The Pittsburgh Pirates completed their 2022 draft this week, selecting Termarr Johnson with the fourth overall pick.
For our full coverage of the draft, check out our new Draft page, with the Signing Tracker and all of the latest updates.
We’ve got two Prospect Roundtables for you this week that are draft related. We’re going to get things started with a simple question: What are your first impressions of the 2022 Pittsburgh Pirates draft?
I’m not a big fan of the draft. I think when you have a bonus pool that goes over $14 million with the 5% overage (which the Pirates have used almost every year), you have to add more potential impact talent.
The Pirates did an amazing job last year in the draft, and fell flat this year. They had all of that money and the 4th, 36th, and 44th overall picks. You’re going to get someone with upside with those picks, it’s inevitable, but I think they did the minimum and really didn’t even play it safe doing it. The Pirates took a lot of players who showed potential at one point in college, some of them recent, some in the past. They took some players who had no success at any time, or guys who broke out as seniors and other players with injury issues.
I really thought they had a plan going into day two after I saw the first day picks. When day two lacked excitement, I figured day three was going to be a game changer, especially with some senior picks on day two to secure bonus pool space. Day three was a reminder of the days when the late rounds used to mean rounds 21-40 — not 11-20. Until they picked Yoel Tejeda — who needs to be signed, otherwise this draft looks even worse — the day was rather boring.
I’m sure they will get some big league players from day 2-3, but how many even have the potential to be big league regulars, let alone impact players?
This draft class is going to ride heavily on the shoulders of Termarr Johnson. I have high hopes for him, but he could have still been picked and been surrounded by other potential impact players. I don’t see $14 million worth of talent here (almost $16 million when you add in round 11-20 slot prices), so I don’t think the Pirates came close to maximizing the potential of their bonus pool.
Especially on days 2 and 3, this was a very low-upside draft. Most of the pitchers taken after day one profile as relievers, except the college seniors, who mostly profile as organizational innings-eaters. The two outfielders look awfully similar to Luke Brown. The two prep pitchers have some upside, but neither is on a level with the three prep pitchers the Pirates drafted in 2021. Josiah Sightler and Nick Cimillo might have some upside with the bat, but neither was drafted as a junior and I’ve always viewed senior-year “breakouts” with a lot of skepticism.
Especially puzzling is the decision, in a year that was universally viewed as historically awful for college pitching, to devote two-thirds of the team’s draft to college pitching. The Pirates’ tendency in all three drafts under the current front office has been to look for hidden value among college pitchers by drafting from obscure schools – Chapman U., Campbell U., Salve Regina U. – drafting pitchers with injury histories, or simply drafting pitchers with really odd backgrounds, like Miguel Fulgencio. If we could believe the Pirates have found some magic scouting formula that puts them ahead of everybody else, that’d be one thing, but the evidence for that is lacking. A look through last year’s college pitchers is instructive. Except for Tyler Samaniego, they’re all struggling in the low minors. It’s also doubtful that the other 29 teams haven’t figured out that they can find pitching outside the SEC.
This looks mainly like an attempt to shore up organizational depth. Except for Altoona and the DSL Pirates Gold, the team’s affiliates have had mediocre to bad pitching this year. Relief pitching has been especially bad at the lower levels, so the Pirates may have trouble rounding out the staffs at Indianapolis and Altoona down the road. This sort of depth is what the Pirates used to look for in rounds 20-30, but those days are gone now. The logical result of the cutback to 20 rounds should have been much less emphasis on drafting organizational players, as teams instead can look to find them among non-drafted free agents. This doesn’t seem like a sensible use of most of a draft.
It’s hard to look at the draft and not think about how the Pirates navigated through last year’s edition. The thing about doing what they did in 2021 is that it takes a lot to fall into place for things to happen the way it did.
Expecting to have multiple drafts like that probably isn’t realistic. The Pirates did, however, land four players on MLB Pipeline’s Top 90 prospects — a respectable grab. Also, in Termarr Johnson, they got one of the best prep hitting prospects of the last decade, according to some.
After that, it was mostly pitcher after pitcher, and ones with admittedly probably not the greatest upside. We are probably talking, if everything pans out, a few that may help a Major League bullpen in a couple of years.
They did add some depth, which is never a bad thing, and with so many having starter experience, does allow some flexibility to be cautious with some of their younger arms (Anthony Solometo, Bubba Chandler, Carlos Jimenez, etc…).
While there are some players who, with the right adjustments, could be a bit more than their current potential — which you would have to think the development staff feels like they could do — it just kind of feels like a lot of the eggs are in a very small basket of players.
There are so many individual aspects to a draft, that it becomes easy to get them tangled into one overall view.
There’s the aspect of finding talent. That’s where the amateur scouts come in. The Pirates have gotten good results from their amateur scouts in the past, producing a lot of MLB talent beyond the first round. The development system didn’t maximize that talent in Pittsburgh.
We’ve become accustomed to downplaying the first round pick in a twisted system where teams take a lesser player in order to load up on day two and three. Major League Baseball created this confusing system specifically to prevent teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates from spending freely to add the best player available with every pick, regardless of cost. As a result, we cheer the 2021 draft not so much for the first rounder, but more because of five picks spread out between day two and three.
This is only the second full draft under Ben Cherington — unless we count the abbreviated five round version in 2020. We have yet to see what a “take the best player available” strategy looks like, and I think we just saw it.
The Pirates are going to say that Termarr Johnson was the best player available for them. Objectively, he was probably a different “Best Player Available” than Henry Davis. In 2021, Davis was the best player available in a draft that didn’t have standout talent, but had a lot of depth in the prep ranks. Objectively, you could argue that Davis wasn’t the best player available. Jordan Lawlar was rated higher at the time, and is currently the 11th best prospect in the game in Baseball America’s latest update. Oneil Cruz is 12th. Henry Davis is 44th.
It’s easy to justify that approach when you can dream on the upside of guys like Bubba Chandler, Anthony Solometo, Lonnie White Jr., Owen Kellington, and my sleeper favorite, 14th rounder Braylon Bishop. Not all of those guys will make it, but there’s enough upside that we can envision a future justification for taking Davis first overall.
I think the Pirates went the opposite direction this year.
It’s easy to find ways to justify that Termarr Johnson was the best player available. He was widely regarded as the best pure hitter in this draft. He’s regarded as one of the best pure hitting prospects to come out of the prep ranks in decades, with ridiculous Hall of Fame player comps. He probably won’t stick at shortstop, but the Pirates don’t need a shortstop. They need bats. When you’re routinely losing 16-0, you go for the best pure hitter and a lot of pitching, and worry about fine tuning the defense when it’s more like 8-7.
That’s what the Pirates did with this draft.
Sixteen of the next 20 picks were pitchers. Six were left-handers, which is good for PNC Park. One was announced as a two-way player, and others have the previous experience. There were only two prep players after Johnson. There were four position players — two outfielders, a first baseman, and a catcher. I hate to completely strip away any name after the first round, but the draft is largely a collective effort. I could tell you who I think might have been a first round talent if… or who could be better than previously seen if… or who could be a sleeper because…
Actually, that last one will be tomorrow’s Prospect Roundtable.
It’s easier to feel comfortable about the collective day two and three results when it’s led by Chandler, Solometo, White, Kellington, and Bishop. It makes all of those stories of hope from the college ranks are “in addition”, rather than the feature.
It’s also easy to envision a first rounder making the majors when you’re routinely picking inside the top five. There’s a difference between making the majors and making a long-term impact in the majors. The former can help a contending team. The latter leads a team to contending.
There are other aspects to consider with the draft. The area scouts identify talent, but that talent needs to align with the system. It doesn’t matter what you have in the system when you’re adding someone like Termarr Johnson. They could add as many Termarr Johnson’s as they want, and if they ever had an issue where they had too many Termarr Johnson’s and not enough positions in the majors, it would only be a good thing. They could trade the extra Termarr Johnson’s for future Termarr Johnson’s and continue to win in perpetuity, led by an army of Termarr Johnson clones.
In the middle rounds, when you’re drafting 30-35 and maybe 40-45+ grade guys, you have to factor in system needs. There are only so many 30-45 grade guys you can put your hopes on. I think the Pirates did well here, for reasons I’ll break down in tomorrow’s column.
When you’re evaluating the draft, you also have to consider the particular system. That’s where I come to my biggest concern with this draft. I can envision the desired result in theory: Termarr Johnson being a star, and the Pirates getting a few other MLB players from the remaining 20 picks. We won’t be able to predict those future MLB players today, even if we tried.
In practice, the Pirates haven’t been able to execute this plan. This draft looks like a larger scale version of the 2020 draft, where the Pirates took the best player available in Nick Gonzales. He was highly regarded due to amazing contact skills that generated lofty comparisons, but have yet to generate contact results in pro ball. The one prep pitcher from that draft, Jared Jones, shows potential, but not enough to justify missing on Gonzales. They drafted college pitchers with the remaining picks, and might get some MLB pitchers, but won’t build a contender through that route.
The jury is still out on Gonzales. This development system is untested. The fact that Gonzales has struggled doesn’t add comfort.
Two years later, the Pirates go a “best player available” draft, and it’s hard to object to the execution of the strategy or the fit for the system needs.
I think the biggest concern with this draft is that we still don’t have any examples to turn toward to show that the Pirates can take the best player available and get him to that lofty upside which justifies putting all of the eggs in one basket.
Termarr Johnson seems like the type of player you want to take that gamble on.
Are the Pirates the type of system that can execute the plan to perfection?
The jury is still out.