Despite financial commitment, Pirates see mixed draft results
The arrival of Bob Nutting as principal owner and Neal Huntington as general manager of the Pirates in 2007 brought a significant philosophical change to Major League Baseball's draft, which begins Thursday with the opening two rounds. Knowing the draft is the most likely place for small-market clubs to acquire impact talent, the Pirates invested more money in the past five drafts — $51.4 million — than any other team.
“(The spending) wasn't something I mandated that we do during my interview process, but I think it's something that was very clear that could be a huge advantage for the organization,” Huntington told the Tribune-Review. “We've been fortunate from the early part of the process that (owner Bob Nutting) has been supportive and been willing to commit significant dollars to essentially research and development.”
“Our challenge was to increase our hit rate, to increase our probability for success through a systemic, logical, rational procedure.”
Recognizing the importance of the draft to small-market clubs, and the Pirates' aggressive investment during the Huntington era, the Tribune-Review analyzed the results of past five drafts. The study compared the contributions of the Pirates' picks to those from other NL Central and small-market clubs. While it is too early for final conclusions to be made from recent drafts, the analysis provides an overview of current return on investment.
Among the findings:
• The Pirates have realized a limited immediate impact. Twelve percent of the Pirates' active 25-man roster — Pedro Alvarez, Justin Wilson and Jordy Mercer — is composed of 2008-12 draft picks. That ranks second to St. Louis in the NL Central but far behind the Cardinals' 32 percent (eight players) entering Thursday.
• Pittsburgh selected no lower than eighth in the draft, yet only Alvarez, the second overall pick in '08, has become an everyday player. In addition, two Pirates prospects from that era were ranked in this year's Baseball America preseason top 100 prospect list — Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. By comparison, division rivals St. Louis had four, and Cincinnati had three.
• The Pirates have improved their organizational depth. The Pirates' farm system, ranked 26th in the 2008 preseason, was rated seventh overall by Baseball America entering this season. Six of the Pirates' top 10 prospects were drafted under Huntington.
• Draft picks have been used effectively by the Pirates in obtaining established players, they traded 2008-12 draftees or picks in exchange for key veterans Wandy Rodriguez, Gaby Sanchez and Mark Melancon.
• The Pirates spent the equivalent of their 2012 team payroll ($51.9 million) on the past five drafts. No other NL Central club spent more than $36.6 million.
Return on investment?
In an attempt to increase what has been MLB teams' historically low success rate in the draft, the Pirates employed a two-pronged strategy starting in 2008.
The Pirates paid premium rates for what they identified as elite talents early in drafts. Of the $51.4 million spent on the past five drafts, $30 million went to six players drafted in the first two rounds: Cole, Taillon, Alvarez, Josh Bell, Stetson Allie and Tony Sanchez.
The Pirates also awarded seven-figure bonuses to several players who slipped late in drafts, far exceeding MLB's recommended bonuses. The “over-slot” strategy has been curbed by new draft spending limits that went into effect last year.
ESPN senior scouting writer Keith Law, who previously worked in the Toronto Blue Jays' front office, said he does not believe the Pirates have received enough impact talent for their investment.
“In general, the return has not been good,” said Law, who ranked Cole and Taillon as the 12th- and 14th-best prospects, respectively, in his updated top 25 last week. “Alvarez does not look like he was worth the money. The best player on my board was Buster Posey. Even Taillon, who I think is going to be really good, they passed on Manny Machado, who was the next best player on my board. ... This isn't hindsight. It's more saying these guys were very highly regarded by teams.”
Baseball America ranked Alvarez as its No. 1 talent in the 2008 draft and ranked Taillon ahead of Machado in 2010. But Baseball America editor John Manuel was critical of the Sanchez selection.
“He was the best defensive catcher but certainly not the fourth-best player in the draft class,” Manuel said. “No one in the industry thought he was (Matt) Wieters or (Buster) Posey, but he was drafted in the same range as those guys.
“I do think (the Pirates) had the right approach (with spending), but you have to execute.”
It's important to note many of the players analysts rated as top-10 prospects also have failed to materialize as prospects or major league assets, and players don't always follow linear development paths. Huntington said the “books” have not yet been written on the developing careers of Alvarez and Sanchez.
“In our mind, Tony Sanchez is getting a very bad rap,” Huntington said. “You're talking about a 25-year-old catcher that has a .935 OPS at Triple-A, blocks well, receives well in an industry starved for catching.
“Alvarez hit 30 home runs (last season), pretty good for a major league player. And we believe there is still more in there.”
The Pirates also willingly spent over slot on players selected after the first round.
• Tyler Glasnow (fifth round) was signed for $600,000 in 2011. He is third in the South Atlantic League with 64 strikeouts in 42 2⁄3 innings.
• Pitchers Zack Von Rosenberg (sixth) and Clay Holmes (ninth), selected in the 2009 and 2011 drafts, respectively, each received $1.2 million bonuses. Both have ERAs of more than 5.00 in Class A this season.
• Robbie Grossman (sixth; $1 million bonus) and Colton Cain (eighth; $1.2 million) were traded for Rodriguez.
• Stetson Allie ($2.2 million), a second-round pick who has been converted from a pitcher to a first baseman, has shown impressive power at Class A West Virginia.
MLB.com's analyst Jonathan Mayo said more time is needed to evaluate the Pirates' drafts, particularly their high school-heavy approaches such as that employed during the 2009 draft.
“If you look at the players they were aggressively going after, it was a lot of high school pitching,” Mayo said. “That's the biggest risk-reward you can have. Not only do a lot not make it, but it can take them a lot longer to make it.”
Manuel praised the Pirates' 2008 draft. Six signees from that draft have reached the major leagues. But he questioned their '09 and '10 draft returns. Only Brock Holt, who was traded to Boston in the Joel Hanrahan deal, and Phil Irwin have reached the majors from the '09 draft. From the '10 class, only Taillon is ranked among the top 100 prospects.
“The final evaluation is really going to come down to those guys they spent the most money on,” Manuel said. “When you pick fourth overall and spend as much as they did over the course of their (2009) draft class, I think they were expecting more.”
‘A snapshot, not an evaluation'
The Pirates hope to create what resides a little more than a mile across town at Consol Energy Center: a championship-contending franchise built through the draft.
Not long ago, the Penguins were in a dark place, drafting second or first overall from 2003-06.
The Penguins' rebirth started with those draft picks: Marc-Andre Fleury (second overall) in 2003, Evgeni Malkin (second overall) in '04 and Sidney Crosby (first overall) in '05.
The Pirates hope Alvarez, Sanchez, Taillon and Cole — all top-four picks — can become a similar foundation.
“The Penguins are a great example,” Huntington said. “They hit on first-round picks unbelievably well, and those picks went from being high picks in the amateur draft to being really good players at the NHL level (immediately). (Andrew) McCutchen was in his sixth year (in pro baseball) before he really made an impact. It does take patience to draft players in baseball and have them take three to six years to reach the major leagues.
“(Examining recent drafts) is a snapshot of the draft, not an evaluation.”
While analysts say it's too early to make concrete evaluations on the past two drafts, an American League general manager said it's fair to evaluate the '08 and '09 drafts. Law also said it is fair to judge the 2008-10 drafts.
“There's been impact all over the place from those drafts,” Law said. “We already know what most of these guys are going to be. The guys that have flopped for two years, it's really unlikely they are going to bounce back.”
The Cardinal way
Eleven players drafted by the Cardinals over the past five drafts have contributed this season. Fifteen players from those classes have advanced to the majors, including last year's first-round pick, Michael Wacha, who made his major league pitching debut Thursday night with seven shutout innings.
“If I were a GM, I'd be emulating them,” Law said. “I used to work in consulting. BDP: best demonstrated practices. That's the Cardinals. Go figure out what they are doing. If you have to hire one of their people, go do that.”
Manuel credits the Cardinals with doing the best job of combining analytics with traditional scouting and a strong development system.
“The analytics helped them identify some of the players: ‘Hey, go scout this guy. He is dominating this league.' They go, and their scouts say ‘yes' or ‘no,' ” Manuel said.
In 2009, Cardinals scout Aaron Looper saw Trevor Rosenthal pitch one inning in a community college tournament in Wichita, Kan. Later that spring, the Cardinals drafted Rosenthal in the 21st round. Rosenthal now is touching the upper 90s as a key member of the Cardinals' bullpen.
That same spring, the Cardinals drafted Division II slugger Matt Adams in the 23rd round. Adams emerged as one of the top power hitters in the minor leagues and is now a major league contributor.
In the 2009 draft, the Cardinals picked Shelby Miller — one of the best pitchers in the NL — and found another everyday player in Matt Carpenter, who is starting at second base, in the 13th round.
How do the Cardinals explain their success? They don't. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak and Houston GM Jeff Luhnow — who formerly was in charge of the St. Louis drafts — declined interview requests.
The Cardinals' success does prove it's not simply about dollars in the draft. Evaluation remains the most integral variable to drafting success.
The onus on scouting
Scouting figures to become more important under the new draft rules that went into effect last year. If teams exceed their spending limits, they are at risk of losing future picks and paying hefty taxes.
“It puts an onus on your ability to scout,” Manuel said.
Huntington said the Pirates' scouting process — under the direction of assistant general manager Greg Smith — and infrastructure are improved. The Pirates have added scouts, support staff and coaches. Pirates spokesman Jim Trdinich said the Pirates have added 13 amateur scouts and replaced 11 since 2008.
“We are light years ahead of where we were in years one and two,” Huntington said. “Year one was about implementing systems and learning personnel, finding out who was going to be on board and who was going to be better served going somewhere else. Years three, four and five were more about refinement.
“Have we learned from each of our drafts? Absolutely. Are we better situated to draft in 2013 than we were in 2008? Absolutely.”