First Pitch: Evaluating the Pirates’ Drafting, 2012-2015

Yesterday, I reviewed the Pirates’ early drafting results. Things got off to a bad start, but the Pirates improved, and had amazing results in 2011. The 2012-15 draft classes represent a continuation of that success, which is impressive, as the Pirates have been limited financially by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which put caps on total spending, and harsh penalties on teams who went over their overall budgets.

This all backfired for the Pirates in 2012, when they couldn’t sign their first round pick without losing a lot of future draft picks. However, it worked out in the long run, as I’ll detail below.

The 2016 MLB draft starts on Thursday, and will be the ninth draft under Neal Huntington. We’ll have some previews tomorrow (along with a lot of Jameson Taillon coverage), but for now, we finish our recap of the Pirates’ draft track record to date, looking at the 2012-15 drafts.

2012

The Pirates took a gamble with the 2012 draft, and it didn’t pay off. They saw the consensus number one pick Mark Appel fall to them with the eighth pick, and drafted him, knowing he would be difficult to sign. With the new draft rules, the Pirates were limited on what they could spend on Appel. The year before, they were able to spend $5 M on Josh Bell in the second round. This time around, they had less than that to spend on their first round pick.

The new draft rules require that you create cap space to go over-slot on a specific pick. So the Pirates went for very signable players in rounds 6-10, saving a lot of money for Appel in the process. That wasn’t enough, and Appel ended up turning down the Pirates, going back to the draft the following year, and getting more money from the Astros.

After it was apparent that Appel wouldn’t sign, the Pirates used the saved money on some later round picks. They signed 17th round pick Hayden Hurst, who had a short career and is now a college football player. They also went over-slot on 18th round pick John Kuchno, who is a reliever in Indianapolis. But the best signing might have been 16th round pick Max Moroff, who is currently in Triple-A, with a chance to break into the majors in the next year.

The Pirates also got a bit of a consolation prize with their “signability” picks in rounds 6-10. Jacob Stallings was one of those picks, taken in the 7th round, and signed for $10,000, which was well short of the $148,000 slot amount (saving the Pirates $138,000 in the process). Stallings has made it to Triple-A, and could reach the majors as a defense-first backup catcher.

The other top picks haven’t done so well. Compensation pick Barrett Barnes had his early seasons derailed by injuries, and hasn’t shown consistent power production the last two years, despite finally being healthy. Wyatt Mathisen was drafted in the 2nd round as a catcher, and was moved to third base a few years into his career. He hasn’t progressed offensively, and has missed this entire year so far with a shoulder injury.

One of the themes with the recent drafts has been trade depth. The Pirates have dealt a few players away to help their MLB team. The notable guys from this draft were 20th round right-handed pitcher Kyle Haynes, who was traded for Chris Stewart, and fifth round right-handed pitcher Adrian Sampson, who was traded for J.A. Happ.

With just a basic look, this draft isn’t looking great. The best player from the group might be a super utility player, and the Pirates might get another bench guy from the mix. They also got some trade pieces, providing some help for the MLB club in other ways. But if you look at this with the Appel situation in mind, it’s pretty impressive that the Pirates were able to get that much, after building their entire draft around one player, then watching that player turn them down.

2013

The 2013 draft certainly made up for losing Appel in 2012. In fact, it’s a draft that could eventually rival the 2011 group, and that’s saying a lot. The Pirates got compensation for Appel, getting the 9th pick in the draft. They used that on Austin Meadows, a prep outfielder who was getting consideration for the first overall pick at points during the 2013 season, but ended up falling to the Pirates. Meadows is now one of the top prospects in the game, and could be an impact bat in the majors, eventually replacing Andrew McCutchen.

With their regular first round pick, the Pirates took prep catcher Reese McGuire. He’s regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in the minors, but the offense hasn’t caught up to the defense yet. If that happens, McGuire could be an All-Star catcher. If it doesn’t the defense and the hitting skills are still good enough for him to be a starter in the big leagues.

What really makes this draft impressive is the amount of talent from the middle rounds. The biggest guys who stand out are 9th round pick Chad Kuhl, and 6th round pick Adam Frazier. Kuhl has emerged as a starting option for the Pirates this year, and has the upside of a number four starter in the big leagues, and possibly higher. Frazier is now in Triple-A, looking like a super utility player in the Josh Harrison mold one day.

Another interesting prospect who is still remaining in the system is 11th round pick Erich Weiss. The Pirates gave all of their remaining money to Weiss, including going over their bonus pool to the point where they had to pay a 5% tax on the excess to sign him. That is now starting to pay off, as he’s hitting for some power in Altoona, and looking like a future utility infielder in the big leagues.

Getting a potential impact outfielder, an impact catcher, a number four starter, and a few bench players is great for one draft. But this is only considering the guys currently remaining in the system. The Pirates also traded 3rd round pick JaCoby Jones for Joakim Soria, 2nd round pick Blake Taylor for Ike Davis, 7th round pick Buddy Borden for Sean Rodriguez, and 10th round pick Shane Carle for Rob Scahill. They didn’t get a lot of upside in those deals, but did add some value to what is looking like an already valuable draft.

I mentioned in the 2012 group that the Appel situation makes it difficult to evaluate that draft. It also complicates this draft, as it adds Meadows to the group. But even if you remove Meadows, this is looking like a good draft class, and the combination of both draft classes shows that the Appel situation might have worked out better than it had if they signed Appel (which would essentially trade Meadows and Moroff for Appel).

2014

The Pirates started picking in the bottom third of the first round in 2014, leading to a much different draft approach. They’ve been taking a lot of hitters who don’t have home run power, but can hit, get on base, have some gap power, and play a premium defensive position. There have been a lot of mixed reviews to this approach. One interesting trend I’ve noticed is that people tend to like one of the 2014 and 2015 drafts, but not both. And it’s pretty split on which draft is favored. This observation includes Pirates fans as well as scouts from other teams.

Count me as someone who didn’t like the 2014 draft, and liked 2015 better. A big reason I didn’t like the 2014 group at the time was that their top picks — Cole Tucker and Connor Joe — looked like big reaches. The middle round hitters didn’t look appealing, with not a lot of upside there. The only good thing from the group appeared to be the prep pitchers taken in the 2nd and 11th rounds.

Things have changed since draft day, mostly for the better. Cole Tucker looked like a reach, with a lot of better prep position players on the board at the time. Since that point, Tucker has looked like the better pick by far, while higher ranked guys like Monte Harrison and Jacob Gatewood (guys I personally favored on draft day) have struggled in full season ball.

The Connor Joe pick isn’t looking great. Part of that was due to the fact that he immediately had a back injury, which put him out for almost a year, and derailed his 2015 season. He has shown his potential at the plate this year, with a higher upside with his bat than any other middle round position player the Pirates took. However, he hasn’t been consistent with his hitting.

The middle round picks haven’t produced much upside. There’s a chance that guys like Jordan Luplow (3rd), Taylor Gushue (4th), and Michael Suchy (5th) could make it as a bench player one day, but that’s far from being certain. The best middle round picks have been pitchers. Sixth round pick Tyler Eppler is currently one of the better starters in the Altoona rotation, and could be a back of the rotation starter in the big leagues one day. Then there’s 13th round pick Frank Duncan, who has pitched for Triple-A this year, and could be a middle relief option in the majors one day. 32nd round pick Montana DuRapau has also shown the stuff at times to be a middle reliever in the majors one day.

The Tucker pick has improved since draft day. The middle round hitters haven’t looked as good, but some of the pitchers have emerged to make up for that. But it’s the prep pitchers who could really make this draft interesting. Mitch Keller is having a breakout season this year in West Virginia, and is starting to look like a guy who could have top of the rotation potential in the big leagues one day. His fastball touches 96 MPH consistently, and he pairs that with a plus curveball. The Pirates went over-slot on 11th round pick Gage Hinsz, and he looks like he’s starting to emerge as an exciting pitching prospect, with a fastball that hits 95, a plus curveball, and a recent promotion to West Virginia. The Pirates drafted a third over-slot prep pitcher, taking Trey Supak in the second round, but traded him for Jason Rogers this year. Prior to the deal, Hinsz had moved ahead of Supak in our rankings.

This draft is still highly based on upside, with a lot of guys still very far from the big leagues. However, Tucker is looking like he could be a big league starter at a middle infield spot (the 2015 draft complicates the spot a bit), while the Pirates have two very promising arms in Keller and Hinsz. Add in a few of the middle round pitchers, and the chances of a few middle round position players contributing in small ways, and this draft has really improved two years later.

2015

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t like the 2014 draft at the time. I did like the 2015 draft, due to a nice mixture of prospects that the Pirates acquired. They went with Kevin Newman in the first round, and while he was healthy this year, he was looking like a guy who could quickly move through the minors, and be a starting shortstop for the Pirates, replacing Jordy Mercer by the end of 2018. The fact that the Pirates have Newman and Cole Tucker means they should be set long-term at shortstop, with one of those guys possibly moving over to second base.

The other first round pick was used on Ke’Bryan Hayes, a prep third baseman with great defensive skills. He’s got some potential with his bat, but the defense at third is what really sticks out. The defense will keep him as a third baseman for the long-term, and the bat has enough upside for him to be a starter in the big leagues. Between the 2014 and 2015 first rounds, the Pirates could have three of their four infield spots locked down for the future.

The middle round picks looked interesting on draft day, and one of them has really broken out this year, already in Altoona a year later. Fifth round pick Brandon Waddell got off to a great start in the Bradenton rotation, and was quickly promoted to Altoona. He has struggled a bit in the Double-A rotation, but that’s to be expected as he’s now at a level that will challenge him. He’s got the potential to be a back of the rotation starter in the big leagues.

JT Brubaker, taken in the 6th round, also has some nice upside, although without the early success from Waddell. Brubaker shows some good velocity with his fastball, and has seen some improvements with his command as the season has continued in West Virginia. He’s joined in the Power rotation by 10th round pick Logan Sendelbach, who is having a nice season with an improved sinker, but doesn’t have the same upside as the previous two pitchers.

Some of the middle round hitters look interesting, with the most interesting one being second round pick Kevin Kramer. He has been consistently hitting the ball hard this year, and that’s starting to translate to the stats recently. Casey Hughston (3rd), Ty Moore (12th), and Logan Hill (25th) have shown some potential, but all three have struggled this year, and all three were demoted last month.

One wild card in this draft could be fourth round pick Jacob Taylor. He’s a right-handed pitcher out of the JuCo ranks who could sit 93-94 MPH and touch 97. However, he went down with Tommy John surgery after his first start, and should miss all of this season. If he comes back with the same velocity, he’ll be another interesting arm to watch.

There are some other younger players who were taken in the later rounds who could be interesting. Left-handed pitcher Ike Schlabach (18th) and right-handed pitcher Nathan Trevillian (22nd) could be interesting guys to watch in short-season ball this year. Right-handed pitcher James Marvel (36th) was a college pick, returning from Tommy John surgery, and it will be interesting to see how he does in his return.

It’s way too early to judge this draft, but so far things are off to a good start. The top picks are living up to their hype early on, while a few of the middle round picks are showing promise.

Showing Improvements

I mentioned last night that the Pirates had shown improvements after their early drafts. Breaking things down year by year, you can see those improvements. They went heavy on scouting in 2009, and it didn’t work out. The results gradually improved, and now they’re consistently getting middle-to-late round guys who could help in the big leagues. The 2011 draft had Tyler Glasnow in the fifth round, potentially emerging as a top of the rotation starter. The 2012 draft had Max Moroff, who could be a utility player. The 2013 draft has Chad Kuhl, who could be a number four starter or better. It’s early for 2014 and 2015, but Gage Hinsz in the 11th round and Brandon Waddell in the 5th round, respectively, are promising.

It’s still early though. Most of these picks from 2012-15 haven’t arrived to the majors simply because there hasn’t been enough time for them to arrive. The Pirates have been going with a lot of college picks in recent years, which means we’re going to be seeing those guys arriving around the same time as the prep guys from 2012-13. That will happen a year or two after the current Indianapolis group arrives (which does include some of the college guys from the 2012-13 years), which means we could be seeing a big wave of prospects set to arrive in Pittsburgh, not just this year, but for years to come.

**Niese and Nicasio Lead Pirates to Sweep the Mets in a Doubleheader. Alan Saunders has the recap of today’s wins by the Pirates.

**Jon Niese is Starting to Look Like a Pitcher Who Belongs in This Rotation. I wrote this before today’s game, and it held up during the game.

**Jameson Taillon to Make MLB Debut Wednesday. And the big news of the day. I’ve personally been waiting for this debut for a long time. I can still remember getting back to my Spring Training hotel room in 2010, looking up Taillon’s results, and seeing that he pitched a no hitter. And that was a few months before he was even drafted by the Pirates. I’ve followed his career on this site since before that pro career began, and am looking forward to the next progression.

**After a Long Wait, Jameson Taillon is Ready to Make His MLB Debut. Taillon spoke with the media today, between the games. We’ll have more on Taillon in the morning, along with live coverage tomorrow night.

**Prospect Watch: Control Issues Lead to Tough Night for Trevor Williams. A detailed recap of the latest start from Trevor Williams, plus a live report of a wild game in West Virginia.

**Mitch Keller, Tito Polo, and Ke’Bryan Hayes Make the SAL All-Star Team. A lot of promising young prospects in West Virginia right now.

**Latest Mock Draft from Baseball America has New Name for Pirates. We’re getting closer to the draft, which means we should expect a lot more mock drafts to come out in the next day or two.

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  • Jim Garland
    June 8, 2016 1:28 pm

    Great article. I agree with your year by year analysis, except for 2012: “With just a basic look, this draft (2012) isn’t looking great”. I’d say that was a wee bit of an understatement. I’m giving them a pass on Appel. It was a gamble, but one worth taking to get the consensus best arm in the draft. But when Max Moroff and Jacob Stallings are the cream of the crop, the crop is fallow and/or rancid.

  • Tim mentions who he would’ve drafted. Here’s who EYE wanted. (FWIW)

    2008 – Alvarez
    2009 – Tyler Matzek
    2010 – Machado
    2011 – Rendon
    2012 – Appel (altho, prior to his dropping I wanted David Dahl)
    2013 – Meadows and J.T. Crawford (maybe that’s why I am down on McGuire?)
    2014 – Jacob Gatewood
    2015 – Mike Nikorak

    3 out of 9 ain’t bad….lol.

  • Tim (or anyone)

    I don’t understand this statement in your next to last paragraph:
    They went heavy on scouting in 2009, and it didn’t work out.

    Isn’t that what you need to do? Without scouting, you’re doomed.

    • As you’ve pointed out so many times, the chances of finding a successful big league player beyond the first round goes way down. They went for a lesser player in the first round, opting to spend more on the later round picks. They passed up all of the consensus top prep pitchers, hoping they could find one just as good in the middle rounds, which puts a lot more weight on the scouting department.

  • It would help if the Pirates were to find Liriano’s successor. Left-handed starting pitching prospects is a weakness in our
    system. Wishing for a strong #3 starter is not asking for too much.

    • Well we do have Niese, if we choose, for the next 2 years (following 2016) with two manageable team options depending on how he does. Not that sexy but a nice 4th or 5th option that can give us some Lefty starting depth to bridge a gap….

      • He’s really settled in nicely the last few weeks. Niese and Locke have pretty much been our 2 best pitchers since the beginning of May.

        • Funny game this baseball, and the marathon of 162, sure our posts will be different in the next 60 days, I hope not about Locke/Niese as they are doing what I expected (as you say, since May)…

    • Hopefully one of Brault or Tarpley pan out.

      • Boy that Snider trade at least potentially gives us hope, as you state….fingers crossed…

        • As you said above, funny game this baseball. Got Brault and Tarpley for Snider then…….Snider came back and was usefull the same year for the Pirates….. Same thing happened with McClouth.

    • It would help even more, Steve, if Ray can sprinkle some magic dust (if he has any left) on Frankie to get him straightened out.

      • Wonder if it just mechanics or did he injure something……. Hope it is just mechanics

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