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Pirates' draft preview

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Calling anything a "Pirates' draft preview" is probably a little overly optimistic.  The Pirates have a growing pattern of going off the reservation with their picks.  Increasingly, their drafting appears to be influenced by analytics.  Since that's all proprietary, it's impossible to guess what they're up to before they actually do it.

What I've done below is to list all the players I've seen associated with the Pirates' top pick, which is #22.  I figure there's about a 50-50 chance they'll take one of these guys.  For the most part, these are names that various people who've done mock drafts thought would be neat picks for the Pirates.  In just a few cases, there seems to be a little inside information behind the projected pick, but it's hard to know how much reliance to place on any information because the Pirates are also notoriously secretive.  The one person I know of who's been right occasionally about Pirates' picks is Keith Law, and I can only think of two picks that he got right:  Tony Sanchez and Gerrit Cole, the latter of whom Law had from an extremely early stage.

This draft pool, by numerous accounts, is very deep but weak at the top, which is fine if you're drafting 1-22.  The talent is heavily skewed toward prep players, both pitchers and hitters.  There are some college catchers and corner players, but the middle infield is extremely weak after a banner year for college shortstops.  The college pitching is widely considered to be unusually scarce.

Before I go into the names, just a few thoughts about trends that have emerged in the Pirates' drafting:

-- There has been a fair amount of discussion about the Pirates' recent focus on gap-to-gap contact hitters, a focus that included their top three picks in 2015.  Ever since they drafted Pedro Alvarez, they've seldom shown much interest in players whose primary tool was power, especially not in the early rounds.  Even Casey Hughston, who was taken in round 3 last year, has surprising speed and plays a credible center field.

-- The Pirates like up-the-middle players.  This isn't unusual, as a lot of scouts are skeptical of prospects whose lack of athleticism limits them to corner positions, especially first, at the amateur level.

-- This may conflict with the previous statement a little, but the Pirates believe that fielding is much easier to teach than hitting.  Two years ago, they took a bunch of college corner outfielders and, during spring training, tried most of them at third base.  They also planned to try Connor Joe at catcher until he developed back problems.  They didn't repeat the experiment with the 2015 draft and the college hitters from the 2014 class are looking pretty bad at this point, so they may have modified their approach.  I doubt, though, that they'd hesitate to select an up-the-middle player with defensive issues if they liked him otherwise (see Matt Thaiss below).

-- Neal Huntington has expressed a reluctance to select prep pitchers early in the draft due to the risks involved.  He specifically raised the point in connection with Jameson Taillon, who obviously impressed him enough to overcome that reluctance.  That was a 1-2 pick, though; whether they'd be similarly reluctant to use the 1-22 pick on a prep pitcher is another matter.  They have, however, drafted only the one prep pitcher with the nine (including two in 2013) first round picks this front office has made.  In fact, they've drafted only two college pitchers in round one, and one of those, Mark Appel, was a fluke.  They were prepared to take an outfielder, David Dahl, before Appel unexpectedly fell to them.  I think their reasoning may be that, given the volatility of young pitchers, it's better to try to find a Nick Kingham in round four than risk a first round pick on Tyler Matzek.

-- In the second-day rounds (usually round 2 or 3 through 10), the Pirates take lots of tall college pitchers with average or slightly better velocity who are primarily pitch-to-contact groundball pitchers.  I don't know whether their idea is that some of these guys might take a step forward, as Chad Kuhl has done, or whether they just want to have hordes of tall, groundball pitchers as AAA depth.

Anyway, here are the names I know of that have been suggested as possible first round picks for the Pirates:

T.J. Zeuch, RHP (Pitt) – This is the name, along with Nolan Jones, that’s probably come up the most in connection with the Pirates, at least until Zack Burdi surfaced very recently. I haven’t seen anybody claiming, though, that the Pirates specifically are considering Zeuch, so it may just be that a lot of commentators think he’s a good fit or something. The local guy angle may play a role in some of these projections, and that’s a non-issue for the Pirates. Zeuch is a very big guy, standing 6’7", and throws a sinking, 92-94 mph fastball, both things the Pirates would like. His slider and change are fringy. He strikes me as the sort of pitcher (tall college righty with good but not great stuff) that the Pirates tend to look for in later rounds, not the first round. Tyler Eppler and J.T. Brubaker are examples, although I don’t doubt that Zeuch is a better prospect than them. Of course, the Pirates are relatively new to drafting late in round one, so there’s not a great deal of history to go on.

Matt Thaiss, C (UVA) – Thaiss has been Virginia’s best hitter, producing both average and power from the left side of the plate. He has outstanding strike zone judgment, resulting in a 3:1 BB:K ratio. The big knock on him is defense, as scouts don’t seem to think he’ll stay behind the plate. He throws well, but isn’t regarded as a good receiver. The Pirates value framing skills highly, but they also aren’t hesitant to challenge a prospect with a tough position.  Law had the Pirates taking Thaiss not long ago, but now thinks he won't last that long.  I could see the Pirates going for his offensive profile and figuring they'll just see whether he can stick at catcher.

Zack Burdi, RHP (Louisville) – Burdi has been a closer in college. He sits in the upper-90s and routinely hits 100 mph, and also has a good slider and change. Because he has three pitches, BA thinks somebody might try him as a starter, but his control isn’t good.  Law and now Jim Callis have the Pirates taking Burdi, with Law saying that they're higher on him than any team picking before them. With Mark Melancon headed for free agency and Tony Watson showing signs of wear, the Pirates could choose this chance to draft for need. Of course, it wouldn’t be unlike them to draft Burdi with the idea of having him start.  Or, as Callis suggested, he could help the team in the majors as a reliever this year and be developed as a starter beginning next year.

Nolan Jones, SS (Prep, PA) – Jones has been specifically mentioned as a guy the Pirates are looking at, as opposed to a guy whom people suppose the Pirates might look at.  In fact, some sources have said they're looking hard at prep hitters generally. Jones is a 6’5" shortstop with good power and an above-average arm. Due to his height, scouts assume he’ll move off short, although the Pirates probably would keep him there as long as possible. As an infielder with power, it seems a stretch to think he'll be around for the Pirates’ pick.

Alex Kirilloff, OF (Prep, PA) – Kirilloff’s name came up a lot as a possible Pirate pick early, in part due to the local guy angle, which won’t influence the Pirates’ thinking. The big draw is power. Like all prospects from the northeast, he’s handicapped by the shorter season and lesser competition. He struggled early on the showcase circuit against quality pitching, but according to Baseball America he improved over time. He’s played first and center, and has the arm for right. The Pirates haven’t shown much interest in power-oriented players, at least not with early picks, so I’m skeptical they’ll be interested if he’s available to them. That seems unlikely anyway, as he’s been getting increasing attention.

Taylor Trammell, OF (Prep, GA) -- Trammell is an extremely fast center fielder with good contact skills and some power potential. He doesn’t have a good arm, which could impact his ability to stay in center. The Pirates like up-the-middle players as well as contact hitters, so he could be a possibility.

Connor Jones, RHP (UVA) – Jones, rather than Brandon Waddell, was Virginia’s best starter during their championship season in 2015. He throws a low-90s sinker, which would appeal to the Pirates, along with a slider and splitter. He’s considered a "safe" pick (if you’re silly enough to think that any pitcher is a safe pick), with a ceiling somewhere in the 3rd-5th starter range. Like Zeuch, he doesn’t strike me as the sort of guy the Pirates would go for in the first round.

Ian Anderson (no, not him), RHP (Prep, NY) – I’ve seen Anderson mentioned in connection with the Pirates once or twice, but I doubt he’ll last that long. He has a fastball that reaches 94, and a curve and change that are already regarded as good pitches. The big drawback with him is pitching in New York, with the shorter season and lesser competition. He could be an early first round pick.

Jordan Sheffield, RHP (Vanderbilt) – Sheffield probably has more upside than most of the other college pitchers who are available. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, and his curve and change could be good pitches. On the down side, he's had Tommy John surgery already (no, that’s not a good thing) and he’s "only" 6’0", which the Pirates won’t like.

Eric Lauer, LHP (Kent St.) – Lauer throws a low-90s fastball that he locates well, along with three other average-ish pitches. If the Pirates see him as potentially a mid-rotation starter, he could be a possibility.

Josh Lowe, 3B (Prep, GA) -- Lowe is a power-hitting third baseman who also has a strong enough arm to be a prospect as a pitcher.  He has some contact issues, but he still strikes me as likely to go before the Pirates pick.  He also doesn't seem like their type of player.

Forrest Whitley, RHP (Prep, TX) -- Whitley is another 6'7" righty.  He has a low-90s fastball that's reached 97, along with a slider and two other pitches that need work.  He seems like a plausible pick for the Pirates if they were to consider a prep pitcher.

Kyle Muller, RHP (Prep, TX) -- Muller throws in the low-90s, but there are issues about whether he can maintain his velocity and about his secondary stuff.  BA says he's moved up as the year has gone along, but he doesn't strike me as a 1-22 pick.

For what little it's worth, the possible picks that seem the most Pirate-like to me are Thaiss, Nolan Jones, Trammell and Burdi.  I have trouble seeing them go with a pitcher in this draft, aside from the possibility that they see Burdi as offering an unusual opportunity.  But then . . . Craig Hansen.

The draft is Thursday, June 9.  MLB Network and MiLB.com have coverage starting at 6pm, with the actual draft starting at 7pm.  The first day will include rounds one and two, so the Pirates will have three picks:  numbers 22, 41 and 68.