My plan for tonight was to discuss the Pirates’ history and track record with drafting prep pitchers. I was going to be discussing this because today’s featured prospect in our top 20 countdown was Mitch Keller, who is the best prep pitcher they’ve drafted in recent years.
It was inevitable that the discussion on prep pitchers would touch on the disaster that was the 2009 draft. But that wasn’t going to be the main focus of the story, because focusing on how bad the 2009 draft turned out is a story that we’ve written many times. It didn’t need to be written again.
And then, Tony Sanchez was designated for assignment today, which made it difficult to talk about prep pitchers and make it seem like you’re not focusing solely on the 2009 draft. So this will primarily be a focus on what happened with that draft, but I’ll get to the Keller part in a later section.
The Pirates took Sanchez with the fourth overall pick in 2009, passing up on a lot of high-priced prep pitchers. Those guys included Shelby Miller, Zack Wheeler, and Jacob Turner. They also included Tyler Matzek, Matt Purke, and Chad James. And while Miller and Wheeler stand out from the group now (with Turner having some trade value over the years), there was no standout at the time, and the entire group looked weak compared to other years, despite the fact that they were asking for the same big bonuses that stronger classes received.
Rather than roll the dice with one of the prep pitchers, the Pirates reached for Sanchez, who was rated as a late first round pick. They weren’t the only team that reached. The Orioles followed them by taking Matt Hobgood with the fifth pick. The Braves took Mike Minor seventh, and the Reds took Mike Leake eighth. Both were safe, low upside picks at the time, and both worked better than the Sanchez and Hobgood picks.
The pick of Sanchez was made so that the Pirates could load up on prep pitchers in the middle rounds. They spent big on Zack Von Rosenberg ($1.2 M), Colton Cain ($1.125 M), Brooks Pounders ($670,000), Zack Dodson ($600,000), and Trent Stevenson ($350,000). Von Rosenberg was the big guy, taken in the sixth round, but rated the 41st best prospect in the draft by Baseball America. Cain was ranked 109th, and Stevenson was rated 197th.
None of the prep pitchers amounted to much. Cain was dealt as one of three players for Wandy Rodriguez. Pounders was dealt for Yamaico Navarro. Stevenson retired early, and Von Rosenberg retired this year after each struggled to add velocity with their tall, projectable frames. Dodson was the best of the bunch, and just left the Pirates to join the Orioles as a minor league free agent. I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds more opportunities there, since he won’t be in such a crowded system where he is further down on the depth charts.
So the Pirates reached for Sanchez, saving money rather than taking a top prep pitcher, and they used the money saved to load up on prep pitchers, with none of those guys working out. The prep pitcher part wasn’t a mistake, and I’ll get to this later. But let’s focus on Sanchez, since it seems appropriate to take that look today.
The pick of Sanchez in hindsight looks really bad, and it looked bad on draft day. The Pirates were a team clearly in rebuilding mode, and needed to focus on upside as much as possible. Sanchez wasn’t a bad prospect at the time, and there was some upside. Here was the pre-draft report from Baseball America:
“Sanchez, who grew up playing with Miami shortstop Ryan Jackson in South Florida, dreamed of playing for the Hurricanes when he was younger, but he was overweight and overlooked by many recruiters out of high school. He’s slimmed down by 35 pounds in three years at Boston College and made himself into one of the nation’s premier college catchers. Sanchez is a slightly above-average major league defender with soft hands, quick feet and a solid-average to plus arm. He excels at framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. Offensively, Sanchez has solid-average power, but his bat is not a sure thing. He punishes fastballs but struggles mightily against breaking balls, though he’s an intelligent enough hitter to lay off breaking stuff that he cannot hit. He has a mature approach at the plate and excellent makeup on the field and off.”
The problem with Sanchez eventually became that his bat did start to develop, but then his defense started to decline, he developed a case of the yips with his throwing, and his entire game started a downward spiral. That happens. Prospects don’t work out a lot of the time.
But the Pirates shouldn’t have been in that situation with Sanchez to begin with. In 2008 they drafted Pedro Alvarez — a big bonus first rounder — and still had room for over-slot deals for guys like Robbie Grossman and Quinton Miller.
This is where the other 2009 blunder comes in, and that was with Miguel Sano. There was a belief that the Pirates were not only saving money for the prep pitchers, but also saving money for Sano. They didn’t get Sano, with part of that being their fault, and part of that being an agent looking to stick it to the organization. I don’t really want to get sidetracked on Sano though. I don’t care about him nearly as much as Pirates fans do. When I think of Sano, I think of how I traded him in a keeper league this summer for Jake Arrieta and Corey Kluber before Arrieta’s big breakout in the second half. My Sano memory would be pretty favorable, except I lost in the championship, frustratingly because my pitching staff had a bad week. But I digress.
The Pirates went signability for Sanchez, spending the money on a group of over-slot prep players and saving money for a top international prospect, rather than spending money on an uncertain guy in the first round. But even that was a mistake, and this isn’t using the hindsight of how the situation played out. And maybe they learned their lesson the following year.
In 2010, the Pirates had another draft where they had a few top prep guys to take. They were deciding between Manny Machado and Jameson Taillon, and while Machado looks like the better pick right now, they went with Taillon, who I still think will work out well for them. Both players were much stronger than the 2009 prep class, so this is a bit of a different situation. But they followed this by taking Stetson Allie and giving him $2.25 M in the second round. They went over-slot on Nick Kingham and a few guys in the later rounds, after some of their top ten round deals fell through due to MLB’s process of delaying over-slot signings.
Not only did they spend in the first round AND on over-slot deals in later rounds, but they went big on the international market. They gave Luis Heredia a $3 M bonus that year (a move that hasn’t worked out for them either), on top of the normal budget they had (so far, the best guys from the rest of the 2010-11 class were Jin-De Jhang, Carlos Munoz, and Edwin Espinal). They did the same thing in 2011 when they spent big on Gerrit Cole in the first, went over-slot in the middle rounds, spent huge on Josh Bell, and went big in signing Harold Ramirez and Elvis Escobar.
Overall, the mistake here was that the Pirates shouldn’t have gone the signability route, even with all other factors considered. At a time when they needed upside, they didn’t go that route with the fourth pick, which is a pick where you need huge upside (although the draft had a steep drop off after the first two or three picks).
Granted, the rankings at the time might not have helped them. Jacob Turner was the best ranked player in the prep pitcher bunch, being rated fifth overall by Baseball America. Maybe things would have turned out better for him in Pittsburgh, but if he had the same outcome, we’d be talking about a more expensive mistake right now, without using the term “reach”. Next up was Tyler Matzek, and then Matt Purke. The fourth and fifth ranked prep pitchers? Shelby Miller and Zack Wheeler.
On the college pitching side, the Reds did a good job in getting Mike Leake. He was rated 14th overall. Guys rated ahead of him were Alex White, Aaron Crow, and Tanner Scheppers, who the Pirates drafted, but couldn’t sign, in 2008. Kyle Gibson was also ranked higher, but fell on draft day due to injury concerns.
So it seems pretty unlikely that the Pirates would have ended up with a result much better than Sanchez, unless they happened to favor Shelby Miller or Mike Leake over higher ranked guys. Or, maybe they could have gotten a hold of a crystal ball so they could take the 22nd ranked prospect, Mike Trout. They could have even gone another signability route and drafted Wil Myers (who was ranked one spot ahead of Sanchez) and ended up with one of the biggest hyped prospects in baseball in recent years.
Maybe it would have worked out better if they would have drafted a player who was a better fit for the number four spot. But it doesn’t seem like the odds were strong for this happening. Still, that type of move not working out would have been more excusable than the Sanchez move, since the Pirates would have been going for upside across the board. That was a time when every spare dollar should have been going to building the farm system, rather than guys like Ramon Vazquez and Eric Hinske. And they showed in 2010 and 2011 that they could afford to spend on an expensive first round guy, over-slot middle round guys, and a special exception on the international side. So that made the Sanchez decision look worse.
At this point, the Pirates have nothing remaining from the 2009 draft, unless you count Mark Melancon, who was acquired for Joel Hanrahan and 2009 9th round pick Brock Holt. The worst part of the draft is that the three best players are Holt (traded away), Jake Lamb (didn’t sign as a 38th rounder), and Matt den Dekker (didn’t sign as a 16th rounder, but one of those guys who I’ve heard the Pirates had a deal with, only to see it fall through due to MLB dragging their feet). So the Pirates did draft some good talent, but none of them are in Pittsburgh.
Fortunately, 2009 stands out as an outlier when you look at the other drafts. The 2008 group had Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, and Justin Wilson, who led to Francisco Cervelli. The 2010 group still has Taillon and Nick Kingham set to arrive in the upcoming year or two. The 2011 group looks to be a monster class after Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell arrive this year.
But that 2009 draft was a disaster, and if Sanchez is gone (I think he’ll get claimed by a team needing a catcher), that would completely close the book on the class.
So What About the Prep Pitchers?
My original intent tonight was to discuss the strategy of taking prep pitchers, in relation to Mitch Keller. The Pirates spent a lot on over-slot prep pitchers from 2008-2011, before MLB changed the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In fact, they spent about $8 M in bonuses on these guys, which was the same amount Gerrit Cole received. Cole got that money because he was a strong bet to realize his upside as an ace — or at least as strong of a bet as you can be as a top prospect.
Putting that in perspective, the prep pitcher approach from 2008-2011 will be a success if just one of those players can emerge as a top of the rotation guy like Cole, and Tyler Glasnow is that guy (I don’t count Taillon in the 2008-11 group, since he was a first round pick). The entire purpose of taking so many over-slot prep pitchers was that maybe one or two would see huge developments in the system, and give the Pirates a steal. Glasnow has been that guy, and 2016 could be the year where he transitions to the majors and starts making his way to being an ace. Add in Nick Kingham and Clay Holmes as some of the guys who could also make the majors, and the prep pitcher approach will have worked out, even if the 2009 guys were a disaster That’s why I don’t think taking them was a mistake — you need to take a ton of these guys to better your odds that one will work out.
And this brings me to Mitch Keller. The Pirates are still taking over-slot prep pitchers under the new CBA, although their process is a bit different. They take these guys in the early rounds, or sign fewer of them in the middle-to-late rounds. They also have been going for more JuCo guys, who still come with the chance of rapid improvement in the system, although a bit less than the prep guys.
When the Pirates traded Trey Supak, there were complaints that they traded a guy with such high upside. And Supak does have a lot of upside. But if the 2008-11 drafts taught us anything, it’s that high upside arms reaching that high upside is a rarity. Dealing one prep arm isn’t a problem. You hope it’s not the one who breaks out, and the odds are going to be in your favor. Whether you deal for a guy like Jason Rogers remains to be seen by how he ends up working out.
As for Keller, he’s just another high upside arm, and the best one in the system from the 2012-15 drafts. But if the Pirates want another Glasnow, or even another Kingham or Holmes, they’ll need to continue drafting a lot of prep pitchers. And since they can’t draft as many prep pitchers under the current system, it might take 6-8 drafts to get enough pitchers for a Glasnow to emerge, rather than four years like the previous system.
For now, Keller is the top guy to watch, but none of them are in Glasnow territory yet.
**Pirates Agree With Neftali Feliz on a One Year Deal. The big move today, with full analysis on what this could mean for the bullpen and Mark Melancon.
**Pirates Designate Tony Sanchez For Assignment. Some quick analysis on the Sanchez move, which was the corresponding move for Feliz.
**Pirates Q&A: Off-Season, Polanco Extension, Number Three Starter, Payroll. This week’s Q&A feature.
**Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 Top Prospects: #18 – Mitch Keller. We will be rolling out a player per day for the top 20 countdown. If you buy your copy of the Prospect Guide, you’ll get all of the reports, along with our grades, and the reports of the 21-50 prospects and every other player in the system. It’s the most information you can find on the Pirates’ system, and the cheapest price you can find for a prospect book this time of year, especially with the Top Prospect and Annual discounts.