The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted LSU right-handed pitcher Paul Skenes with the first overall pick in the 2023 MLB Draft. Skenes received a $9.2 million bonus, which is a draft record.
There’s a reason for that. Skenes instantly becomes the best pitching prospect in the game, the best prospect in the Pirates’ system, and is a guy you should expect in Pittsburgh next summer.
I wrote recently about Skenes and his Major League attitude, in addition to his pitches and approach on the mound. Prior to the draft, I felt that Skenes was the best pick the Pirates could make, so they get positive marks from me in this draft for this pick alone.
The rest of the draft was interesting, to say the least.
Despite the record bonus at the top, the Pirates didn’t spend their full bonus pool, falling $312,400 shy. They had one player unsigned, 17th round prep third baseman Daniel Cuvet. The Pirates could have spent $1,121,685 without losing a future pick. With the additional $150,000 for picks after the 11th round, Cuvet could have received around $1.25 million. Every indication from Cuvet was that he was going to Miami, and it doesn’t seem this amount would have swayed him.
There is financial incentive to the Pirates ending up below their bonus pool.
According to Kiley McDaniel, the Pirates are one of eight teams who will split the overage penalties from other teams. As a revenue-sharing team that didn’t spend into their overage, they will receive about $882,310.
Why didn’t the Pirates spend any of their league-high draft pool overage of $809,285?
Teams that receive revenue sharing (payees) that don’t go into the overage split the 75% tax paid by overage teams.
This year, that means 8 teams split over $7 million, or ~$882,310 per team. pic.twitter.com/3Z4EzEdP3b
— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) July 27, 2023
Had they spent all of their money, including the 75% overage amount, they would have been hit with a tax of just over $600k, which would have gone into this pool for other teams to split. Their total spending in that scenario (let’s say if Cuvet is willing to sign for the max amount they could give him), would be just under $1.75 million, with the penalty. Instead of spending that amount, they’ll receive $882,310. That’s a budget windfall of over $2.6 million for a team that normally spends into the 75% tax territory.
The financial aspect of the draft is interesting, but it shouldn’t be the end-all evaluator. Skenes received the top bonus in draft history because he was regarded as one of the best draft pitching prospects of all time. He’s also close to, or already MLB-ready. Beyond the first round, you don’t have that certainty.
For years, the Pirates went heavy on prep players, giving out big bonuses. The sizeable bonus amounts and the ability to dream to the extreme on futures added some comfort to the unknown that comes with picks after the first round. This year’s draft not only went heavy on college pitchers, but the Pirates took a lot of college pitchers who didn’t have great numbers in college.
Skenes really skews the view of the purpose of the draft. The goal isn’t to draft Major League players. Most players aren’t nearly as close to the majors as Skenes, and need development. The Pirates definitely focused on development picks.
Finding the Next J.P. Massey
J.P. Massey wasn’t an exciting pick in the seventh round of the 2022 draft. The right-hander had a 6.52 ERA during his senior year with Minnesota, and signed for $150,000, which was $93,000 under slot. One year later, and Massey was pitching in the MLB Futures Game, after tearing up Single-A.
The Pirates drafted a lot of college pitchers in 2023 with less than impressive numbers, similar to Massey. After the draft, Pirates Assistant General Manager Steve Sanders highlighted the development of Massey.
“J.P. Massey is a really good example of, whether it’s in high school or in college, just about all these players are far from finished products,” said Sanders. “So it highlights the importance of looking sort of beneath the surface results, looking for traits.”
It’s important to note that Massey is still an unknown in terms of on-field performance. His stuff is filthy, but he’s posted a 7.4 BB/9 since his promotion to High-A, with a lower strikeout rate. He also only has five starts at the new level, so he’s still adjusting. This adjustment period included the Future’s Game, and going from an under-slot college senior to the MLB Future’s Game in one year had to be an adjustment of its own.
The hope would be that the Pirates can find more J.P. Massey’s in this group, while also hoping the development team can get Massey and the rest of the future breakouts to eventually refine their stuff for on-field performance in the upper levels and eventually the majors.
“I think he’s a good example of somebody who probably can’t be judged by the ERA and strikeout and walk rate necessarily of his junior year,” said Sanders of Massey. “[We] certainly hope to see some similar success stories out of this group.”
Looking deeper at the rest of the pitchers in this draft, most can be broken down into two main groups, even if the Pirates didn’t draw it up that way.
A Run on SEC Pitchers
The Pirates drafted six other pitchers out of the Southeastern Conference, in addition to Skenes. That wasn’t a specific plan.
“Sincerely, no direct design to go into the SEC and take pitchers out of the SEC,” said Pirates Scouting Director Joe DelliCarri. “It was just more of the individuals that aligned with what we were looking for more than it was conference based.”
The SEC is a strong conference, filled with talent. This draft was unlike others, as it had more college talent than normal years. The 2020 MLB draft was shortened to five rounds, sending more prep players to college. Those players would be eligible this year. The long-term impact for a big conference like the SEC might be that there were too many talented pitchers to develop.
“A lot of those places do have some pretty impressive arm talent up and down their roster and we were fortunate to grab a few of them,” said Sanders.
After drafting Skenes, Pirates’ General Manager Ben Cherington said that up to 15 people saw the first overall pick in action. With all of those views on the top pick, you’d have to think the Pirates not only got a well-rounded view of Skenes, but also plenty of looks at sleepers throughout the SEC. Here’s a look at the SEC pitchers they added.
Louisiana State University
Player: Paul Skenes, RHP
2023 Stats: 1.69 ERA, 209 K, 20 BB, 122.2 IP
Report: Check out those links above. The stats and the stuff were both ridiculous. There’s a reason he went first overall.
Player: Patrick Reilly, RHP
2023 Stats: 5.77 ERA, 65 K, 30 BB, 48.1 IP
Report: He’s got a 93-96 MPH fastball that touches 98 and grades as plus, with an above-average slider. He declined from high school to college, especially with inconsistent mechanics that lead to control/command issues. If the Pirates can get that ironed out, he’s got a great two pitch mix with a fringe changeup.
Player: Hunter Furtado, LHP
2023 Stats: 4.75 ERA, 38 K, 17 BB, 36.0 IP
Report: Like Reilly above, Furtado has a fastball that sits 93-96, touching 98. His arm slot gives him issues landing pitches in the strike zone, which downplays the fastball and his plus slider. Furtado and Reilly are two candidates who could remain starters in their developments, as long as they iron out the mechanics and control issues.
Player: Garrett McMillan, RHP
2023 Stats: 4.89 ERA, 36 K, 17 BB, 42.1 IP
Report: McMillan was sidelined early in the year with a muscle strain in his shoulder. He doesn’t have great stuff, but has a lot of movement. He throws a low-90s fastball with arm-side run, a 12-to-6 curveball, and a changeup with 10-12 MPH of separation from the fastball. He pitched as a starter, but the 6′ 4″, 235 pound right-hander might generate more power and be more effective in shorter outings.
Player: Jaden Woods, LHP
2023 Stats: 5.77 ERA, 62 K, 25 BB, 48.1 IP
Report: Woods has worked as a starter and reliever, seeing a slightly higher 92-96 MPH in relief. He throws a slurve that looks plus when it’s on. His control improved in the Cape Cod League (more on that later), but that didn’t carry over to his junior year with Georgia.
Player: Austin Strickland, RHP
2023 Stats: 5.04 ERA, 58 K, 20 BB, 55.1 IP
Report: Strickland throws 93-94 MPH, getting his fastball up to 97 with a lot of sink and a tendency to generate ground balls. He has above-average control, but doesn’t really have a consistent breaking pitch, and only a feel for a changeup. He’s another guy who fared well in the Cape Cod League.
Player: Magdiel Cotto, LHP
2023 Stats: 6.00 ERA, 26 K, 9 BB, 18.0 IP
Report: Despite the draft position and the ERA, Cotto might be the best of this group not named Skenes. He averages 93 MPH with his fastball, getting it up to 97, with a mid-80s slider and a mid-to-upper 80s changeup. He had better fastball control in the Cape Cod League, which didn’t carry over to his junior year. That was a trend for a lot of Pirates draft picks.
Scouting The Cape Cod League
The Cape Cod League provides an opportunity to see college players playing with wood bats for the first time. Pitchers don’t have to live in fear of cheap hits off the inside of metal bats. Hitters can’t rely on the forgiveness of those bats, and face pitchers who have a little less fear. While short, the experience gives an early glimpse of how players might fare in pro ball.
“That’s been something that we do place an emphasis on,” said Sanders. “It’s an important part of our scouting process. It has been the last few years. A number of guys throughout the last few drafts have been guys that we’ve built history with through the Cape League.”
This draft featured eight of 20 signed players who played in the Cape Cod League, along with other players who played in other summer leagues.
“I think it’s probably important to highlight to that there’s probably not any one pocket of time throughout the scouting calendar that’s going to carry undue weight in the process,” said Sanders. “I think a huge hat tip to Joe and his entire staff. The process on a lot of these guys is multiple years long and there are different types of looks we get, whether it’s in the summer or during the spring, or as underclassmen.”
The Pirates scout players in high school, college, and the Cape. The latter might be the most difficult of the three in terms of performance. The Pirates drafted a lot of players who performed better in the Cape Cod League.
Mitch Jebb, SS, 2nd Round: The high contact infielder had a breakout season in the Cape in 2022, ranking second in the league in average (.356), on-base percentage (.429), and OPS (.919). More on Jebb later.
Patrick Reilly, RHP, 5th Round: Reilly had control issues in his first run through the Cape in 2022, walking 19 in 25.1 innings. He had the same control issues in his junior year. He returned to the Cape for one start this summer, throwing five innings with no walks, but two hit batters and one wild pitch. He worked as a starter in the Cape and a reliever in college.
Hunter Furtado, LHP, 6th Round: He worked as a starter in the Cape in 2022, making five starts. He walked five batters in 21.1 innings, then walked 17 in 36 with Alabama this year. Furtado pitched in the Cape in 2021, walking eight in 26.2 innings. He followed that up in 2022 with 16 walks in 32 innings for Alabama. For two years, Furtado has shown a tendency to have better control in a wood bat league.
Jared Woods, LHP, 7th Round: Woods only threw 5.1 innings in the Cape in 2022, but had improved strike throwing. That didn’t fully translate to Georgia during his junior year.
Austin Strickland, RHP, 8th Round: He made three starts in the Cape in 2022, throwing 26.2 innings. He struck out 31 with 9 walks, and carried his improved control into the 2023 season with Kentucky.
Danny Carrion, RHP, 9th Round: Carrion was a college senior with remaining eligibility who pitched in the Cape this summer. He had good numbers with UC Davis (2.76 ERA, 34:10 K/BB, 29.1 IP), and continued that in the wood bat league. Carrion pitched 9.2 innings in relief, with a 3.72 ERA and a 16:6 K/BB, working as a late inning reliever.
Magdiel Cotto, LHP, 11th Round: He was the #19 ranked prospect in the league last year, turning a corner in his career with a 2.67 ERA in 27 innings. That included a 29:12 K/BB. His ERA wasn’t good this year with Kentucky, but he maintained improved control and had a lot of strikeouts.
Justin Miknis, C, 16th Round: The senior from Kent State played in the Cape Cod League twice, and was teammates in 2021 with 5th rounder Patrick Reilly.
Other Notable 2023 Draft Picks
The Pirates took Skenes first overall, and the bulk of their remaining draft was on pitchers who look like development projects. There were a few standouts in the middle rounds to highlight, along with input from scouting director Joe DelliCarri.
Mitch Jebb, SS, 2nd Round: He’s already made his pro debut, showing electric energy on the bases. Jebb is fueled by an above-average to plus hit tool, with excellent hand-eye coordination, and a quick bat that led to an 88% contact rate in 2023. He’s got fringe power, but is a plus runner with average defense abilities.
“High contact, swing decisions, delivers the barrel consistently, may have a little old time look to how he does it, but make no mistake, he knows very well what he’s doing,” said DelliCarri. “He knows his swing well. And he knows there’s opportunities ahead of him of some areas that he can still build upon.”
Zander Mueth, RHP, Comp B: The Pirates gave $1.8 million to Mueth, their lone prep pitcher of the draft. This amount was over-slot, with the Pirates adding a mature young player who has the makings of an above-average or better fastball and slider.
“Really likable young man,” said DelliCarri. “Knows what he’s done to this point, even as a high school kid. Knows some of the areas, self-shared of what he wants to get better at, and has growth mindset.”
Garret Forrester, 3B, 3rd Round: Forrester is a high contact hitter with great swing decisions. He doesn’t profile to stick at third base, due to his stocky frame, but doesn’t have the power to stick at first. He did hit .341/.485/.522 during his junior year with Oregon State, adding ten homers, and walking more than he struck out (59:51).
“I think there’s an opportunity to get even more out of Garret,” said DelliCarri. “Sitting down with Garret in Phoenix, clearly there’s an understanding of what he does and how he does it. And I think there’s some alignment here with our player development and coaches, that we can definitely help Garret and continue what he’s done there at Oregon State.”
Carlson Reed, RHP, 4th Round: The Pirates added the right-handed reliever from West Virginia after Reed posted a 2.61 ERA in 38 innings. The most impressive thing were his 60 strikeouts. He did walk 25 batters, showing that his control needs to be improved. He’s got a fastball that averages 95 in relief, with an above-average slider and changeup.
“There’s an opportunity to tap into athleticism, arm speed, how he has taken and adapted to some things in terms of aptitude, what he’s been given so far,” said DelliCarri. “We think we can do some things with all of his pitches — fastball and then two breaking balls.”
Khristian Curtis, RHP, 12th Round: The Pirates went over-slot on Curtis, giving the junior out of Arizona State a $500,000 bonus. He throws 93-94 MPH, getting his fastball up to 97, with an average slider and the potential for an above-average changeup. Curtis posted a 7.03 ERA in 64 innings this year, striking out 58 and walking 35. He has very little time on the mound, and lacks control. He was a two-sport player in high school, as a pitching prospect and a basketball player. He didn’t pitch for Texas A&M in 2021, and only started five games in 2022 before a season-ending injury. The Pirates landed a pitcher with very little development time on the mound, but the makings of three average or better pitches.+ posts
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.