Building Blocks: No. 2 pick not only scouting focus

Pirates' new director, buoyed by bigger budget, eyes deep drafts

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For all the upgrades, fundamentally and financially, that the Pirates plan to infuse into their scouting system, it is likely that the fan base will have an easy time evaluating how they fare in this critical area in 2008.


BUILDING BLOCKS

The Post-Gazette's five-part series on the Pirates' bid to reshape the franchise will run each Wednesday until the start of spring training:

Jan. 16: Dismantling
Bob Nutting's first year as principal owner brought a complete overhaul of management. But will the team spend more?

Today: Scouting
Greg Smith, the scouting director, and Rene Gayo, the Latin American specialist, aim to expand efforts to find amateur talent.

Jan. 30: Teaching
Manager John Russell's style of baseball will be taught at all levels of the organization, and Kyle Stark, the director of player development, is charged with creating "cohesiveness."

Feb. 6: Changing
What exactly does team president Frank Coonelly mean when he calls for "changing the culture" of the Pirates?

Feb. 13: Evaluating
Ultimately, the goal is contending at the major-league level. How long will it take general manager Neal Huntington to put together that type of team?


It will take three simple questions:

1. Did they draft a pitcher in the first round?

2. If so, are they nuts?

3. Does that pitcher have a good surgeon?

Greg Smith is new to the Pirates' post of scouting director, but he has heard the horror stories. He knows how eight of the team's past 10 first-rounders were pitchers and how, remarkably, only two of those eight -- Paul Maholm and Danny Moskos, the choice last year -- have avoided the knife in their professional careers.

At the same time, Smith hardly sounds as if he will be spooked by history when the Pirates make the No. 2 overall pick of Major League Baseball's amateur draft June 5.

"If we see the right pitcher? Yeah, absolutely, I would draft a pitcher," he said at his PNC Park office. "If you look at what dominates the game at the major-league level, it's pitching. You can never have enough top-of-the-rotation guys, and this is the best way to get them."

In the same breath, Smith added that the Pirates would exercise great diligence with injury issues. And he speaks from experience.

Smith, 41, was the Detroit Tigers' scouting director in 1997-2004, after which he spent three years as a special assignment scout. In the eight drafts he oversaw, his first-round picks included exemplary choices in Justin Verlander and Jeff Weaver, but also four pitchers who had surgeries after being selected: Matt Anderson, Matt Wheatland, Kyle Sleeth and Kenny Baugh.

Many in the industry blame former Detroit general manager Randy Smith for the Tigers' lack of first-round success, not only for taking control of the top picks but also for having Greg Smith double as director of player development in 2000-02.

Still, the decision to take Baugh, in particular, seems to sting him. Baugh had topped 110 innings each of his final three seasons at Rice University, including an astonishing 171-pitch outing in 2001, his last year there.

"Kenny had serious innings, serious pitch counts, but a clean bill of health," Smith said. "Lesson learned."

Baugh had shoulder surgery the next year and still has not made it.

That story is reminiscent of Brad Lincoln, the Pirates' top pick in 2006 under Smith's predecessor, Ed Creech. Lincoln had thrown 128 innings in his final year at the University of Houston and started 17 of the team's 50 games. There were no medical issues when he was drafted, either, but he had elbow surgery the next year.

Smith's tenure in Detroit is highlighted by success in the late rounds, notably Curtis Granderson in the third and Joel Zumaya in the 11th. In all, 40 players he signed in eight years reached the majors, above the industry norm.

The most cherished pick clearly was Verlander, No. 2 overall in 2004.

"I'll stand behind that one," Smith said, with a smile. "That's why I won't say I'm not going to take a pitcher. Ideally, if you could take an All-Star everyday player, absolutely, that's who you take. But it's not that simple."

Smith is offering no clues about the Pirates' preference for No. 2 overall in the 2008 pool, but Baseball America projects that the top college player is Vanderbilt University third baseman Pedro Alvarez and the top high school player is shortstop Tim Beckham out of Georgia, with Alvarez the consensus No. 1. The Tampa Bay Rays pick first.

Regardless, the Pirates' scope for scouting surely will not be limited to one pick, not with a virtually barren developmental system that was created in large part by few picks being signed -- only 27 of 50 last year -- and shallow talent because of low bonuses. Everyone from owner Bob Nutting down is emphasizing that adding talent to the minors is the franchise's top priority, and team president Frank Coonelly backed that by increasing the scouting and bonus budgets.

And yes, as management often has repeated, the budget includes the ability to pay the first-round pick.

The Pirates stirred a public outcry last summer when choosing Moskos rather than catcher Matt Wieters, with many charging that ownership took the cheap route. That rancor swelled when Wieters went on to get a $6 million signing bonus from Baltimore, the team drafting right behind the Pirates, and Moskos got $2.75 million.

But, as was made clear by all concerned at the time and beyond, Moskos was the genuine preference of then-general manager Dave Littlefield, who felt Moskos, an older player, could reach the majors quicker. A month later, as if to prove he could have signed any player he drafted, Littlefield traded for pitcher Matt Morris and his $9.5 million salary.

Coonelly and Smith have overseen a revamping of a scouting department that includes three additional members, all at the top end, and other shuffling. The scouting perimeter will expand, too, as the Pirates will aim to establish a presence in California and Georgia, fertile areas inexplicably ignored under Creech.

"Our best people will be in the best areas," Smith said.

Smith's talent preferences are flexible, he maintained, but he did allow to a couple of key leanings:

• One is that he will not be shy about drafting high-ceiling players out of high school rather than the safer bets out of college. The Pirates' three previous drafts produced a total of only nine high school players, even though the organization's top two prospects --Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker -- came out of high school.

"You want elite talent," Smith said.

• Two, while Smith is not resistant to the modern push into using statistics to evaluate amateurs, he clearly will value the word of his scouts to a greater extent.

"My background is Scouting 101, evaluating the player and breaking him down. There are historical numbers, performance numbers that you have to look at, and those will be factored into the equation. But numbers can't drive it. I'm not there."

• Three, PNC Park's dimensions will play a role. Creech selected and signed only five left-handed power-hitting types in six drafts, none of whom reached the majors.

"If our ballpark warrants left-handed power, it should become part of the process," Smith said.

He also will oversee Rene Gayo, the Latin American scouting director, and that 20-man operation will remain mostly untouched other than the new academy in the Dominican Republic and a promise of more funding for signing bonuses.

One key facet of talent acquisition where the Pirates likely will lag at least another year is the wider international scene, including Japan, South Korea, Australia and parts of western Europe that are beginning to gain notice.

"We're exploring ways to expand our footprint," general manager Neal Huntington said. "But Latin America clearly needs to be the top priority of our international operations."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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