First Pitch: Evaluating the Pirates’ Drafting, 2008-2011

The 2016 MLB draft begins on Thursday, and will mark the 9th Pirates draft under Neal Huntington. The Pirates’ draft record has been subject to criticism, which is ironic when Pirates fans are currently anticipating the arrival of several top pitching prospects from Indianapolis, who were all draft picks. That’s not to mention the anticipation of position player draft picks like Josh Bell, Adam Frazier, and Max Moroff.

The Pirates haven’t been perfect in their drafts, and they’ve definitely made some mistakes. A lot of those mistakes came early, and a lot of the better results from the draft have come in more recent years. This all makes sense when you think about it. Huntington took over an organization that was one of the worst teams in baseball, with one of the worst farm systems. The MLB team eventually turned it around, and the fact that it took a few years is accepted, as you don’t just turn that situation around overnight.

So why would we assume the scouting department would be completely turned around before the first draft?

A lot of the mistakes the Pirates have made in the draft happened early. Their drafts since then have been much better, although most of them are largely based on potential. And that’s the big problem with evaluating the Pirates’ draft record. The MLB draft can take a long time to produce results in most cases. A prep-heavy draft approach, which the Pirates had for several years, can take 4-6 years for players to make an impact in the majors.

Just look at those Triple-A pitchers. Jameson Taillon could reach the majors this year, six years after being drafted. Tyler Glasnow could do it five years after being drafted. And Chad Kuhl? He’s a college pitcher who could arrive this year, three years after being drafted.

The overall result here is that the Pirates struggled early, missing big in one of their earliest drafts under Huntington. That set a first impression, and the better drafts that followed haven’t had a chance to erase that impression. I’d imagine that will start to change very soon, especially if the prospects in Indianapolis come up and start having success right away.

I wanted to review the Pirates’ drafts, leading up to the 2016 draft. I broke the article into two parts, focusing on the old CBA drafts, and the drafts under the new CBA. Here were the drafts from 2008-2011.

2008

In hindsight, it would have been a much better move to draft Buster Posey over Pedro Alvarez. The former has been a 5+ WAR player in each of the last four seasons. The latter showed a few flashes of his potential, but ultimately peaked at a 3.0 WAR player in 2013, before turning into a replacement level guy from there on out. In hindsight, Posey is the easy pick. Although, that was a difficult call in 2008.

The Pirates were fresh off the Matt Wieters fiasco, where they passed on the top ranked Wieters — a Scott Boras client — to take Daniel Moskos. There were a lot of other factors to this decision, like using the saved money to trade for Matt Morris, which really made it worse. But drafting a future lefty reliever with the fourth overall pick, when a top talent was on the board was a horrible decision. If the Pirates would have passed on another Boras client, and the consensus top talent in the draft, it would have been chaos.

Beyond the first round, the Pirates went very college heavy. They did get a few prep guys, going over-slot for Robbie Grossman in the sixth round, along with Wes Freeman, Jarek Cunningham, and Quinton Miller in rounds 16-20. But the aggressive approach towards prep talent didn’t begin this year.

The college approach paid off quicker. Third round pick Jordy Mercer has been the biggest success, arriving in 2012, taking over as the starter in mid-2013, and likely remaining in that role until 2015 first round pick Kevin Newman eventually arrives.

Fifth round pick Justin Wilson might have been a bigger success, for a different reason. He arrived briefly in 2012, then broke into the big leagues full time in 2013 as a reliever. After two successful seasons, he was traded to the Yankees for Francisco Cervelli. Wilson has gone on to become a dominant lefty reliever, but Cervelli posted a 3.8 fWAR last year, and went on to sign a three year extension this year, which begins in 2017.

The Pirates also saw MLB time from Chase d’Arnaud and Matt Hague, although neither player could make the successful jump from Triple-A. They traded Grossman as part of the Wandy Rodriguez deal in 2012.

Overall, the 2008 draft wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. It was disappointing that Alvarez didn’t come anything close to the top talent in the draft, and a guy who could anchor the lineup. But getting a starting shortstop and a lefty reliever who could be traded for a starting catcher isn’t a bad result, especially when you add in the good production Alvarez did have in 2012-13.

2009

Maybe there’s something about the Pirates making decisions on catchers in the first round that just doesn’t work out. They had the fourth pick in 2009, and went with Tony Sanchez, who was a consensus late-first round talent. The move was made to save money for a lot of over-slot prep pitchers in the middle rounds, and they did exactly that.

There were some very talented prep pitchers who could have been taken fourth overall. Zack Wheeler and Shelby Miller were the two guys who went on to have success. Jacob Turner became a tradeable asset, but has struggled in the majors. Tyler Matzek had some brief success in 2014-15. Matt Purke and Chad James were two guys who never made it as a big league pitcher.

The reason the Pirates went with Sanchez was because all of the prep pitchers were asking for high amounts, and none of them really stood out. The Pirates weren’t the only team that went for a safer pick and saved money for later rounds. The problem here is that their approach failed on every level.

Sanchez never became the starting catcher the Pirates were hoping he’d become. Meanwhile, the Braves and Reds also passed over the prep pitchers, taking Mike Minor and Mike Leake, respectively. The approach was the first real test of the Pirates’ scouting abilities, and it didn’t work out with Sanchez. It also didn’t work out well beyond Sanchez.

The Pirates paid about $4 M in over-slot deals to prep pitchers after the first round, and none of those pitchers made the majors or came close. They did get some value from eighth round pick Colton Cain, including him in the Wandy Rodriguez deal. They dealt second rounder Brooks Pounders in a small deal for Yamaico Navarro, who was used more as a depth option. They dealt compensation round pick Vic Black to the Mets as the second piece for Marlon Byrd in 2013. They also traded 11th round pick Aaron Baker for Derrek Lee at the deadline in 2011.

What makes matters worse for this draft was that the Pirates had some successful picks. It’s just they had success with other teams. Brock Holt was the most successful pick, going in the ninth round. However, he was traded to the Red Sox in the Mark Melancon deal. Melancon has been fantastic since then, but what hurts here is that Holt seemed secondary to the deal, and no one beyond Melancon in that trade worked out for the Pirates.

They also drafted Matt den Dekker in the 16th round and Jake Lamb in the 38th round. The former has been a bench player in the big leagues the last three years. The latter has been a pretty decent third baseman for Arizona in the last year. Neither player signed with the Pirates. This was during a time when MLB would delay over-slot signings until just before the deadline, refusing to make them official when they were agreed to — sometimes letting them sit around in limbo for a month or more. This resulted in a few players backing out of deals and going to college. I’ve heard that den Dekker was one of those players. I don’t know if Lamb was as well, although as a 38th round pick, he probably would have been a backup option for one of the early prep guys.

The 2009 draft was a disaster every step of the way. They went for a lower ranked player in Tony Sanchez who didn’t work out, and they used the save money on a lot of prep pitchers who didn’t work out. It was a horrible performance from the scouting department, in a draft where the approach was largely based on scouting. It’s probably not a surprise that the bulk of those scouts were replaced.

2010

The prep-heavy approach continued for the Pirates in 2010. This draft also shows just how long it can take for talent to reach the big leagues. Jameson Taillon had a normal, aggressive progression that you’d expect from a first round pick. He went to West Virginia in his first year, Bradenton and Altoona in his second year, and Altoona and Indianapolis in his third year. He was set to make the jump to the big leagues in 2014, but went down with Tommy John surgery. He could finally make that jump to the majors next week.

Likewise, fourth round pick Nick Kingham had a pretty aggressive path for a mid-round pick. He went to the NYPL in his first full season, followed by a year in West Virginia, a year split between Bradenton and Altoona, and a year split between Altoona and Indianapolis. He could have arrived last year as well, but also went down with Tommy John, which will put him out all of this year, delaying a future MLB arrival until 2017.

With prep players, if everything goes right, you can expect to see them in the majors about 4-5 years after the draft. But if things go wrong, that can be pushed back to 6-7 years. That’s why it’s still early to judge this draft. We’re just about to see the first round pick make his debut, and at the age of 24. We could see the same from the fourth round pick next year.

Beyond Taillon and Kingham, the 2010 draft doesn’t have much. A big reason for this is because they didn’t sign many of their top ten round prep picks. I mentioned earlier that MLB delayed a lot of deals. This impacted them on a few occasions with their top ten round guys. They also had some tough negotiations, with guys like seventh rounder Austin Kubitza asking for $2 M and standing firm at that price. They did go well over slot in the second round, giving Stetson Allie a $2.25 M bonus. However, he was quickly switched to a position player, and probably won’t be more than a bench player if he makes the majors.

The Pirates did get some MLB rotation depth in Casey Sadler and Brandon Cumpton, although both went down with Tommy John, and probably won’t be in the mix as anything more than depth options when they return. They spent their saved money on later round guys like Drew Maggi (15th round), Ryan Hafner (17th), and Jared Lakind (23rd). The latter is the only one in the system right now, converted to a lefty reliever, and having success in Altoona, although with a high walk rate.

Between Tommy John and prep players not signing, this draft has seen it’s final results delayed, while also seeing the upside of those results limited a bit. Things could still turn out well if Taillon lives up to his potential, and if Kingham returns and can start in the majors. So it’s not a disaster like 2009. Instead, it’s more along the lines of 2008, possibly better, depending on how Taillon performs.

2011

The 2011 draft might be the best draft the Pirates have had under Huntington. They got Gerrit Cole with the first overall pick. It might seem obvious to get talent with the first pick in the draft, but at the time there was no consensus that Cole was the best pitcher, with Dylan Bundy and Trevor Bauer being seen in the same light, and Danny Hultzen emerging as a darkhorse candidate. The Pirates went with Cole, who has been the only pitcher to work out from that group.

The Pirates then went big, giving Josh Bell a $5 M bonus in the second round to get him to break his commitment to Texas, after every other team passed on him thinking he was un-signable. Bell is currently emerging as the first baseman of the future for the Pirates, possibly taking over the job in 2017.

The biggest success came in the fifth round, with the selection of Tyler Glasnow. He was an unknown at the time, not even rating among the best prospects in the state of California in 2011. He has gone on to become one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and could join Cole to give the Pirates two top of the rotation starters from the same draft.

The Pirates could get more value from this draft, beyond those big three. Ninth round pick Clay Holmes is currently in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery, and still showing the potential to be a big league starter.

This draft could have been even better if 20th round pick Trea Turner would have signed. He turned down $500,000 from the Pirates, and went to college. He has since gone on to become one of the top hitting prospects in the game.

Turner would have led to a draft that could have resulted in an impact first and second baseman, plus two top of the rotation starters. Instead, the Pirates are going to have to “settle” for the two starters and the first baseman, which is more than some teams get in three drafts.

It’s probably not a surprise that the scouting picture was a little more settled here. Out of the area scouts at the time, 9/16 are still in the organization, and a few of the guys who aren’t still in the organization were hired away by other teams. By comparison, only 6/16 area scouts from that 2009 draft are still in the organization.

2012-15

The signing of Josh Bell broke the old draft, with MLB adding a lot of changes in the newest CBA. Tomorrow I will take a look at the results from the 2012-15 drafts, which are still in the early stages, and largely based on upside, rather than MLB results.

**The Pirates game was rained out, and they will play a double header against the Mets tomorrow. That has delayed the match-up between the returning Neil Walker and Jon Niese.

**Prospect Watch: Glasnow Shows Progress, Meadows Continues Hitting Streak. A good start for Tyler Glasnow, and Austin Meadows continues his impressive hitting streak.

**Top Performers: Meadows, Hanson, Hayes, Polo, Glasnow, Keller, Hinsz, Heredia. One of my favorite articles of the week, giving profiles and info on all of the best performers, made up from our live coverage.

**Willy Garcia Has Taken a Step Back Offensively This Year. Brian Peloza writes about how Willy Garcia has taken a step back this year offensively. He’s been highly rated in our rankings, due to his two plus tools (power, arm), and the potential that he might put it together enough to be a fourth outfielder, or maybe a starter. At this point, I think he’s dropped out of our top 30 for the mid-season update.

**Morning Report: What Has the DSL Produced Lately for the Pirates? John Dreker takes a look at some of the recent results from the DSL teams.

  • Tim … Barring the occasional independent league find, the draft and international signings are the only true original sources for major league players. I read a study that seemed to eliminate short termers and September call ups that stated the average duration of a major league position player is less than 6 years. That would imply that the draft and international signings must find 390 position players (13 per team) every 6 years. (I don’t have an average for pitchers but I would assume injuries shortens their careers even more.)

    That would of course translate into each team replenishing itself every 6 years. This means each team finding 13 major leaguer position players every 6 years – or a little over 2 a year. (If pitchers careers are about the same that would be a total of over 4 major leaguers each year.)

    I agree that is too early to judge Neal’s first 6 drafts but so far it looks like we’ve got:
    – 2008 – Alvarez, Mercer, Grossman
    – 2009 – Holt
    – 2010 – no one
    – 2011 – Bell
    – 2012 – Moroff, Stallings (?), Barnes (?), Mathisen (?), Wood (?)
    – 2013 – Meadows, McGuire, Frazier, Jones (?), Weiss (?)
    Good shot at nine with 6 other possibilities.

  • I don’t know if Burdi is a reach at the place in the draft the Pirates are drafting in but the rumors have him going to the Bucs. It is like the nightmare for me of Sanchez all over again. I could not believe they would take him where they did when so many better players seemed available, but they did. See what that got them! A reach for a current need never seems to ever pan out. Lets hope they get someone that can turn into a difference maker for them.

  • Here is just one of many excellent Draft Success Rate articles out there. It’s not pretty. 🙂

    http://viewfromthebleachers.com/blog/2012/08/23/success-rate-of-mlb-draft-picks-by-slot/

  • Here is an excellent article on the success and failure rates of Top 100 Prospects from 5 years ago.

    http://www.royalsreview.com/2011/2/14/1992424/success-and-failure-rates-of-top-mlb-prospects

  • While the final page has yet to be written on 2010, the fact that we passed on Machado for Taillon (and at the time it was 50/50) should be prominently mentioned?

    As for for 2008, not only did we pass on Posey, so did Tampa Bay, who selected Tim Beckham #1.

    • I thought about mentioning Machado, but I’ve got more on that down the line. I wrote up articles with the Pirates drafting Machado and Taillon before the draft. I’ve saved them since then, and once we see what Taillon does, I’m going to post them as a look back to that draft day decision.

      I generally don’t like to start this conversation until both players are up, or until it’s obvious one player won’t work out. There was a time when Pirates fans complained about the McCutchen pick because Jay Bruce was picked one spot later and arrived earlier.

      I don’t give preference to who came up first, but the overall impact a player had when they arrived. Taillon does have a lot to live up to here. But as one of the biggest Taillon supporters, I think he can get there and reach his potential as a top of the rotation arm.

  • Tim … There has been a lot of debate about what constitutes a ‘successful’ draft. For instance, some have said a successful draft (along with international signings) should be able to replenish the system every six years. This would imply delivering 16 top tier players (8 first division position players, 5 starting pitchers, and 3 late game relievers) plus say another 16 (shorter term) bench/bullpen components.

    That would be a little over 5 major leaguers (3 starters) per year coming in through the draft and international signings.

    Have you heard of a league-wide standard for classifying a draft as a success?

    • Rich…I have several articles on the draft with comments from several former GMs like Hart, Bowden, etc.

      If you get a starter and some usable pieces, it is a good draft.

      In fact, by that measure, 2008 was a very good draft, because we got TWO starters and some usable pieces.

      They don’t measure the impact of those starters, however.

      • I would think that just being a starter is not enough. You should have to produce a certain amount of WAR – in your first 6 years. For instance, we have basically had a hole in right field for our three playoff years (prior to Polanco’s emergence as a true starter this year). I would not consider Tabata, Snyder, and the first year of Polanco as a success.

        • You can slice or dice it any way you want. That’s the beauty of these things.

          However, if you’re a starter and producing negative WAR, I have a feeling that you won’t be starting for long? 🙂

    • It’s definitely not the example you gave. Those would be insane expectations.

      What Lee said is accurate. It sounds like a low bar, but it’s the reality, since you’re drafting so many guys who are so far away from big league ready, with a large majority who never project to make it past A-ball, even on draft day.

  • As spotty as the draft review shows, the Pirates are on the threshold of showing why they are seen as one of the best Systems in MLB – all they have to do is start the flow. I liked seeing the Pirates break the 21 year sub-.500 drought in 2013, and making the playoffs three years straight, but sometimes I think that recent success impedes their willingness to promote proven talent.

    Your statement about Bell as “emerging as the first baseman of the future for the Pirates, possibly taking over the job in 2017” is just more of the same. Why not taking over the job next week?

    • bc he’s not needed right now. Jaso’s doing well and has better defense

    • Hilltopper I’m not as sanguine on the PBC drafts as noted above. They did spend the most money and did have very high slots. All lot of missed picks and a lot of draftees that did not pan out. Sanchez was a bust and everyone is salivating over Taillion who has not thrown a pitch in the bigs. Manny Machado if drafted instead of Taillion would of made better sense. We cannot say what Taillion will or will not produce. Machado has already established a large body of work. Also let’s face it if they did not throw $5 million at Bell he would not be in the discussion.

      • But they DID throw $5M at Bell when ~31 other teams passed – they have to get some credit for that.

      • Bill….is that Manny Sanguine???

      • So yes, if they didnt do good things in the draft they would suck.

        If we excuse away Bell and all high picks, and ignore anyone not a well established ML player we suck.

        Along with most teams.

      • Bill: Machado was a top pick for sure, but the Pirates had loaded up on a 3B of the future named Alvarez, and SS was seen as a position of depth due to the drafting high of Jordy Mercer and Chase d’Arnaud in 2008 and Brian Friday the year before that. They had one pick in the Top 50 and what we needed more than anything else was a legitimate possible ACE.

        *So far in 2016 Bell is .296/.384/.461/.845 OPS, 12 doubles, 2 triples, 6 HR’s, 33 RBI, 27W/43K
        *In 2015 in a SSS he was .347/.441/.504/.946 OPS after being promoted to AAA for 35 games.
        *Jaso has a .991 Fielding percentage and a 7.50 Range Factor/game
        *Bell has a .985 Fielding percentage and a 9.44 Range Factor/game meaning he gets to a lot more or is involved in more plays
        *Bell will turn 24 in Aug; Jaso will turn 33 in Sep

        I am thrilled with the type of performances the Pirates have gotten from a bunch of guys who we recognized as placeholders. But, we had a direction going into 2016, and now is not the time to reverse direction regardless of how good or bad the placeholders are doing.

        Whether we paid him $5 mil or 5 cents, the numbers are still the same, and Bell has earned his way to Pittsburgh as a hitter and as a 1B.

        Tim: Thanks for letting NH know how we felt and therefore getting Jameson Taillon promoted immediately.

    • It was 20 years and Jaso is the starting 1bmen. You’re just going to have to get used to it.

    • John Jaso

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