At the start of the year, I moved across Bradenton, getting closer to Pirate City. That wasn’t the goal of the move, just a fortunate side effect. After day one of the Pirates’ 2017 draft, I might have to move again, getting a bit closer to the minor league complex, and maybe even trying to get a dorm room at Pirate City.
The Pirates drafted four prep players on day one, and assuming they can sign them all, that would put all four players in the GCL this summer, which means I’ll be spending a lot of time in the Florida sun each afternoon.
The first two picks saw the Pirates drafting high school pitchers, with right-handed pitcher Shane Baz going 12th overall, and right-handed pitcher Steve Jennings going with the 42nd overall pick. The next two picks saw prep outfielders getting taken, with Cal Mitchell going 50th overall, and Conner Uselton going 72nd.
“Through four picks — and we have 38 picks to go — we felt like we have the potential to add two quality arms and two quality bats to the system,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said.
The Pirates didn’t go in with a focus to take a lot of prep players in this draft, but said that this was how the board fell to them. The combination of this many prep pitchers — plus rumors that Baz might be difficult to sign — leads to the question of whether they can sign all four players.
“We don’t always get them signed,” Huntington said. “That is a challenge. We’ve run that situation a few times in the past. We felt that [Baz] was the best pick for this organization at this point in time. We felt that we have a legitimate chance to have him join the Pirates, but we recognize there is a risk that he might not get done, and we’d get the 13th pick next year. But we’re going to do everything in our power to have this player join the Pirates.”
If the Pirates can get all four players signed, they will give the lower levels of the system a nice boost in talent, filling an area that has shown some weakness in the last few years.
A Growing Amount of Pitching Depth
The Pirates added two high-upside arms in Shane Baz and Steve Jennings. Obviously Baz is ahead of Jennings in his development, with a 92-96 MPH fastball that touches 98, and the potential for three plus pitches. Jennings sits 89-92 MPH, hitting 95, and has the chance for a plus breaking pitch to pair with a future plus fastball.
The Pirates already have strong pitching depth throughout their system, but most of the talent in the upper levels has settled in as back of the rotation starters, with a few guys like Nick Kingham and Clay Holmes who can be a number three or four starter in the big leagues. But there is a growing amount of high-upside pitching in the lower levels, and Baz and Jennings add to that group.
Mitch Keller is obviously the leader of this group, and his rotation mates in Bradenton — Taylor Hearn and Gage Hinsz — both have the stuff to be much more than back of the rotation starters. Luis Escobar is another promising arm with more than back of the rotation stuff, pitching in West Virginia. Last year’s prep class saw quick promise from left-hander Braeden Ogle and right-hander Max Kranick, along with two projectable pitchers in Travis MacGregor and Austin Shields. Add Baz and Jennings in the mix, and the Pirates have some impressive pitching depth growing in the lower levels.
Baz is closer to Keller than any of the other pitchers on this list, but still has some things to work on. Some of the reports about him said that his fastball can be a bit hittable. Huntington pointed out that the pitch also has action and movement, which intrigues them.
“We’re looking forward to finishing the signing process, getting him in the organization, developing all of his pitches, developing his ability to use and recognize swings,” Huntington said. “People can write a lot of different things, and we certainly have our internal information that we’re excited to potentially add this player to our system.”
Scouting director Joe DelliCarri liked that Baz was a competitor, and said that the team was “very hopeful” in getting something done with the first round pick, noting that they would be starting the work to sign him right after the conference call with the media.
“Really, really competitive pitcher,” DelliCarri said. “We talked about the stuff being plus or positive across the board. Believing in Shane’s background and how he competes.”
I wrote earlier after talking with Baz that he had some praise for the organization and how they’ve developed pitchers. He briefly discussed his relationship with area scout Wayne Mathis — who will play a big role in getting Baz signed — describing Mathis as “awesome.” DelliCarri felt there was a good connection with Baz.
“I do think there was a connection there with our organization with his past experiences with some teams, and then Wayne followed through and connected real closely with Shane’s parents and Shane himself right from the start,” DelliCarri said. “He was complimentary of the organization, that’s great to hear. We’re awfully proud of our people and humble to work together with this group, and Wayne is one of those guys.”
While Baz is a bit more polished, and would probably follow a path similar to Jameson Taillon with a more aggressive push, it’s likely that Jennings would follow a path similar to prep pitchers like Ogle and Kranick. He’s got some promising stuff, and the Pirates were following him closely right from the start as a possibility for their draft. One thing that really stood out to them was his quick return from a torn ACL last fall.
“To come back from the ACL injury, roughly a time frame of four and a half months to start and get on the mound in the early part of the season, was impressive,” DelliCarri said. “I think they did a nice job in his workload and how they used him. It all came together in front of us right from the start. Area supervisor Jerry Jordan has known the player since before the spring. … He was ready to go right from the start. All the credit to Steven, and all the credit to the people around him. Right from the start, we were following him right out of the chute.”
Baz is a guy who the Pirates hope will hit his upside, while Jennings would be another guy to add to the growing group of prep pitchers, hoping that if you draft enough of them, one of them might break out and become a top prospect — something that already happened with Keller, and could happen again with Ogle and/or Kranick.
Adding Some Position Player Depth
While the Pirates have a lot of pitching depth in the lower levels, they are short on hitting prospects. Part of this is the aggressive nature in which they promote pitchers. The college guys who are advanced go right to Bradenton in their first year, and move up in their second year. Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer — the first and second round picks in 2015 — are already in Altoona.
Even the prep hitters move quickly, with Ke’Bryan Hayes already in Bradenton, despite being drafted in 2015. By comparison, a prep pitcher drafted in 2015 wouldn’t reach Bradenton until 2018 at the earliest, using the normal time frame.
But the lowered budgets in the draft and international markets the last few years, plus the recent trend where the Pirates are having more international success on the pitching side than the hitting side, has led to fewer hitting prospects in the low levels.
Outfielders Cal Mitchell and Conner Uselton can help in that regard, adding two strong hitting prospects to the lowest levels. Mitchell is more of a bat-first prospect, while Uselton provides some defensive value, while also providing some offensive upside.
Mitchell didn’t see the best results this spring, and word was he fell on some draft boards, but DelliCarri said the Pirates’ scouts stayed with him consistently, seeing him last summer and this spring, and that he didn’t fall down the board for them.
“He’s a real quiet hitter in that box,” DelliCarri said. “He can slow the game down in that batter’s box. Athleticism, who the man is. We’re excited to have an opportunity to work with Cal. He has some real quality traits in that batter’s box, and slowing the game down. Quite frankly, we think he’s a good hitter.”
The Pirates drafted two former quarterbacks today, with Steve Jennings being one, and Conner Uselton being another. His athleticism allows him to play in center field, with the arm strength to move to right, and the ability to hit for power and the possibility to hit for average. The Pirates liked the athleticism in both cases, highlighting that for Uselton.
“Jennings and Uselton, two multi-sport athletes. We believe athleticism plays,” Huntington said. “We believe the best players at the Major League level are athletic. And we believe that multi-sports helps an athlete to develop in very different ways on and off the field. We like all four athletes, as well as the baseball players and the people. It is definitely beneficial when you see a guy that has some athleticism, they tend to be able to make adjustments.”
Huntington said that one of the benefits for multi-sport athletes is that they don’t have as much wear and tear. That’s probably better for Jennings as a pitcher, but the Pirates may have indirectly benefitted from that with Uselton. He’s older for a high school player, turning 19 last month, but also really came on with a strong spring, and the focus on other sports may have delayed his development in baseball until now, with more potential to come from his many tools.
The Pirates have a long way to go to have their low-level offensive depth match the current pitching depth, but drafting Mitchell and Uselton is a good start.