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Paul Skenes or Dylan Crews? Jonathan Mayo of MLB Pipeline examines Pirates’ options at No. 1 overall

The Pirates will take center stage on Sunday with the top pick and two significantly talented players available.

2023 NCAA Division I Baseball Championship Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

It’s a question that’s been circling the minds of Pirates and baseball fans alike for weeks. A decision that may define the tenure of General Manager Ben Cherington. On Sunday evening, the Pittsburgh Pirates will select No. 1 overall in the 2023 MLB Draft, with two high-impact players hailing from the college ranks.

LSU center fielder Dylan Crews and right-handed starter Paul Skenes have been the talk of the baseball world for the past month, capped by a College World Series championship and multiple awards too prevalent to count.

Crews and Skenes are the consensus two best players available, with Florida outfielder Wyatt Langford and high school prospects Walker Jenkins and Max Clark rounding out the top five.

MLB Pipeline’s Jonathan Mayo spoke to Bucs Dugout to detail his thoughts on where the Pirates could go once officially on the clock.

“I keep using the term ‘there’s no wrong answer.’ It’s an interesting year where there are multiple possibilities,” Mayo said, “Guys who fit the build to be a potential No. 1 pick, not just those two [Crews and Skenes].”

In MLB Pipeline’s updated Top 250 draft prospects, Skenes, the CWS Most Outstanding Player, ranks as the new No. 1 overall player.

“We haven’t seen somebody like him in quite some time. The ability to be a top-of-the-rotation kind of guy,” Mayo said. “I don’t like using the term ‘ace’ because there aren't that many of them, but he has that potential. There’s a reason why scouts - whose job is to knit pick - think he’s the best pitching prospect since Stephen Strasburg.”

Some comparisons range from Mark Prior to Gerrit Cole.

“Skenes has been more dominant in his draft season than Cole was at UCLA the year the Pirates took him No. 1. It’s an ability to maintain ridiculous velocity deep into starts.”

Skenes, 21, is a 6-foot-6 righty from Lake Forest, California. He spent two seasons at Air Force as a two-way player before transferring to LSU and singularly focusing on pitching. Skenes became the first pitcher in 12 years to strike out 200 batters (209) in a season and did so in 122.2 innings. He only walked 20. In LSU’s 6-3 win against Tennessee in the College World Series, Skenes struck out 12 and threw 46 pitches at 100 MPH or faster. The crazy thing is his slider may be his best pitch.

“I don’t even know how to describe his breaking ball. It’s just stupid,” Mayo said. “His fastball is not his best pitch. It’s a little ‘true’ at times, and that’s something he’ll probably work on. The amount that he learned in this year working with the LSU coaching staff - they have one of the best pitching coaches in the country (Wes Johnson) - he became exponentially better as a pitcher.”

Some concerns have surrounded his changeup - an offering potent against left-handed hitters - but he can use it as a plus pitch.

“He has it in there, doesn’t quite command it as well, but it's there,” Mayo said. “We’re talking three plus pitches. Plus make-up. He checks off pretty much every box with the small exception of maybe years of track record.”

Skenes only made 15 starts at Air Force and pitched extensively in relief. During the 2021-22 campaign, he delivered a 10-3 record through 85.2 innings with 30 walks, 96 strikeouts, and a 1.17 WHIP in 15 starts. He did this while batting .314 with an OPS over 1.000 plus 13 homers and 38 RBIs. The limited amount of time on the mound can be viewed as a negative, but also how fresh his arm is for the future.

“The flip side of that coin is that… he showed what happened when he focused on pitching for the first time only this year,’ Mayo said.“I’m not too worried about it. Anytime you’re talking about a player at the top of the draft, you have to pick apart everything. I’m sure there’s been some digging into all of that.

“It’s not like he looked tired with this huge new workload. Not in the slightest… When his velo ‘drops’ and he’s still 98-100 MPH, instead of 99-102 MPH.”

Dylan Crews is an all-around five-tool player with the ability to hit in the middle of the order for a decade. He bypassed the opportunity to jump to minor league baseball and withdrew his name from the 2020 MLB Draft to play at LSU, an opportunity that paid off significantly.

“Crews has three years of track record in the best conference in college baseball,” Mayo said. “He’s done nothing but hit and drive in runs. He gets on base. He’s proven he can play center field.”

Some questions out of high school surrounded Crews’ ability to stick in center for the long hall, but the 2023 Gold Glove and Golden Spikes Award winner has curved those concerns throughout his three seasons. From Longwood, Florida, Crews hit .426 in 71 games including 16 doubles, 18 home runs, 70 RBIs, 71 walks compared to 46 strikeouts, a .567 on-base percentage, and a 1.280 OPS.

“He’s gotten stronger [and] faster. Now we’re talking about an up-the-middle player who's going to hit in the middle of the lineup,” Mayo said. “His on-base skills are ridiculous. [Good] plate discipline. He got on base every game this year. That’s crazy, considering teams probably tried to pitch around him.”

Crews could hit his way to Double-A by the start of next season after limited at-bats to conclude the current minor-league campaign. Rumors surrounding Crews have indicated he wants to sign for full slot value ($9.721 million) or higher, which already ranks over $850k higher than last year’s slot allotment. Represented by agent Scott Boras, the center fielder's interest level in the Pirates is also in doubt.

Those behind-the-scenes factors are full of speculation, but Mayo believes Skenes is closer than many other top pitching prospects in recent drafts.

“He’s as close to a finished product as you’re going to see coming out of college,” Mayo said. “I think you send him to Double-A to start the year.”

Mayo doesn’t think Skenes will pitch this summer, and whoever selects him will wait until 2024 after a significant workload with the Tigers. Skenes would be the No. 1 pitching prospect in the Pirates system by a mile, ahead of Quinn Priester and resing lefty Anthony Solometo.

On his radio show last week, Ben Cherington said that he probably won’t know who the Pirates are selecting until late Sunday.

Mayo and some scouts believe Skenes could get MLB hitters out now. Like many of us, he said he flips back and forth between Crews and Skenes for who the Pirates should take first overall. At the moment, he’s siding with the best arm in the draft.

“Right now, I think I’m in camp Skenes,” Mayo said. “Just because you can't find that very often. Dylan Crews is going to be very, very good. He may even be a star, but you are more likely to find that kind of player again in the future.

“All that being said, there is some inherent risk when you take a pitcher. Things could go wrong; guys break down.”

Skenes and Crews offer intangibles any team would covet at the top of the draft. One is a potential top-of-the-rotation starter - which every successful playoff team seems to have - and the other is a fast outfielder with range and solid bat speed to pair with Bryan Reynolds through the 2020s.

“You’re talking about two guys who performed at the highest level of college baseball, got their team to win a title, and won’t take long to make it to the big leagues. Both of them,” Mayo said.

Jonathan has a new book released later this month titled “Smart, Wrong, and Lucky: The Origin Stories of Baseball’s Unexpected Stars.” The novel examines some of the best stories in the scouting world, including how scouts discovered Albert Pujols, Charlie Blackmon, Joey Votto, and others. It’s available for preorder now and will officially be released everywhere you can find books on July 11.