First Pitch: What Happened to the Pirates During the 1998 Draft?

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted and signed five future Major League players during the 1998 draft. That’s about average for one year. They got six of their 1997 draft picks to the majors and three of their 1999 picks to the big leagues. Despite sounding like average results, the way they got there was far from typical.

I teased this article in yesterday’s First Pitch article. The Pirates have one year when they pulled off late round magic by getting their 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th round picks to the majors. That season was 1998. The chances of getting four straight late round picks to the majors like that are almost non-existent. To put it in perspective, the other 54 years of draft for the Pirates produced a total of 16 players in those four rounds combined. If you looked at random seven-year time frames, you would likely find an average of two big league players in those rounds total.

So how did the Pirates pull off something that is nearly impossible, yet the only ended up with one other big league player that year?

The draft gets even weirder when you find out that the fifth player to make the majors was drafted in the 28th round and ranks as their best 28th round pick ever.

The Pirates didn’t get much from these players, but that’s really besides the point of this article. David Williams, Joe Beimel, Jeff Bennett, Mike Johnston and Steve Sparks are all pitchers who combined for 10.2 career WAR. Beimel was a very good player, Williams was serviceable for a time and the other three didn’t last long. Still, their 10.2 WAR is exactly 10.2 more than the Pirates got from the first 16 rounds of the draft.

The question remains, where did they go wrong that year? I can’t explain the late round magic. That just doesn’t happen. However, we can look at the players drafted before the Pirates went on a roll to see how they ended up.

Part of the failures of the first 16 rounds comes from not signing five of those players. So it’s really a group of 11 misses, though it includes all of the first seven rounds and it’s hard to not get a single MLB player to the majors, even for a cup of coffee, from those picks.

The Pirates selected 15th overall in 1998 and chose Clint Johnston, a lefty from Vanderbilt. He went right to Low-A and pitched well with a 2.75 ERA in 54 innings. He returned to the level the next year and did much worse, then struggled in two years of High-A. He moved on to Toronto in 2002 and moved to first base. Johnston played pro ball until 2009 and never made it to Triple-A. He looked good immediately after the draft, but things fell apart quickly.

As you have seen over the previous two weeks, the odds of making the majors after the first round really drops off, especially after the second round, which still has about a 50% success rate.

The second round pick was high school infielder Jeremy Cotten. As I just said, second round odds are a drop from the first round, but they go down even more when looking at just high school picks. Cotten signed at 17 years old and topped out at High-A five years later. He hit 25 homers in 2000, two more than his other four seasons combined.

The Pirates took a high school outfielder in the third round. Jeremy Harts was around for eight seasons with the Pirates, topping out at Double-A. He took the opposite path of Clint Johnston, hitting for six years, then pitching full-time he last two years. The hitting results were mediocre, but the pitching results were just awful, with more walks than innings pitched.

The fourth round pick was LSU’s Eddy Furniss, who looked like he was well on his way to the majors after his first full season. He went right to High-A and put up big numbers, with 33 doubles, 23 homers, 94 walks and an .889 OPS. He had an average season in 2000 in Double-A, went to the Oakland A’s the next year and hit great in High-A, then was done by 2002.

The fifth round pick was a high school catcher out of Puerto Rico named Raynier Cardona. This looks like a major overdraft. His pro career lasted 41 games.

The sixth round was their fourth high school player. Bryce Pelfrey was a shortstop from Florida and he didn’t do much better than Cardona. Pelfrey lasted 135 games and never made it to full-season ball.

The seventh round was another high school player and another player who didn’t last long. Pitcher James White never made it out of Gulf Coast League. In 101.2 innings he had a 5.75 ERA.

Clearly the problem here was high school scouting. Giovanni Gonzalez was the ninth round pick (eighth round didn’t sign) and he lasted all of 33 innings in the GCL.

Tenth round saw the Pirates take their second high school catcher in David Diaz from Florida. He lasted 27 games in the GCL.

The 12th round was high school outfielder Willie Burton from Florida. He was somehow the worst of this bunch (which is hard to believe seeing those results), playing just 19 GCL games before he was done.

Guess who the Pirates took in the 13th round? Another high school player is the correct answer. Ben Levesque actually made it to full-season ball. He had a career 7.23 ERA in 103.1 innings, so it’s a little surprising he reached Low-A in the first place.

There you have it. The 11 signed picks in the first 16 rounds of 1998. The Pirates went the high school route with 12 of their first 16 picks and signed nine of them. One (Harts) made it to Double-A, though it was as a pitcher and he clearly wasn’t ready for the level. Their signed picks from the fifth through 13th rounds showed almost no signs of being prospects, even in the early stages of their career.

The 1998 draft would probably be a popular draft if something similar happened today. If they took a top college arm first, a college power hitter in the fourth round, and then stocked up on high school picks, it would be a class with a ton of upside. It clearly didn’t work 22 years ago. They missed on every pick until the 17th round, then saved this draft from being a complete disaster by getting five MLB players with late round picks.




A trip off the beaten path in Louisiana


By John Dreker

Three former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, plus a trade of note.

The Trade

On this date in 1949, the Pirates sent pitcher Kirby Higbe to the New York Giants for infielder Bobby Rhawn and pitcher Ray Poat. Higbe came to the Pirates in 1947 from the Dodgers, owner at the time of a 97-72 career record. He was 34 years old at the time of this deal, being used in a limited role for Pittsburgh. He had a 0-2, 13.50 in six relief appearances and one start, throwing 15.1 innings with 37 base runners allowed. Poat was 31 years old at time, in his sixth season in the majors. He didn’t have the track record Higbe had, winning just 22 games in his career. Poat had pitched just two games for the Giants in 1949, allowing six runs in 2.1 innings. Rhawn was 30 years old with 63 games of Major League experience, spread out over three seasons with the Giants. He played three infielder positions, everything but first base.

After the deal, Rhawn started two games at third base, pinch-hit once, then was put on waivers. His stay with Pittsburgh lasted nine days, ending when he was picked up by the White Sox. He played 24 games with Chicago before finishing his career in the minors. Poat started his first two games with the Pirates before moving to the bullpen. He struggled in his 11 outings, posting a 6.25 ERA in 36 innings, with 67 base runners allowed. He finished his career the next year in the minors. Higbe didn’t have to do much to make this deal a win for the Giants. He was put in their bullpen, making 37 appearances with a 3.47 ERA in 80.1 innings pitched. He pitched with New York through July of 1950, making 18 more appearances before being sent to the minors. He pitched another 3 1/2 years down on the farm before retiring.

The Players

Doug Frobel, outfielder for the 1982-85 Pirates. He was signed by the Pirates in late 1977 as an amateur free agent. He started off slow in the minors his first two years, then broke out in the 1980 season. That year, playing for Shelby of the South Atlantic League, he hit .325 with 13 homers in 67 games, earning a promotion to High-A. Frobel moved up to Double-A Buffalo in 1981, leading the team with 28 homers. In Triple-A the next year, he hit .261 with 23 homers and 21 stolen bases, playing in the Pacific Coast League. He got a September call-up that year, hitting .206 in 16 games for the Pirates. Frobel returned to the minors in 1983, where he hit .304 with 24 homers, 80 RBIs and 23 stolen bases in 101 games, earning a promotion in mid-August. He would hit better during his second trial in the majors, batting .283 in 32 games.

Frobel was with the Pirates on Opening Day in 1984 as their starting right fielder. He struggled mightily, with his average under .200 for more than four months of the season. For two months of the year his average was in the .130-.150 range, but the Pirates stuck with him at the Major League level for the entire season. Frobel finished with a .203 average, 12 homers and 28 RBIs in 126 games. He was with the Pirates for most of 1985 as a backup outfielder and pinch-hitter, but after a .202 average and no homers through mid-August, He was sold to the Montreal Expos. Frobel would play 12 games for the Expos in 1985, spend all of 1986 in the minors with the Mets, then make his last Major League appearance with the 1987 Cleveland Indians. He played two more seasons in the minors before retiring.

Fresco Thompson, second baseman for the 1925 Pirates. He played three seasons in the minors before making his big league debut in September of 1925 with the Pirates. Pittsburgh was in first place and had a comfortable lead with a month to go in the season. Regular second baseman Eddie Moore had moved to right field, being replaced at second base by Johnny Rawlings, who didn’t last there long. He broke his ankle after taking over the spot and Thompson moved into the second base role. He would hit .243 in 14 games with eight RBIs that September, starting just a handful of those games before Moore moved back to his old position. The Pirates won the World Series over the Washington Senators in seven games, although Thompson didn’t play in the series. He spent 1926 in the minors playing for Buffalo of the American Association, where he hit .330 with 26 homers. He returned to the big leagues with the Giants in September of 1926, then was traded to the Phillies in the off-season. Thompson manned second base for Philadelphia for four seasons, hitting .300 with 219 RBIs and 369 runs scored in 575 games. He played for Brooklyn in 1931, then played four games in the majors from 1932-34, spending the rest of his time in the minors, where he played until 1941, ending a 19-year career as a player. Fresco (real first name was Lafayette, Fresco was his middle name) managed eight years in the minors, the first four as a player/manager.

Jake Hewitt, left-handed pitcher for the 1895 Pirates. He joined the Pirates after first pitching for West Virginia University for two years, then spending 1895 in the minors. He pitched for Rochester of the Eastern League, as well as Warren of the Iron and Oil League, a local minor league in the Pittsburgh surrounding area. He made his Major League debut in relief on August 6, 1895, then nine days later, after a second relief appearance, he made his first start against the Chicago Colts (Cubs). Hewitt pitched great in the first, then after thinking he struck out the first batter in the second on a full count pitch, he lost his composure. He hit the next batter, then failed to get an out on a bunt back to the mound, which was followed by a single, then an error, leading to his departure with no outs in the second inning. The local newspaper claimed that Hewitt “suffered stage fright” against the strong Chicago team. Wanting to see what they had in him, the Pirates ran Hewitt out there the very next day and he picked up a 5-2 complete game win. Despite the strong pitching performance on the second day, he never played in the majors again, finishing his pro career with three more seasons in the minors. Hewitt didn’t actually sign with the Pirates until August 7th, the day after his MLB debut. His initial appearance was on a trial basis, but when he showed good velocity and some strong curveballs, the Pirates released backup infielder Bill Niles and signed Hewitt.

John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.

When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.

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