SOUTH HILLS – If the first 40+ games haven’t been painful enough to many in Western Pa., if Tuesday night wasn’t disappointing enough with Francisco Liriano rocked by the Orioles, there was also Manny Machado playing third base at PNC Park – for another team.
Now Machado is off to a slow start this season, coming off a knee injury and resulting surgery. But as a 21-year-old last season he posted a remarkable 6.2-WAR campaign for the Orioles. And had the Pirates selected him, he would be playing his natural shortstop position, an area where the Pirates have struggled to generate production.
The great debate in the 2010 Pirates’ draft war room was Machado vs. Jameson Taillon. Machado has already made an impact at the major league level and could become a superstar. Taillon is in Bradenton, Fla. rehabbing following Tommy John surgery, a living reminder of the dangers associated with drafting and developing young pitching.
The 2010 draft was headlined by Bryce Harper, the clear-cut No. 1 overall talent.
The Pirates, just their luck, selected second. The top everyday player on almost everyone’s board was Machado. The top pitching prospect on almost everyone’s board was Taillon, a pitcher some said was the best prep arm in the draft since Josh Beckett.
What’s interesting is about this selection is the players had nearly equal grades. They were both viewed as elite talents, just at different positions. So it wasn’t about best player available – it was about philosophy and preference. (In the 2009-11 drafts, 22 of the Pirates’ 30 top-10-round selections were pitches. Seventeen were prep pitchers).
The Pirates’ philosophy was to stockpile high-upside starting pitching in their system, as we’ve documented. It’s a strategy that made sense given the cost of free-agent pitching and the overall impact of quality starting pitching. We’ve seen the impact of excellent stating pitching in 2013 for the Pirates, and not so-great stating pitching to date in 2014. There’s a reason starting pitchers take in the highest average salaries in the game, they provide the greatest impact.
While it would be easy to second-guess the decision this week, I’m not so sure the Pirates made the wrong decision or will regret the decision in the long run.
Tomorrow? We’ll see.
The first chapters have been written but the book is far from finished.
Said friend of the program John Hart this offseason:
“I look at what has happened in the (free agent) pitching market, Sabathia, Hamels, Greinke, all these pitchers, and the money, you are going into dangerous waters when you are giving these 29-, 30-year-old guys who have pitched a 1,000 innings (large contracts),” Hart said. “The teams that get the most out of these guys are the guys that get them young. Get them in your 20s. You get them through the draft. The Pirates are like what we went through when I was in Cleveland. We said ‘We ain’t getting these guys (top-of-the-rotation free agent pitchers). We aren’t going out into the market and spending $150-200 million for a starting pitcher. It ain’t happening.’ You have to get them through the draft.
“That’s why they drafted Taillon over Machado: ‘We can’t afford the pitching. It’s easier for us to get position players.’ That’s why the drafted Cole No. 1. … I’m sure they had a tremendous debate: ‘It’s hard for us to get a projectable body with good makeup, plus-arm with a chance to have three plus pitches with durability vs. a center of the diamond, big-time bat with a chance to stay at shortstop…. I think it is a little easier for most clubs to find the bats than it is to find the arms. But at some point looking up, I’m telling you, the bats are disappearing around the game. We’ll see how it plays out.”
What’s fascinating is how the facts on the ground might have altered the debate had it occurred in the 2014 war room and not the 2010 one. It might be easier now to find premium velocity later in drafts. It might be harder to find bats – anywhere in the draft.
*Offense is vanishing from the game – particularly right-handed power.
(Look, the Astros just drafted Mark Appel over Kris Bryant, which already looks like a mistake.)
*We’ve seen an incredible amount of young pitching talents fall victim to Tommy John surgery.
There’s no doubting teams need elite starting pitching, typically, to contend for postseason berths. But because of the attrition rate, because of the decline of offense, perhaps with premium early picks there should be a philosophical change in giving the edge to the bat, not the arm.