The Pirates wrapped up day one of the 2016 MLB draft with some familiar strategies. In the first round, they took third baseman Will Craig, who gets high marks for his ability to get on base and avoid strikeouts. Those two traits have been shared by almost every top ten round hitter the Pirates have taken in the last few years, and their focus on OBP and low strikeouts has even carried over to the majors this year. One key difference here is that Craig has some nice power, and this pick could look very good if that power translates over to the big leagues.
After going with a hitter in the first round for the fourth straight year, the Pirates switched to a very familiar strategy, taking prep pitchers with their Competitive Balance pick and with their second round pick. They took left-hander Nick Lodolo with the first pick, and right-hander Travis MacGregor with the second pick.
Here is a breakdown of the day one picks, with everything you need to know about the new Pirates prospects.
Pirates Take a Big Bat in the First Round
The Pirates had been linked to Will Craig in mock drafts, so it wasn’t a total surprise when they selected him with their first pick. It was a surprise that they selected him as a right-handed pitcher. Or at least, that’s what the broadcast said. And that surprised everyone.
“That really shocked me and my family,” Craig said. “We were like ‘A pitcher, what?!’ It was kind of funny when I first heard it and saw it on TV.”
There was a different reaction in the draft room at Pirate City.
“We didn’t think it was very funny,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington joked, after the fact. “From our mind, we did everything we believed to be the right thing. We entered it as a third baseman, we verbally gave it as a third baseman, and somewhere, somehow there was a miscommunication. We scrambled the room to get to Will, to get to his representative, to get to as many people on the baseball network as we could. Because we like him a lot as a hitter, and wanted to make sure that got out there.”
Craig was listed as a two-way player, and played both third base and pitched at Wake Forest. But there’s a reason the Pirates like him so much as a hitter. He’s got great plate patience, along with some power, which isn’t something we’ve seen from a lot of Pirates picks in the past few years. They’ve gone with a lot of picks who get on base and avoid strikeouts, and Craig does a great job with this. But not many of those guys have the power potential that Craig has.
When asked what type of player they see Craig becoming, Pirates’ Director of Amateur Scouting Joe DelliCarri had a quick and definite answer.
“A good hitter,” DelliCarri exclaimed. “We believe he has the hitter traits obviously to square a baseball. He does have a good eye, hand/eye coordination, and he does impact the baseball. Across the board, he has some things that we believe will transition right into professional baseball, and he’ll tell us as he moves through the system and through the levels how it goes, but coming in, we think he has the chance to be a good hitter in the Major Leagues.”
There have been some concerns about his ability to hit for power with wood bats. He struggled playing in the Cape Cod league last year, although that wasn’t his first time playing in a wood bat league. He also played in wood bat leagues in high school, playing in the same league as 13th overall pick Josh Lowe, who was drafted by the Rays.
“I’m pretty used to using wood bats,” Craig said. “Overall my experience in the Cape was great. I had some ups and downs. Obviously every player does. I was able to go to having a great season in school, after struggling a bit in the Cape.”
Craig hit for a .242/.366/.318 line in the Cape Cod last summer. He went on to hit for a .392/.537/.766 line in 171 at-bats, along with 16 homers in his junior year with Wake Forest. The power is clearly there, but there are questions about how much power can carry over to wooden bats.
“There are a lot of traits there that should hold up against velocity, off-speed, regardless of the level he’s playing against,” DelliCarri said.
Even if the power does drop a bit, Craig does a great job of getting on base and avoiding strikeouts, which the Pirates have favored so much, that they went with a completely new (and so far, very successful) approach of building their Major League offense this year.
“I’ve always been the kind of guy who sees a lot of pitches,” Craig said. “I like getting on base. It helps me with doubles and extra base hits. Being able to lay off the pitches that I don’t want, and balls off the plate, not having to chase, it gets me in a good place to square up. … I take a lot of pride in not striking out a lot.”
The Pirates had a long track record of scouting Craig. He was scouted this year by Jerry Jordan, who is a long-time scout that has been with the Pirates since 2011. His most notable pick has been Austin Meadows, although he also signed Alex Dickerson, Austin Coley, and Scooter Hightower. Jordan was moved to cover the Carolinas this year, but back in 2013 he scouted Craig in high school, so the two already knew each other coming into the year.
Craig is also familiar with the Pirates and their farm system, enough to know the key basic info.
“I know Pittsburgh is a great city, a lot of rich history,” Craig said. “I know the big league team is doing really well. They’ve got a lot of great players. I know that they’re real strong. They’ve got a great farm system and a great coaching staff. I’m real excited to be a part of it.”
One question about that system is where he will fit in. The Pirates drafted him as a third baseman, although because of his 6′ 3″, 235 pound frame, he doesn’t project to stick at the position long-term, profiling as a first baseman or a DH. There were some Billy Butler comps that I saw floating around, which would be fitting if he moves to first base, sees a bit of a drop in his power, but maintains the OBP and low strikeouts. But for now, Craig feels he can play third.
“I feel like I’m definitely a third baseman,” Craig said. “Obviously I’m not going to be Manny Machado over there with the glove. I try to be as good as I can. I think I can play third base with my arm, and my ability to have a high baseball IQ, and be able to move certain ways around the diamond.”
An interesting thing to watch will be how the Pirates handle Craig and Ke’Bryan Hayes next year. Hayes was a first round pick last year, and is currently in West Virginia. They usually send top college picks to Bradenton in their first year, which could put both players on track for third base in Bradenton next year. Hayes projects to stick at the position, so it would make sense to keep him there and move Craig. But the Pirates have a long time to decide on that.
“We’re a long ways away from having to focus on that at this point in time,” Huntington said. “It’s a great question. One, we’ve got to sign these guys. And then two, we’ve got to get a feel for where they are. Ke’Bryan Hayes, we felt was ready to make that jump. And we’ll see where these guys are again once we cross that major hurdle of signing them, and two, once they get out and play this summer, once they come to instructional league, we’ll have a much better feel for what level they’re ready to handle, and what challenges they’re ready to take on.”
For this year, expect Craig to go to Morgantown, where we should get an early preview of how his power carries over to pro ball. He might get a late promotion to West Virginia, at which point we might get another early preview on how the Pirates handle him and Hayes on the same roster.
The New Approach to Over-Slot Prep Pitchers
The Pirates went a familiar route with their next two picks, taking two prep pitchers to finish off day one. It was very similar to their approach in 2014, when they took Mitch Keller and Trey Supak in the second round. They also took prep lefty Blake Taylor in the second round in 2013. For years, the Pirates would take over-slot prep pitchers all throughout the top ten rounds, and pay them big bonuses to break their college commitments. That is harder to do under the current draft system, and if you want those over-slot guys, you need to take them early.
“There’s no question that the new system makes it more challenging to take a high school player later in the draft, and pay him what you think he’s worth,” Huntington said. “If you think a pitcher is worth a second round figure, you essentially need to take him in the second or third round. It’s much harder to take him in the eighth or ninth round as we used to our first four years here.”
Huntington pointed out that the Pirates have taken a few different approaches in the past with signing players. They went over-slot on Max Moroff in 2012 in the 16th round after saving money in rounds 1-10, although that money was originally saved for Mark Appel. They went over-slot on Keller and Supak in 2014, and had to save money elsewhere. They’ve also been able to go over-slot several times on picks after the tenth round, where anything over $100,000 counts towards the bonus pools.
“The system does structure that as you’re taking guys that are looking for certain amounts of dollars, you’ve got to be aware of where you select him in the draft,” Huntington said. “Joe and our guys do a great job of negotiating aggressively.”
The two prep pitchers are projectable. Nick Lodolo is a 6′ 6″, 180 pound left-hander who can hit 92, but usually sits in the upper 80s. Travis MacGregor is a right-hander who can sit 90-92 MPH, touching 94, at a 6′ 3″, 185 pound frame.
“Both of these young men have now stuff, and are giving us now stuff with the chance to exceed and continue to progress,” DelliCarri said. “We believe we can add to their frames and athleticism, and grow them as young men to stand up as grown men on that mound at PNC Park.”
MacGregor, who was taken in the second round, wasn’t highly rated in the national rankings, but did show a lot of late improvements. Baseball America pointed out that he jumped from the upper 80s to his 90-92 range, and that scouts saw improvements as the season went on. The Pirates also saw those improvements.
“I think Travis is definitely one coming into his own a little bit,” DelliCarri said. “I think he had been in some events, but definitely has shown a nice progression all through last fall, and then this Spring. We continue to see improvements over time in Travis for sure.”
Lodolo’s velocity wasn’t consistently as high. After he was picked, it was discussed on the broadcast that the velocity was low at times. DelliCarri said the Pirates didn’t see anything alarming in the times they saw him, instead seeing the normal “peaks and valleys” that high school pitchers have.
“There has been a nice progression with Nick,” DelliCarri said. “You’re not going to see the same velocities every time out with young arms. As they work through their deliveries and arm actions, and growing in their bodies, you’re going to see different velocities at different times, but in no way did we see decreases.”
Of course, the big appeal with drafting prep guys is the hope that these guys can figure all of that stuff out in the next year or two in your system, rather than going to college, figuring it out, and improving their draft stock three years from now. Some of the prep pitchers see rapid improvements, and it sounds like that might have already happened with MacGregor. The Pirates are also in a good position with a lot of pitching prospects where they can take their time with these guys.
“Because we’re not drafting to win a game tomorrow, there’s a lot that goes into drafting, especially high school pitchers and high school position players,” Huntington said. “These guys have a lot of traits that we believe, down the road, will project into quality Major League pitchers. It would be a different story if these guys were coming right into our Major League team tomorrow. They’re not. They’re guys who we believe will grow, will develop, have arm speed, have athleticism, have pitches that we see now that we can project in the future. We’re very pleased with their projected path.”
Lodolo has a commitment to TCU, while MacGregor is committed to Clemson. Because of where they were picked, both should be easy to sign. Based on the Pirates’ history, you can expect both to pitch in the GCL this year after signing.