Drafting in Steeltown

On September 7th, the Pirates lost 11-6 to the San Francisco Giants. This loss dropped the Pirates record to 60-82 and officially marked the 16th consecutive season that the Pirates were to finish below .500. Appropriate then that the loss was at the hands of the Giants who signed away Barry Bonds from the Pirates in the winter between the 1992 and 1993 seasons coming off Bonds’ second MVP season and his first with an OPS over 1.000 and an OPS+ over 200.

It takes a lot of things to finish below .500 consecutively for over a decade and a half. It takes some combination of hilarious incompetent management, low payroll and bad luck. Most teams manage to escape having all three of those factors against them but a few always fall prey to it each year. It’s the Pirates who have been remarkable in falling prey to it every year. Even the Expos managed years over .500 near the end of their run in Montreal.

While not much can be done about bad luck, the Pirates have taken steps to correct the poor management and with Neal Huntington in place at GM and an expanding intelligence base in the front office, they seem to be on the right path. One aspect that they will have to evaluate is the amateur drafting strategy employed by their predecessors.

In 2004, with the 11th overall pick, the Pirates selected catcher Neil Walker passing on possibilities Jered Weaver, Stephen Drew and Phil Hughes among others. Walker has progressed steadily but slowly through the Pirates farm system, reaching Triple-A this season at age 22, but proving that he still has a ways to go offensively.

In 2005, again with the 11th overall pick, the Pirates stayed in the high school ranks tabbing outfielder Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen has followed much the same path as Neil Walker, moving steadily up through the ranks and spending the entire 2007 season in Triple-A where he posted a respectable line for a center fielder. 2006 saw the Pirates move up to the fourth overall pick, which they used to jump back in to the college ranks for righthander Brad Lincoln who tossed 24 innings for them that year and then promptly missed the entire 2007 season with Tommy John surgery.

While each of those picks were defensible in their own rights, what notable about those three drafts was the overall failure of them combined so far to produce any major league talent. The 2004-6 drafts have to date only produced a handful of unproductive at bats for Brian Bixler, Brent Lillibridge and Stephen Pearce. Three years worth of draft picks have yet to see a return. Already, Huntington has made news with his draft picks as the Pedro Alvarez mess seems to have finally come to a conclusion, but it will be interesting to see if any trends emerge from the new regime as it pertains to stocking the minors.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

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Tom Au
Tom Au

I (a former Pittsburgher) believe that the Pirates drafted well in 2008. We’ll see in 2-3 years.

But the Pirates (like other Pittsburgh outfits) have tended in the past to draft for harmony, rather than competence. They’ve favored run-of-the mill players (.e.g. Bryan Bullington, projected third starter), who will “fit in,” and hoped that good management will take them to the top. Occasionally, they will get a real star from an unexpected source; a Freddy Sanchez or a Nate McLouth, whose potential no one suspected early on.

The core of today’s Pirates is McLouth, Ryan Doumit, and maybe Sanchez. The team has seldom warmed to “imported” talent like Bay, Nady, and Oliver Perez, which may be why they were traded.