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Kevin Gorman

Kevin Gorman: Pirates wise to remember risk of reward in MLB Draft

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, June 3, 2018, 6:27 p.m.
Pirates right fielder Austin Meadows rounds the bases past third base coach Joey Cora after hitting a home run during the fifth inning against the Cubs Tuesday, May 29, 2018, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates right fielder Austin Meadows rounds the bases past third base coach Joey Cora after hitting a home run during the fifth inning against the Cubs Tuesday, May 29, 2018, at PNC Park.

Neal Huntington has a checkered history of first-round selections in the MLB Draft, especially when it comes to top-10 picks.

The Pirates general manager found starting pitchers in Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole but has had his share of major misses.

Passing on Eric Hosmer and Buster Posey to take Pedro Alvarez is one. Only an All-Star season in 2013, when he hit 36 home runs and had 100 RBIs, prevents Alvarez from being labeled a bust.

Taking catcher Tony Sanchez fourth overall in 2009 is the most glaring mistake, one that only magnified the Pirates' passing on catchers Posey in '08 and Matt Wieters in '07, the latter of which came on David Littlefield's watch as GM.

Even Taillon, who has developed into a top-of-the-rotation starter, has to live in the shadow of Manny Machado. The Pirates picked Taillon second overall in 2010, one spot ahead of Machado, a three-time All-Star with the Orioles.

But Austin Meadows' historic start could help Huntington, whose worst pick begat one of his best.

Meadows was named NL Rookie of the Month for May after hitting .409, with eight extra-base hits through his first 13 games.

The outfielder is the fifth player in baseball's expansion era (since 1961) to hit .400 with at least four home runs in his first 40 MLB at-bats, joining Albert Pujols, Jeff Francoeur, Brian Giles and Yasiel Puig.

That's impressive company, and Meadows has even more in his 2013 MLB Draft class. It produced the 2016 MVP in Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and 2017 rookies of the year in Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger and Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge.

What it also produced was one of the biggest busts in draft history, a player tied to Meadows and the Pirates.

That would be Mark Appel, the right-handed pitcher who was selected first overall by the Houston Astros in '13 after a standout senior season at Stanford.

The Pirates picked Appel eighth overall a year earlier, even after he made it clear he would return to college if not taken with the top pick. So it should have come as no surprise that Appel turned down the Pirates' $3.8 million offer to sign.

But the Pirates struck gold in 2011, when they chose Cole first overall and convinced second-round pick Josh Bell to skip college with a record $5 million bonus.

Bell had been passed over because he told teams he wanted to attend the University of Texas, but the Pirates gave him first-round money. They tried the same tactic with Appel, to no avail.

Problem was, the Pirates weren't in position to take such a risk the next year. They were on the verge of making the playoffs for three consecutive years and could have used a pick who would make an early impact.

Among the players the Pirates passed on in '12 were Rockies outfielder David Dahl, Cubs shortstop Addison Russell and Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager.

They also passed on Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha, who threw eight no-hit innings against the Pirates in a 5-0 win on Sunday. (Third baseman Colin Moran, who broke up the no-hit bid, was the No. 6 pick by the Marlins in '13, three spots ahead of Meadows).

Instead, the Pirates got nothing in the first round. At least, not for a year.

The Pirates' compensation for failing to sign Appel was the No. 9 pick in '13, and they used it to take Meadows. That was fortuitous, as their other first-round pick was catcher Reese McGuire, who was later traded to the Blue Jays in the infamous Francisco Liriano salary dump.

Baseball America's analysis of Meadows proved prophetic: “Scouts have significant confidence in his bat, which projects to be formidable. Meadows has a smooth, easy swing that he repeats, and he covers the plate well. His mature approach stands out at the prep level, and he has the leverage to hit for corner-profile power.”

Funny how things worked out. The Astros traded Appel in December 2015, as part of a seven-player deal with the Phillies that sent closer Ken Giles to Houston.

Appel has struggled since, with a 5.06 ERA in five minor league seasons, and he took an “indefinite leave” from baseball this season.

Appel could become only the third No. 1 overall pick to not reach the majors, an even more exclusive club whose membership includes only pitcher Brien Taylor (Yankees, 1991) and catcher Steve Chilcott (Mets, 1966).

Meantime, Giles helped the Astros win the World Series.

That Meadows is finally paying off for Huntington and the Pirates, who have the No. 10 pick in the draft Monday night, is a reward for their high-risk strategy.

But Appel's fate is a cautionary tale that should remind the Pirates not to take unnecessary risks.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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