Pirates banking on first-round draft picks Meadows and McGuire

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Mark Zender walked to the mound in a scoreless tie with men on second and third and a 2-2 count. It was the state semifinals, and Zender, the head coach at Kentwood High School in Covington, Wash., wanted to calm down his freshman pitcher.

When Zender reached the mound, he found his catcher already had a game plan.

"We're going to throw a high fastball out of the zone and we'll go 3-2, and then you'll throw a curveball," Reese McGuire said. "I want you to spike it in the dirt. Throw it on the outside corner of the plate. I'll block it, he'll go fishing, he'll swing and miss. If he doesn't, we'll walk him and then we've got bases loaded and a force at every base."

Zender returned to the dugout. The starter ran the count full and plunked the curve into the dirt. McGuire blocked it. The batter struck out.

Scouting report

  • Game:

    Pirates vs. Mets, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.

  • TV, Radio:

    Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7).

  • Probables:

    RHP Charlie Morton (1-2, 3.38) vs. RHP Jeremy Hefner (4-6, 3.39).

  • Key matchup:

    Morton vs. the Mets' left-handed batters. Morton's OPS against is 109 points higher vs. them than right-handed batters.

  • Hidden stat:

    Hefner has allowed one earned run in six of his past seven starts.

The financial commitment and potential return on the investment in MLB draft picks force teams to be diligent in their research and selective with their choices. Drafting high school players, who don't have the three years of collegiate play or the physical maturity of their college counterparts, heightens the attention. The player must be the right person, in many ways. McGuire, selected No. 14 overall by the Pirates in the June amateur draft, and Austin Meadows, chosen with the No. 9 pick, fit the bill.

"We can play baseball as a high school team way different than any other team I've ever seen, and we won't be able to play like that again," Zender said.

The Pirates also drafted two high school players with their first two picks in 2010, choosing pitchers Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie. Some regarded Taillon as the top pitcher and second-best player in the draft behind outfielder Bryce Harper. Taillon is the Pirates' top prospect now after pitcher Gerrit Cole graduated to the majors.

Allie threw hard, but with no concept of where it was going, and is having a nice season at the plate after converting to a position player.

Before 2010, the Pirates hadn't started a draft with two high school players since 2000, when they selected pitchers Sean Burnett and David Beigh.

"They were the best players available on our board," general manager Neal Huntington said of Meadows and McGuire on draft night.

The Pirates spent a total of $5,399,400 to sign them both, hoping they were right and that the investment eventually will net them a major leaguer. Meadows agreed with the concept: "I'm going to work hard and try to get there as fast as I can."

McGuire, a 6-foot-1 left-handed hitter, has a pedigree. His father and uncle were both catchers, and he grew up taking pride in the position. He has an uncanny ability to block pitches.

"He's the best I've ever seen at any level," said Zender, who has coached baseball for 30 years. "Not just kids I've coached; I'm talking about major league guys, anything"

McGuire can throw more than 90 mph to second base, but his quick release accentuates the arm strength.

"Growing up, I played basketball and a little bit of football as well," McGuire said. "Just being an athlete, all around [helped]."

Meadows, a 6-foot-2 center fielder from Georgia's Grayson High School, had an athletic background as well. His father, Kenny, played football and baseball at Morehead State and his mother, Staci, played softball at Georgia Southern. Meadows caught a 44-yard touchdown pass in the 2011 state semifinal game, which helped send Grayson to the Georgia Dome and a state championship.

"Playing high school football in the state of Georgia ... I think that really helped him in his work ethic," Kenny Meadows said.

Meadows set the IBAF World Youth Championship 16-and-under record for RBIs in a tournament with 28 in 2011, and word spread. He received autograph requests in the mail from as far away as Tokyo, and fathers brought their sons to Grayson's practices hoping to catch a glimpse.

"He was very gracious to get those things done," Grayson coach Jed Hixson said. "With all that fanfare and still perform at the level he did was quite admirable."

Meadows had a 3.8 grade point average and served as a student ambassador. He likes to fish, often for largemouth bass at his family's lake house.

After Kentwood won a state title in McGuire's junior year, he accepted and embraced his coach's suggestion that he improve his leadership skills. He sometimes pressed against poor teams knowing scouts were in attendance, Zender said, but played his best against tough competition.

McGuire was named USA Baseball's player of the year this year, and the announcement highlighted his laid-back demeanor and anonymity.

"Before that announcement was made at our school in front of the whole school, less than half the kids even knew who he was, let alone playing baseball," Zender said. "There were friends of his that had no idea he was as good of a player. He's so unassuming."

McGuire and Meadows have started their professional careers with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Pirates. They've got years before the major leagues are within reach. For now, they'll continue to throw out runners and drive in runs. They'll hope, just like the Pirates do, that their skills translate at the highest level.

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Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published July 12, 2013 4:00 AM


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