I mentioned this briefly last night, but the more I sit back and think about this, the more I think that the driving force behind the Pirates’ selection of Cole Tucker was his age. Tucker won’t be 18 for another month, which really does make him almost a full year younger than a bunch of the high school seniors in the draft. It seems particularly rare for me in this day and age to find a kid (particularly an athlete) with a July birthday that wasn’t held back the extra year in school. Instead of looking at him just with his ranking where it is now, you can tilt the frame a bit and maybe see what the Pirates are seeing. Tucker is a player that’s almost a year younger than some of the high school seniors in the draft, he really impressed scouts at the high school showcase this year and managed to work his way into Baseball America’s Top 100 draft prospects despite his age and his relatively off-radar status until recently. Now, imagine that he was just finishing his junior year of high school; don’t you think that kid would start his senior year relatively high on everyone’s radar?
I don’t honestly know, of course. I’m not a scout and I have no clue who’s available in next year’s draft class, or what sort of judgments are being made about Tucker’s ceiling from his body type that are more than just projections, but I’m guessing that that’s how the Pirates are looking at Tucker. There are, after all, late-round high school picks that go to college and improve their stocks greatly three years later in every draft. They’re obviously assuming that someone picking behind them was looking at him the same way, too, (give the value of a good shortstop, that’s maybe not terribly surprising, despite his low rankings by the prospect gurus). The Pirates have cited young age as a reason to pick a player in the past; when they drafted Gerrit Cole in 2011, Huntington noted that he was really a 20-year old by baseball standards (Cole’s got a September birthday and wasn’t held back, which means that he was legitimately a year younger than a bunch of the kids he was grouped together with in the draft) and not all that much older than Jameson Taillon, who they’d drafted out of high school a year earlier.
I also don’t want to say that drafting a guy with a lower bonus potential had nothing to do with this pick; every draft pick is a value proposition where you have to weigh what the pick will sign for, what type of player he’s likely to turn into, and what you want to do with the rest of your draft. Whatever the Pirates’ have Cole Tucker’s bonus pegged at is part of that equation.
From what I could tell from watching Twitter last night, quite a few of us were hoping that the Pirates would use the money saved on Tucker’s bonus to pick Monte Harrison or Jacob Gatewood with the pick they’d just acquired from the Marlins at #39, but the Pirates handled their next three picks a little bit more like they’ve handled picks in the past. They went with Connor Joe instead, who looks like a pure signability pick. That enabled them to go for high school pitchers with college commitments next, and while neither Mitch Keller nor Trey Supak were at the top of this year’s high school pitching class, they both seem very much to be the sort of pitchers the Pirates love to have in the system.
Rather than expecting a position player with a high-ceiling/low-floor like Gatewood, maybe we should’ve expected the Pirates to go this route after picking Tucker. It is, after all, how they usually handle the draft. Besides Josh Bell, who literally fell into their laps, how often do the Pirates go out of their way to pay big, over-slot bonuses to position players vs. pitchers after the first round? The Pirates always focus on pitching, and seven years into the Neal Huntington era I think it’s obvious why that’s so. They focus on pitching in every draft, they have a crop of interesting young pitchers (counting Cole, who’s 23, along with Taillon, Nick Kingham, and Tyler Glasnow) that most teams would be jealous of, and they still need to find a way to go out and trade for Jeff Samardzija or David Price or someone at the trade deadline to make themselves true contenders this year and next year. Despite hardly ever focusing on offense after the first round of the draft, it looks like the Pirates might be a phone call to Indianapolis and a Pedro Alvarez home run tear away from having one of the National League’s more interesting offenses.
Anyway, I’m not trying to argue that this strategy isn’t without risks, because it very clearly is. The last time the Pirates took someone that they liked much more than everyone else and saved money for later in the draft, the ended up with a catcher who can hit but can’t field, which is the exact opposite of what his college scouting profile said he’d be, and a bunch of busted pitching prospects (though I’d argue that the Von Rosenbergs and Dodsons and Cains are all a worthy part of the process that yields the Kinghams and Glasnows, even though they weren’t technically part of the same draft class). For now, though, I’m willing to accept that they might see something in Tucker that no one else sees, and I’m fine with the continued focus on pitching. That’s the thing about the draft; by the time we know whether this draft works out, all of the picks will be one data point in a sea of hundreds, and it might not seem nearly as important as it does when we’re all scratching our heads while it’s happening live.