CHICAGO -- It is not at all accurate that the Pirates, as a team, have nothing of consequence to gain from the rest of this season. One look at Major League Baseball's overall standings confirms it ...
The Pirates are 46-70, their fortunes plummeting faster than their payroll.
The Kansas City Royals are 45-71.
The Washington Nationals, still bringing up the rear, are 42-75.
And that could make for quite the race down the stretch to see which team will finish with the worst record and have the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, especially if Washington continues to win as often as it has this month.
To be sure, the winner -- loser? -- could be rewarded with quite the prize, as two superb prospects might be available with the top pick.
That is, might be.
One of those prospects, Stephen Strasburg, the ultra-hyped, ready-right-now San Diego State University pitcher with the 100-mph fastball, was Washington's No. 1 overall pick in June, but he must sign by the midnight deadline tomorrow, or he would go back into the draft pool next year.
A reward for failure?
The Nationals would get a compensation pick, No. 2 overall, but they could not re-draft Strasburg without his consent, and that consent surely will not be given after one failed attempt. Which means that, even if the Nationals finish last this season and have the top two picks next year -- the usual one, plus the compensation -- Strasburg might be had at No. 3 overall.
The other prospect is 16-year-old Bryce Harper, a Las Vegas catcher, third baseman, shortstop and pitcher who once hit a 570-foot home run and recently was called "the LeBron James of baseball" in Sports Illustrated. He is likely to be eligible -- though not certain -- because he has enrolled in junior college.
Ask Neal Huntington, the Pirates' general manager, about all this, and he will reply -- emphatically -- that the team's focus is not on losing or landing either of these players.
"We'd love nothing more than to win as many games as we can, and that's our focus," he said. "Our major league team is going out to work, to prepare, to win jobs, to keep jobs, and we'd better be going out to win every night. And if that means we end up with the 10th pick in the draft next year because we win more games than people expect us to, you know what? That's great."
But what about the impact a Strasburg or Harper could have?
"If we don't win, it's not a reward to get the first or second pick. We can't wait until we're talking about picking in the teens and 20s on a consistent basis. Getting a high pick in the draft is not a reward we're looking for."
Which of the two might the Pirates take, if they get such a choice?
The very early line is on Strasburg.
Oh, one other thing: Strasburg and Harper are represented by super-agent Scott Boras.
The six drafts the Pirates conducted under general manager Dave Littlefield and scouting director were, in the general sense, ambition-free, directionless and, most important, thoroughly lacking in elite talent and depth. In all that time, out of 300 picks, only a handful of players -- Paul Maholm, Matt Capps, Nyjer Morgan, Tom Gorzelanny stand out -- have reached the majors and stuck to any significant degree ...
But the kid wearing No. 22 in center field these days looks as if he might be good enough to make up for all the misfires.
Andrew McCutchen was drafted 11th overall in 2005, signed by scout Rob Sidwell -- now with the San Diego Padres -- right out of Fort Meade High School. There was plenty of talent taken ahead of him with the top 10, such as No. 1 Justin Upton, No. 4 Ryan Zimmerman, No. 5 Ryan Braun and No. 7 Troy Tulowitzki -- not to mention No. 3 Jeff Clement, acquired by the Pirates in the Jack Wilson trade -- but there is no questioning this was a sharp pick, given McCutchen's rapid progression from raw talent to mature major leaguer.
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, though, about those Littlefield/Creech drafts, there is this reminder: Of the 2004 draft, now more than five years ago, the only player to appear in a major league game is Brian Bixler.
It always is easy to assign credit for amateur draft picks, and even international signees: The name of the signing scout is right there in every team's media guide.
Not so for major league finds.
Take Garrett Jones, perhaps the Pirates' most pleasant surprise all summer.
He became a six-year minor league free agent this past offseason after being blocked in Minnesota's system behind Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and others playing his positions. So, when he became available, the Pirates pursued him after having two scouts -- presumably Huntington's special assistants -- look at him extensively last year.
The scouts who recommended Jones?
Huntington asked them if they wanted to be identified for this piece, and each declined.
The likely reason, though none was cited: Major league transactions are more sensitive. No team wants to show up another because they have to continue dealing with all parties. By contrast, in the amateur ranks, it is every scout for himself.
There could be no lonelier place in sports than the back clubhouse room at Pirate City. It is where major leaguers and minor leaguers assigned to Bradenton, Fla., for injury rehabilitation have their stalls, walled off from the active prospects with the Gulf Coast League team.
Reliever Tyler Yates, recovering from Tommy John surgery, found an apt description upon welcoming a visitor recently: "This is where they keep the broken baseball players."