Williams: How Good Are the Pirates at Drafting?

When a player is drafted in the NFL, NHL, or NBA, he almost immediately joins the pro team. The player might start off in a smaller role on an NFL team before getting a shot as a starter. He might spend a year in the minors or playing for a foreign league in the NHL. Or he may do…whatever it is they do in basketball.

As a result, you get a good feel for how well a draft went after 2-3 years of time has passed. You’re already seeing results at the top level, and already getting an indication whether a player is going to be a star, a starter, a bench player, or a bust.

It’s not the same in baseball. A time frame of 2-3 years might give you a chance for the first players in your draft to reach the big leagues, and that would be on an aggressive timeline. At that point you might have an idea of a player’s upside, but you have no clue if he will ever reach that upside.

It’s more common that a college player will need 3-4 years at least to reach the majors, while a high school player will need 5-6 years or more to reach the big leagues. And then you need a few years to see what those players can do at the top level. So to get the same feel for a draft’s results, you have to wait about half a decade, and even then the results are largely incomplete.

The MLB draft takes place this week, which means it’s time to dig in to the question of whether the Pirates are good at drafting. This is a question that brings up some heated debate, with some insisting that the Pirates can’t draft at all. There are some on the other side who feel the Pirates are great at drafting. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and takes a lot of nuanced analysis and a deep look at each draft to reach.

I broke down the 2008-2015 drafts last year in two separate posts (2008-2011, 2012-2015). I’ll provide a quick update below, but if you want the full breakdown, you should check out those article. The quick summary is that the Pirates struggled with their drafts in the early years. They also overhauled their amateur scouting department after those drafts, and started seeing better results as the years went on, especially in the middle rounds. The downside here is that MLB changed the CBA to restrict draft spending, and the Pirates became contenders, giving them much less to spend from 2012-2016. So while they were seeing better drafting results than the early years, their ability to add talent was limited.

To get a better look at all of this, let’s do a quick refresher of each draft.

Recapping the Drafts

The Pirates have nine drafts under Neal Huntington, spanning from 2008-2016. Because it takes so long for players to reach the majors, a lot of the recent years are largely incomplete. That said, we’re starting to get results from the post-scouting overhaul drafts, which tips the scales away from the early idea that the Pirates simply couldn’t draft.

2008

This one was pretty much in the books last year around this time. The first round saw the Pirates draft Pedro Alvarez over Buster Posey. At the time, Alvarez was the top prospect in the draft, and there would have been outrage if the Pirates picked anyone else, since it would have been seen as a repeat of the Matt Wieters/Daniel Moskos decision from Dave Littlefield the year before. In hindsight, Alvarez was the wrong pick, and while he did give a few productive years (peaking at a 3.0 WAR in 2013), he didn’t live up to expectations.

The Pirates did get a starting shortstop in Jordy Mercer, with his production being below-average among shortstops. They also drafted Justin Wilson, who gave them a few years of relief pitching, then was traded for Francisco Cervelli. Robbie Grossman was another big pick in the draft, traded for Wandy Rodriguez. Other players like Matt Hague and Chase d’Arnaud have made appearances in the big leagues.

They got a starting shortstop, a lefty reliever who was traded for a starting catcher, and a few years of a productive Alvarez. That’s not a bad result, but it’s not the best result.

2009

I won’t take a lot of time to break this down. It was a disaster. The Pirates went signability in the first round, taking Tony Sanchez, who never worked out. They used the saved money to sign over-slot prep pitchers, who also didn’t work out. The most productive player they signed was Brock Holt, who was traded in the deal that brought back Mark Melancon. It’s notable that only six of the 16 area scouts from the 2009 draft are still in the organization, showing that the overhaul in the scouting department started shortly after this group.

2010

This draft started looking better in the last year, as Jameson Taillon is living up to his potential as a top of the rotation starter. Nick Kingham was drafted in the fourth round, and is expected to make his MLB debut at some point this year. That would give the Pirates 40% of their rotation. They also previously got some depth from this group from Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler. Jared Lakind is the other notable prospect still remaining in the system from this draft.

A lot of the results here were delayed or derailed by Tommy John surgery. The Pirates also weren’t helped by MLB delaying over-slot signings, which led to some players changing their minds on signing and opting for college instead as MLB delayed making official the agreements that were in place. This is another draft that’s not great, but isn’t a bad result when you consider what Taillon is doing and what Kingham could do.

2011

This is where things really started turning around. The Pirates landed Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell in the first two rounds, and found some talent in the middle rounds as well. Cole had been one of the best pitchers in the game prior to the 2016 season, and has shown flashes of getting back to that this year. Bell made his debut last year, and is showing more and more power potential.

Tyler Glasnow was the most notable middle round pick, and while he hasn’t worked out yet this year, he’s still only 23 years old. Clay Holmes was a ninth round over-slot pick, and is showing the potential to be a number three or four starter in the big leagues one day. The Pirates also drafted Trea Turner in the 20th round this year, and offered him a $500,000 bonus, which he turned down to go to college.

Cole and Bell are giving the Pirates some good results. If Glasnow ever figures it all out, and if Holmes continues progressing, this could be an outstanding draft group, with three talented starters and an All-Star first baseman.

2012

MLB changed the rules prior to the 2012 draft, heavily restricting spending to counter the approach the Pirates were taking in previous drafts. The Pirates still tried for the tough signing in 2012, but it didn’t work out. They took Mark Appel, and tried to create extra money for him, but he refused to sign. In the long-run, that may have worked out better. The comp pick led to Austin Meadows, and the “signability picks” that created money for Appel led to Jacob Stallings and Eric Wood.

When Appel didn’t sign, they used the remaining money to sign a few over-slot players, with the most notable being Max Moroff. He’s now in the majors, showing utility infield upside, and maybe a bit more if his power translates over.

Barrett Barnes and Wyatt Mathisen are two notable names still around from this draft group, with both seeing their careers slowed heavily due to injuries. There have also been a lot of trades from this draft, with Kyle Haynes leading to Chris Stewart, and Adrian Sampson leading to J.A. Happ.

The draft lacks the big impact player, which individually makes it look weak. But that gets countered in 2013, due in large part to the compensation the Pirates received from this draft.

2013

The Pirates drafted Meadows with the compensation pick for Appel, and he could arrive this summer, with impact upside in his future. Their other first round pick, Reese McGuire, didn’t work out on offense and was traded for salary relief last year.

The middle rounds of this draft have been impressive. Adam Frazier was drafted in the sixth round, made his debut last year, and has been working his way into regular playing time this year. Chad Kuhl was a ninth round pick, and made a nice debut last year, but has struggled this year in his first full year in the majors.

The Pirates also continued trading from this draft. They sent JaCoby Jones for Joakim Soria, Blake Taylor for Ike Davis, Buddy Borden for Sean Rodriguez, and Shane Carle for Rob Scahill. None of those deals really provided a ton of upside, with Rodriguez being the best addition.

Meadows will drive the draft value here, with the biggest chance to provide impact. Frazier and Kuhl can also provide some value, as we’ve seen in the last year. The decline from McGuire hurts the potential of this draft, but there have still been some good results.

2014

This is when the Pirates started picking in the bottom third of the first round, after they became contenders. This draft is hard to judge at this point, but the early results look good. First rounder Cole Tucker was showing some potential on offense before a thumb injury this year. Second rounder Mitch Keller has been a breakout prospect, and is the top guy in the system now. And 11th round pick Gage Hinsz has shown some nice potential, with the chance to be more than a back of the rotation starter.

Those three give this draft a lot of upside. But there is more to this group. Jordan Luplow (3rd round), Tyler Eppler (6th), and Connor Joe (1st compensation) have all shown some potential. They’ve also traded Taylor Gushue for Chris Bostick, and Frank Duncan for Phil Gosselin. Trey Supak was packaged with Keon Broxton for Jason Rogers in a deal that was a poor decision for the Pirates, since Rogers has only been used as little-needed depth.

Overall, this draft is a year from seeing the first MLB results, and a year or more from seeing the first impact guys. It has a lot of upside, showing potential from the Pirates in their first draft picking later in the first round.

2015

Again, you’re not going to see results from this draft for a few years, but there is potential. First rounder Kevin Newman could take over as the starting shortstop at some point next year. Second rounder Kevin Kramer is starting to show some power potential at second base, and could be a future starting option. First round competitive balance pick Ke’Bryan Hayes has the defense to reach the majors at third base, and the offensive upside to be a starter. It’s possible those three picks could make up 75% of the future Pirates’ infield one day.

Brandon Waddell and JT Brubaker show some pitching depth in the middle rounds, with the chance to be back of the rotation starters or middle relievers. Logan Hill, drafted in the 25th round, leads the system right now in home runs. There are other interesting guys like Casey Hughston, Jacob Taylor, Ike Schlabach, and James Marvel.

It’s very early for this draft, and really difficult to get a good evaluation on it. That said, the fact that the Pirates have a few starting options, no real big setbacks, and some wild cards behind the starting options is a good sign.

2016

This draft isn’t even a year old, and most of the key players haven’t played yet this year. Will Craig is starting to show his offensive potential in Bradenton, and could be in Altoona by the middle of the season. Stephen Alemais has the defense at shortstop to reach the big leagues, with an advanced knowledge on offense.

Most of this draft was built around prep pitchers, with Braeden Ogle, Max Kranick, Travis MacGregor, and Austin Shields getting big bonuses. Ogle and Kranick lead the way, and have the best chances of following the Mitch Keller path, but we’re about a year and a half away from the earliest chances for them to show that type of breakout season.

There are other interesting players from this draft, but a lot have either yet to make their 2017 debuts, or are still in the lower levels, having yet to really give a good indication of their upside. The early promise from the prep pitchers, and the good results the Pirates have had in that regard since the 2009 draft, provide promise here.

Back to the Bigger Bonus Days

The Pirates started improving their drafting right around the time MLB changed the rules to limit spending. That’s also when they started contending. The combination led to draft budgets that were much lower than what they spent in 2008-2011, and maybe a third of what they spend in 2011 alone. MLB adjusted the bonus pools in the last CBA, and the Pirates had a losing season, so their trends have reversed.

The Pirates have $10,135,900 to spend in this year’s draft, and can spend up to 5% over that amount without losing any future picks. They have spent the extra amount in the past, and it’s expected they’d do the same this year, giving them about $500,000 extra to spend on over-slot guys.

We’ve seen them do well in the early results from 2013-2016, getting a lot of talent with later first round picks, along with middle round picks. That came as their ability to go over-slot in the middle rounds was decreased. This year’s draft should allow them more opportunities for over-slot guys, along with a better talent in the first round. It will be interesting to see in the future how this impacts the 2017 group, and how it compares to the 2012-2016 groups.

Are the Pirates Good at Drafting?

The question of whether the Pirates can draft is a complicated one. It’s not a “Yes/No” question, but is usually answered with a definitive “Yes” or “No” with very little reasoning or analysis to back it up.

The question is also complicated because different people have different qualifications for the draft. Some will say that first round picks don’t count, as they’re expected to work out. This is wrong, as even the odds of a top overall pick becoming an impact player is low, and far from automatic. The Pirates have actually been above-average with their results from Alvarez, Sanchez, Taillon, and Cole in the early years, even though those results are seen as “expected” or a massive disappointment in the case of Sanchez.

You’ll also have people expecting a lot more than a few players from each draft, when the normal expectation is that a good draft will land a team three MLB players. And then there are the people who blame the draft for any given problem that comes up, as if the Pirates should be filling every need and potential injury with drafted players. For those people, there is no hope.

The answer to the question of whether the Pirates can draft is complicated. If you’re looking at the early years, the results are poor. But the Pirates overhauled their scouting department, and showed better results after those first few years. Except most of those years the better results are largely based on potential, rather than MLB results, since not enough time has passed to really evaluate the drafts.

It’s almost like evaluating a player who comes up and has a slow start to his career, then makes an adjustment and starts showing better results with a big year, and projects better going forward. You wouldn’t say the player is bad because of the first two years. You wouldn’t say he’s good based on the one good year and the positive early signs he’s showing following that. You’d just say he’s trending in the right direction, and showing the right signs, which would lead to success if he continues going forward.

That’s essentially the answer to the question. The Pirates struggled their first few years, posting two average years and one horrible year. They adjusted and had a big year. Since then they’ve shown some potential, but we’re still waiting to see the results. But if things keep trending the way they’ve been trending, then we’ll be able to give a more definitive “Yes” answer to whether the Pirates are good at drafting.

Columns

  • People tend to forget how big of a deal it was when Alvarez was drafted since he eventually flamed out. The MLB draft is so difficult to evaluate based on the reasons you listed and for the sheer volume of picks each team has. I think the approach the Pirates have taken with pitching has been good since they seem to draft a lot of prep guys with the idea that if even 1 of them from each draft works out then its a plus.

    IMO, the biggest improvement this organization can make is in the international market. Granted, they’ve had success (to varying degrees) with Marte, Polanco and Kang but stem is the lady time they signed a guy from Cuba or any other top Latin American player?

  • Tim I enjoyed the article. Overall I’d say you have gone pretty easy on the front office but are fair. How does performance of the major league club, not just individual players, factor into your analysis? For this team to succeed over the long term, its going to need to obtain a fair amount of its talent via draft (and international signings which I assume are not part of this article). If the major league club is average or worse, what does that say about the success of the drafting? I think its the most important factor. The Pirates can’t succeed with “not great but not bad” — which is another way of saying “medicore” to me.

  • It is hard to argue with anything in the article. I tend to look at things a bit differently though. Out of our starting position players, 2 were drafted(one being below average at his position(Mercer)), and one was signed as a 16YO International player. If you only count 2008-2012 as actual years for the possibility of developing major league players from this FO, that is poor at best.

    On the pitching side of things, 80% of our opening day rotation was drafted and developed. Which is outstanding, except for the fact that 50%(Kuhl and Glasnow) of those have been bad, to very bad, and 25%(Cole) of them has been below average. I will grant you that Cole and Glasnow have the potential to be better than they have shown, but at some point, you have to start believing what you see on the field.
    So, to the question, “Can the Pirates draft?”, I would say yes, they do a decent job, however, turning those picks into major league contributors is looking more and more like the challenge.

  • I hope the Pirates get more than three players from this draft.

  • I imagine it would be a crazy complex set up, but id like to see a quantitative analysis of pirate drafts compared to other teams. Like a certain amt of points based on successful early picks vs late picks, etc. Some kind of sliding scale.

  • Forget where I saw some pitching matrix but one of the dimensions is homegrown pitching Bucs had the best over time it’s only going to improve or stay as good. With a crowded OF in Pitt, Indy’s OF isn’t bad, wild to expect 3 Meadows in every AAA OF. Maybe SS at the higher levels is a little light but Tucker at Altoona next year is good progress. Just going around to all positions there’s depth everywhere and downside to loading up on a position that’s locked up in Pitt. Having well prepared not highly rated players like Osuna who are productive also is heavily over looked.

    • Homegrown pitching only gonna improve or stay as good?

      Glasnow is a train wreck right now whose unhittable fastballs now misses less than 5 percent of bats and literally looks like bp

      Ditto for Cole

      Kuhl had Xfip over 5 and has reliever written all over him because of lefties

      Kingham has some promise as bottom of rotation but no guarantee

      Keller is exciting but is in a plus ball with an injury

      • I revisit your worst case scenarios in 4 years

        • Glasnow, Cole and kuhl that I described aren’t worst case scenario. They ARE THE scenario right now

          • Ok those are mutually exclusive cool thanks for clarifying by your logic the Brewers can be awarded the NLC today I’m happy for them. Oh yeah convenient to ignore Taillon

            • He wasn’t overlooking Taillon, or Nova for that matter, just pointing out that 60% of the Pirates starting rotation was bad.

              • Thanks. Was just responding to beavers claim about homegrown pitching talent. Not really seeing it right now. Taillon looks quite good but is just one pitcher. Nova has been superb but is not homegrown.

              • It’s great information for anyone who hasn’t had internet for the last 4 weeks.

  • 2013 draft…I sure hope that you’re right that Meadows WILL provide some impact.

    The potential is there, but I think “should” might be a better word?

    • Correct. There is absolutely no certainty Meadows will provide “impact” unless one defines impact a lot differently than some others.

      Keep in mind while Polanco was a few months older his Triple A #s were considerably better than Meadows in terms of WRC+ as well as K/BB and you’ve seen his “impact”. Useful but never much more than a 2.5 WAR player and on pace to be considerably less than that this year.

      • Michael Sankovich
        June 11, 2017 5:15 pm

        that sentence including the phrase “will provide impact” immediately stuck out to me, too. Tim probably wants that back. I also don’t know about “the decline from McGuire”. Maybe he just wasn’t that good to begin with. If I remember, there was always a question about the bat. Starting with the ’14 draft, just too early to tell as of now.

    • Ugh. Never assume I’m saying something is guaranteed with prospects.

      This article was 2700+ words. I try my best, but it’s difficult — and EXTREMELY annoying — to try and add disclaimers with every single thing I write. How many times do you have to say “prospects aren’t guaranteed” before you get the benefit of the doubt about this type of stuff?

      The point of that was Meadows is the impact prospect here, and no one else has his upside. I’m not saying he will reach that impact upside guaranteed. I just assumed everyone knows that I don’t think prospects are guaranteed.

      In the future, if you see something like this, know that it’s one word out of 2700+, and just a case where I didn’t add the obvious disclaimer that everyone knows about.

      • Michael Sankovich
        June 11, 2017 5:36 pm

        Acknowledged, Tim. Hey, at least you know we scrutinize every word you write, and not skimming thru the articles.

      • John Dreker
        June 11, 2017 5:39 pm

        Why can I only vote up this comment once! We seriously can’t put the “prospects are never guarantee” disclaimer in every post and if people think we are trying to say something other than what we wrote, ask first before assuming.

        • Perhaps that should be the subtitle for PP! After 60+ years on this planet and being involved in a LOT of baseball, I know nothing is certain. (Except death and taxes and obnoxious comments from Stuck in MD).

        • You’re missing the obvious…

          Just CTRL+C (prospects are never guaranteed), then CTRL+V after the mention of every prospect name.

          Here’s how it should read:

          The Pirates drafted Meadows (prospects are never guaranteed) with the compensation pick for Appel (prospects are never guaranteed), and he could arrive this summer, with impact upside in his future. Their other first round pick, Reese McGuire (prospects are never guaranteed), didn’t work out on offense and was traded for salary relief last year.

          The middle rounds of this draft have been impressive. Adam Frazier (prospects are never guaranteed) was drafted in the sixth round, made his debut last year, and has been working his way into regular playing time this year. Chad Kuhl (prospects are never guaranteed) was a ninth round pick, and made a nice debut last year, but has struggled this year in his first full year in the majors.

          Is that really too much to ask?

      • How close were the Pirates to signing Trea Turner?

      • Geez…Sorry that I ruined your day. Obviously, I am not the only one who saw that (see replies)?

        Maybe, rather than defending your words after the fact, just quit using absolutes like that? Then, you won’t have to ADD a disclaimer?

        Just a thought.

        I’m going to keep subscribing, but I think it’s time to quit commenting. You two really have a tough time with criticism of any kind. And it just isn’t from me that I’ve noticed that it bothers and annoys both of you.

        I never meant to be an annoying commenter, but since I have become one, I will just keep my thoughts to myself from here on.

        • It’s all good foo. I enjoy reading your thoughts so please don’t stop commenting

          • Appreciate that, but Nope…I used to be on good terms with Tim and John. I wish to no longer pi$$ them off.

            I’ll let someone else do that.

        • I think it’s just the editor in you coming out, Lee…

        • It’s no problem. I just feel like the whole “prospects aren’t guaranteed” lecture comes up every time I don’t add the disclaimer. At this point, just assume that’s what I mean. No need for the correction when the disclaimer isn’t there.

        • I just saw your update.

          All I’m saying is that we’ve had this same conversation at least a dozen times, where you pick apart one word and point out prospects aren’t guaranteed. And each time I say that “prospects aren’t guaranteed” is a built-in assumption to every evaluation on the site.

          So my question is, how many times do we have to do this back and forth before you no longer point out to me that prospects aren’t guaranteed?

          I want you to keep posting here. But it does nothing to add to the conversation picking apart one word in a 2700+ word article, and then using that to lecture and discuss something that we’ve discussed many times.

          I’m going to keep writing about prospects in a way where I don’t always include the disclaimer that they aren’t guaranteed to reach their upside. It does nothing to add to the conversation to point out that disclaimer, especially when you know that I already know this, and I’m leaving it out in some parts because it would just make articles incredibly tedious to read that over and over.

          Not to mention, in this case I wasn’t even trying to talk about the individual upside from Meadows, but talking about how he will drive the value of the draft. I already adjusted that to make it more clear that I wasn’t focusing on Meadows individually, but his impact on the class.

        • foo, don’t stop posting, I aggravate many, but it doesn’t stop me.

      • I apologize- misinterpreted your statement.

      • Daryl Restly
        June 11, 2017 7:16 pm

        Too bad we didn’t take Aaron Judge, currently the Yankees stunning rookie RF, instead of Reese McGuire. I believe Judge was drafted 32nd overall that year.

        • I hear ya but I highly doubt judge develops the same in the Pirates system. I can see pirates emphasizing for him to pull the ball less or who knows what.

  • I’m still in pain about Tony Sanchez over Mike Trout. You may say 25 other GM’s passed on Mike Trout, but I’ve also heard a quote from a lead Pirate scout (unnamed) before that draft that roughly said “Trout is better than anyone in the game right now”. Obviously he was a strong consideration for the #4 pick that year. Of all the decisions that GM’s and scouting directors make, mistakes of that nature would haunt me forever.

    • I still have two draft books from 2009. Neither one had him in the Top 15. Of course the same can be said about Sanchez, lol.

      I dunno who that lead Pirate scout is. Do you have a link, because that is the first time I read that.

      • Grant Paulsen, who is the xm radio mlb channel minor league expert, put a sound bite out the night of that draft quoting the unnamed Pirate scout making that quote. Grant has a show on Sunday mornings called “minors and majors” and really is pretty good. He replayed the quote a couple of weeks ago in preparation for the draft as a promo. Heard it on the way to church.

    • That is a great point that is often overlooked. The Pirates were looking for a player rated in the 20’s to do a pre-draft agreement that would pay them underslot at #4. Trout and Sanchez were both ranked in the 20’s. They picked Sanchez 🙁

  • I just saw that Kevin Kramer was put on the DL with a fractured right hand.

    If it wasn’t for bad luck…..

  • Isn’t Borden back in the pirates system again?

  • 40 rounds x 32 teams is 1280 players picked. How far into that 1280 before any one team’s scouting begins to matter?

    • John Dreker
      June 11, 2017 5:32 pm

      30 teams in baseball, but there are comp picks, so it’s just over 1,200 total

  • Great work Tim,

    What is a realistic number of draft picks will make it to the majors out of a draft class? Putting you on the spot, the Buccos first rounder will be?

    • DGT….if you discount cups of coffee, it is about 1.5 starters. And that includes guys that are below average regulars, like Dale Berra, etc.

      The Pirates in 2008 were above average since Mercer and Alvarez were starters.

      I highly recommend the Baseball America History of the draft.

    • Usually the goal is 3 players, and that includes bench or bullpen guys.

      The Pirates’ first rounder will be picked at around 8:10 PM EST.

      • Tim, I think he was looking for a name… 😉

      • I would submit that a team that intends to depend primarily on acquiring talent via the draft (vs. free agents) will have to shoot much higher than producing bench and bullpen guys in order to succeed. The usual goal won’t cut it for this type of an organization. Their usual goal of three will need to have a higher percentage of impact or solid regulars, otherwise this team’s future is pretty bleak.

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