This is the first part of a review of the eight drafts conducted by the Pirates' current front office. I'm not trying to do anything profound here. I won't attempt to quantify the success of these drafts; doing that for any of them after 2009 is a waste of time. I just wanted to get some rough idea of which prospects are still standing and how much remaining potential each draft has. I also think it's interesting to see how their draft strategies have changed over the years.
I'm not especially interested in the players the team failed to sign. Sometimes there are specific, unique circumstances, Mark Appel being the leading example. Most of the time, though, the decision whether or not to sign a player is inextricably linked with the scouting, both the assessment of the player's talent and the assessment of the player's signability, which is part of the scout's job. For that reason, I don't think you can say, "See, they drafted Trea Turner," because if they'd evaluated him accurately they would've drafted him early, not in round 20, and offered him a boatload of money. (And, yes, nobody else got it right with him back then, either.)
Below is a list of every player signed from each draft, with position (when drafted) and round. "Others" are the guys who've fallen by the wayside without making much of an impression. Today I'll cover 2008-09.
2008 -- Grade: B-
1. Pedro Alvarez, 3B: Alvarez hit for good power in four of his six seasons (two actually were more like half-seasons). That included two 30-HR seasons, one HR title and one 100-RBI season. But we all know what happened in the end.
3. Jordy Mercer, SS: Now the team's starting SS, Mercer has developed into a good fielder and has hit well at times, mainly against LHP. The 2015 season wasn't one of those times, though, and his term as the starter may be cut short if he doesn't rebound with the bat.
4. Chase d'Arnaud, SS: For a while, d'Arnaud and not Mercer looked like the SS of the future, but d'Arnaud didn't adjust well at the upper levels or the majors. He spent last year with the Phillies, mostly in AAA but briefly in the majors.
5. Justin Wilson, LHP: Wilson overcame control problems to develop into an excellent, late-inning reliever. The Pirates traded him for Francisco Cervelli, which worked out well for everybody involved.
6. Robbie Grossman, OF: The Pirates' first big, over-slot signing, Grossman went to Houston in the trade for Wandy Rodriguez. (For some reason, many Pirate fans seem to remember only Rodriguez' 2014 season, which ended after six bad starts due to injury. He pitched well, though, down the stretch in 2012; it wasn't his fault the rest of the team collapsened. He also had a dozen solid starts in 2013 before getting hurt.) Grossman didn't capitalize on opportunities with the Astros and appears to be a AAA player now.
9. Matt Hague, 3B: Hague has been a very solid hitter in the minors; in fact, he was the International League MVP in 2015. He ended up at 1B, though, and never hit for the power expected from the position. He got some brief time with the Pirates and Jays. He appears to be a AAAA player now.
18. Jarek Cunningham, SS: An above-slot signing out of high school, Cunningham looked like a good prospect in the low minors due to good power, but he moved off short after a serious knee injury and didn't adjust to AA pitching due to swing-and-miss issues. He struggled in AA with the Dodgers in 2015. He's never reached AAA.
20. Quinton Miller, RHP: Another above-slot HS signing, like Cunningham Miller never got past AA, partly due to persistent shoulder problems. He didn't pitch in organized ball in 2015.
Others: Benji Gonzalez, SS (7); Jeremy Farrell, 3B (8); David Rubinstein, OF (11); Calvin Anderson, 1B (12); Mike Colla, RHP (14); Chris Aure, LHP (15); Wes Freeman, OF (16); Brent Klinger, RHP (21); Brian Leach, RHP (25); Edwin Roman, OF (27); Kyle Saukko, OF (28); Mark Carver, C (33); Matt Payne, 3B (34); Tyler Cox, LHP (35); Kyle Morgan, OF (36); Alan Knotts, RHP (38); Albert Fagan, RHP (39); Chris Simmons, C (41); Cole White, OF (42); Mike Williams, LHP (44); Allen Ponder, RHP (45); Owen Brolsma, RHP (48); Zach Foster, RHP (49); Craig Parry, OF (50).
This draft will always be seen as a disappointment because of Alvarez. The fact is, it produced two starting infielders and a very good reliever, which is a good showing for a draft, but arguably not for one in which the team had the second overall pick. The Pirates went heavily for college players, an approach that didn't last long. This wasn't just true in the early rounds, as the Pirates signed an unusual number of draftees, all of them college players, after round 30. The interest in college draftees may have arisen partly from the fact that the new front office inherited a farm system that ranked close to the bottom in MLB, according to Baseball America. The Cardinals did something similar in Jeff Luhnow's first draft as their scouting director. Luhnow drafted college players almost exclusively and signed nearly all of them, evidently in an effort to get decent players into a weak farm system quickly.
With Alvarez, the tendency is to give the team a pass on the pick because he was ranked at or near the top of the draft talent that year by BA and other outlets. There were observers, though -- mainly sabermetrically inclined ones -- who believed that Alvarez would most likely turn into a Russell Branyan clone due to contact issues. For that reason, it's not unreasonable to expect the Pirates to have figured it out.
2009 -- Grade: D
1. Tony Sanchez, C: The Pirates insisted that they picked Sanchez, who was regarded by most sources as a late first-round or supplemental round talent, with the fourth overall pick because they liked him from a talent perspective. He did sign for slot money, so it's hard to see how they were "saving" money for their spending spree in the later rounds. I'm guessing most Pirate fans would remember that Sanchez generally hit decently in the minors, especially in AAA. I think many would be surprised to learn, though, that his throwing only became deal-breaker-bad in 2014. He struggled in 2010, but threw out 33% in 2009, 22% in 2011, 29% in 2012 and 23% in 2013; below average overall but not disastrous. In any event, he was released today, making this officially a failed pick.
1S. Vic Black, RHP: The Pirates used the hard-throwing Black in the trade for Marlon Byrd. He appeared on track to be the Mets' closer at one point, but injuries sidetracked him. He's a free agent now.
2. Brooks Pounders, RHP: The first high school pitcher taken in a draft that focused heavily on them, Pounders went to the Royals for Yamaico Navarro. He got to AA in 2013, but has had injury problems since and has yet to reach AAA.
3. Evan Chambers, OF: Sadly, Chambers died suddenly in 2013. He had reached AA but struggled there.
4. Zack Dodson, LHP: Dodson had a lot of ups and downs, including a banned substance suspension. He made it to AA but not beyond, and departed for the Orioles as a minor league free agent.
5. Nate Baker, LHP: A college draftee, Baker made it to AA but struggled with his command. He didn't make it past AA and didn't pitch in pro ball in 2015.
6. Zack Von Rosenberg, RHP: The team's most expensive above-slot signing in this draft, Von Rosenberg struggled with injuries and lost velocity, and never got out of class A. The Pirates released him prior to the 2015 season.
7. Trent Stevenson, RHP: Another above-slot HS pitcher, Stevenson struggled in the low minors and retired early in his fourth season, having failed to advance past low A.
8. Colton Cain, LHP: The most prominent above-slot, HS pitcher from this draft after Von Rosenberg, Cain went to the Astros for Rodriguez. He's always had health issues and has struggled since the trade, not having gotten past AA.
9. Brock Holt, SS: I'm sure nobody at the time would have picked Holt as the most likely to succeed in this draft class, but that's what he became. Sent to Boston as a throw-in with Joel Hanrahan, he's developed into one of the game's better utility players.
10. Joey Schoenfield, C: Despite a pretty good debut, Schoenfield was immediately (and, at the time, puzzlingly) eclipsed by Elias Diaz. Schoenfield was released after limited playing time over three seasons, while Diaz is one of the game's better catching prospects.
11. Aaron Baker, 1B: Baker didn't hit that much for the Pirates, went to Baltimore for Derrek Lee, and didn't hit much there. He was out of pro ball in 2014 and played in independent ball in 2015.
12. Jeff Inman, RHP: Inman showed an upper-90s fastball during the brief interludes when he was healthy with the Pirates. He's now a minor league free agent.
21. Phil Irwin, RHP: Irwin outdid his college teammate, Nate Baker, and made one start each with the Pirates and Texas, but arm problems intervened. He went to Korea, returned to the Rangers in late 2015, and is now a free agent.
34. Zach Fuesser, LHP: An above-slot signing out of junior college, Fuesser showed some promise. A little surprisingly, though, he was released after a pretty good season in high A in 2013.
Others: Walker Gourley, SS (13); Jordan Cooper, RHP (17); Ryan Beckman, RHP (18); Jose Hernandez, OF (23); Jason Erickson, RHP (24); Ty Summerlin, SS (30); Pat Irvine, OF (33); Marc Baca, RHP (42); Teddy Fallon, RHP (43).
Clearly the Pirates' worst draft to date with this front office (although check back on 2012), this one boils down pretty easily to, "Sanchez flopped and the HS pitchers flopped." Of course, there were some other guys. Holt is a good major league player and helped them acquire Mark Melancon. Black still could be a good major leaguer if he can get healthy. So the draft wasn't a complete failure.
If I had to guess, I'd guess that the Pirates' focus on HS pitchers was dictated more by circumstances than by an obsession with HS pitchers. Of the basic demographics in the draft (HS or college, pitcher or hitter), HS pitchers are the most volatile. The Pirates probably felt that created the most potential for hidden value; they're so difficult to project that, for a team reluctant to risk money, it made more sense to wait and see how they did in college. HS hitters are easier to project and, thus, highly regarded ones are less likely to slip to later rounds. I'm guessing the Pirates' theory was that they could find "extra" talent in the draft by (1) spending enough money on HS pitchers (thus bringing in players who, in the "normal course of business" would go to college), (2) drafting them in enough volume to make up for the inevitably high failure rate, and (3) making enough good decisions also to make up for the high failure rate. The failure rate is high enough that one year's crop of HS pitchers is actually a very small sample size. You can argue that the results of the Pirates' focus on this demographic should be judged over the whole of the time (mainly 2009-11) they were pursuing it, and that Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham show the approach worked (or at least we hope so). More on this in later installments.