With just nine days until the 2014 amateur draft starts, General Manager Neal Huntington and the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to have some interesting choices to make during the three-day event. When picking near the top of the draft, you can concentrate on a smaller group of players, but making your first selection at the 24th spot means you’re going to need to see a much larger group of players for that first round pick. As we have seen with the mock drafts recently, there are a bunch of names that people are hearing in the Pirates range.

Neal Huntington
General manager Neal Huntington is looking for value throughout the draft

It’s a new experience this year picking later in the draft, but the hopes are that this will be something the Pirates have to deal with every year for the foreseeable future.

“It’s very different picking 24th than in the top ten somewhere,” Neal Huntington said. “We hope not to pick in the top ten anytime soon, in fact we hope to pick 29th or 30th here pretty soon. We’re still working on that.”

Huntington believes the Pirates may have lucked out this year. He believe the first round provides plenty of depth, so picking 24th this year, might be the same as picking 10-12 spots higher in previous years.

“We feel like we’re going to get a player, there’s not as clear-cut a situation it seems like at number one, maybe even number five, let alone number one. But there’s some good players in it, we do think there’s some depth to it, probably a good year to be picking in the middle of the pack because there’s a good number of that type of player out there.”

Seeing more players further down the charts means the Pirates scouts are getting better looks at possible later picks, because early on in the process, you’re following guys you wouldn’t have considered with a top ten pick. Huntington and the Pirates plan on using this to get the best picks possible throughout the early rounds, where the new bonus cap also means you need to get the most for you limited money

“It should allow us to have a deeper draft. It’s always a matter of allocation of resources, everything we do in this game is a matter of allocation of resources and capitalizing on the best player we can at 24 and all the way through. We think we’re going to get a good guy whether with the competitive balance pick, the third round, the second round, the fifth round, the twelfth round.”

The Importance of a Good Scouting Director

The first round pick is the most important, but it’s the drafts that have depth to them that add the most to the organization. You can’t succeed by spending all of your time making sure you get the first pick right, you need to get the right players in each round. You have to be able to trust your scouts, relying on them to make the right decisions on day one of the draft and all the way until the end. That is why the job of scouting director is so important with the Pirates and in baseball. Huntington acknowledged that importance.

“You look at the history of the draft and you can find big-leaguers throughout and you find All-Stars in various places. So our guys take that approach and they’re going to line them up. Joe (Dellicarri) does a great job of playing the board and finding the right guys for us that fit what we like and why we think they’re going to become good players.”

Huntington gives a lot of credit to Dellicarri for the job he does and recognizes that it’s not an easy job at all. He compared the scouting director’s job to the one he has trying to decide what free agents to take. He admits Dellicarri has the tougher job when it comes to picking the right players, but he puts his trust in him that he can get the job done.

“I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. The hardest job in baseball is scouting director. They take a look at high school and college players and try to predict what they’re going to be in three or four years from now. We have a tough enough time predicting what free agents are gonna do next year and what our guys that did last year, what they’re going to do this year, let alone trying to project 16-, 17-, 18-, 21-year-olds.”

New Approach To This Draft

The way the Pirates attacked this draft differs from the past, but that has allowed them to see more players than usual. The good thing about the draft and scouting in general, is that you aren’t just seeing these guys during the season they are eligible for the draft. For most college juniors, you’ve already scouted them numerous times over the past five years, so you have something to look back on for reference. You want to get as many looks late in case players slip to you, so you can see why they may have slipped in the rankings, but it’s not imperative that you get extended looks at each and every top player. That gives the scouts more time to see the 2nd/3rd round types and get the most out of your scouting resources. Huntington talked about that new approach.

“When you’re picking two or you’re picking four you have to narrow in on four or five players. We’ve taken a broader approach. We’ve covered some guys that we think will go in the top five or the top ten to get enough coverage so we’re comfortable in case they slide and can we afford to take them, or not for the reasons that we believe. It’s also allowed us to get deeper. The competitive balance pick, we’ve had more scouts seeing our options with a competitive balance pick in the second round, the third round because we haven’t had eight guys or ten guys see a top ten player.”

Best Player Available Plan

Every year, there is the case of fans wanting the team to fill holes for the big league club with their top draft picks. That is something that always comes up, especially if there is a perceived strength in the minors and the team takes a player from the same position. In baseball, you never draft for need because there are no guarantees in the draft and by the time these players are Major League ready, you have no idea where the big club will be at the time. Huntington laid out the team’s plan and it’s something they have lived by in past drafts.

“We’ll stay with the best player model. It’s had success for us at the moment and unlike the NFL or the NBA where they’re going right into your major-league club, they’re a long ways away. We’ll stay with that mindset and we feel like it’s gone well for us so far.”

Huntington also commented on how the Pirates handle local players, mentioning that they don’t give preference to them, only selecting them if they are the best player available when it’s the Pirates turn to make a selection. Prep pitcher Branden McKay had made some waves recently with a scoreless streak that started during his junior season. While it would make a good story being drafted by his local team, Huntington’s only taking him if he’s the right fit.

What This All Means For The Pirates Draft

So the basic idea going into the draft remains the same, even with a much different drafting situation early on. You want to always select the best player available, but that’s not always something you can do. With the new draft bonus cap in place, you need to hit on as many early picks as possible, while also making sure you take players that are willing to sign for around the slot amount that their pick is valued at. You wouldn’t want to take a player late in the top ten rounds that you have no chance of signing due to bonus demands, because you lose the slot money that goes along with that pick. That obviously means you’re also throwing away a pick in the top ten rounds to do that and the further down the draft you go, the less likely you are to find a Major Leaguer with your pick.

In 2012, the Pirates tried the approach of saving money by taking three college seniors in the top ten rounds. That allowed them to sign three players to over slot deals after the tenth round, but that was also the year they took Mark Appel in the first round after he dropped and they were unable to sign him. It worked out in the end, because they got high value with the compensation pick the next year when Austin Meadows dropped to them.

Last season, they took players that were more in line with the slot amounts set out, going over slot to five players total, but only because they saved a little on first round pick Reese McGuire and second rounder Blake Taylor, both of whom were good picks at their spot. The Pirates were also willing to go over the bonus cap by a little to sign Erich Weiss and they paid the penalty fee associated with that.

I’d expect the approach this year to resemble last year’s, unless there is a player that falls to them in the first round. One possibility is Jeff Hoffman, a pitcher from East Carolina that many had as a top five pick. He struggled a little this year, but still looked like a high pick until he found out he needed Tommy John surgery. That means, even if Hoffman returns to school, he won’t pitch next year. It also means, some team is going to have to take a chance on him that he recovers well from the surgery and has no other issues, plus he won’t be able to pitch for them until sometime during the middle of next year.

No one is sure how far Hoffman will drop, but it an arm like his is available with the 24th pick, it would be hard to pass up. Neal Huntington has shown in the draft with picks like Appel and Josh Bell, that the Pirates will take chances. For now, they have to wait and see what next Thursday will bring them.