One year after investing nearly $10 million in the draft, Pirates’ general manager Neal Huntington and scouting director Greg Smith have roughly the same budget to sign their 2009 draftees. Last year’s total was the fourth-most spent in all of baseball, and Pittsburgh utilized $6.35 million (on a major league contract) to sign first rounder Pedro Alvarez. This year, the Pirates say they are using a different technique: signing both quantity and quality.
“This year our first-round selection didn’t acquire the same amount of dollars as (Alvarez),” Smith said. “So it allows us to reallocate our resources and (team president) Frank Coonelly and (owner) Bob Nutting have been tremendous in their support of our drafts. It allows us to take these resources and allocate them.”
With the fourth pick in the draft, the Pirates drafted Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound backstop signed quickly for $2.5 million, a near-slot deal. Sanchez is widely considered in the scouting community as a plus defender and has the ceiling to become an average major league hitter, a combination that has Huntington excited.
“We drafted a guy that we think could be an above-average major league player, that has all-star upside,” he said. “We like the player a lot . . . Somebody externally threw out a Yadier Molina on him. You look at what Yadier Molina actually means to his team and he’s a heck of a player.”
The Sanchez selection mystified, especially when he signed for what he signed for. He likely would not have been drafted any higher than No. 12 overall, where the slot recommendation is estimated to be around $1.72 million. Sanchez will have to hit to justify the money and selection for some critics, and he was off to a good start, hitting .359 through 78 pro at-bats, most of them at low Class A West Virginia.
Regardless of the reviews Pittsburgh is receiving for its draft philosophy and how Sanchez is playing, Smith was quick to point out that the draft is an inexact science.
“Look at the big leagues rosters . . . and see all these players that were taken where they were taken,” he said. “No one’s got it figured all out. It’s too hard . . . Time will tell and it will play out.”
Smith mentioned players such as superstar Albert Pujols (13th round) and righthander Tim Hudson (sixth round) as players who prove how tough it is to project how amateur ability will play at the next level. He also noted that this year’s first overall pick, Stephen Strasburg, wasn’t even drafted three years ago.
Huntington was optimistic, but reserved when analyzing three high school pitchers — Zach Von Rosenburg, Trent Stevenson and Billy Cain — that the Pirates took in rounds six through eight (subscribers can find scouting reports of them here). Stevenson was the first to sign last Friday for $350,000 in the biggest over-slot deal approved by the commissioner to date. Each of those pitchers were ranked in Baseball America’s Top 200 prospects prior to the draft, but is committed to a highly regarded collegiate program, making them likely tough signs.
“We feel we have a very legitimate chance to sign one and we are certainly aggressively pursuing all three,” Huntington said at the time. “We’d love to add all three to our system. It would be a great wave of young arms coming . . . Three years from now if we’re able to sign them and get them into our system through professional development, we feel good about that.”
Negotiations with the last two pitchers will likely go down to the Aug. 17 signing deadline, which is going to be a crucial time for the Pirates’ front office. How many of their late round, upside picks they can sign could be key, as the team’s big league trades show Huntington and Co. are starting from scratch in trying to change the direction of the franchise.
Pittsburgh also selected two players coming off disappointing junior seasons—Florida outfielder Matt Den Dekker (16th-round) who hit .296/.412/.409 last season and Stanford pitcher Jeff Inman (12th-round), who’s had shoulder issues and posted a 6.11 ERA in 11 starts during 2009. Den Dekker is a toolsy outfielder with upside who just didn’t hit for the Gators this spring. Inman was one of the best pitchers in the Cape Cod League last summer.
Another player the Pirates selected was Mike Heller (29th-round), a two-way pitcher-shortstop that has committed to Florida. Heller would require a larger bonus to buy him out of his Florida commitment but may receive consideration if the team fails to sign some of its earlier picks. Pittsburgh prefers him on the mound.
While the Pirates may have had a controversial draft, their front office was pleased with sticking to its draft philosophy.
“What we try to do in Pittsburgh is we hold to our philosophies, we hold to what’s important, we hold to our direction and our vision, and then we have to incorporate that within each draft,” Smith said. “We try to maximize the talent pool and get as many good players as possible.”