First Pitch: College Draft Picks Aren’t Really Such a Bad Thing

The 2015 draft received a lot of attention for the amount of college players the Pirates drafted in the top ten rounds. They took just one prep player in those rounds, going with college guys with 10 of the first 11 picks. That was a surprise to everyone who associates the Pirates with focusing big on prep players — a reputation that was well deserved after they spent record-setting money on high schoolers from 2008-2011. But since the new draft rules have been in place, the Pirates have had to change that approach.

After day two, I talked with Neal Huntington, who confirmed that their old approach of taking prep pitchers in the middle rounds and signing those guys was impossible. He repeated the same thing in the conference call with the Pittsburgh media the next night after the draft. Basically, if the Pirates don’t take prep players in the first few rounds, they won’t be taking prep players. And if you need proof of this, just look at the last three drafts leading up to this year, under the new system.

2014 – They took Cole Tucker in the first round, and Mitch Keller and Trey Supak in the second round. After that, the only top ten pick that went to a prep player was seventh rounder Nelson Jorge, who signed for almost $30,000 under slot out of Puerto Rico. They did save up to sign Gage Hinsz for $480,000 over slot in the 11th round.

2013 – They went with two prep hitters in the first round with Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire. The second round pick was prep pitcher Blake Taylor. They did go with two over-slot prep guys in the top ten rounds, giving over-slot deals to fifth rounder Trae Arbet and eighth rounder Neil Kozikowski. This was mostly due to their high drafting position. They signed McGuire and Taylor under-slot, with that money going to those two picks. They created some additional room for Nick Buckner ($35,000 over slot) and Billy Roth ($90,000 over slot) after the tenth round.

2012 – They took Wyatt Mathisen and Jon Sandfort in the second and third rounds respectively. They took a prep hitter in Kevin Ross in the eighth round, although this was an under-slot move, saving about $8,000. This draft was a bit of an outlier, since they took Mark Appel in the first round, and went ultra-signability in rounds 6-10 to create room in their bonus pool for him. When he didn’t sign, they used that money on 16th rounder Max Moroff ($200,000 over slot) and 17th rounder Hayden Hurst ($300,000 over slot).

The differences between the 2015 draft and the previous three drafts are that:

1. The Pirates went with only one prep guy in the first three rounds. These were the only rounds that they took high-priced prep guys in most years.

2. They didn’t draft any easy signings like Ross or Jorge. It should be noted that these guys haven’t really worked out too well since they’ve joined the system.

3. They didn’t have two first round picks like 2013, which didn’t give them flexibility to go over-slot with some middle round picks.

The Pirates took a lot of college players, and that was similar to their approach in previous years. But there’s another thing that really got left out of the discussion this week — how have the previous college players performed? It seemed like the idea behind prep players was that they’re the only ones with upside, and that college guys are a waste of a pick. Prep players give you the ability to dream about massive upsides and potential, even if there is only a small chance the player reaches that level. But college guys can have similar upsides, and can work out just as well. Here are a few of the guys who have worked out so far (note that I’m leaving the top three rounds out, so no Barrett Barnes or JaCoby Jones).

Adrian Sampson – He went in the fifth round in 2012, and could make his way to the majors this year, with the upside of a middle of the rotation starter.

Jacob Stallings – He was one of the signability guys for Appel, but has emerged as a solid defensive catcher who works great with pitchers. He could make it as a backup catcher one day.

John Kuchno – They went slightly over-slot with him in 2012, and he’s emerged as a Jared Hughes-like reliever in Altoona, living off the easy ground balls that he generates with his fastball.

Buddy Borden – The Pirates traded the 2013 7th rounder for Sean Rodriguez.

Shane Carle – Another guy who was traded this off-season. He went in the tenth round in 2013, and was traded for Rob Scahill.

Chad Kuhl – He has been solid in the Altoona rotation, and could be a starter in the majors if he can get more consistency with his slider and changeup — two things he’s working on this year. If not, his sinker and mid-90s four seamer will give him a shot to make it as a reliever.

I didn’t mention a lot of the guys like Adam Frazier, Erich Weiss, or Cody Dickson in 2013 who have done well so far, or the guys with potential in the 2014 group like Austin Coley, Taylor Gushue, or Tyler Eppler. It’s probably too early for them to be noted as success stories, since they all fall into the “interesting prospect” category.

That said, the Pirates have gone college heavy in rounds 4-10 in all of their drafts under the new system. They ended up with trade pieces for a bullpen and bench piece this year, plus a potential number three or four starter, a potential back of the rotation or bullpen guy, a potential backup catcher, a potential Jared Hughes type reliever, and several other interesting prospects. You’re not getting aces or All-Star position players here, but getting viable MLB talent after the first three rounds is never something to dismiss, and not a result that you can easily upgrade.

**Mark Melancon Proving Rocky Start an Aberration

**Prospect Watch: Connor Joe Reaches Base Four Times, Altoona Plays 18 Innings

**Minor Moves: Pirates Trade For John Bowker

**Pirates Agree to Terms With Compensation Pick Ke’Bryan Hayes

**Morning Report: Some Possible Late Round Sleeper Picks


  • Thanks for the info Tim. I am sure the draft is better now then it used to be when the Bucs took players based on the amount of bonus money they could save.

  • Tim – I do not have preference of college guys or high school guys as long as the players have the playing time at the right position to reach their potential whether within the organization or trade bait. I would prefer a mix of both to round out the rosters. With this many college guys, how does it affect the lower level teams at the GCL and Appy League level? Can you give us an idea how you see the rosters filling out?

  • In the short term the Pirates might be OK without getting any high upside players because they have people like McCutchen, Cole, Glasnow, and Meadows in their system. Eventually these guys will move on (or not make it for the prospects). It is good to have a lot of good MLB caliber players but tough to be a consistent playoff contender without a few stars. Under the current drafting situation, where will the stars come from? Maybe the international side, but there are serious limitations there also.

    • McCutchen was drafted outside the top 10 (#11) and Meadows only two slots higher (#9). Glasnow was drafted in the fifth round. It’s harder to get stars drafting when your first pick is around 1.20, but it’s not like you have to be picking in the top 5 to find them.

    • I think that’s a fair question, but not necessarily a major problem.

      I know the prevailing thought is that the Pirates can’t pay for stars in free agency, but that math changes a bit if you can produce a bunch of average players through the draft making next to nothing until their last couple years of arbitration. That’ll allow them to target higher priced free agents without sacrificing depth.

      Jhonny Peralta may not be a “star”, but he’s been the best damn shortstop in baseball since signing with the Cards. That’s a contract the Pirates would absolutely be able to afford.

  • Help me out here. Littelfield with the first pick in the draft took a college pitcher who he said had the potential to be a good #3 pitcher in the majors. How does any team with a first pick ever draft a player that they think is a #3 pitcher? Who was that pitcher? Out of baseball for a number of years. Another great drafted player at number one for the Bucs was the best hitter in college, that the pirates converted into a pitcher immediately not even giving him a chance to hit or not, Van something or other was his name. I don’t care if any of the draft picks taken this year make it or not but I think they all have a better chance then the two guys the pirates took number one that I just noted. Lets give the players a chance to fail before considering them failures before they sign.

  • Corey Kluber was a 4th round college pitcher who signed for a $200k bonus, well below current slot value for that pick.

    Dallas Keuchel was a 7th round college pitcher who signed for $150k, also below current slot value for that pick.

    Jacob deGrom was a 9th round college pitcher who signed for $500k, way above slot, but way below the $2.2M the Bucs wasted on Stetson Allie in the 2nd round that year.

  • Tad Henderson
    June 12, 2015 9:59 am

    Tim, the Bucs took 6 JC (or CC) prospects this year. That is a real departure from our past drafts. Four of those were in the first 20 rounds. I’ve been waiting for you to address that change. A junior college player is a bit of a tweeter — not a high school senior, but is also available after their sophomore season. We’ve shown that we like players who are younger in their class, and there has got to be something to this strategy that is now appealing to us. It would be interesting to hear your opinion on this change in drafting strategy. I also suspect that signability of JC kids is easier than high school seniors.

    • I talked about that a bit in one of my recaps. It might have been the First Pitch from day two when I interviewed Huntington. Talked about how those guys are younger, and have more time to develop.

  • A line of thought I’ve seen postulated elsewhere:

    1. Less money is available for giving large bonuses to middle-round prep players.
    2. Those players, who previously would have signed out of HS, instead go to college.
    3. (wait two to four years)
    4. There is a larger, more talented pool of college players available to draft.

    Basically, you move the bar so that the players who are signing out of HS are the very top tier, and the players just below that – who previously would have been drafted and signed overslot – are now going to college and getting drafted a few years later out of college.

    Following this line of thought, it makes sense for a team to concentrate on drafting college players, because that’s where the signable high-end talent is.

    • One thing I didn’t think of much was that this is the first draft that saw the impact of more high school guys going to college, since it includes the high school guys from 2012. And apparently next year’s draft is really strong, and could see a lot of talented college guys. I bet that trend will continue.

  • JFlannery87
    June 12, 2015 9:56 am

    Biggest frustration is that you know Huntington and the scouting department liked high school guys more in middle round, just with new draft rules it’s not possible. Also, if those college successes include a back up catcher (Valle had preference) and a bullpen arm in Altoona, I’ll take my chances with high school upside to dream on.

    • “Also, if those college successes include a back up catcher (Valle had preference) and a bullpen arm in Altoona, I’ll take my chances with high school upside to dream on.”

      What about Sampson, Kuhl, or the guys traded for Rodriguez and Scahill? Also, when thinking about the high school guys to dream on, what about the many guys who won’t even reach Double-A from the prep group?

      Getting a backup catcher or bullpen arm after the third round is nothing to dismiss. Especially when that’s not even the best potential return you can point to.

  • I didn’t like the new draft rules when they were announced and like them even less after a few years of seeing them in action. Just another way for the big money franchises to dominate the league. Do you think the Yankees really worry about the draft after the first couple rounds? I can see them in the war room doing shooters and throwing darts at names on the wall to see who they will pick in the ninth round. It just doesn’t matter when they can buy whoever they want.

    • You obviously don’t understand the draft penalties, do you?

      • No Lee I think it is you who doesn’t understand what I wrote. The Yankees don’t care about 9th round draft picks because they don’t rely on the draft to make the MLB roster they buy high priced FAs

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD
      June 12, 2015 9:54 am

      I agree – the rules were changed because the smaller market teams were getting very creative in drafting and signing high end HS kids in later rounds of the draft.

      Now, if they felt the need to do that, then they also need to address the issue of signing International players – which currently is a bidding war, that obviously favors teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, etc. International players either need to be inserted into the current MLB draft, or a separate draft is created just for International players.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    June 12, 2015 9:22 am

    This theory is plausible, if other teams are having the same issues drafting and signing HS kids. They all work under the same system. I know some teams took a lot of HS kids in this year’s draft (even after the first 3-5 rounds) – Cubs, Orioles and Cardinals come to mind, but there were others. If a number of those kids sign with those teams, then the theory seems more like an excuse or an attempt to explain either a change in strategy.

    I understand drafting college juniors or draft eligible sophs, but when you draft a lot of college seniors you are doing so to fill rosters with cheap players, the vast majority with little chances of getting to the majors.

    Obviously, there are exceptions – and I have been pleasantly surprised by Stallings hitting this year, given his numbers the past 2-3 years. Prior to this year, he looked like nothing more than a body and bullpen catcher. If this year is not an aberration, he has changed his prospect status dramatically. Kudos to him!

    • The Pirates only drafted three college seniors in the first 20 rounds.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        June 12, 2015 11:08 pm

        I thought the draft was 40 rounds? A more complete answer would include all rounds, not just the first 20.

    • The Cubs drafted seven seniors and only one more HS player than the Pirates, by the way.

  • They only question is can’t wait until that toad called Heredia is bounced from the top 30.