By Wilbur Miller
Scout.com said it: “This is the year that Pittsburgh Pirates’ fans have been waiting for.” The Pirates, under new CEO Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington, finally took advantage of the opportunity to select, in MLB’s amateur draft, higher-ceiling players who’d fallen to lower rounds, mainly due to bonus demands. Their selections offer the Pirates the chance to reinvigorate, almost instantaneously, a farm system that’s largely bereft of high-ceiling talent. So what did we learn from this draft?
Not So Fast
Scout.com didn’t get it completely right. They referred to “the depth that Pittsburgh added.” The Pirates haven’t added anything yet. Many of their draftees will sign only if they receive above-slot bonuses, well above in some cases. If the Pirates don’t sign enough of these players—let’s call them “above-slot guys”—it may as well have been another Dave Littlefield/Ed Creech draft.
Coonelly’s and Huntington’s willingness to draft so many above-slot guys certainly signals a willingness to pay above slot, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to pay far enough above slot. We don’t know yet how far they’ll go. The Pirates now have an oft-trumpeted system of assigning “internal values” to players. We don’t, and never will, know how they calculate those values. Think back to last winter, when the Pirates negotiated with a number of free agent middle relievers and backup catchers. Not the most expensive of players even in the current inflated market, but the Pirates were outbid every time when they refused to exceed their internal value. It was just as well, of course, especially considering that the catching situation has turned out better than anybody expected. But the draft is a different matter.
If the Pirates’ concept of internal value fails adequately to take market forces into account, the next two months, leading up to the August 15 signing deadline, could be long and frustrating. Bonuses aren’t determined solely by what a player is “worth.” For example, every year there are highly regarded high school prospects who simply aren’t about to give up a college scholarship unless they get a bonus that leaves them set for life. They don’t care whether they’re “worth it.” One thing we’ll learn over the next two months is whether the Pirates accurately identified the players they had a chance to sign. That’s a key part of a scout’s job.
Need, or demand in market terms, also plays a big role in the equation. The Pirates’ need is simply much greater than just about any other team’s. The Red Sox can afford to pass on a Tanner Scheppers or a Quinton Miller because they want a little too much money. There are a number of options for acquiring talent that are open to the Red Sox but not to the Pirates, especially in the area of veteran major leaguers. In addition, the Pirates’ need for talent is uniquely intense because ownership allowed an incompetent GM to dig the organization into a hole that goes halfway to China. In a rational market, a participant in the Pirates’ position should pay a premium above what most teams would pay for the talent they need to close the gap with their competition. We have no evidence, as of yet, whether the Pirates are willing to do this.
Just the same, it’s fun to run down the list of above-slot guys to see what the Pirates could end up with. I’ve tried to include the players who’ll be the ones to watch over the next two months, the ones who likely will require well above slot money. The draft round is in parentheses.
Pedro Alvarez, 3B (1): The Pirates don’t dare not sign him and Scott Boras knows it. Look for this one to go down to the last minutes before the deadline.
Tanner Scheppers, RHP (2): If the Pirates sign him and Alvarez, and Scheppers’ shoulder doesn’t explode, it’ll be like getting two early, first round picks.
Robbie Grossman, CF (6): Scouts are conflicted on him, some calling him a power/speed guy and others characterizing him as an overachiever with no above-average tools. Nate McLouth might take issue with scouts who reflexively dismiss “tweeners.” I’ve also seen conflicting assessments of his likelihood of signing.
Drew Gagnon, RHP (10): Standout prep pitcher with Long Beach State commitment. Given the pitching situation in the system, they need to sign him or Quinton Miller, or both.
Wesley Freeman, CF (16): Potential five-tool outfielder with a flawed swing. He seems at least open to signing.
Quinton Miller, RHP (20): Another highly regarded prep pitcher who figures to be very hard to sign away from his North Carolina commitment.
Zach Wilson, 3B (26): Athletic prospect with power potential, he has an Arizona State commitment and is a Boras client. Like fellow Californian Gagnon, he’d be a tough sign.
As reported by Dejan Kovacevic, Coonelly has explained that the Pirates made some above-slot selections in the later rounds as fallbacks in case they were unable to sign some of the earlier above-slot guys. There’s probably a line somewhere on the above list separating the fallbacks from the guys they’ll go after right away. My guess is that it’s either right before or after Freeman. I don’t think a team would use one of its first ten picks on a fallback, but that’s just a guess.
Apart from the players listed above, the Pirates drafted some other players as well who probably will require above-slot money—slot money past the first 15-20 rounds is basically nothing—but perhaps not as much as guys like Grossman or Gagnon. There may be some players on one list who belong on the other, as these just represent my guesses. But here are some players to watch for, signing-wise, who look much more interesting than the college senior/organizational players who dominated the recent Littlefield/Creech drafts.
Chris Aure, LHP (15): The guy from North Pole, Alaska. He seems to have the potential to develop very good stuff for a lefty. Considering the realities of Alaska baseball, he probably has a lot more room for growth than most draftees. He’s already talking about being in Bradenton in two weeks.
Jarek Cunningham, SS (18): Washington state prep SS with a commitment to Arizona State.
Jason Haniger, C (19): Matt Wieters' backup at Georgia Tech had a big season when he got into the lineup.
Brent Klinger, RHP (21): JC pitcher with good velocity and K rates.
Austin Wright, LHP (23): Prep lefty with good stuff who had bad senior year due to problems with his command.
Kevin Komstadius, 1B (29): Potential lefty power hitter whose bonus demands may be unrealistic.
Ryan Hinson, LHP (31): Clemson starter had a good season in 2007—his stats were just as good as Dan Moskos’—but struggled in 2008.
Anthony Forrest, RHP (32): Formerly Louisiana’s top HS pitcher, he had Tommy John surgery and rebounded this year in JC ball. He seems eager to sign.
Mark Carver, C (33): Fifth-year senior had breakout season, with big power numbers, in 2008.
Craig Parry, OF (50): Lefty power bat from South Dakota State seems eager to sign.
With rare exceptions, like the 2005 draft, the Pirates under Littlefield and Creech religiously avoided legitimate corner players. The result was a dearth of power throughout the system and corner positions that were typically manned with minor league free agents, organizational utility players, and players being used out of position. The “strategy” seemed to be to draft up-the-middle players almost exclusively, apart from pitchers, and hope a few of them suddenly developed power.
Even apart from Alvarez, the 2008 draft has the potential to change that. The Pirates focused more than anything else on corner players, many of them with power or power potential. My count is two firstbasemen, eight thirdbasemen, and four players the Pirates announced as corner outfielders. That’s 14 draftees, over a quarter of the draft. The previous year, the Pirates drafted three corner position players and signed two. Of course, many of the players they sign will eventually change positions, but the increase in corner players highlights an increased focus on hitting, especially power hitting.
The focus in hitting extended beyond the corners, too. Both Huntington and Scouting Director Greg Smith come from the American League, where bats are more highly valued up the middle than in the National League. The Pirates drafted five shortstops and the first two--third-rounder Jordy Mercer and fourth-rounder Chase D'Arnaud--project to be offense-oriented shortstops, with Mercer offering some power potential. Of the six centerfielders the team drafted, at least a few--Grossman, Freeman and eleventh-rounder David Rubinstein--appear to have decent or better power potential.
Where are the Relievers?
In 2006, the Pirates used their 2nd, 6th, 9th and 10th picks on pitchers who profiled as relievers and, in fact, have been mostly or exclusively relievers as pros. Not content with that, in 2007 they blew their top pick, the fourth overall, on a reliever.
This changed in 2008. That’s partly because the Pirates went heavily for hitters, but the three pitchers they drafted in the first ten rounds all figure to be starters at least initially. Of the six pitchers they took in the first 20 rounds, only one, 14th-rounder Mike Colla, looks like a reliever, at least in the short term.