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Bucs can’t afford mistake at No. 7

Cleveland Indians v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

It’s been nine years since the Pirates have had a selection as high as the No. 7 pick that they’ll have in this year’s abbreviated first-year player draft, set for June 10-11.

In 2011, the Pirates had the top pick in the entire draft, and surprised no one by taking UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole. That year capped a run that saw the club pick no worse than fourth in a six-year stretch that started in 2006.

Dave Littlefield made his next-to-last pick as general manager that year – Brad Lincoln, a right-handed pitcher from Houston, was taken No. 4. In Littlefield’s final draft, the Pirates again went with a college pitcher – Daniel Moskos of Clemson – in the same No. 4 spot.

Lincoln starred for the Cougars, winning the Dick Howser Trophy emblematic of college baseball’s top player that season. But he ran into injury issues right off the bat, undergoing Tommy John surgery in April 2007, and he was never the pitcher many envisioned. Moskos also encountered arm problems, including an injury that required Tommy John surgery, but that wasn’t until he was long gone from the Pirates organization.

Neal Huntington replaced Littlefield at the end of the 2007 season, and Huntington’s first draft came in 2008, when he and his regime took slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez out of Vanderbilt with the No. 2 pick overall.

Much was expected of the powerfully built Alvarez, who had the look of a solid major leaguer with a power bat and seemingly adequate defensive skills at third base. Alvarez spent just one full season in the minors – 2009, which he split between high class A Lynchburg of the Carolina League and Altoona in the Class AA Eastern League – before getting called up to the big leagues in 2010 after spending 66 games at Triple-A Indianapolis.

Ultimately, Alvarez played parts of six seasons in Pittsburgh, including a four-year run from 2012 to 2015 where he had at least 400 plate appearances and averaged 28 home runs and 80 RBIs with a .767 OPS. He had his share of timely hits as well; in three postseason series he batted .261 with three home runs and seven RBIs, with all three homers and all but one of the RBIs coming in the 2013 NL Divisional Series against the Cardinals.

So, was Alvarez a bust as the No. 2 overall selection in the 2008 draft? I don’t think I’d use that word, but he certainly was a disappointment. It was mind-boggling to watch Alvarez’ tenure in Pittsburgh wind down. Not only did his bat plateau, but his fielding issues became so bizarre that it was hard to watch. Even a move to first base didn’t help – and that’s saying something.

In 2009, the Pirates had the No. 4 pick for the third time in four years, and again they struck out, this time selecting catcher Tony Sanchez. The Boston College product was touted as being major league ready defensively, but that his hitting needed work. However, something must have happened to Sanchez during his time in the Pirates minor league system, because his defense looked anything but big league caliber by the time he reached Pittsburgh in 2013. He lasted just parts of three seasons with the Pirates before resurfacing for a single at-bat in Atlanta in 2017.

The following year, the Bucs had the overall No. 2 pick and opted for Jameson Taillon over hot-shot shortstop prospect Manny Machado, and the jury is still out on Taillon, whose career has been waylaid by injury and illness.

That brought us to 2011 and Cole, and we all know what happened to Cole.

So where does that leave the Pirates this year at No. 7? We’ve looked at several mock drafts in recent weeks that have shown the Pirates opting for pitching (Max Meyer, University of Minnesota, and Reid Detmers of Louisville at the college level and high schooler Mick Abel of Oregon); a prep hitter (Zac Veen of Daytona Beach, Fla., or Austin Hendrick of West Allegheny High School) and college hitters (Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad, among others).

Another name that has popped up recently is New Mexico State infielder Nick Gonzales. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound right-handed hitter, who turns 21Wednesday, put in two full seasons with the Aggies, during which time he posted OPS marks of 1.021 and 1.304. In an abbreviated season this spring, Gonzales batted .448 with 12 homers and 36 RBIs in just 58 at-bats. He’s considered by many to be the best college bat available, and might not be around at No. 7. Others, though, question the caliber of Gonzales’ competition, which isn’t the strongest in the WAC, and some wonder about his defense – and the fact that the Pirates seem to be well-stocked at middle infield for the foreseeable future. Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker and Adam Frazier are at or near the big league level and prospects Oneil Cruz, Liover Peguero and Ji-Hwan Bae are just a few clicks behind. I question whether Cruz has a future in the middle infield, given his size, but the Pirates seem locked into the idea of playing him at shortstop until he proves he can’t do it – and I don’t fault them for that approach.

I don’t have strong opinions on the specific player the Pirates should be taking at No. 7; I prefer to look at their top three picks as a group, as they fall within the top 44 selections in the draft. As I mentioned last week, I wouldn’t mind seeing them go for the best available catcher on the board with either their second or third pick, which would leave the best available arm – high school or college — and perhaps the best available college hitter with the remaining two selections. A team like the Pirates can’t afford to make the same kinds of mistakes the previous two front office regimes made, so the pressure will be on new GM Ben Cherington and assistant Steve Sanders to make this year’s picks count.