The MLB draft used to be so easy to cover for the Pirates. At the start of the season, you’d pick out a small group of guys — maybe two one year, maybe up to ten the next. You could then narrow it all down and say which guy looked the best, usually picking between guys with the highest upsides in the draft.
Of course, this was all easy because the Pirates were picking at the top of the draft. And they were picking high in the draft because they were a horrible team. Personally, I hope it never gets easy again, even if that means we have to write about over 100 different players throughout each year as possibilities for that first round pick.
The last two years we’ve learned that it’s pretty impossible to predict who the Pirates will take in the first round. Then again, that’s not much different from all of the years before the last two years. Every time you tried to dive into their draft trends, and say they favored one type of player, or avoided another type of player, they went against that trend. Before drafting Jameson Taillon, it was said they didn’t like prep pitchers in the first round. Before drafting Gerrit Cole, it was said they didn’t like college pitchers, and felt prep pitchers had less risk.
If you step back and look at the larger trends, the Pirates are still operating the same that they always have been. They seem to genuinely be taking the best available player on their board, even if that doesn’t line up with the rankings. That caused some outrage in 2014 when they took Cole Tucker, but it turned out that having Tucker ranked higher than some of the other prep position players that year was the right call.
They’ve been on a run where they’ve drafted hitters in the first round the last few years, with Austin Meadows/Reese McGuire in 2013, Cole Tucker/Connor Joe in 2014, and Kevin Newman/Ke’Bryan Hayes in 2015. But they’re not shying away from pitchers. Mitch Keller, Trey Supak, and Gage Hinsz were some of their highest paid players in 2014, and they went over-slot on pitchers in 2013 (Neil Kozikowski) and 2015 (Jacob Taylor).
The one key difference lately has been the type of hitter they have drafted. They’ve been going for guys who can hit for average, get on base, limit strikeouts, and while these guys don’t hit for home run power, they do have gap power and speed to get extra bases. They typically play a premium defensive position, or can be moved to a premium defensive position. I’ve been reporting on this for a few years now, and the interesting thing is that the approach is now carrying over to the majors, with the Pirates focusing on the same type of hitters.
There have been some story lines to follow for this draft, but we’re probably not going to get an idea on the day one picks until the moment the Pirates make their selections. However, to see what type of talent is available, check out our Top 100 Tiered Rankings from earlier today. And now, let’s take a look at the bigger stories heading into the draft.
The Pittsburgh Kids
If there’s one thing Pittsburgh fans love, it’s a local player. This draft has two of them who are sure to be first rounders. Unfortunately for the Pirates, and for Pirates fans, it seems unlikely that either player will drop to pick number 22.
Alex Kirilloff is a prep outfielder from Plum High School with plus raw power. He’s got the ability to play center field, although he has a plus arm and profiles better in right field in the long-term. The Pirates certainly don’t have a need for outfielders in the short-term or the long-term, but the draft isn’t really about need, and they shouldn’t pass on him if he falls to them. All of this is probably moot though, as he won’t be falling to them.
T.J. Zeuch seems to be the more likely of the two to fall to the Pirates. He’s a right-handed pitcher from Pitt, with a fastball that sits 92-94 MPH, with good downward movement from a 6′ 7″ frame. That already sounds like a Pirates pick. He throws a slider and a changeup, but needs to really improve his secondary stuff in the minors.
Kirilloff is a guy you’d take, Pittsburgh or no Pittsburgh, just because of the talent and upside. That’s also why he’s unlikely to be there at number 22. Zeuch would be good for that pick, but this is a case where being from Pittsburgh might elevate his appeal, as he doesn’t stand out from the other guys who are ranked around the number 22 pick. We had him in our third tier in our rankings, which is the group that makes sense for the 22nd pick. That group contains 15 players, and the Pirates will have their choice of at least 10 of those players.
It would be a nice story if the Pirates got another Pittsburgh kid, but the best guy might not fall to them, and the other guy shouldn’t be drafted based on his college team alone.
Drafting a Reliever?
One of the interesting notes that has made a few mock drafts is that the Pirates are one of the teams interested in Louisville right-handed pitcher Zack Burdi. The big appeal with Burdi is that he can hit triple digits with his fastball as a reliever, while sitting 97-99 MPH. He also has a plus changeup and a slider that can be plus at times. And there are some who have said he could pitch in the majors as a reliever this year.
The Pirates have never taken a relief pitcher in the first round, unless you count Vic Black, who was a compensation pick at number 49, back when the first round lasted forever. Black also profiled as a reliever, but was a starter in college at Dallas Baptist. So this is one of those cases where you’d say the Pirates would never make the move because they never have made the move, but the reality is that their past drafting has never really predicted the future.
Burdi is an interesting story, because there are two ways to look at it. The first way is to dream on how he could help the Pirates in the short-term and the long-term. That dream includes him arriving in the majors this year, helping to boost a bullpen that really needs a lot of help, and then returning to the minors next year and seeing if he can work out as a starter. Or, if he does work well as a reliever, then maybe he’s the replacement for Mark Melancon for the next six years. That wouldn’t be bad for a first round pick.
But then there’s the realistic way of looking at this. It is far from a guarantee that Burdi would be up this year. That has nothing to do with the idea that the Pirates wouldn’t promote him aggressively. It has everything to do with the fact that it’s extremely hard to go from college to the majors, especially when you consider that Burdi has some command issues to work through. And what is the best case scenario here? That he becomes Brandon Finnegan, who pitched a few innings in September 2014, and struggled in his time in the post-season. Finnegan has continued his success since that season, but if you’re drafting Burdi just for help this year, you’re using a valuable pick on something that might not even happen, and won’t provide a lot of value if it does happen.
We ranked Burdi in tier 4. That’s the group made up of players who would be a bit of a reach for the first round pick, but who would be outstanding for the second pick (#41). If Burdi did fall to 41st overall, I think he’d be a no-brainer there. Then the risk would be worth it, as you’re probably not passing over a few guys with higher upsides.
But all logic aside, Burdi is a fun story to think about. The Pirates have a great offense, a lot of top pitching prospects starting to arrive to help their struggling rotation, and the one area of need is the bullpen. They’ve got a loaded farm system, and could spare using a pick for short-term help. And there’s a draft pick who could have a shot at helping this year, in the one area where they need help. In a perfect world, Burdi is the obvious pick, and he comes up this year and makes a nice impact. But realistically, it’s far from a guarantee that he comes up this year, and if he doesn’t, then you drafted a guy with a lower upside for nothing.
We’ll be tracking the draft the next three days, with the best Pirates draft coverage you can find. If you’re not a subscriber, be sure to sign up today to get the upcoming draft coverage, plus all of our great coverage from around the system.
**Speaking of great coverage, we’re now entering one of the busiest times of the year. Over the next two months we will have coverage of draft signings, international signings, trade rumors, trades, minor league promotions, major league debuts, and that’s not including all of our regular coverage. You’re probably going to be flooded with articles, with about ten per day on average, all on the Pirates. It looks like that already started today, as you can see in the links below. Our subscribers have no shortage of great Pirates content to read.
**Pirates Prospects 2016 MLB Draft Top 100 Tiered Rankings. Our tiered rankings, to get you prepared for tomorrow. Also, be sure to bookmark our Draft Pick Signing Tracker.
**Jameson Taillon Looked Like He Belongs in the Big Leagues in Pro Debut. Alan Saunders recaps Taillon’s debut, noting that he looks like he belongs in the big leagues. I’d agree. The stat line wasn’t the best, but that serves as a reminder of how big that jump is from Triple-A to the majors. Taillon looked as polished as you can get, and in my opinion, Super Two was the only thing holding him back to this point. But even with the great numbers in Triple-A, and the polished stuff, he had a start that saw a few struggles and a stat line that would get Jeff Locke destroyed.
And this is all normal. It’s very rare that a pitcher, no matter how ready, comes up and dominates from day one. What I saw tonight was a guy who was big league ready, but will have a few bumps along the way, before really settling down at some point this season and starting to reach his upside. I saw that in Indianapolis as well. It’s not what I see in Tyler Glasnow right now, but he’ll get there. Taillon tonight reminded me a lot of how Cole looked in 2013. He was ready for the big leagues, but didn’t have great results at first. After about a month of adjusting, he started looking like a good pitcher, and once September rolled around, he was lights out. Let’s hope for the same from Taillon this year. I think he can do it.
**Pirates Players ‘Excited’ for Taillon’s Debut, Reflect on Their Own Debuts. Alan also talked with a few players prior to the game who reflected back to their own debuts, and who were excited to see Taillon.
**The Book on Jameson Taillon. Here was my preview on Taillon, with everything you need to know about his game.
**Pirates Officially Call Up Jameson Taillon, Option Curtis Partch to Indianapolis. With Partch going down, the Pirates are short a reliever, which almost led to a position player pitching tonight, if they would have tied the game. I’d expect them to make a move to fix this and get another reliever up soon.
**Prospect Watch: Meadows Extends Hit Streak with Home Run. How good has Austin Meadows been lately? Between Andrew McCutchen struggling, and Austin Meadows showing why he’s one of the top prospects in baseball, I don’t think it’s going to be controversial anymore to refer to Meadows as the guy who will replace McCutchen in a few years.
**Injury Updates: Starling Marte Still Sidelined; Ryan Vogelsong Begins Recovery. Alan Saunders has the latest injury updates from Pittsburgh.
**Minor Moves: JT Brubaker Promoted to Bradenton. Flying under the radar today, the Pirates promoted their sixth round pick last year, sending him up to Bradenton. In the article, I break down his stuff and what he achieved in West Virginia this year.
**Morning Report: Draft News and Notes. John Dreker has some news and notes on the draft. We’ll have all of the final mock drafts and updates throughout the day tomorrow.