Second base: Drafting

Three strong years bear fruit, but questions follow

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Mickey White, the Pirates' scouting director from 1999 to 2001, is a professional scout for the Florida Marlins these days, back in the bleachers eyeing raw talent.

He seems to be enjoying it, too, especially when he runs into a peer.

BASEBALL 2006


Draft and follow:
Tracking the Pirates' top three picks each year since 2000

"I could have been one of those scouts who shows up somewhere with his tail between his legs. Or I could have my chin up," he said. "Believe me: When people talk to me about the current Pirates, my chin is way up."

That is not without cause: White's three drafts produced, among others, Zach Duke, Ryan Doumit, Chris Duffy, Sean Burnett, Ian Snell, Jose Bautista, Nate McLouth and John Van Benschoten on the current 40-man roster.

He also drafted Chris Young, now in the San Diego Padres' rotation, and Chris Shelton, an exceptional rookie for the Detroit Tigers last season who general manager Dave Littlefield lost in the Rule 5 draft debacle of 2003.

"In the past 13 years of watching the Pirates," one National League scout said, "those three years of drafts are the only good thing I've seen happen to them."

Many of those picks made it into the Pirates' fold because White had no aversion to paying a player a signing bonus higher than what his round dictated, so long as his scouts convinced him of their value. He paid Duke, a 20th-rounder, a $260,000 bonus worthy of someone taken in the top five rounds. He did likewise for McLouth, a 25th-rounder, and Snell, a 26th-rounder.

White credited Kevin McClatchy, the Pirates' managing general partner, for stretching the draft budget on more than one occasion.

White recalled McClatchy walking into the team's war room for the draft in 2001 and asking why a certain player's name had been shoved to the side of the board.

"I told him we couldn't sign the kid," White remembered. "He said, 'If you like him, go get him.' I said, 'Fine, as long as you brought your wallet.' And he did, that time and other times. It felt like we really turned up the heat on baseball those three years."

Not everyone appreciated it. A Major League Baseball executive at a conference in 2001 used an overhead projector to display what he felt were the five "worst" draft signings of that year. McLouth and Young were among them.

"Still makes me laugh," White said. "Yeah, terrible signings."

Littlefield's man

Littlefield was hired midway into the 2001 season, after which he replaced White with Creech, choosing someone he knew from their days together in the Montreal Expos' system.

Creech's four drafts are more difficult to analyze because his players have not had as much time to develop.

His highlights have included Paul Maholm, Tom Gorzelanny, Brad Eldred, Matt Capps and Josh Sharpless. All but Sharpless already have seen time in Pittsburgh, and Maholm is in the rotation.

Creech's first-rounders were Bryan Bullington, the No. 1 overall choice in 2002 whose projections remain as modest as the day he was taken, followed by Maholm, Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen. The latter two are considered the Pirates' only star-level talents.

Baseball America's list of the game's top 100 prospects, released last month, included three from the Pirates: Walker (No. 43), McCutchen (No. 50) and Gorzelanny (No. 95).

"If you ask me how I feel about the drafts, I look at kids like Maholm and Gorzelanny because they've turned into guys who clearly can help our rotation," Creech said. "And I think there will be other guys, too."

Still, Creech's drafts do not appear as deep in talent as White's, despite late-round gems such as Sharpless. That is best evident when examining the minor-league affiliates for the coming season.

Class AAA Indianapolis again will be strong and, more important, will have a prospect at nearly every starting position. Most of those will be the final remnants of the White classes. But Class AA Altoona and high Class A Lynchburg could be thick with 30-year-olds, and one must dip to low Class A Hickory for the next wave of legitimate prospects.

As one team official put it, "There's definitely a gap in there."

Tools over totals

Although some scouting philosophy in baseball has shifted toward statistical analysis of prospects -- the approach made famous by the Oakland Athletics and the book "Moneyball" -- the Pirates remain faithful to the traditional evaluations of a player's raw skills rather than actual performance.

"Obviously, the No. 1 thing is tools," Creech said. "You do look at numbers. If a guy performs, that's fine. You like that. But he has to have the ability to translate that to the major-league level, or it doesn't matter."

Creech's operation includes 18 full-time scouts and 5-6 part-timers, which one American League executive confirmed is on par with the industry. All focus on amateur scouting, leaving the professional scouting to Littlefield's five special assistants. That is in tune with a recent trend to separate the two facets.

The Pirates' funding for signing draft picks ranks in the top 10 of the 30 major-league teams, McClatchy said, as it has since 2001 when Littlefield asked him for an increase in that area. Two other sources backed that statement. McClatchy would not say how much the team spends, but Cleveland led all teams last year at $8.28 million.

"We've been as good as anyone at financing our drafts since Dave took over," McClatchy said. "It's an important commitment, and I think you have to make that to your employees when you bring them in. I made this one to Dave."

Creech said the team continues to offer above-scale bonuses to low-round draft choices. One of those, he added, was 16th-round pitcher Eric Krebs last year.

"We don't throw money away, but we certainly feel we sign the players we want," Creech said. "We absolutely believe in going and getting our man."

First Base:
International signings
Second base:
Drafting
Third base:
Development
Home plate:
The majors

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.


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