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Looking back at the Pirates' 2009 draft

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates' move to designate Tony Sanchez for assignment could mark the end of Sanchez's career with the Bucs, and could close the door on the Bucs' 2009 draft. As of November, fourth-rounder Zack Dodson and 12th-rounder Jeff Inman declared minor league free agency, leaving Sanchez as the only player left in the Pirates' system from that draft.

It didn't turn out as the Pirates hoped. Sanchez, despite a big personality and occasional bursts of good hitting, was a bust as the fourth overall pick, not doing nearly enough to justify the Bucs' selection of him, which raised eyebrows even at the time. The group of big-bonus high school pitchers the Bucs selected in later rounds (like Brooks Pounders, Dodson, Zack Von Rosenberg, Trent Stevenson and Colton Cain) all were busts as well (although the Pirates were at least able to use Cain to help them get Wandy Rodriguez). Few of the Pirates' handful of top college picks did much. And, of course, third-rounder Evan Chambers tragically died after the 2013 season.

Remarkably, the four best players the Pirates selected in that draft have all done their best work for other teams. Via Baseball Reference, the player from the Bucs' 2009 draft who has generated the most WAR in the majors has been Brock Holt, a part of the Mark Melancon deal (which, of course, was mostly very successful from the Pirates' perspective). The second best has been 38th-rounder Jake Lamb, who didn't sign and blossomed into a good young player with the Diamondbacks after they drafted him out of the University of Washington. Third has been Matt den Dekker, who also didn't sign and who's had a decent career as a reserve outfielder for the Mets and Nationals. And fourth has been Vic Black, who went to the Mets in the Marlon Byrd trade.

If there's any silver lining here, it's that the Pirates were able to trade so many of their draftees (like Black, Cain and 11th-rounder Aaron Baker) for assets of some type or another. But at this point, it's clear that the 2009 draft turned out very poorly.

Perhaps we shouldn't put too fine a point on this. The Pirates' 2008 draft produced a variety of assets in Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, Justin Wilson and Robbie Grossman. There's also still time for the 2010 draft to turn out decently, and the 2011 draft might turn out great. As WTM noted last May in a review of the '09 draft, that the Bucs failed in one particular year might just be the result of a small sample size. A look at the broader context of other drafts from that time period shows the Pirates got at least passable results (although there's clearly a case that the first several Neal Huntington drafts were underwhelming relative to the money the Bucs were allocating).

I do wonder to what degree a new GM and his new staff were simply figuring things out on the fly, however. It isn't unusual for a fifth-round pick, say, or an eighth-round pick not to work out. But I'm struck by how many key picks from the 2009 draft just never really had much success at any level -- guys like fifth-rounder Nate Baker, or Von Rosenberg, or Stevenson, or 10th-rounder Joey Schoenfeld.

Those failures are, perhaps, somewhat counterbalanced by a number of players like Chase d'Arnaud or Matt Hague from the previous year's draft who at least got to the high minors without too much trouble even if they never had much success in the bigs. But the Pirates' heavy focus on high-school talent in 2009 mostly just got them a bunch of guys they couldn't mold into players even capable of performing well at Class A. Schoenfeld is maybe the clearest example -- the Pirates cut bait on him almost immediately even though they'd signed him to a $195,000 bonus, making clear they preferred Elias Diaz, a Latin American signee. Schoenfeld collected just 120 plate appearances as a pro, all in the Gulf Coast League. From my interview with Kyle Stark in early 2011:

Can you talk about Joey Schoenfeld and Elias Diaz and how you balanced playing time between them last year, and what you plan to do this year?

One of the core decisions you have to make in development is who's going to get the opportunities. And obviously we decided that Elias Diaz deserves more time than Joey. I would fully expect that to continue.

Is that a defensive thing?

It's both sides. I know that Elias struggled at the plate last year, but we feel that there's potential there for him to hit. There's potential there for him to be a good player on both sides of the ball ... the guy with the higher upside typically gets the opportunity.

That's interesting, [since] Schoenfeld is a 10th-round draft pick.

Everybody talks about some of the things we talk about in terms of scouting and development being aligned. I've had a really good relationship with our scouting director and a really good relationship with our international scouts, [but] as guys come into the system, that database just continues, and so it's not a matter of, well, Schoenfeld is a 10th-round pick and Diaz got x number of dollars, it wasn't that much. We just talk about abilities and how we got to that point, and where do we go from here.

Anyway, it's disappointing that the '09 draft didn't work out well, but it's mostly water under the bridge. If the Pirates' strategy of drafting tall, projectable young pitchers wasn't working that well at the time, at least it led to one big hit two years later with Tyler Glasnow. If the '09 draft didn't help the Bucs stock their farm system with quality prospects, at least they were able to compensate elsewhere, because now their system is quite strong. And if drafting has not, overall, been Huntington's strong suit, at least he's clearly proven he's able to add talent in other ways. But in the course of Huntington and his staff's strong tenure in Pittsburgh, the 2009 draft does stand out as a missed opportunity.