Starkey: Pirates’ first-round Ks
By Joe Starkey
Published: Sunday, June 3, 2012, 12:30 a.m.
Updated: Sunday, June 3, 2012
Rolling through ancient microfilm at Oakland's Carnegie Library on Friday — film so old it pegged the Pirates as “less than a year removed from the playoffs” — I found the item I was looking for.
It appeared on the Tribune-Review sports front June 5, 1993, next to a story about the Steelers cutting ties with Bubby Brister.
The first paragraph made me laugh. How perfect an unwitting predictor of the multi-decade debacle that lay ahead: “The Pirates selected as their first-round draft choice a high school All-American athlete — in football.”
Not that anyone snickered then. Baseball America tabbed Charles Peterson the 15th-best prospect, and the Pirates snagged him 22nd.
Peterson was a Parade All-American quarterback from South Carolina. Pirates scouting director Jack Zduriencik, now the Seattle Mariners' general manager, labeled him a “pure center fielder.”
He was less effusive when somebody asked if Peterson could, you know, hit a baseball.
“He's a pretty good hitter,” Zduriencik said. “In time, he will be fine.”
In time, Peterson was shagging flies for the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the Independent League. He never played a major league game.
It was just bad luck, really, one of many factors that would combine to sink a once-proud franchise. Miserly ownership, mindless talent evaluation and Major League Baseball's ridiculous economic system were co-conspirators.
We could spend hours on any of those, but with the Pirates poised to pick eighth in Monday's amateur draft, let's hone in on their sadly bizarre first-round record from 1993-2007.
General manager Neal Huntington is exempt from the discussion because it's too soon to judge his four first-round picks. That leaves a 15-year reign of error under Ted Simmons ('93), Cam Bonifay ('94-'01) and Dave Littlefield ('02-'07).
Littlefield has actually seen each of his six first-rounders reach the majors — unusual for the industry — but that hardly tells the story.
The story is that stars win championships in all sports, and if you're not spending big in free agency or getting lucky in lower rounds, the best place to find them is high in the draft.
Consistently whiff on prime picks, and you might wake up one day in a 19-year losing streak.
The Milwaukee Brewers transformed themselves by taking Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun seventh and fifth, respectively, in the early 2000s.
The Pirates? Well, in our 15-year sampling, despite picking first overall twice and four times in the top five — their average drafting position was ninth — they netted one high-impact player (Andrew McCutchen).
Think about that.
Three still in the organization (Neil Walker, Daniel Moskos, Brad Lincoln) have unfinished stories. Walker, for stretches, has rated as an above-average second baseman.
But the other 11 feature only an innings-eater (Paul Maholm), a situational lefty (Sean Burnett), a No. 1 pick (Kris Benson) whose wife became more famous than he did and a bunch of guys who underachieved or never achieved at all.
Some of the stories are absurd. I once asked John Van Benschoten, the eighth pick from 2001, if he ever wondered why the Pirates made him a pitcher after he hit a nation-leading 31 home runs at Kent State.
“I think it surprised a lot of people,” he said. “But I was like, ‘If they want to pay me that much ($2.4 million signing bonus), I'll do anything.' ”
Three other quality quotes ...
• “We got the man we wanted.” — Littlefield on choosing soon-to-be reliever Moskos fourth in 2007, with soon-to-be franchise catcher Matt Wieters still on the board.
• “Can walk on water.” — Report from Bradenton manager Woody Huyke on Chad Hermansen (10th in 1995). Turned out Hermansen couldn't even walk on land: He drew just 31 bases on balls in his 139-game Pirates career, neatly complementing his 142 strikeouts and .199 average.
• “I prayed to the Lord the Pirates were going to get me.” — J.J. Davis, the first baseman chosen eight picks before the next first baseman went in 1997.
The next first baseman was Lance Berkman.
To be fair, every team has stories of near-misses. The Pirates made a science of it.
• Took shortstop Mark Farris one pick before shortstop Nomar Garciaparra in 1994. It was small consolation when Farris became Texas A&M's starting quarterback.
• Took left-handed starter Clint Johnston five picks before left-handed starter CC Sabathia in 1998.
• Took pitcher Bobby Bradley eighth in 1999 (Barry Zito went ninth) and Lincoln fourth in 2006 (Clayton Kershaw went seventh).
And, of course, in 2002, the Pirates drafted “Low Ceiling” Bryan Bullington first overall, leaving B.J. Upton for Tampa Bay.
Five picks later, the Brewers snapped up Fielder.
Ten years later, it's small wonder some of us are sifting through microfilm to locate the Pirates' last winning season.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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