At the end of the day, the Pittsburgh Pirates insisted that their only strategy for day one of the draft was to take the best player available. General Manager Neal Huntington and Scouting Director Joe DelliCarri both stressed that when asked about taking three position players with their first three picks of the 2015 draft.
Maybe the Pirates were going best available, and it’s only coincidental that they continued a growing trend of drafting hitters early over the last few years. But in the process of going best available, they definitely added players that will help fill two positional weaknesses in the minor league system.
The Pirates took Arizona shortstop Kevin Newman with the 19th overall pick. They followed that up by taking prep third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes with the 32nd overall pick, which they received for losing Russell Martin. With their final day one pick, they went back to taking a college shortstop, selecting UCLA shortstop Kevin Kramer.
“It’s a good year for shortstops, and a good year for middle of the diamond players,” Huntington said. “Each draft has strengths. Each draft has challenges, and this just happened to be a good year for middle of the diamond players — shortstops, second basemen in particular. We feel very fortunate to get two guys that we like their overall package. And Ke’Bryan as a corner bat, we like his upside and overall package as well.”
In an earlier conference call with the media, Newman said that a lot of teams started to notice him after his performance in the Cape Cod league. However, the Pirates had been scouting him before that, and Newman even noted that the Pirates were one of the most active teams on him.
“We started following him a little bit earlier,” DelliCarri said, noting that their scouting presence at Arizona has been strong for a few years. “Kevin did a nice job through his first season in the Cape. In all fairness to our group, I would say he’s been on the radar for longer than a year.”
Huntington noted that the Pirates liked Newman’s growth and maturation — including physical, mental, and fundamental — while also highlighting some of the key attributes of his game.
“We like the athletic ability,” Huntington said. “We like the arm, the feet, the hands on defense. We like the run tool. We like the bat. He can handle the barrel. He’s going to make hard contact, and we believe he’s going to have some gap power with a nice overall package.”
The Pirates took a second college shortstop with Kevin Kramer in the second round, while also completing their future Seinfeld middle infield. There are questions about whether Kramer can stick at shortstop, especially after having labrum surgery that caused him to miss all of the 2014 season. DelliCarri said that he had a solid throwing arm, and showed good strength after the surgery through the end of the season.
“Our guys did a really good job to see good signs of that coming back,” DelliCarri said of his scouting department. “Not just coming back, but signs of it being there again.”
Obviously with two college shortstops being selected in the early rounds, it might be difficult to find playing time for both at the shortstop position. Newman will most definitely get the priority. Kramer could go to Bristol to get everyday time at the position, or he could get some time at the position in Morgantown, while also getting reps at second and third base. Next year it might be more difficult for Kramer to get time at shortstop, as the Pirates will have Newman and 2014 first round pick Cole Tucker taking up the A-ball starting jobs. My early guess is that Newman will skip over Tucker to Bradenton, with the young 2014 pick spending another year in West Virginia.
It’s not like the Pirates can’t develop two guys as shortstops at the same time. Several years ago they had Chase d’Arnaud and Jordy Mercer rotating at the position at each level, and eventually Mercer emerged as the better option. They could take a similar approach here.
As for their other first round pick, Ke’Bryan Hayes is a strong defensive third baseman who has good line drive power and the potential to add more power in the future, although the reports on him have him as a glove-first third baseman who can provide some offensive value. He’s also the son of former big leaguer Charlie Hayes, who spent 14 years in the majors, including the 1996 season with the Pirates. DelliCarri said that this was an advantage, as it gave Hayes what he needed to control and slow down the game.
There were a few trends that existed here, going beyond the “Best Player Available” thought. Specifically, these trends involved what the Pirates look for in position players. I’ve reported several times that their philosophy was to take athletic players with good bats, and try to teach them defense at a premium position. Huntington confirmed that approach tonight, saying they focus on the bat first.
“Our philosophy has been, and continues to be, we believe in the hitter first,” Huntington said. “Then there are attributes that we look beyond the hitter and the hitter traits. Particularly guys in the middle of the diamond, the defensive qualities. The guys at the corner of the diamond, what kind of power we think that they’ll have down the road. As a core covenant, we believe in hitter first.”
Huntington said that all three guys drafted exhibit those traits. All three of them lacked good power grades or upside, with the best case being good gap power for each player. However, the Pirates haven’t been afraid to shy away from traditional power (the home run) in favor of guys who can hit for extra bases and hit really well in the process. Huntington noted that they believe, with the right contributing elements, the power will come if the player has an ability to hit.
The Pirates have added a few options the last few years at shortstop and third base, although the two positions still remain weak spots in the organization. Today’s picks may have just been the “Best Players Available”, but in the process they helped to fill two system needs, and strengthen the depth and options at two of the weakest positions in the farm system.