(Opening image Josh Bell; image credit bellsandwhistles)
After an excellent 2008 draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates and GM Neal Huntington had sub-standard drafts in 2009 and 2010 that netted them SP Jameson Taillon and little else. Could the organization turn the tide in 2011? Due to the club’s continued losing ways at the Major League level, the Pirates had the coveted 1st overall draft choice, meaning that in 4 years until Neal Huntington’s leadership, the club drafted 2nd, 4th, 2nd, and 1st (but maybe that’s an article for another time).
1st round (1st overall): SP Gerrit Cole
With previously-rumored top choice 3B Anthony Rendon’s injury-filled season at Rice, the Pirates’ main decision came down to Cole, or UCLA rotationmate Trevor Bauer.
It was an interesting dilemma. Cole- who scouts universally considered to have the better raw tools, complete with a 100mph fastball- had an excellent sophomore year in 2010 before struggling with control and secondary pitches his junior season, and then declaring for the draft. Bauer had slightly less ceiling, but had one of the most dominant performances in the NCAA in 2011, and was the best arm on the Bruins’ squad that year.
In the end, the Pirates went Cole (for a record $8,000,000 signing bonus!), and it’s difficult to fault the team for choosing pure tools and upside, when the club failed to do so on multiple previous occasions- often leading to wasted picks. Bauer ended up going 3rd overall to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and skyrocketed through their system. He reached AA by the end of 2011- a shock for such a high pick, who often don’t even play pro ball in the remaining summer after they sign- and made his MLB debut the following season, after compiling an outstanding 12-2, 2.42 ERA, 10.6 K/9 in 2012 between AA-AAA.
The Pirates have taken a more conservative approach with Cole. The 6’4″ righty reached AA a season after Bauer, and made one start for AAA Indianapolis at the end of 2012. While he hasn’t posted the dominant (10+) K/9 that you’d like to see from a top prospect like he or Bauer, Cole has an impressive 9-7, 2.80 ERA, 9.3 K/9 statline. He was Baseball America’s #12 prospect at the outset of the 2012 season (Bauer was #9), and should crack the top-10 in 2013.
Due to an apparent velocity drop that the Diamondbacks suddenly deemed irreparable, Arizona dropped the 21-year old Bauer like a hot potato this offseason, moving him to the Cleveland Indians as part of the 3-team Shin-Soo Choo trade. If the 3rd overall pick really is an 89-92 mph fastball pitcher, then clearly the Pirates made the right choice in Cole, even though his progress through the minor leagues has been a step slower than Bauer’s
Pirates’ fans should see Cole make his MLB debut no later than September of 2013. And when he arrives, he should stay.
2nd round: OF Josh Bell
A year before a harsh MLB financial draft cap was imposed, the Pirates made the most of their last chance by signing Bell away from a Texas Longhorns’ scholarship with an impressive $5,000,000 signing bonus. (Although owner Bob Nutting can certainly be criticized for bottom-dwelling Major League payrolls, until these MLB sanctions hit in 2012, the Pirates laid out more in draft signing bonuses in 2011 than any other team in baseball.)
Bell was considered the top high school bat in the draft, with plus-power more than accounting for moderate defensive projections. The 19-year old was rated Baseball America’s #60 prospect heading into 2012, but a partial meniscus tear only 15 games into the season sidelined him for the rest of the year. If Bell has a healthy, productive 2013, he’ll easily be the most high-ceiling bat in the Pirates’ system.
3rd round: 1B Alex Dickerson
In a round usually plagued by the Pirates drafting so-so all-around players with no plus tools, the Pirates broke serve here and drafted a powerhitting firstbaseman from the University of Indiana. Compiling OPS of 1.046, 1.284, and .979 through his junior season, Dickerson cruised through Short-Season State College (Rookie) with an .886 OPS to finish 2011. In 2012, the 6’3″ lefty dropped to an .803 OPS at High-A Bradenton (after skipping A-ball), but still batted .295.
For a power hitter, Dickerson has kept his strikeouts in check (93 in 2012, compared to 39 walks). But expectations for minor league 1B are so high that not yet slugging over .500 is a concern. By leapfrogging A, Dickerson is now relatively age-appropriate for his level, assuming he starts 2013 at AA Altoona, turning 23 in late May. The Pirates’ system is so bereft of pure power hitters that if Dickerson can maintain his production, he should factor into the Big League team’s plans by 2015 at the latest.
4th round: SP Colton Brewer
With the Pirates spending large on Cole ($9MM), Bell ($5MM), and Dickerson ($380,700), the remainder of the top-10 featured affordable players, dominated by low-profile high school pitchers with some projection. Brewer debuted in 2012 with a 1-3, 3.24 ERA record as a 19-year old for the Short-Season State College Spikes. The 6’4″ righty’s fastball had improved from high school, clocking 91 on the gun. But Brewer had a high flyball ratio, and missed part of 2012, after failing to debut in late 2011 due to back issues.
5th round: SP Tyler Glasnow
Also receiving his first taste of pro ball in 2012, this towering 6’7″ California righty posted a 1.88 ERA, 10.3 K/9 between rookie teams in the Gulf Coast League and short-season State College. Some prospect reports may feature the surprising Glasnow among the Pirates’ Top Ten prospects in 2013, after flashing a 96 mph fastball as a starter, and working in the low-90’s with improving control.
6th round: 3B Dan Gamache
(Quick FYI Note: The preferred site for baseball statistics is generally considered baseball-reference.com. However, if you wish to see how an NCAA player performed in college prior to being drafted, check out thebaseballcube.com.)
Much like Dickerson, Gamache had excellent freshman and sophomore NCAA seasons, before slumping as a junior prior to being drafted. The 6′ lefty had a mediocre pro debut in 2011, before improving in all categories with a .780 OPS campaign at Low-A West Virginia in 2012.
7th round: SP Jake Burnette
Emerging in 2011 was a definite strategy on the part of Huntington and the Pirates to draft tall high school pitchers with promising fastballs in the middle rounds. The 6’4″ Burnette made one appearance in the Gulf Coast Rookie League in 2011, before 5 starts for Short-Season State College in 2012, compiling a 1-2, 4.71 ERA statline. Of early concern is the low number of bats Burnette missed (only 8 K in 21.0 IP), but it’s difficult to assume too much over such small sample sizes.
8th round: SP Jason Creasy
Similar story to Burnette, but possibly more significant concerns. Creasy debuted with 2 starts in the GCL in 2011, but was knocked around at State College in 2012. Compiling an 0-5 record with a 5.63 ERA, Creasy also posted a middling 4.8 K/9. Already 21 this May, if he continues to struggle at the Pirates’ lowest levels, Creasy could be yoked with the stigma of full-time minor league reliever.
9th round: SP Clay Holmes
Probably the most well-known of the later-round arms (FYI Note #2: Keep in mind the MLB draft is 50 rounds long, but it’s so rare to find MLB talent after the first few rounds that I’m referring to anything past the 5th round as “later”, when in reality, it’s technically still early in the draft.), the Pirates set a 9th round record by signing the 6’5″ righty for $1,200,000 on deadline day. Ranked the 140th best prospect in the draft, Holmes was considered a steal in the 9th round, and responded with a solid 5-3, 2.28 ERA campaign in 14 starts for Short-Season State College in 2012.
Unlike 2010- in which the Pirates failed to sign 4 of their first 10 picks- Pittsburgh was 10/10 in 2011, although it’s unlikely Lewis will be part of the franchise’s long-term plans. Taking a gamble on the 21-year old after a huge 20-year old season at Maine, it looks more like Lewis’s sophomore year was a statistical outlier, as he posted OPS of .587 and .677 through 2 years of pro ball. If anything, it shows fans just how much more difficult even the lowest levels of the minors are, compared with Division 1 NCAA baseball.
Late round surprise: …
It’s hard to say there really is one at this point. The Pirates failed to sign 8 of their next 10 picks, and the sample sizes from their remaining selections are too small for any prospect to distance themselves from the pack as of yet.
(FYI note #3: For overall looks at MLB draft classes of previous years, mymlbdraft.com is really an excellent, easy-to-read resource.) It’s difficult to criticize the Pirates here, when the team dropped $9,000,000 on the high-ceiling #1 overall pick, then $5,000,000 on the top high school bat in round 2, followed by a big swinging 1B in round 3. Although Pirates’ fans are certainly happy to have Josh Bell in the system, one early candidate emerging from round 2 is Cubs’ 1B Dan Vogelbach. Although the 6′ lefty is defensively limited, he’s absolutely raked through 2 levels in 2012, and owns a career 1.038 OPS to date.
Overall Draft Class Recap
This is probably Neal Huntington’s strongest draft class since his own debut as GM in 2008. And when you consider that the strength of the Pirates’ 2008 class was a high number of MLB role players (outside of 3B Pedro Alvarez), the 2011 class may be better, as it potentially has more impact talent. Cole is the one near-lock to be an above-average MLB contributor. Josh Bell has the highest ceiling of the remaining picks, but is far less certain. The hit and power tools are there, but will they be affected by his knee injury in 2012? And can a questionable minor league development system help the 19-year old fulfill his potential?
Beyond Bell, fans should keep an eye on 1B Alex Dickerson trying to tame AA Altoona, with SP Tyler Glasnow and Clay Holmes hoping to build on their debuts at Low-A West Virginia, with shots at High-A Bradenton by season’s end.
Thanks for reading. One draft class to go, and then a recap of the lot!