The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement brought a lot of changes to Major League Baseball. The biggest change for the Pittsburgh Pirates came in the draft. From 2008-2011, the Pirates spent more money in the amateur draft than any other team. They spent just shy of $50 M in bonuses during that four-year stretch, loading up on projectable prep pitchers, hard-to-sign hitters like Josh Bell, and high draft picks with big demands like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.
The results have been strong. Gerrit Cole is in the majors, and could be primed to finally break out this year. Jameson Taillon would have made it last year, had it not been for Tommy John surgery. He could arrive in the majors this year. The prep pitcher approach led to mid-round gems like Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham. Josh Bell looks like the first baseman of the future. Early picks like Jordy Mercer and Justin Wilson have played big roles on the team the last few years. Middle round picks like Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler have provided depth. And guys like Robbie Grossman, Colton Cain, and Vic Black have been used in trades to bring in upgrades over the last few years.
Unfortunately, the CBA changes in 2011 removed the Pirates’ ability to spend whatever they wanted in the draft. Making matters more difficult was the fact that they soon became contenders following the rule changes. The new CBA not only restricted what teams could spend with harsh penalties, but reduced potential bonus pools for the best teams. The Pirates averaged $11.9 M in draft spending each year from 2008-2011. Assuming they spend up to their bonus pool in 2015, their average from 2012-2015 will be $6.83 M. The new CBA has given them about $5 M less per year, on average, to spend in the draft than what they were spending in the past.
So how do the Pirates compete when they can no longer throw money at top draft talent, due to restrictions and their new role as a perennial contender in Major League Baseball? We’ve already seen the answer. We just don’t know how it’s going to play out.
Under the old draft, the Pirates loaded up on projectable pitchers. While we don’t know the end result of that approach, the results we do have right now are encouraging. They have still been going after projectable pitchers, and the results are still encouraging (Adrian Sampson from the 2012 draft could arrive in the majors in 2015). But the Pirates also started taking another creative approach: Drafting athletic position players with good bats and moving them to high valued positions.
I wrote about this last week when discussing how the Pirates have moved three athletic players to third base in the last two years. They took Wyatt Mathisen in the second round in 2012, moved him to catcher for a year, then moved him to third after the selection of Reese McGuire in 2013. They drafted JaCoby Jones as an outfielder in 2013, and moved him to shortstop in 2014. Last year they took Connor Joe in the first round, and Jordan Luplow in the third round. Both were outfielders in college, but played third base in high school, and will be moving to third base this year.
Greg Smith is currently an Assistant General Manager with the Pirates, but was the Director of Amateur Scouting for years, and still plays a big role in overseeing the draft. I talked to him about the new approach, and he noted how important it is to have athleticism, especially with “where the game is going overall.”
“When we originally came together with our group — with the old draft, the old rules, the old system — we were very aggressive with the pitching,” Smith said. “We were very aggressive with some of the guys we thought had projection and high top end. Mostly with pitching, a little with position players — Josh Bell, Robbie Grossman, those types of guys. And then we tried to adjust to the new system, the new rules, the new landscape, it’s like how can we still find our niche, find our most competitive spot to make an impact to continue to bring higher quality guys in our system that aren’t just depth.”
The approach over the last few years has been to draft athletic player and move them to high value positions, hoping that the athleticism will allow for defensive improvements. It’s perhaps the best chance the Pirates have at finding quality third basemen and shortstops, especially since you can’t just go out and buy those positions.
“Anywhere, even in the free agent market, there are just not everyday free agent third basemen available,” Pirates’ Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway said. “There are always outfielders, and you can always move guys to the outfield. There seems to be always first basemen. When you look at that left side of the infield, it’s tough to go buy them anywhere, so you have to develop them. Any chance you can to do that, we’re going to try to do that.”
A trend with the 2013 and 2014 picks is that the Pirates selected outfielders who played shortstop or third base in high school, and who they feel are athletic enough to still play those positions. The Pirates obviously don’t need outfield prospects right now. Their future in the majors looks set with Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. They have interesting prospects in the upper levels, like Willy Garcia and Mel Rojas Jr. The lower levels features guys like Austin Meadows and Harold Ramirez, who could eventually be starters in the majors.
“We’ve got outfield depth that is part of the driving factor,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said. “Whether it’s bottom to top, or top to bottom, we have a lot of outfielders that we’re very excited about what their potential can be. And if somebody can come in and do a quality job in the infield, and move up the defensive spectrum with the same offensive value, it makes them a very interesting player.”
The outfield depth already led to the Pirates getting creative this off-season, as they moved Josh Bell from right field to first base. That’s a more natural move than the move from the outfield to third base, but it was made because it gave Bell the best chance to make an impact in Pittsburgh, and it gave the Pirates the best chance to have an impact prospect at a position of long-term need.
“The reason why Josh Bell has a first base mitt in his hand right now, trying to find the quickest and most productive way to the big leagues. It may not always work, and more often than not it’s not going to,” Huntington said of these types of moves. “But we feel like it’s not hurting the defensive development, and it may end up helping that player and the organization in the long run.”
A lot of players will play premium positions in high school, such as shortstop or third base. That’s because those players are typically the best athletes on their team in amateur ball. As they move up, most of those players move to easier positions, in lieu of better athletes. So how do the Pirates determine which players can still play those premium positions in pro ball?
“The million dollar question,” Smith said with a laugh.
“It’s a part of the evaluation process,” Huntington said. “Believe it or not, the first and most important part of an infielder is his feet. Guys talk about hands and picking hops. Well the feet put you in position to get good hops, and the feet put you in a position to allow your hands to play soft. Then it is the hands, but also it’s the arm. And then there’s a mentality that goes along with it as well.”
Smith noted that the Pirates factor many things, including a player’s makeup, baseball IQ, motivation, drive, and how coachable they are. They add this to the physical attributes, such as athleticism, the frame, strength, and how projectable the body is, in order to come up with an evaluation.
“You just kind of put it all in a crystal ball and try to make the best decision you can,” Smith said. “For us, it’s just to try to make an organization more athletic. Bigger, stronger, faster, quicker. And hopefully as you look [in the organization], you see size, strength, athleticism. And that’s what we think is going to help us with our success overall.”
To simply the matter, the Pirates are going with the approach that it’s easier to teach defense to a good hitter who is athletic, rather than teaching hitting to a good defender in the infield.
“To me, it’s hard to teach hitting, as far as the guys that can really hit,” Smith said. “When we find guys that we think have those traits — Connor Joe for example has a trait to hit — we’re drawn to those guys because it’s such a hard thing to do. When we add the athleticism component to it, that’s when we really start to get intrigued and our interest starts to pick up.”
“History shows us that defense is probably the most impacted tool by just hard work and dedication,” Huntington said. “Very few guys have worked themselves into being really good hitters. There’s a good number of guys that have worked themselves into being good defensive players.”
In a case-by-case basis, this approach seems high risk with potentially high rewards. But just like the approach with projectable prep pitchers, if you get enough options in the system, eventually a few of them will work out. Smith said that this is a way the Pirates can work within the framework of the new system, while not “drafting like everybody else.” Time will tell if the new approach will work, but if it does work, the Pirates would rather be one of the early teams adopting such a strategy.
“There will be some historical analysis as we get further into it, but [we’re] trying to be proactive and ahead of the curve, not trying to be reactive and behind the curve,” Smith said.