The Pittsburgh Pirates currently sit as the fourth-worst team in baseball and last place in a weak National League Central Division with only the Milwaukee Brewers primed for a playoff spot. The 40-man roster is full of players looking for second and third chances along with only Ke’Bryan Hayes and Bryan Reynolds proving worthy of being franchise cornerstones. Must be something about having ‘Bryan’ in your name I guess.
With the Pirates in need of high upside, talented athletes at the Major League level, the 2021 MLB Draft provided the opportunity to stock up on an improving farm system like being the first shopper on Black Friday, setting the tone for the rest of the event and coming away with the best-of-the-best available.
MLB Pipeline’s Jonathan Mayo was in Colorado for the draft, moved back from June to mid-July to coincide with the Futures Game and All-Star Game.
Mayo believes the Pirates stayed true to themselves in the direction they wanted to take the franchise with the first pick and over $14 million in bonus pool money. Mayo said:
“They did what they wanted to do. People may argue about who they took at 1-1, but I think that they had a plan once they decided Henry Davis was the guy and they executed it incredibly well. It was a really good two days.”
Mayo pointed to the Pirates’ ability to see the full picture past just the first pick to maximize the opportunity presented to the front office.
“They really meant it when they were talking about how you have to look at the draft in its totality and not just with that first pick. You want to make sure you get that first pick right but you have to look and see what they do with their entire bonus pool… To me, on paper, it was as good a draft as anyone.”
Leading the way is former Louisville catcher Henry Davis, who has already performed well in his first game of action for the Bucs, finishing 2-4 with a homer and three RBI for the GCL Pirates on August 3.
First game: ✔️— Young Bucs (@YoungBucsPIT) August 4, 2021
First home run: ✔️ pic.twitter.com/dmYoxnAfSR
MLB Pipeline graded Davis the draft’s fifth-best prospect with Marcelo Mayer, picked by the Red Sox at No. 4, the draft’s best available, with no candidate running away with the title of “can’t-miss prospect”. Mayo said:
“Sometimes it becomes apples to oranges trying to compare and rank Henry Davis, a college catcher who’s bat-first, with a strong arm, to Marcelo Mayer. They’re just different kinds of players. They really liked Henry Davis, they love his makeup, the bat, and that he really wants to become a good catcher.”
The site graded Davis, a righty bat and arm from behind the dish, with a 55-hit tool, 55 power, 40 run, 70 arm, and 45 field due to a needed improvement in pitch framing that evaluators believe he is working towards.
Due to the financial flexibility created by signing Davis for just under $2 million under slot ($1,915,300 saved from $8,415,300 slot value), the Pirates could select left-handed pitcher Anthony Solometo at 37th overall, outfielder Lonnie White Jr. 64th, and shortstop/right-handed pitcher Bubba Chandler 72nd and sign all three without losing a draft pick for going over the 5 percent taxable penalty. The Pirates used every last dime of their available pool, signing fourth-rounder Owen Kellington for $600,000 to place the Bucs right at the 5 percent taxable penalty without losing a first-rounder, a feat never reached by any team. A tax rate of 75 percent is paid out in part to using the extra 5 percent.
Solometo has a funky pitching style that draws comparisons to Madison Baumgarner’s arm slot and MacKenzie Gore’s delivery with the potential to add more velocity as he fills out. Mayo mentioned his ‘left-handed personality’ when describing Solometo’s uniqueness and pitching ability. Mayo said:
“He’s got good now stuff. He’s projectable. He’s already got a good feel for multiple secondary stuff…. I love it. He’s his own guy. It will be interesting to see how that delivery changes over the years but this was a guy who as the draft was approaching, we were hearing all over the first round.”
Solometo rose up boards as the draft approached to become one of the best high school players available. According to Mayo:
“He was thought to be the best high school lefty in the class and maybe the second-best or at worst third-best high school arm overall behind Jackson Jobe (Tigers) and Andrew Painter (Phillies). Anytime you can get a combination of upside, ceiling, stuff, and feel for pitching that’s a really good combination. That was getting another first-rounder with their second-round pick.”
White, who gave up a scholarship to play wide receiver at Penn State for James Franklin, inked a $1.5 million dollar deal and has plus speed and range in the outfield. The prep outfielder from Malvern Prep is athletic with a 70-grade run tool, needing to up his 45-grade hit tool to stick near to the top of the order and showcase his ability on the basepath. Mayo said:
“I think he showed enough feel for hitting against good competition last summer to believe that it’s there (the bat). The summer was a little up and down. Major League Baseball has been trying for a long time to get premium athletes in the sport and a lot of times you think it’s going to take them a while because they’re focusing on baseball for the first time or are a little more raw, and then they end up having a little bit better feel than you think.”
Mayo said that with his focus now exclusively on baseball, White should start to develop into more of a baseball player due to his athleticism and mindset on improving in the box compared to between the hashes.
“Sometimes it’s just you get them into the system, you send them to instructs, you get them on the program and it clicks faster just because of their natural athletic ability. This is a guy who has a chance to play centerfield for a very long time. I don’t have too much worry about it even if it takes a little bit longer than so-be-it.”
Chandler parallels White as a highly athletic player who found success on the football field with Chandler passing up the juggernaut Clemson Tigers and a chance to play quarterback for Dabo Swinney in favor of the Pirates. A true two-way threat coming into the draft, Chandler has more upside as a pitcher, but should still see time as a hitter throughout his first season in pro ball. Mayo said:
“I think that’s where it will go (pitching) unless the bat takes a huge step forward. For this first summer, you should let him do all the things. I don’t think there’s any harm in that.”
Despite the emergence of Angels starting pitcher/DH Shohei Ohtani the likeliness of any player finding success both ways remains a rarity and less likely as a player advances through the minors. From Mayo:
“Let him do both just as he eases in. It helps to ease the transition. As long as you go into it having an open conversation with the player… you don’t close the door on anyone thing and you see what comes and you go from there.”
The baseball world reacted in surprise that the Pirates could acquire what some believe to be four first-round talents, grabbing Solometo and Chandler, who were considered late-day-one/early-day-two players with White’s high upside sandwiched in between.
Mayo pointed to 8th-rounder Sean Sullivan, 13th round pick Owen Sharts, 5th-rounder Jackson Glenn, who his colleague Jim Callis is high on, and 4th-round selection Owen Kellington as potential sleepers in the draft class to keep an eye on. Sullivan was in MLB Pipeline’s Top 250, rated 212, and projects as a four or five starter coming out of the University of California. Sharts is a projectable right-handed arm from Nevada who only pitched six outings before being injured this season. Glenn, a fifth-year senior third baseman from Dallas Baptist, was a money-saving signing but can hit and drive the ball.
There is a lot more to learn about Kellington, the highest-drafted high school player ever from his state, as he wasn’t ranked within MLB Pipeline’s Top 250 list. Kellington struck out 91% of the batters he faced in his last season of high school ball, finishing the season 7-0 with a 0.22 ERA and 133 punchouts in 49 innings for U-32 High School in Montpelier.
A glimpse of star U32 pitcher Owen Kellington from tonight’s 4-1 Division I semifinals victory at Hartford. Senior threw a two-hitter with 17 strikeouts. pic.twitter.com/Dlsorzsrgz— octopusathletics (@8armgames) June 10, 2021
The Pirates took a gamble with the No. 1 overall pick, selecting Davis who projects as a capable catcher with his strong arm, quick bat speed, and power potential instead of Jack Leiter or Marcelo Mayer, but the risk could have already created potential rewards for putting their money where their mouth is and effectively using every last penny.
“I think we knew this is what they were going to do... The Pirates knew what it was going to take.” - Mayo