The Major League Baseball draft is three weeks away. The Pittsburgh Pirates pick eighth overall, which is the first time they’ve picked outside of the top four since 2005, when the club selected Andrew McCutchen with the 11th overall choice.
In the past two years under Neal Huntington, the Pirates have had some easy decisions. They had their choice of any player in the draft last year, opting for Gerrit Cole. The year before they were picking between Jameson Taillon and Manny Machado. In each situation you couldn’t go wrong, as any evaluation between which player was better was just splitting hairs.
This year the Pirates run in to a different situation. The draft class isn’t as strong as previous groups. There’s also a drop off in talent, right around where the Pirates pick. Top prospects like Byron Buxton, Mike Zunino, Mark Appel, and Kevin Gausman stand no chance of falling to eighth overall. Carlos Correa and Kyle Zimmer, two players who started the year ranked lower in the first round, are now looking like they’ll be gone when the Pirates pick.
After those six players, it’s question marks. Lucas Giolito has the most upside, but his health is still up in the air. Giolito sprained his elbow early in the season, which shut him down for the year. If healthy, he would be an obvious pick at eighth overall. Of course, he’d also be an obvious pick much earlier.
After Giolito, the group gets weaker. Max Fried is a talented left handed prep pitcher with a great curveball, although his upside is tied to projectability with his fastball, which doesn’t make him a guarantee. Albert Almora is a strong hitter and one of the best defensive center fielders in the draft class, but he also has some projectability impacting his overall value, this time in the power department.
Michael Wacha is a right handed pitcher from Texas A&M who has put up strong numbers this year, with a 2.14 ERA in 92.1 innings, along with a 95:16 K/BB ratio and two homers allowed. Statistically he’s been almost as good as Kevin Gausman, who seems like a lock for the top six picks. The difference is that Gausman has the potential for three “plus” pitches, while Wacha has a plus changeup, a 92-93 MPH fastball with great command, and not much of a breaking pitch.
Then there’s Deven Marrero, who the Pirates have been linked to in a few outlets. Marrero started the year as a top five draft prospect, mostly due to his plus defensive skills at shortstop. However, he has fallen in value due to his poor hitting this year, and questions about his makeup. His defense is still strong, but without the bat he doesn’t look nearly as appealing as he did coming in to the year.
If none of the top six players fall to the Pirates, they will have a difficult decision to make on draft day. So what is the team doing right now to get ready for that decision.
“Last looks on players,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said of the current task. “Now you start to really begin to bear down. Two series of meetings take pace. One is with the area scouts, and then you get to go through everybody on their lists. Mentally, physically fundamentally why they like this player, why they want this player. Then from that, you take a couple days and you regroup. Then you come down as a national group and spend about two weeks as a National group putting the board together. Understanding why we want player X over player Y. What we’re looking for in general. Are there any draft strategies for that year. What’s the depth of the board. What’s the weakness of the board. Making sure we’re putting ourselves in position to get the right pick each time. it’s a long process and we want to make sure we give our area guys all the respect in the world.”
The area guys will be especially important this year. If the Pirates take Manny Machado over Jameson Taillon in 2010, they’re still getting a great prospect. If they take Dylan Bundy over Gerrit Cole in 2011, they’re still getting a potential future ace. But the decision this year will be much more difficult, especially with those question marks after the top six prospects. It will be up to the area guys to decide whether Almora or Fried can add power or velocity. The area guys will have to determine whether Marrero is in a slump, or if his hitting this year is indicative of his future potential. It will be up to the area guys to determine if Giolito is healthy, and if he’ll sign this year rather than going to UCLA.
Scouting will be important this year in more than just the first round. In the past few years the Pirates have spent the most of any team in the draft, giving out record setting bonuses in the middle rounds. This year Major League Baseball has overhauled the draft spending. Teams will be assigned a total slot pool for their top ten picks. Any team that goes over that total pool will be penalized in taxes and draft picks, plus they won’t be eligible to receive additional draft picks in future drafts. The new rules and harsh penalties will be changing the Pirates’ approach this year.
“Due to the severity of the penalties in terms of lost picks, lost potential competitive balance picks and/or penalty picks and additional dollar costs, we do not anticipate going over our total allotment pool,” Huntington said. “We have not ruled it out completely but given our situation, there would have to be an extreme situation to justify exceeding our pool and the repercussions that would follow.”
As an example of the harsh penalties, last year the Pirates added a first round talent in the second round when they signed Josh Bell for $5 M. If they did the same this year, and spent the same amount from the number one spot in the draft, they would be taxed about $5.5 M (or roughly the cost of Bell), and would lose their first round picks in the next two drafts. Even with Bell being a first round talent, it wouldn’t be worth an extra $5.5 M and the loss of two first round picks to take him. Plus, on top of all of that, the Pirates would also be losing the opportunity to get additional picks in the draft through the new lottery system.
Scouting was always important in the draft, but the Pirates have now lost an advantage where they could just throw money at talented players who fell to them in lower rounds because of high demands. With that gone, it will be on the scouts to find players who are not only talented, but who would sign for the recommended slotting amount in each round. Add in the fact that the Pirates likely won’t have their choice of elite prospects in the draft this year, and there’s even more emphasis placed on scouting.