So now we know for certain that the Pirates have inked Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie. That they’ve spent $12 million on the draft this year, which is more than they spent in their last two drafts, neither of which could be classified as remotely cheap. They didn’t draft Taillon to get a comp pick in 2011. They didn’t draft Allie as a back-up for Taillon. They drafted both of them because they expected to sign them and they opened the checkbook up and got it done, just like they did in 2008 and 2009.
Now the journey to the big leagues starts for both of them and Pirate fans know as well as anyone that the path to the Majors is fraught with danger for high school arms. The Pirates could do everything right with Taillon or Allie and still have an arm injury slow their careers down. It happens sometimes. Or they could do everything right, have Taillon in the Majors in 2013, but have the hitting prospects not in Pittsburgh pan out. That happens sometimes, too. There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to building teams and with high school arms there are plenty of risks.
But their signings are good news. They’re good news because nothing is more important to a team like the Pirates than acquiring talent and unlike the pricey and slanted field of free agency, the draft is a medium that they can actually exploit to their favor. Because some teams are afraid of paying big bonuses to young players, lots of talent can be available to any team that’s not afraid to both roll the dice and open their checkbooks. For three years running now, the Pirates have done their best to make baseball’s draft system work in their favor.
Maybe my favorite aspect of Neal Huntington and Greg Smith’s three drafts right now are the three different routes they took to achieve their goal of flushing the Pirates with as much talent as possible and how different those three different routes were to anything we saw from the Pirates prior to their hirings. First, in 2008, the Pirates went after Pedro Alvarez, the Scott Boras client, and stood toe-to-toe with the super-agent. They didn’t blink when he tried his grievance shenanigans and when it was all said and done they had Alvarez inked to a relatively reasonable contract and he immediately became their best hitting prospect. Just one year prior, the old front office refused to deal with Boras. Then, in 2009, Huntington and Smith mined the middle rounds for high school pitching prospects deemed to be risky because of bonus demands and college commitments and ended up hitting their mark with Zach Von Rosenberg, Billy Cain, Trent Stevenson, and a few other prep arms. They spent nearly as much in 2009 as they did in 2008 even without a bonus near Alvarez’s. They never made slot-busting a habit prior to Huntington’s hiring. This year, they went right at not one, but two highly-regarded high school arms and signed both of them. In the past, they’d taken guys like Bryan Bullington and Brad Lincoln instead of pitchers like Zack Greinke and Rick Porcello.
Of course, three successful draft days and signing deadlines don’t necessarily result in three crops of Major League stars. And even if they do, it’s no secret that the Pirates as we currently know them aren’t particularly close to being competitive. But I will say that I’d happily choose the 58-win team that we have right now with the young players on it and the minor league system that comes with it over the 68-win team full of arbitration-eligible players and a mostly empty farm system that Huntington inherited in 2007. Maybe it’s not obviously apparent how all of these pieces will fit together to make a competitive club in the long run, but talent acquistion always comes before fine-tuning.
If building a successful baseball team is like putting together a giant puzzle, acquiring talent is like building the border. It may not seem like a huge step because you still have a huge jumbled mess of puzzle pieces once the border is done. Some people give up when they realize how big the task ahead of them is, some still can’t put those stupid middle pieces that all look the same together, even with the finished border helping them. But if you really have a vision of what the puzzle is going to look like when it’s finished, sometimes it’s surprising how quickly it all comes together once that border is done.