First Pitch: The Most Encouraging Sign For the Pirates’ Long-Term Success

The last two drafts for the Pirates have led to an interesting trend that I’ve noticed since last summer. The Pirates are now picking lower in the draft, and they’re also taking some unconventional approaches.

They’re drafting high OBP guys with low power numbers, and moving some of them to premium defensive positions they haven’t played in years.

They’re relying heavily on scouting, going for guys like Cole Tucker who were ranked lower by national rankings before the draft, but who were actually on the rise right around draft time.

They’re taking players who are young for their level, figuring that some extra value can be had by getting a player in the system for that extra year. And based on how many college players break out as a junior, it’s not a bad idea to get a college junior who is the same age as a sophomore, or even better, a prep player who is a year younger than all other prep players.

The trend I’ve noticed isn’t about the approaches though. It’s about the reactions to the draft. I’ve talked with a lot of people who didn’t like the 2014 draft. I’ve talked with a lot of people who liked the 2015 draft a lot better. I’ve also talked with people who didn’t like 2015, but thought 2014 was better. But one thing I never encountered leading into this year was a person who liked both drafts.

So far this year, there have been encouraging signs from both drafts, which is what you want to see. The 2014 group has Mitch Keller (2nd round), who is looking like the early pick for breakout prospect of the year. Cole Tucker (1st round) will be returning much sooner than anticipated last year when he went down with labrum surgery, and is another top talent to watch. Tyler Eppler (6th round) has arguably been the best starter in Altoona, and the only starter putting up consistent results. Even guys like Frank Duncan (13th round) and Montana DuRapau (32nd round) are having success in the Double-A bullpen.

The 2015 group is off to a great start. Kevin Newman (1st round) and Ke’Bryan Hayes (1st round) are off to strong starts at their respective levels. Brandon Waddell (5th round) makes his Double-A debut tomorrow, almost 11 months after being drafted. JT Brubaker (6th round) and Logan Sendelbach (10th round) are two pitchers showing some promise in West Virginia.

I don’t need to tell you how important it is that the Pirates keep producing talent now that they’re picking lower in the draft. I don’t believe in the idea that small market teams have “windows” in which to contend. That is, I don’t think those “windows” are inevitable. But if you draft poorly once you start picking lower, then you’re going to create a window. Take it from someone who cheers for the Rays on that one.

So it’s important for the Pirates to keep getting talent, despite the lower slot in the draft.

“Good players are taken after the first round, and we’re going to have to be an organization that finds, not only one player in the first round, but we’re going to need to find multiple players throughout the draft,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said to me last week. “Whether it’s because they make direct impact by coming to the big leagues to help us win, or they make an indirect impact because they become players that we can trade to require players to help us win at the Major League level. The depth of the draft is just as important as it was when we were picking at the top of the draft. We still need to find value. We still need to find players that can help our Major League team win again, directly or indirectly.”

The challenge in recent years hasn’t just been the lower spot in the draft, but the lack of money to spend. The Pirates spent more money than any other team in the draft from 2008-2011. The new CBA in 2012 restricted their ability to spend, and their success the last few years only gave them less money to work with. For a team that loaded up on prep players in the past, this severely changes their approach.

“Under the new system, to pay them what most high school players are looking for, you do have to draft them early,” Huntington said. “The ability to take a high school pitcher in the eighth round or the sixth round, and pay him first or second round money, that’s pretty much eliminated. At the same time, Max Moroff is a pick in the teens that we paid above slot, because we negotiated aggressively near the top of the draft, and saved some money to reallocate to some high school players.”

Moroff was actually a Plan B for the Pirates, and someone they turned to with the over-slot money that Mark Appel turned down in the first round. That entire situation has worked out, as the Pirates used Appel’s compensation pick to select Austin Meadows the next year, landed Moroff as a backup plan, and even got Jacob Stallings as one of the players they took to save money for Appel. But the Pirates have also gone their usual route in taking projectable prep pitchers. They just are limited in the approach.

“There’s still the ability to get the prep players,” Huntington said. “It’s just more challenging. You need to either draft them earlier if they’re going to look for a significantly above-slot signing bonus, or you need to negotiate aggressively, and if you’re able to save some money in the top part of the draft because you negotiated aggressively — not because you take a lesser player — but because you negotiate aggressively, you’re able to save some money for those later picks, and you end up getting a Max Moroff on occasion.”

The Pirates got Moroff in 2012. Their 2013 middle round success stories so far have been Chad Kuhl (9th round) and Erich Weiss (11th round). Both were college picks, although Weiss got an over-slot bonus to sign. Mitch Keller is standing out from the 2014 group, and Ke’Bryan Hayes isn’t a middle round guy, but he’s also off to a great start.

You can see the new approach with guys like Keller and Hayes. The Pirates took prep players early in the past, but most of their over-slot guys were middle round picks. Now, if they want to give Keller a $1 M bonus, they need to take him in the second round. And they rarely go over-slot now between rounds 4-10, only doing that four times total since the new CBA took over in 2012.

But Hayes and Keller are encouraging examples that they can still find projectable talent, even if that talent needs to be drafted higher.

“Ke’Bryan has gotten off to a great start offensively and defensively,” Huntington said. “It’s fun to watch him run around the field. The life that he brings, the defense that he brings, but also the thunder in the bat, and the mature approach he can bring offensively. There’s a lot of things to like there. And Keller… The bar that he’s set — the ability to get swings and misses with multiple pitches, the ability to strike people out and pitch from an effective pitch count measure, very low pitches, and getting multiple strikeouts. The ability to get hitters out on three pitches or less, despite striking double-digit guys out. It’s been very encouraging.”

All of this is even more encouraging for the upcoming draft in a little over a month. The Pirates pick 22nd overall, and have just under $7 M to spend, which is their lowest budget under Neal Huntington. Their ability to get talent in the top rounds while picking low (Keller, Tucker, Hayes), along with their ability to find value in the middle rounds (Kuhl, Moroff, Eppler, Waddell) speaks well for their ability to keep the system flowing with talent, even if their new draft situation puts them at more of a disadvantage than in the past.

**Tomorrow we will have a special feature on the site from James Santelli, and I’ll have an article on one of the high draft picks from recent years, along with other news throughout the day. Subscribe to get that, plus all of our other great daily coverage of the system that you can’t find anywhere else.

**How Ke’Bryan Hayes Benefits From Growing Up in a Family of Baseball Players. Speaking of Hayes, I talked with him last week about what is working for him in West Virginia. We also broke down some things that occasionally go wrong with his stance, which he worked to adjust over the weekend. You should also check out my articles from last week on Mitch Keller and Kevin Newman, which were two of my favorite articles to write this year.

**Prospect Watch: Seven Shutout Innings From Jameson Taillon. The latest gem from Jameson Taillon, plus my live report from Bradenton.

**Trevor Williams Will Pitch a Simulated Game on Friday. An injury update on Williams, who will pitch a sim game on Friday.

**Top Performers: Glasnow, Taillon, Joe, Polo, Brault, Kuhl, Garcia, Waddell. One of my favorite features of the week, this one having 18 prospect reports from what we’ve seen either covering these guys live, watching video of them, or both.

**Morning Report: Josh Bell’s Defense and Steven Brault’s Performance Last Night. John Dreker with more detailed breakdowns.

**Jason Creasy Placed on Disabled List, Brandon Waddell Promotion Made Official. Minor moves throughout the system, with Jason Creasy going to the DL and Waddell officially added to Altoona’s roster.

  • I did not like either of the last two drafts but now I see that they have potential to produce some big league players (I hope). Besides picking at the top of the draft with limited money to spend, they also have limited pool amounts for international signings. Yes, they have been successful by signing allot of players for small amounts but will that success continue going forward? From what I am seeing the Bucs are stocking up on last years international rejects or to put it nicely those players that did not sign with any team when they were 16 years old, and hoping that one or more develops into a star player. Sure it will work, look at Marte and Polanco but will that approach continue to work in the future? Seems like at this point they should blow through the pool next year and acquire some high priced talent. If they fail, they fail. What did it cost them but a couple of million dollars. But if those high priced signings succeed and become great players then you hit the jackpot. Seems like most teams have tried this approach, so why not the Pirates? Why because they got lucky in the past and are to dam cheap to go all in. Forgive the misspelling here buy Portreal and other recent high priced singings (you mean $400,000 signings as high priced?) do not seem to be doing to well. I hope he and the others prove me wrong but when you do not pay you do not seem to get value. I know PP writers do not agree with me on this but I will keep on saying it until I see the Pirates for once go all in and spend a buc to acquire some high priced international talent. To bad they blew the Sano signing and maybe that made them gun shy and if that didn’t then Heridia certainly did.

  • It is encouraging, but the proof will be in the pudding for these draftees once they hit the MLB level.

  • The 2014 Draft was excellent; the 2015 Draft could be even better. That said, I thought the draft of Kramer in the 2nd Round was truly unnecessary since Newman was drafted in the 1st Round, and whoever recommended Casey Hughston as a 3rd Round pick should look for a new profession.

    After that, the 4th Round thru 10th Round was very strong and included 6 JC or College pitchers who all seem to be doing well. Then there are some younger pitching possibilities in 14th Rounder Chris Plitt, and 19th Rounder Ike Schlabach. And then at the end they picked up two college relievers in RH Closer, Tate Scioneaux in Round 39, and LH Reliever Daniel Zamora in Round 40.

    What happens in 2016? Without any immediate needs or gaps in the system at any position, you cannot go wrong going back to an emphasis on HS pitching. However, in the first round, Eric Lauer, LHP, Kent State, No. 6 Rated Prospect in the Cape Cod League last Summer where he went 4 – 1, 2.04 ERA, 40 IP, 50K/18W. A very strong athlete, and his ERA this season was around 0.90 the last I looked maybe a week ago.

    • I thought John’s series on the draft were very thorough.

      But, as I stated above, we won’t be able to put a final grade on a year until we see how they perform in the majors.

    • Darren Mazeroski was the scout. Don’t give up on Hughston just yet. Power hitters usually struggle some when drafted. We can’t have all punch and judy hitters. The Cubs have high power hitters that are selective, leading the league in walks and cutting down on strike outs. If you have a team that lacks power, then you have to have hitting with men in scoring position, like the Cardinal’s had in 2014. It seems, and this is not a bad thing, that when a franchise is weak at a position they over compensate and draft/trade for that position. The Pirates did it with Catching and now 1st base. It’s just human nature to over compensate.

      • Chuck: He’s a kid who is trying hard, and I hope he does well. Not his fault that the Pirates did not do their job. To be drafted in the Top 100, you have to be very special. The year he was drafted, he batted .332 overall for Alabama, but a closer look would have identified that in that same year he only hit .208 in 30 conference games in the SEC with 35 K’s in 120 AB’s. His strikeout numbers continued at Short-Season in 2015 and have gotten worse at Lo A this year. It is obvious he is not seeing the ball.

        The last time I mentioned him I suggested taking him out of the lineup and allowing him to go back to the basics of hitting off a tee, in the cage, one-on-one with a hitting instructor. Then if he starts concentrating on contact driving the ball up the middle, put him back in the lineup but possibly lower in the order – not as the clean-up hitter, where much is automatically expected. Bad habits do not disappear on their own – hard work away from the field can do a world of good for this kid right now.

        • I remember playing ball and hit from the right side. My senior year in HS i started switch hitting. It seemed I couldn’t hit the pitch on the outer half of the plate. Of course I was trying to pull everything because I had more power from my dominate side. But, in HS kids didn’t throw to a spot and I was able to hit lefty pretty good. I read somewhere Hughston crushes everything inside, but like me could not cover the outside pitch. But in the pro’s it only takes a couple of games to find that out and professional pitchers won’t miss on the outside. Just me thinking back over 50 yrs.