I had to do a double-take after the 2023 MLB draft.
Over at MLB.com, Jessica Camerato had a great article during the All-Star break. She asked MLB All-Stars if they thought first overall pick Paul Skenes could get MLB players out today. Featured in the article, you’ll find Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, Orioles outfielder Austin Hays, and Dodgers catcher Will Smith, amongst others, giving praise to the stuff from the LSU right-hander.
I have seen a few of these types of post-draft articles over the years. Each time, my thought was a disappointing “How do the Pirates never get a chance to land that type of player?” And I had to do a double-take this time, because this time at the All-Star game, non-Pirates reporters were asking non-Pirates players about the talent level of the latest Pirates draft pick.
Baseball America has already updated their top 100. Skenes is rated sixth overall, and is the top pitching prospect in the entire game. The Pirates were choosing between Skenes, Dylan Crews (4th overall), Wyatt Langford (11th), Walker Jenkins (19th), and Max Clark (22nd).
I don’t think the Pirates could have gone wrong if they took Crews. The same with Langford. I do think Jenkins and Clark would have been disappointing with the top-end talent on the board. As I wrote last week, my belief was the Pirates couldn’t pass on the chance to draft Paul Skenes.
I’ve been covering the MLB Draft for this site for 15 years. The first draft was covered on the site’s Twitter account. At the time, I was doing what a dozen people are doing on Twitter today: Rapidly searching for information on every new draft pick the moment we learn about them.
For most of those the years covering the draft, I would cover every player from the start of their pro career through their completed time with the Pirates. Months after he signed, but before he pitched in a pro game, I was interviewing Gerrit Cole by a washing machine at Pirate City. I had years of covering the development of Jameson Taillon. Both were first round pitchers, and considered elite among their classes.
What I can tell you from following those two pitchers, along with every other draft prospect that comes through, is that we don’t fully understand the grading system for the MLB Draft. I’m saying that as an industry, mostly from the outside, but maybe from the inside for some teams.
Paul Skenes was the best choice for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
We can talk about his future grades all day, but that’s the problem. Prior to the draft, Baseball America was one of many outlets giving Skenes a 65/High grade. This grade is meant to project his future. Skenes and Crews were the only 65-grade guys, which means they project to eventually be two of the best players in the game. The “High” is the risk level, meaning this isn’t a slam dunk. Langford and the prep outfielders project at 60/High, which is a half-step below, with the same risk.
Isolating Skenes and Crews, we could just say they’re 1A and 1B of this draft, due to their projected final grade. The flaw in the MLB draft is that we give way too much credit to future projections in a world where not a single person can accurately predict the future.
The question we don’t ask enough: How good is this player today?
Paul Skenes just got reviewed by MLB players who watched him. If you read between the lines of that article, you will find that Yes, Skenes can get MLB hitters out today.
But what does that mean?
Last Saturday night, Carlos Santana ripped a two-RBI single off Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Justin Martinez, who was making his MLB debut.
Santana is a veteran, at 37 years old, though not exactly the biggest threat at the plate these days. He’s got a .701 OPS on the season, which is down from the .800+ seasons of his past. Still, he can focus in and make even the hardest rookie pay in a big moment. On this night, Santana and Jack Suwinski were responsible for bouncing Martinez with two runs in a single inning. Martinez is back down in Triple-A, in his age 21 season, with a triple-digit fastball, a plus splitter, and fringe-command.
Still, he got three MLB hitters out.
Paul Skenes could get MLB hitters out today, I’m sure. He’s got a fastball that can hit triple-digits, a slider that grades plus, a changeup he’s comfortable with that could be an out pitch — and while he has some present day concerns over his stuff (not to the low extent of Martinez’s control), his arsenal leaves a lot of room for error.
Skenes might be a 65-grade player in the future. That’s a dream.
The Pirates drafted a present day 40-grade player who they hope to develop into a starter.
Eventually, the only way that starter would ever reach the mythical 65-grade would be to get there with MLB experience.
“I was genuinely excited that we got the number one pick. I think anytime you get it, just because number one, you know, you’re getting the opportunity to take one of the best players in the country.” – Pittsburgh Pirates manager, Derek Shelton
There have been several drafts over the years where the Pirates have gone the “signability” route in round one.
This approach takes a lesser talent in the first round, so that the team can add more upside in the later rounds. When I say “lesser talent”, I don’t mean the future grade. Typically, the future grades are seen very similar, and it’s a bit of a mystery why a team would pass on one 60-grade guy for another and say they’re different. We’re overlooking the present day grades, and the fact that most players aren’t like Skenes with a an arguable 40-grade in the present on draft day. That’s an MLB middle reliever. That’s not what you want long-term from the first overall pick, obviously. That’s just where he is starting his career, without a single day of development.
As the first ever MLB Draft Lottery concluded with the Pirates receiving the first overall pick, members of the organization were shown celebrating.
The celebration drew the typical backlash from those who feel the Pirates should be stoic until they are successful. But following two bad seasons, this was one of the rare moments to celebrate. The Pirates landed the opportunity to take the best player in the draft. Or, they could bank the money and spread it around.
In my view, they took the best present day player who also has the best upside. There is less development involved to get Skenes to a starting role in the majors, and he has what it takes to develop higher than that.
A few weeks prior to the draft, I spoke with Pirates manager Derek Shelton, who was in the room during the lottery. Shelton’s reaction was one of the most subdued in the room, and he’s definitely not thinking about future first picks in a positive light now.
“From my vantage point, I want to be out of that conversation,” said Shelton when I spoke with him in Miami. “Because the reason we’re in that conversation is because what our record was. The excitement of having it, yeah, I’m excited we have it, but my goal is to move forward when we’re drafting later and later and making it harder for our scouting guys.”
Shelton currently has the assignment of winning with a Pirates roster filled with 40-45+ grade guys. The hope is that enough of them develop into starters in the majors (50+ grade). In his third full MLB season, Mitch Keller is starting to emerge as a top of the rotation starter. You could argue that in the last two years, Keller was a present day 45-50 grade pitcher, trending up. At this point, he’s looking like he took a big step forward into the 55-60 grade range, present day. Pitching coach Oscar Marin should get a big credit for this development.
That’s what you eventually want from Skenes. You want to see him reach the majors and progress into an All-Star and a leader of this rotation. His stuff might allow for a quicker progression than Keller, but Keller is a reminder that Skenes won’t be a top of the rotation starter immediately.
That future grade is still a dream. Skenes won’t arrive today and make the Pirates winners. Instead, the Pirates have the responsibility to make the dream come true.
What is development?
Paul Skenes is a present-day 40-grade pitcher. He’s got concerns with his fastball location and shape, due to pitching against the equivalent of High-A hitters in college and being able to get away with bad pitches that benefitted from bad swings.
If Skenes does not develop at all, for some reason, he would still end up a very expensive power reliever. This would obviously be a disappointing outcome, but it’s extremely unlikely.
His fastball is 98+, consistently hitting triple digits. That’s improved in each of the last two years. He could improve on getting it across the plate more often, ideally with more movement to add some deception. His slider added 11 inches of movement after changes to his approach last year. His changeup has success because he figured out how to pronate his thumb while throwing it with a ridiculous split finger grip that has come natural to him since high school.
Skenes has three pitches that can be plus-to-elite, all showing improvements, with a personality that suggests the attitude for future improvements. Plus, he’s dominated his current level of competition to historical proportions, which is a very talented college conference.
Due to the current pitches, and the person himself, Skenes is a present-day 40-grade guy, and the Pirates will ideally develop him into a 50-grade starter before he reaches the big leagues for good. Skenes already laid out what he knows he needs to work on, following the selection.
“I think the biggest difference between college and the big leagues, probably with my stuff, is making 30 starts a year in a five-day window every time versus 18 or 19 starts in a seven-day window,” said Skenes. “That’s going to be something that I’m going to have to focus on, making that adjustment, then focusing on longevity, to be able to do that for 10-15 years at a time down the road.”
That last part is essential. The Pirates aren’t drafting Skenes for 2023 help, even if he could do that. They’re drafting him for help in 2024. And 2025. 2026. Also, 2027. And 2028. There’s 2029. And I’d project free agency at 2030, unless the Pirates extend him. That’s looking way to the future, and as Drake once said, “You can’t bring the future back.”
So, what does Skenes need to do in the present to get to the future we all hope? Besides getting used to a five-day schedule?
“I think [the schedule] is what I need to do to be able to maintain my stuff for as long as possible down the road,” said Skenes. “Then a lot of little stuff, pitch-design stuff that I think is going to help get hitters out more effectively.”
I’m less concerned with Skenes developing further, because he already knows what he has to work on, and how he can improve. He’s shown that he can walk a path of improvement from Point A to Point B. At the end of the day, a development team can’t do a single thing with a person who isn’t honest with themselves about both maximizing their real strengths, but also addressing their real flaws.
The Pirates spent the rest of their draft adding a lot of other pitchers from the SEC. Most of those pitchers are present-day 20-grade guys. Maybe some are a bit higher. None grade higher than 45-grade in the future. Some have plus stuff and no control. Some have control and poor stuff. Unlike Skenes, I haven’t followed many of those players enough to know if they have the Major League attitude he has.
In my time covering this game, I can say one thing conclusively: Skills do not make Major Leaguers. They can get a person to the Major Leagues, but without the Major League attitude, that person will not remain.
The Major League attitude is simply the combination of Accountability and Adaptability.
Knowing who you are and knowing how to change in an ever-changing game.
Compared to a triple-digit fastball and a big breaking slider, these seem like small details. It’s often the small details that matter most.
At the risk of sounding like Kevin from The Office, and making this all about the cookie, I’m going to go back to those Air Jordan 38s I talked about last week.
These shoes have a similar colorway as the Air Jordan 37s. On the surface, to the average person, these shoes might look the same. Sneaker-heads might grade the style of the 38s higher, noticing the fine details that most will gloss over. For me, this sneaker is all about one tiny detail that is hidden away:
It’s a symbol of the real dream that everyone on every sporting surface is chasing.
It’s a symbol that is already stitched into this sneaker. And, no, I am still not talking about shoes here.
The Pirates moved closer to a championship ring in the future when they drafted Paul Skenes.
As for his teammates, including potential members from the rest of the 2023 draft, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of designs Pirates’ farm director John Baker and his team can create with some gold string and a sewing kit.
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.