One thing is clear; if the Pirates are planning on taking Manny Machado or Jameson Taillon with the second pick in this year’s draft, they’re prepared to pony up some cash for their first pick. That leaves a big question, though. How does it affect the rest of the draft? In 2008, the Pirates drafted Pedro Alvarez with their first pick, but didn’t pay a second round bonus when Tanner Scheppers’ health was in question and still only really went way over slot on a couple guys deeper in their draft, notably Robbie Grossman and Quinton Miller. Last year, they paid Tony Sanchez less than half of Alvarez’s bonus, signed a second first round pick (Victor Black in the supplemental round), an early second round pick (Brooks Pounders), plus Zack Dodson, Zach Von Rosenberg, Billy Cain, Trent Stevenson, and Jeffrey Inman.
That’s not to criticize one strategy over the other because Alvarez is the best prospect in the Pirates’ system and he’s coming off of a torrid May that has him back on pace for a trip to Pittsburgh sometime before September of this year. It’s just a statement; the Pirates don’t seem to be willing to pay $12 million+ for a draft, so if they pay out a huge first round bonus they’re not likely to go out and also a grab a handful of overslot high schoolers between rounds 4 and 12 like they did last year.
Still, if the Pirates grab Machado (and most people seem to think they will), they’ll probably try to pick up at least one or two more high school arms in the Miller/Cain/Von Rosenberg/Stevenson mold. If the Pirates do that, bypassing Taillon a year after bypassing Matzek, Turner et al., it officially becomes a strategy and that means it’s worth asking whether or not it’s a good strategy.
It’s certainly true that the pitching depth in the Pirates’ system right now is light-years ahead of where it was when Neal Huntington took over for Dave Littlefield in 2007. At that point, Brad Lincoln was really the only pitching prospect in the system and he was out recovering from Tommy John surgery. Huntington has brought arms into the system via drafts and trades to the point that I can make a whole list of about 20 pitchers worth watching and nearly all of them were acquired by Huntington. Still, there’s not one five-star, blue chip, A/A- pitching prospect in the entire system right now and that’s partially because the Pirates haven’t drafted them, instead preferring to cast a wide net and try to develop their own.
Actually, I have more faith in that plan than you might think. Rudy Owens was drafted by Dave Littlefield, but his entire development has been overseen by Kyle Stark’s crew. Bryan Morris has made leaps and bounds this year and is putting up better numbers than he did at any point in the Dodgers’ system. Nathan Adcock and Jeff Locke are having nice bounce-back years in High-A after struggling there in 2009 and are young enough that if they’re promoted soon, repeating the level might not hurt them.
But can you really build a rotation like this? Let’s look at Rays rotation, the best young rotation in baseball, and how they put it together. Matt Garza was a first round pick (25th overall) out of Fresno State by the Twins who the Rays acquired in the Delmon Young trade. Jeff Niemann was a first round pick (4th overall) out of Rice by the Rays in the 2006 draft. Wade Davis was a third round pick by the Rays out of high school in 2004. David Price was the first overall pick of the 2007 draft out of Vanderbilt. James Shields was a 16th round high school pick in 2000. Jeremy Hellickson (who you’ll hear plenty about soon enough, believe me as a guy that watches the Durham Bulls a lot) was a 4th round pick out of high school in 2005.
There are a few first rounders there, but no high schoolers picked in the first round. No Porcellos or Kershaws. The high schoolers were mid-round picks and the college guys were first round picks. It’s true that the Pirates haven’t picked any pitcher in the first round since Huntington took over, but they also haven’t been presented with an opportunity to pick a guy like David Price.
It’s obviously too soon to know if guys like Von Rosenberg or Cain or Miller or Stevenson will ultimately validate the Pirates’ draft strategy, but it’s also way too soon to say that they won’t. We can say that they’re capable of doing so, though, and that to this point there’s not really any reason for the Pirates to deviate from that strategy if they don’t want to.
Of course, there’s also no reason to not draft a guy like Taillon, if that’s what they decide to do. They don’t have anyone with his ceiling at his age right now and he probably immediately becomes their best pitching prospect. If they do pick Taillon, it should be interesting to see how the rest of their draft shapes up. Will they still focus on arms for above-slot grabs? Or will they go after position players more in Robbie Grossman’s mold? These are all questions worth thinking about as the draft unfolds next week.