Pirates' big risk with pitch-heavy draft focus might soon pay off
BRADENTON, Fla. — On the backfield bullpens of Pirate City, the franchise's future seems more promising than at any time since perhaps the late 1980s.
In Pirates camp this spring is a procession of young, athletic, 6-foot-5-plus pitchers with smooth, repeatable deliveries. Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham produce elite, effortless velocity and have developed into consensus top-100 prospects.
For small-market clubs to sustain success, the recent pathway has been through homegrown pitching. The Oakland A's drafted and developed Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. The Tampa Bay Rays have produced James Shields, David Price and Matt Moore. But there is a paradox, a Catch-22 — rather a Pitch-22 — for small-market clubs.
Top-of-the-rotation pitchers now earn more than $20 million per year on the open market, pricing many clubs out of free agency. But heavily focusing on drafting and developing pitchers includes incredible risk. Three of four top-100 pitching prospects will fail to reach the major leagues or produce more than 1.5 wins above replacement per season during their careers.
Nineteen springs ago in Port St. Lucie, Fla., New York Mets pitchers Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson and Jason Isringhausen were ranked as top-40 overall prospects by Baseball America. They were hailed as “Generation K.” They combined to pitch 83 innings for the Mets from 1997-99.
There is risk and reward in drafting and developing pitchers, and no club has devoted more signing dollars or premium draft picks to amateur pitchers, particularly prep pitchers, than the Pirates since 2008, general manager Neal Huntington's first year. It is an aggressive approach that could determine the club's future success or failure.
As an area scout responsible for much of the Southwest — from El Paso, Texas, to Reno, Nev. — Larry Broadway spent much of 2009 and '10 in Las Vegas. He was stationed there in case the Washington Nationals stunned everyone and bypassed Bryce Harper with the first pick in the coming June draft. The Pirates picked second.
While Harper was reason to justify allocating more time to Las Vegas, the city also was one of the most populated areas in Broadway's territory. While his primary objective was to gather intel on Harper, Broadway had another order from Pirates headquarters: Be on the lookout for a specific type of player, projectable high school arms — bodies that held potential and upside.
On Jan. 16, 2010, in suburban Las Vegas, Broadway entered a Bat-R-Up facility — essentially a warehouse containing a maze of batting cage netting — for a small showcase of 60 prep players. There he found Nick Kingham.
At the time, Kingham was not thought of as an elite prospect. He had sat out the previous season, his junior year, because of transfer rules. He was in Harper's shadow. But he was 6-foot-5, 200 pounds and with a frame to add strength. He was athletic. There was reason to believe he could add more velocity to his 88 mph fastball.
“There was stuff you could dream on,” Broadway said. “From an organizational, 30,000-foot level, we felt like it was time to try and stockpile some of these arms and see if we can't by the law of averages come out with a few aces.”
The Pirates selected Kingham with the 117th pick in the 2010 draft. He was part of perhaps the most risk-laden and reward-heavy draft in baseball history. In the 2010 draft, nine of the Pirates' first 10 selections were pitchers, eight from the high school ranks. The approach was surprising to some analysts. Said Baseball America editor John Manuel: “I challenge anyone to find me another draft where that happened.”
In three drafts from 2009-11, the Pirates spent 22 of their first 30 picks on pitchers. Seventeen were prep pitchers. The Pirates signed 18 of them to bonuses totaling $25.6 million. For comparison, the Pirates paid their top six starting pitchers from last season $26.5 million.
“I think we played more to the strengths of the draft,” Huntington said. “They were very pitching-heavy drafts, and we knew that going in. That's why we really refined what our program was in evaluating pitchers. … Maybe because we spent so much time and energy on focusing what we liked in pitching, maybe we pushed some of the pitchers higher.”
Pirates assistant GM Greg Smith led the draft efforts in each of those years.
“You look at the Stephen Strasburgs of the world, he was a college guy. We started thinking, ‘How do you get those guys before they become Strasburg?' ” Smith said. “ ‘How does (Justin) Verlander become Verlander before he becomes draft eligible and goes No. 2 in the country?' ”
How? You find them young.
After each pitch at Hart High in Newhall, Calif., Pirates scout Rick Allen peered at his radar gun and saw what other scouts saw: an 80-something mph fastball. One by one, fellow scouts departed for their cars and Interstate 5, which winds south to Los Angeles.
“Some of the games I was at, scouts were leaving in the third inning,” Allen said. “In Southern California there are so many games. We bounce from game to game to game. I saw a lot of traffic leaving the park, and I just decided I was going to stick with him.”
Allen was watching a 16-year-old junior named Tyler Glasnow. He had a wire-thin, 6-6, 180-pound frame and an 83 mph fastball. He was not invited to participate in the elite showcase circuits. But Allen stayed with him. The Pirates drafted Glasnow in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. Allen signed him for $600,000.
“What our guys have taught me, basically, is, ‘Let's go out and find guys we can mold.' It doesn't have to be the perfect delivery, but if it's workable and the kid is athletic … we can probably make him better. It's really a great job by our player development staff,” Allen said. “The size, 6-foot-7, the loose arm and being just 17 at the draft, you just dream on it.”
Identifying a projectable arm is one thing. Development is the other key aspect.
“I don't know if he would be as good as he is now (if he went to college) because we did a good job developing him,” Allen said. “But if he was in the (2014) draft, I gotta think he's a first-round pick.”
Glasnow still was throwing only 88 to 90 mph early in his professional debut in the 2012 Gulf Coast League.
“One game, I was working with the pitching coordinators,” Glasnow said. “I used to be real full circle, long, in my motion. They shortened me up to get a quicker arm. ... The next start I went out and I hit 94 (mph) for the first time. The next game I hit 96.”
Last season at West Virginia, his fastball reached 99 mph. He overwhelmed Low-A hitters, striking out 164 batters in 111 innings.
Glasnow also was gaining strength and size. This spring, he's 6-foot-7, 220 pounds. He has been handled cautiously, having logged just 149 professional innings.
Some felt Taillon was handled too cautiously, throwing 382 innings in his first three seasons. Kingham has been handled carefully, too. He threw 71 innings in 2011, 127 innings in 2012 and 143 innings in 2013. But all three have stayed healthy and become stronger.
“(Kingham) is a man now,” Broadway said. “I walk by him, and I'm like, ‘Good Lord.' Big shoulders, big arms, big legs. He's just strong.”
During the Pirates' predraft meetings in spring 2010, the debate about whom to select at No. 2 came down to two names: Taillon, the draft's top arm, and Manny Machado, the top prep position prospect. The Pirates chose the greater risk.
A study by analyst Scott McKinney of Baseball America's top-100 prospect rankings from 1990-2006 found 77.4 percent of top-100 pitching prospects became busts, defined as failing to reach the majors or averaging less than 1.5 WAR per season.
MLB Network analyst John Hart experienced attrition as a general manager.
“A truism is if you have 10, you can really count on two of them making it,” Hart said. “I came up in the (1980s) and never believed it. I said, ‘Come on, there can't be that much attrition.' Then bang: This guy gets hurt. This guy doesn't develop a third pitch. … You can never have enough pitching.”
Some attrition already is occurring. Zachary Von Rosenberg signed for $1.2 million in 2009 and has yet to advance beyond High-A. Stetson Allie, signed for $2.25 million in 2010, struggled so badly that he gave up pitching. The Pirates' challenge is to improve upon the traditional attrition rate.
“You don't sign 10 to get one. That's not going to work,” Smith said. “You want to increase your probability.”
The Pirates are trying to increase their probability, in part, by targeting larger frames.
“I'm certainly guilty of believing that it's a big man's game,” Smith said. “You look at the guys that are going to take the ball every fifth day, those guys are typically big men.”
The Pirates do not disclose their injury-prevention techniques, but they closely monitor pitchers' workloads and health.
“Every two weeks we get a weight check,” Kingham said. “We track our sleep, our water intake, our hydration and everything. Every day you have to do it. We have a point system, and you try to get as many points as you can. We are pretty heavy on health in this organization.”
Still, even if a club does everything right, risks remain. Baseball spent $1.7 billion on disabled pitchers from 2002-12.
“Remember the Mets with the Big Three? With (Paul) Wilson and (Bill) Pulsipher and (Jason) Isringhausen, that whole group?” Hart said. “Some years, some development systems, it works out better. For some others, it doesn't work out at all.”
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