$8 million to Gerrit Cole. $5 million to Josh Bell. $17 million on one draft. Those numbers don’t seem real. They seem like monopoly money, pretty honestly. Three years ago, the Pirates spent about $10 million on a draft that saw 60% of that go to Pedro Alvarez, and we were beyond psyched. Two years ago, the Pirates spent almost the same amount without a huge expenditure at #1, and we were excited to see money go to players after the first round. Last year, the Pirates picked Stetson Allie in the second round and ponied up more than $2 million to sign him, even when people thought it would be a long shot.
The general reaction to the Bell signing is that it’s an earth-shattering surprise, that he was a lock to go to Texas and that’s why he fell to 61st where the Pirates even had a chance at him. Honestly, though, I was almost expecting the Pirates to sign him at midnight. Could a kid that signed Scott Boras on as an advisor really be uninterested in signing? If he was really not interested, wouldn’t we have heard definitively before the 15th? Would the Pirates really burn a draft pick on a guy they thought they had absolutely no chance of signing?
Let’s look at Bell’s signing a little differently. If you consider him to be a top-15 talent, most teams probably would’ve been willing to spend in the $1.5-$2 million range for him (last year’s #15 pick, high school outfielder Jacob Skole, signed for about $1.5 million). That’s a ton of money, surely, but it’s also an amount of money that I could envision an 18-year old kid that values the college experience and thinks that he can raise his stock into a top-five pick turning down. So what did Bell want on draft day that scared other teams away? He wanted to be paid like he’d had three great years at Texas and made himself a slam dunk top-five pick, not paid like a high school kid with a high ceiling.
Now put yourself in the Pirates’ position. I’m sure they had a few interesting and talented players in mind with that 61st pick. There were a couple players that fell out of the first round that the Pirates probably could’ve had for Stetson Allie money in that slot. But for $3 million more, they could have one of the best high school position player prospects in the draft. That’s less money than Lyle Ovebay made to stink up PNC Park this year. Bell’s not a sure thing and the Pirates are paying him like one, but in the Pirates’ position how do you not take that gamble? How can you spend $3 million better than that if you’re the Pittsburgh Pirates? You can’t sign a good free agent for that money. You can’t extend Andrew McCutchen for that money. But you can seriously upgrade your draft pick at #61 with that money.
I don’t mean to sound like the segment of the Pittsburgh media that says things like, “Well, it’s not a big deal that the Pirates signed their draft picks because that’s what they’re supposed to do.” It is a big deal: not every team would be willing to spend $17 million on the draft. Hell, no team spent much more on the Pirates in the three drafts combined before this one and no team ever has spent $17 million on any draft. It’s unprecedented and it’s fantastic and it’s exactly what the Pirates need to be doing in the draft and what they should’ve been doing since about 1993.
Every year, players go unsigned and cynical fans say things like, “Well, even if Adonis McHomeRun isn’t worth $Texas, why wouldn’t the Pirates just draft him and pay him the money anyway since it’s cheaper than free agency and he’s still a really, really good prospect?” And for the past few years, teams like the Pirates and Royals and Nationals have played around with what they can get away with to those ends, pushing the limits higher and higher with their over-slot bonuses every year. When Bell fell to the Pirates in the second round, they saw a chance to push the envelope further, and they did it because it’s what they have to do.
Most importantly, remember that while $17 million is a ton of money to spend on one draft and that while the Pirates’ system looks much better off with Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell and Clay Holmes and Alex Dickerson in it than it did without them, this is all still just a first step. Really, writing the checks is the easy part compared to keeping pitchers’ arms healthy and nuturing high school potential into Major League talent. You can’t do that without getting the players first, though, and last night, that’s what the Pirates did.