SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates had an opportunity and a challenge on the first day of the draft Thursday.
They had four picks in the top 73 thanks to the trade with the Marlins that landed the 39th overall pick in the compensation round and the extra pick in the competitive balance round. (The trade also gave the Pirates more financial flexibility/creativity by adding $1.4 million to the spending pool.) Those four selections were the most top 75 picks the Pirates have had under Neal Huntington and the most they’ve had in the top 80 in the 21st century.
But picking 24th overall was also the latest the Pirates have drafted since 1991. There was no luxury of zeroing in on a handful of elite players for scouting purposes in the first round. And with their top two premium picks, the Pirates went off the consensus boards of scouting services like Baseball America and MLB.com.
When the Pirates selected Arizona prep shortstop Cole Tucker 24th overall MLB.com’s Joanthan Mayo said live on the draft broadcast that it was the first “Wait, what?” pick of the evening.
And while no GM is drafting from the Baseball America of MLB.com top 100 lists, it’s my understanding that those lists represent something of an industry consensus as it’s just not John Manuel and Mayo making up personal top 100 lists but they are polling scouts, cross checkers and other evaluators for opinions. So while rankings lists aren’t everything, and teams’ lists certainly vary team to team, they offer some general sense of the industry’s take on a player.
The first round, for the most, part followed those lists … until the Pirates drafted.
I thought the Pirates might reach on a college bat to join their Andrew McCutchen-Gerrit Cole-Gregory Polanco window. Instead it appears they reached to a degree on a prep shortstop in Cole Tucker. Beyond Alen Hansen, who may or may not stick at short, the Pirates are thin at the critical position in their system.
The issue is Tucker was ranked 83rd overall Baseball America and 67th by MLB.com. But he was also one of the few players who projected to stick at short.
Here is the first-round pick analysis from Baseball America and the Cole Tucker report:
Pick analysis: Tucker has risen as much as any high school position player in the country over the course of the spring. The Pirates have been tied to prep position players and Tucker is one of the few with an up-the-middle profile.
Scouting report: A high-energy, scrappy player with passion for the game, Tucker was the starting shortstop for USA Baseball National team that won its second consecutive World Cup gold medal last summer. He has plus instincts that make his tools play up. Tucker began switch-hitting two years ago, but his natural lefthanded swing offers better bat speed and a more compact swing path. He could be at least an average hitter (with the potential to be better) as a high-contact bat that uses the whole field and stays inside the ball. His line-drive swing path will likely limit him to below-average power, as he drives the ball to the gaps. Tucker’s speed plays at plus out of the box and is even better underway as a long strider. A natural athlete, Tucker has the ability to stay at shortstop with an above-average arm that can throw from different angles, soft hands and smooth actions. The long, lean and wiry Tucker offers a considerable amount of projection with his body for a position player at 6-foot-3, 175 pounds. He has long arms, big feet and will likely add a significant amount of strength. As a tall lefthanded-hitting infielder that can play shortstop, Tucker has drawn comparisons to Andy Fox. The Arizona commit comes from a baseball family and his father is in the Florida high school baseball hall of fame. Tucker is very young for the class and won’t be 18 until after draft day.
I don’t hate the player by any means. I like that Tucker projects to stick at short. That’s a big deal. I like that he’s 17, meaning he has more upside than most in the pool (Age 17 draft picks are more likely to have professional success than older HS picks). I like that he has projection left and he has plus instincts. But I wonder if he’ll hit. I just wonder, like others, if the better place to target him would have been 39 overall or later.
The Pirates did not feel he would be there at 39 and said they did not reach (of course no team has ever said it reached for a player).
Baseball America top 25 players like RHP Sean Reid-Foley and OF Monte Harrison were still on the board. High school SS Miguel Chavis might slide to 3B but he has a better bat and was the 26th best overall player per Baseball America. A.J. Reed slid to 42 but he was the top college power bat available and Blandino was the best college hitter thought to be available.
At 39, the Pirates went against consensus again, selecting San Diego c/of Connor Joe with the 39th pick.
Joe is a high OBP, line-drive oriented hitter who has recently shifted to catcher. He appears to have an advanced bat, though limited impact potential with the bat. If he can stick at catcher, he’s a potential find. Maybe he’s an undervalued Matt Carpenter-type. But he wasn’t ranked in Baseball America’s top 100 or MLB.com’s top 100. He was ranked 110th by MLB.com. Here is MLB.com’s scouting report.
After spending his first two college seasons at first base, Joe made the move behind the plate during the summer in the Cape Cod League and was named an All-Star in the elite summer college circuit.
During his junior year, Joe saw some time behind the plate for the Toreros, while also playing first base and right field. He has the skills to stick as a backstop, with a solid average arm and quick release. He’s very athletic and runs well for a catcher or first baseman. He doesn’t get cheated at the plate, and his combination of bat speed and strength should mean he hits for average and some power at the next level.
Joe’s value obviously is higher if he’s behind the plate, and the team that believes he can develop there will take him in the first few rounds.
I liked what the Pirates did with their 64th and 73rd overall picks. They found better value in going after projectable RHPs in Mitch Keller out of Xavier High in Iowa – who should have less mileage on his arm coming from a cold weather state – and they took Trey Supak out of LaGrange High in Texas. It’s a strategy that has served them well with Nick Kingham and Tyle Glasnow.
And I did like in a offense-depressed environment that the Pirates targeted position players with premium picks, waiting on the greater supply of pitching. That made sense.
Look, it’s folly to grade any draft, particular a baseball draft. If Tucker ends up as a first-division starting shortstop that is an excellent pick and there’s a chance that happens. But any time a club goes so far away from the consensus, at least the external consensus, with its first two picks it is taking on greater risk and now they have to be right, not the consensus of the industry.
Wisdom of crowds vs. wisdom of the draft room.