman year in Texas. He struck out 36% of the time at low-A in 451 at-bats. He improved on those strikeout numbers in 2010 at high-A, with a 25% strikeout rate in what would have been his sophomore year in college. Even with the improvement, the results weren’t encouraging. Then in 2011, in what would have been his junior year, he had a breakout season. That season likely would have made him a first round pick. He wouldn’t have played in high-A until the first half of the 2012 season. So in hindsight, it would have seemed silly to write him off after struggles in what would have been his freshman and sophomore years.
Now there are exceptions to this rule, as there are with any rule. If Jameson Taillon would have come out with a 5.00 ERA and a ton of control problems, that would have been a disappointment. Taillon was advertised as being more polished than the normal high school pitching prospect, so he can’t be graded like the other prep pitchers. Josh Bell was graded as a strong hitter, so if he struggles in 2012 like Grossman did in 2009, it would be disappointing. But for the average guy out of high school, I don’t focus on the results until year three.
Last year I focused on the 2008 draft class. We saw good things from Robbie Grossman. Wes Freeman had a great second half, although he needs to be on the fast track from this point forward. Jarek Cunningham continued to show power from the middle infield, although his strikeout and walk ratios are still a concern. Quinton Miller continued his trend of injuries and poor performance, and while he’s got a lively fastball, he’s to the point where we need to start taking his poor numbers seriously, rather than looking at his potential and dismissing the numbers.
On that same note, the 2012 season for me is all about the 2009 draft class. The key guys here are Zack Dodson, Zack Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, and Trent Stevenson. We’ve seen mixed results from these guys. Dodson showed some nice improvements in 2011, but was injured for half the season. Von Rosenberg really struggled, then improved his numbers in the second half when he started using his curveball more often. Cain put up strong numbers in 2011, but lacked consistency with his stuff throughout the year, an issue that might be fatigue related. Stevenson has been very disappointing so far, and is far behind the other three.
The 2009 class might be more important than most because of the approach the Pirates took. The Pirates passed on the highly ranked prep pitchers in the first round to take Tony Sanchez, so that they could go over-slot in the later rounds. They ended up going over-slot on the above prep pitchers, as well as 10th round catcher Joey Schoenfeld (who has since been released), 12th round college junior Jeff Inman, and 34th round JuCo lefty Zac Fuesser.
The decision to go with Sanchez and the prep pitchers looks bad if you’re using the benefit of hindsight. People will point to Shelby Miller and Jacob Turner being at the top of the prospect rankings right now, although at the time there was no such clarity with the group of available prep pitchers. Miller and Turner didn’t stand out much from guys like Zack Wheeler, Tyler Matzek, or Matt Purke. Only Wheeler, Turner, and Miller ended up on MLB.com’s recent top 100 prospects ranking, with Miller and Turner ending up in the top 15. My choice prior to the draft was Turner, who was taken 9th overall by Detroit.
Sanchez had a down year in 2011, which makes the set of moves look worse. The lack of a breakout player from the prep group doesn’t help, although I’m not looking for that to happen until this year. The best of the group might be Cain, who looks like a strong number three who can pitch 200 innings a year. He also seems to be the safest bet, with a higher floor than the other guys in his class. Von Rosenberg and Dodson both have talent, but both have questions to answer before they can make that jump to top prospect status. Like Grossman and Miller in 2011, the 2012 season could be a make or break year for these three pitchers.
As for the prep players from the 2010 and 2011 classes, any early success is a bonus. I rated 2010 prep right hander Nick Kingham high, although that was more a result of his strong three pitch mix, rather than his good results in State College. Ryan Hafner had good results, but could run in to the same problems as Von Rosenberg in West Virginia if he doesn’t keep the ball down. But I’m not heavily grading the numbers of those guys until 2013 for the 2010 group, and 2014 for the 2011 group.
Grading the College Players
The Pirates, and most teams, tend to start their college players in A-ball. I don’t put much stock in the numbers until the AA level, unless the players are struggling. If a player comes out of college and struggles in high-A — which is similar, talent-wise, to division I baseball — then that doesn’t speak well of the player. Due to that similarity to college ball, strong results in high-A aren’t as impressive.
The jump to the AA level is the hardest for hitters, and is something I focus on for all players, not just those out of college. If a player struggles with that jump I won’t totally write him off, although he has to have something in his numbers or skill set to redeem himself. With Chase d’Arnaud in 2010 and Tony Sanchez in 2011, I looked at the strikeout to walk ratios. Both players had good ratios, which showed that they weren’t over-matched, despite the poor results. On the flip side, a player could put up good numbers, but I might not buy those numbers as legit. I tend to grade first basemen harder than any position, since so much of the value is based on offense. So if a first baseman isn’t putting up huge numbers, I’d be unlikely to grade him with high marks.
If a high school player struggles two years in a row, I’ll probably forgive it. If a college player struggles two years in a row, I’ll probably move closer to writing him off. I mentioned above that only eight players from the 2008 draft class have put up a 2.0 or better career WAR in the majors. However, by the end of the 2012 season I’d expect 2008 college guys like Chase d’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, Matt Hague, and Justin Wilson to give some indication on whether they’ll be productive major leaguers. I don’t really care that d’Arnaud had a .528 OPS in 2011, but if he does the same in the majors in 2012 it will pretty much signal that he won’t be a productive major leaguer.
I give d’Arnaud the 2011 pass because guys like Wilson, Hague, and Mercer haven’t even reached the majors. Why punish d’Arnaud for struggling in the majors while rewarding the other guys for their AAA numbers at the same point in the timeline? The flip side is that I’d expect those three to reach the majors in 2012 and have immediate success. I don’t mind a college player going a level a year, as long as the trade off is immediate success in the majors. The guys from the 2008 class are entering ages 24-26. If they’re not going to do it now, they’re probably not going to do it.
I mentioned above that I grade the numbers for first basemen harder than I do with other players. On the flip side, if a player plays an important defensive position like catcher, shortstop, or center field, and plays the position well, I’ll give them a pass if they struggle on offense for a year. Of course the player has to be good on defense to get this pass. Basically, I look at both sides of the game, and not just what the limited numbers tell us.
A lot of expectations from the draft are based on what people feel should be happening, and not what is actually happening. Fans tend to only focus on one team. Maybe they’ll scratch the surface of other teams by looking at system rankings or a top ten list, but that still makes it hard to have reasonable expectations. I try to keep my expectations calculated. I’d rather do the research and see what other teams are doing, rather than assuming what other teams are doing and comparing the Pirates to those assumptions.
A big complaint about the draft is often in the form of “there have been four drafts, and what do the Pirates have to show for it?” The underlying expectation is that the Pirates should have at least one productive player in the majors, if not more. Given the high draft positions, the Pirates should have at least one by this point. One of Pedro Alvarez or Tony Sanchez should be in the majors, living up to expectations by now, since they were highly rated out of college. That’s not enough to write either player off, but it is disappointing. Outside of those two, there’s still the expectation that the Pirates should have someone from the middle rounds already in the majors, and already established.
As shown above, that’s not realistic. Only eight players from the 2008 draft class have made the majors and put up a 2.0 career WAR. There have only been five players from the 2009 draft class who have a career 2.0 WAR or better in the majors, and all of those players were taken in the first 12 picks of the draft. The 2010 draft class just finished their first full year in the pros. Only one player from that draft has a 2.0 WAR or better, and that’s reliever Chris Sale. And the 2011 guys were just drafted, so no one should expect major league results from them yet.
In the last four drafts, only 14 players have put up a career WAR of 2.0 or better. To expect the Pirates to have several players having success in the majors from their draft efforts isn’t reasonable when looking at the actual results.
When to Grade the Drafts?
As I mentioned earlier, I feel you can always grade drafts, from the moment the draft finishes to ten years down the line. Two years ago it looked like the 2007 Pirates draft wouldn’t have a single player making the majors outside of Daniel Moskos, who projected as a lefty reliever. Now we could be looking at two left handed relievers (Moskos, Tony Watson), a right handed reliever (Duke Welker), and a number three starter (Kyle McPherson). The 2004 draft looked like a total bust until Neil Walker broke out at the start of the 2010 season and made the successful switch to second base. These would still be disappointing drafts, but they go to show that a draft can’t be graded after 2-3 years.
So when is the right time to start grading the draft with the idea of also grading the people who are conducting the drafts? The biggest impact to Neal Huntington’s grade right now would be Alvarez and Sanchez, since they were both taken out of college and have spent more time in the system than guys like Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon.
The 2008 draft was heavy with college players, and like I mentioned above, the 2012 season will be make or break for those guys in the majors. However, the 2009 draft was heavy with high school players. I wouldn’t expect those guys to start cracking the majors until 2013-2014. There would be 2-3 drafts before we started seeing the major league impact from guys like Colton Cain, Zack Von Rosenberg, and Zack Dodson. That’s only the second draft Huntington performed, which is a big risk to take in the 2012-2014 drafts if you can’t have a definitive conclusion.
I think there’s definitely a time where it’s too early to grade a draft. I don’t think a true final grade could be established until years later. But that doesn’t mean there’s no middle ground. My approach is to combine the above factors. I hold off on the results from prep players until year three. I don’t put a lot of stock in to college numbers until they put those numbers up at the AA level or higher. I expect more from those where defense doesn’t matter, and I’m more likely to give a pass to someone who plays good defense at a hard position. Most importantly, I try to keep things in perspective with what other teams are actually doing.
So how do I feel the Pirates grade out? There’s definitely a lot of talent in the system, and the Pirates have a lot of guys who are in line with my expectations for a player out of high school or college. Right now I like the status of the system. That grade is very fluid though. If the 2012 season has guys like d’Arnaud, Mercer, Hague, and Wilson busting at the major league level, and 2009 prep guys like Von Rosenberg, Dodson, and Cain struggling, that wouldn’t speak well for the system. In fact, that scenario probably wouldn’t warrant any future drafts for the current group. The alternative wouldn’t provide any conclusive results, but if a few of the 2008 college guys have success in the majors and the 2009 prep guys have strong years in 2012, then it would speak well about the grades from the first two drafts. So in that sense, I think 2012 is a very important year for Neal Huntington’s future.