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Reliving Pirates history with the first overall pick

So far, the Pirates have succeeded twice atop the draft board.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs
Gerrit Cole was selected by the Pirates first overall in 2011.
Photo by Brian D. Kersey/Getty Images

For the sixth time in franchise history, the Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves with the first overall pick in the MLB Draft. Contrary to other years, though, they have the Draft Lottery to thank for their placement.

As of July 5, approximately four days prior to the 2023 Draft, five players are rumored to go to the Pirates. Those are LSU teammates outfielder Dylan Crews and pitcher Paul Skenes, Florida outfielder Wyatt Langford, and high school outfielders Walker Jenkins and Max Clark.

So far, Crews is the consensus No. 1 pick, however other mock drafts have the Pirates taking Skenes, Langford and, surprisingly, Clark.

This normally isn’t an issue with other teams, as they take the best overall option and hope to work out a contract, but given it’s the Pirates, fans fear they may go down a more cost-effective route.

With that said, let’s recap the five previous times where the Pirates held the top pick. Spoiler alert: some didn’t quite live up to the hype.

1986 — Jeff King

The first time the Pirates ever topped the draft order came during the 1986 season, and with their pick, they selected Jeff King, an infielder from the University of Arkansas.

King was originally taken out of high school by the Chicago Cubs in the 23rd round in the 1983 draft, but chose not to sign and went to college instead. He was named an All-American each year at Arkansas and earned All-Conference honors during his sophomore and junior seasons. According to SB Nation’s Arkansas Fight, King also set a single-season school record with 82 RBI in 1985.

King earned a $180,000 signing bonus and earned $68,000 in his first year with the Pirates (1989), where he hit a lackluster .195 with 19 RBI in 75 games. His best year came in 1993 when he hit a career-best .295 with 98 RBI. While he wasn’t particularly known for his offense, his defense is what drew the attention of fans.

King’s biggest moment, though, came in 1995 and 1996, when he became one of only five players to hit two home runs in the same inning each year.

After a few more pedestrian seasons with the Pirates, King was traded to the Kansas City Royals in December 1996 in exchange for Joe Randa, Jeff Granger, Jeff Martin, and Jeff Wallace.

Overall, King was a decent first overall pick who helped the Pirates to three division titles (1990, 1991, 1992). If back injuries didn’t hinder him, he could’ve lived up to his full potential.

1996 — Kris Benson

Ten years after their first No. 1 pick, the Pirates found themselves at the top of the board again and selected pitcher Kris Benson from Clemson.

Benson, who was named Baseball America’s College Player of the Year in 1996, collected a $2 million signing bonus with the Pirates but only lasted five years with them. He debuted in 1999 and went 11-14 with a 4.07 ERA in 196 innings pitched, earning him fourth place in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

He was slated to reign in PNC Park in 2001, but an elbow injury kept him out of action all season, and after three more years of mediocre numbers, he and infielder Jeff Keppinger were traded to the New York Mets for Jose Bautista, Ty Wigginton and Matt Peterson at the 2004 Trade Deadline.

Benson’s only notable moments with the Pirates were when he threw a complete game against the Mets in 1999 and laying down four sacrifice bunts — also against the Mets — in 2004.

Benson spent time with the Mets, Baltimore Orioles, and Texas Rangers, before retiring with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010.

Given that players like Jimmy Rollins, Eric Chavez and Mark Kotsay were available, Benson’s selection might go down as a flop for the Pirates.

2002 — Bryan Bullington

The 2002 MLB Draft class was stacked with talent, but then-general manager Dave Littlefield opted to choose one of the cheaper options in the draft. That was Ball State pitcher Bryan Bullington.

Bullington, who holds the strikeout record for Ball State and the Mid-American Conference and was named MAC Pitcher of the Year twice, earned a $4 million signing bonus and debuted three years after he was selected.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Boston Red Sox Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images

He only made only six appearances with the Pirates — one in 2005 and the other three in 2007. Together, he went 0-3 with a 16.15 ERA in a little over 18 total innings. He was claimed off waivers by Cleveland in 2008 and struggled with the (former) Indians, Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals before he was released in November 2010.

Bullington’s selection was a total flop, especially given the depth of talent in that year’s draft class. B.J. Upton went No. 2 to the Tampa Bay Rays, Zack Grienke went a few picks later to Kansas City, and Prince Fielder went to Milwaukee. Those are just a few notable names.

If you ever wonder why fans are nervous about going cheap in the draft, consider this as a primary example.

2011 — Gerrit Cole

The Pirates knew Gerrit Cole would be a star in the Major Leagues after taking him first overall from UCLA in 2011.

He quickly rose through the minor leagues, going from Single-A to Triple-A over the 2012 season and eventually debuted in June 2013. In that game, he limited the San Francisco Giants to one run over 6.1 innings and helped the Pirates out with a RBI single in his first at-bat.

He was named NL Rookie of the Month in September 2013, and in 2015, he was named a NL All-Star, finished fourth in Cy Young voting, and 19th in the MVP race. With the Pirates, he went 59-42 with a cumulative 3.50 ERA.

Cole was traded to the Houston Astros in the 2017 offseason for Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, and Jason Martin, where he eventually helped them to the now-controversial World Series championship. Currently, he’s the ace of the New York Yankees.

While the 2011 Draft had guys like Jose Fernandez, Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer, Cole was the best player to take first overall.

2021 — Henry Davis

Many fans were surprised when the Pirates took Henry Davis first overall in 2021.

With a class consisting of pitchers Jack Leiter and Jackson Jobe, and hitters Marcelo Mayer and Jordan Lawlar, Davis was never really considered to go high, let alone to the Pirates. But given his asking price allowed more flexibility with later rounds, and his stats at Louisville spoke for themselves, Davis made plenty of sense in hindsight.

With the Cardinals, he slashed .337/.435/.565 with 21 home runs and 84 RBI. He was named a Buster Posey Award Finalist, Dick Howser Trophy and Golden Spikes semifinalist, and earned All-ACC honors in 2021.

Meanwhile, he was fast-tracked through the Pirates’ Minor League system, making it as far as High-A in his debut year. He jumped between four levels in 2022 and started the 2023 season with Double-A Altoona. He spent only 41 games with the Curve before a promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis, a trip that spanned only 10 games.

He debuted with the Pirates on June 19 and is hitting .296 with a .750 OPS in 15 games. Additionally, he’s adapted to primarily playing right field despite being a catcher through college and in the minors.

While it’s too early to tell if Davis will have an impactful career in MLB, he’s off to a great start considering he was drafted less than two years ago.

Overall, the Pirates have had two really good players come from the first overall pick, but their judgement hasn’t always been great.


Who will the Pirates take 1:1 this year?

This poll is closed

  • 54%
    Paul Skenes
    (109 votes)
  • 29%
    Dylan Crews
    (59 votes)
  • 9%
    Wyatt Langford
    (20 votes)
  • 4%
    Max Clark
    (10 votes)
  • 0%
    Walker Jenkins
    (0 votes)
  • 1%
    Other (comment below)
    (3 votes)
201 votes total Vote Now