On the Pirates: Golden arm, golden payout

San Diego State's Strasburg sure to go No. 1, but Pirates ready if he drops

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His name is Stephen Strasburg, the pitching pride of San Diego State University, and he sounds like a work of fiction: His fastball is clocked at 103 mph, he struck out 23 Utah batters in a game last month, he is the universal choice to be taken No. 1 overall in Major League Baseball's amateur draft, he is viewed by some scouts as not even needing seasoning in the minors and ...

Well, forget it.

Not going to happen.

The Pirates pick fourth in the June 9 draft, with the Washington Nationals first, followed by the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres. And there is absolutely, positively no chance Strasburg will drop that far, right?

"Never say never," Pirates scouting director Greg Smith said. "You never know what's going to happen."

That stance surely explains why Smith and his scouts -- plus general manager Neal Huntington, during the team's trip to the West Coast last weekend -- have been following Strasburg, just as they do all elite prospects, compiling information on all facets of his game and personality.

Just in case.

"He won't last to No. 5. I can tell you that," Huntington said with a laugh. "But seriously, you never know what can happen in a draft."

Strasburg currently is 10-0 with a 1.38 ERA, 147 strikeouts and 15 walks, so he is not exactly hurting his value. And that value, as estimated by super-agent Scott Boras, could shatter all draft precedent. Word is Boras could seek as much as $50 million guaranteed, with the previous high being Mark Prior's $10.5 million in 2001.

Washington is known to be intensely interested in selected -- and signing -- Strasburg. But, as the Pirates and other teams have learned with Boras in the past, Boras has a way of steering his clients to desired destinations, and the last-place Nationals might not fit.

The Pirates, to be sure, are looking more intensely elsewhere.

"There's a month left in the scouting season, and it's very apparent there is one guy above and beyond, and that's Strasburg," Huntington said. "As for the rest, while you could argue that maybe 8 or 10 of the guys from last year's draft would be in line to go No. 2 this year, we don't feel like we're going to get a Pedro Alvarez-type player in the four-hole. But we do feel there are a good number of high school and college arms, as well as some high school position players."

Baseball America's Nos. 2-4 prospects, as ranked this month are, in order: Grant Green, a shortstop at the University of Southern California; Dustin Ackley, a first baseman at the University of North Carolina; and Tyler Matzek, a high school pitcher in Mission Viejo, Calif.

Another long-shot gem

Much younger than Strasburg, but no less pursued, is a terrific 15-year-old shortstop in the Dominican Republic named Miguel Angel Sano who is seen as one of the best prospects available in the upcoming July 2 international free-agent class for 16-year-olds.

And the Pirates are one of ... well, 30 teams interested in him, with word that the young man's bonus could reach $3 million, miles above the Dominican average bonus of $108,000. And the Pirates' entire budget for international players last year was $2 million, so this venture would require quite the extra expenditure on the part of ownership.

Still, the Pirates, known to have been on Sano's trail for an extended period, are seen as one of the favorites.

Steals back in style

With so much emphasis on power during baseball's unfortunate Steroids Era, speed took a back seat. But, now that the game presumably is getting cleaned up, that is changing.

From the majors' total of 2,573 steals in 2003, the number steadily rose to 2,818 in 2007 before a slight dip of 2,799 last year. This year, the pace is for 3,006, which would be the first time above 3,000 since 2001.

More players running?

That is only part of it: The success rate for steals also has risen, from 69.4 percent in 2003 to the current 73 percent, a clear sign that fast players are taking up more roster spots.

Ask Nyjer Morgan, whose presence at a corner outfield spot would have been seen as crazy earlier in the decade.

"We know that the power part of the game is kind of limited now," Morgan said. "The speed game is definitely coming back, and I think it's great. It adds a lot of excitement, a lot of the flavor to the game."

He cited the Colorado Rockies' superbly athletic Dexter Fowler stealing five bases in one game Monday.

"That's my boy Fowler. But I hope people don't start expect meto start snatchin' em up like that."

Guests as royalty

Part of the Pirates' emphasis in attempting to improve their long-sagging image within their own sport is treating their guests better.

An American League scout who regularly works games at PNC Park, for example, said that there are few places where the host team is more accommodating.

"We can be out there in the sun, and Frank Coonelly has people bringing us drinks, food, even sunblock," the scout said. "That sort of thing is first-class, and trust me when I say it makes a difference. People see what Frank is doing for that team."

Coonelly is the Pirates' president.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog .


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