Coonelly, Huntington: Pirates seek rich, deep draft
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In little more than a week, the Pirates' new management team will engage in its first Major League Baseball amateur draft, June 5-7, and that will be significant for several reasons:
One, they have the No. 2 overall pick, where they are expected to select one of Vanderbilt University third baseman Pedro Alvarez, Georgia high school shortstop Tim Beckham or Florida State University catcher Buster Posey. Two pitchers are on the fringe of that mix, too.
Two, all eyes will be on how the Pirates prioritize their decision, especially after previous management notoriously bypassed Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters with the No. 4 overall pick last year in favor of Clemson pitcher Danny Moskos. Wieters, almost universally regarded as the superior prospect, was represented by super-agent Scott Boras and ended up with a $6 million signing bonus from the Baltimore Orioles, the team that took him at No. 5. Boras also represents Alvarez, who is aiming for a similar bonus plus a major league contract.
Three, almost as much attention will be paid to the quality of late-round picks and whether the Pirates commit to paying above MLB's slot recommendations to get better talent, as they did in 1999-2001 under Mickey White, the scouting director at the time. Dave Littlefield fired White upon becoming general manager in 2001 and replaced him with Ed Creech, whose six drafts were largely a failure. New general manager Neal Huntington hired Greg Smith as his scouting director last November.
The Post-Gazette interviewed team president Frank Coonelly and Huntington jointly in a PNC Park office over the weekend to discuss upper management's approach to the draft, and each was invited to answer any question ...
Q: How important is this draft for the franchise?
COONELLY: We need to build this team from within, and the amateur draft is one of the principal mechanisms. This is our first draft as a new management team, but any draft is critical to a club like ours. We have to get talent into this system.
- Game: Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds, 7:10 p.m., Great American Ball Park.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (2-3, 4.84) vs. RHP Johnny Cueto (2-5, 5.56).
- Key matchup: The entire lineup against the flashy rookie Cueto, owner of 55 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings. On April 13, the Pirates showed good patience and wore him down, scoring five times in his six innings en route to a 9-1 rout.
- Of note: Cincinnati's 12-9, 18-inning loss Sunday in San Diego potentially helped the Pirates in two ways: One, it drained every pitcher in the Reds' bullpen and two starters, including Aaron Harang and Edinson Volquez. Two, it forced the Reds to adjust their rotation and push back Volquez -- 7-2 with a 1.31 ERA -- who had been scheduled to pitch the series finale Thursday.
HUNTINGTON: From our perspective, this draft doesn't really have any added importance compared to the ones that will follow it.
And it's not the second pick in the country that's going to be our only focus, either. There's a lot of attention to that pick, but our energy and attention is aimed at all 50 picks and on making sure we have the systems in place to have quality drafts for years to come. We need to have multiple major-leaguers come out of this draft and the same out of the next draft and 2010 and so on.
Q: What makes a successful draft? I've heard it can be as few as two or three players.
HUNTINGTON: If you get one front-line guy out of a draft, an above-average major-league player, you can deem that successful. You get two, three or four who can contribute, that's still a very good draft.
The truth is, not every player we pick is someone we think can make it to the majors. There are some in later rounds we're just taking a flyer on, maybe someone who asked for too much money but we want to see if he bluffed and was wrong. There are other guys we might not think can play above Class AA, but they're a gamer and can set the right tempo for other players in our system. And some of those guys do make it.
Q: This team, under previous management, signed only 27 of 50 picks last year. Is it important, given the low level of talent all through the system, to sign more?
COONELLY: That is an average number. We looked at this when I was in the commissioner's office, and the clubs signed an average of 23-25 players.
HUNTINGTON: It wouldn't shock me if our number was below 27. We have a lot of young players in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic who have been held in those countries for two, three and even the maximum four years, and we want to get those players into our system if they show they're ready. If we're going to fill out our rosters at the lower levels, that's how we'll do it.
I'm not saying we'll sign less than 20, but the number might be lower. What that allows us to do is be more aggressive and take a chance on a few tough signings in later rounds.
Q: So, does that mean you could have more signings like Nate McLouth, who got a $500,000 bonus even though he was taken in the 25th round? Those were a staple under Mickey White. Guys like Ian Snell and Zach Duke, too.
COONELLY: We are looking to find opportunities later in the draft, and we hope to find talent in the 25th round that is better than the 25th round. Yes, that is one of the ways.
INDIANAPOLIS (25-27) lost at Lehigh Valley, 4-2. RHP Jason Davis (2-6, 4.64) allowed runs and hits in innings. 3B Neil Walker (.224) went 2 for 4 with a double. CF Andrew McCutchen (.296) went 1 for 4 with a walk. RF Steve Pearce (.243) went 0 for 3 with a walk.
ALTOONA (16-31) lost to Trenton, 7-2. RHP Yoslan Herrera (3-5, 3.83) allowed five runs and eight hits in five innings. DH Jack Wilson (.316), in his 11th and final minor league rehabilitation game, went 1 for 1 with a walk and steal. 1B Jason Delaney (.303) went 2 for 4.
LYNCHBURG (18-31) lost at Potomac, 12-4. LHP Brian Holliday (1-3, 5.27) allowed six runs and 11 hits in five innings. LF Jared Keel (.221) went 2 for 4 with a double and an RBI.
HICKORY (26-26) lost to Rome, 6-5. RHP Brad Clapp (0-4, 4.40) allowed four runs and 10 hits in five innings. 3B Bobby Spain (.323) went 3 for 4 with a double and two RBIs. C Andrew Walker (.241) went 3 for 4.
Q: Now, Mickey would tell the story about how, after the Pirates had those drafts, Major League Baseball would have a meeting with a slide show to illustrate how what they had done was bad for the slotting system. How would you, Frank, as the guy who used to be in charge of slotting, feel if they singled you out that way?
COONELLY: Well, Mickey's exaggerating a bit. There were slides put up that simply indicated the number of times a club went over a recommendation.
As I've said before, I do believe in the recommendations the commissioner's office makes to the clubs. And, really, the whole term 'slotting' is not new. What it really means is what a certain space in the draft typically has meant. The whole program was just a way to put all the facts and figures before the club to provide additional information for their decisions.
Having said that, we're going to make our own judgments as to the value of players we select. We're going to take into account the recommendations we receive but, if we value a player above that slot, we'll go over it.
And, if the Pirates are listed on the next slide show, we'll sit there and defend ourselves.
HUNTINGTON: Not every draft is going to be above slot. It's going to be calculated. We can't just take off the non-signable board and try to sign every player who wants more money and pay him what he wants.
If a player wanted fifth-round money and fell to the 14th, that's probably a good chance to take him. If he wanted second-round money and is available in the 22nd ... we're not going to hand out hundreds of thousands of dollars just because the player asked for it. There has to be value.
COONELLY: Look at the 2005 draft. Justin Upton was picked first, and he got $300,000 above slot, not something that blew away the previous No. 1. He's been successful. Ryan Zimmerman, at No. 4, was signed a touch below slot, and he's one of the best third basemen in the game. Ryan Braun, at No. 5, and Troy Tulowitzki, at No. 7, each was right at slot.
Just because a representative demands above slot or a club pays it, it doesn't mean that player is going to be successful.
Q: There is a Scott Boras player high in this draft, in Alvarez, and word is that he will seek a signing bonus in excess of $7 million, as well as a major-league contract and a spot on the 40-man roster? How might that impact your decision?
COONELLY: The preference is to sign any amateur player to a minor-league contract. It gives the club more flexibility. With a player signed to a major-league contract right out of the draft, you have to use an option immediately to get him to the minors. If he has a minor-league contract, you can have him for three years in the minors before having to use an option.
Does that mean I'm saying the Pirates would never consider that? No. We would if there were a unique set of circumstances.
Q: Each of you has been asked repeatedly whether or not you will take the best player, by the media and by the public. How tired are you of hearing that, especially since neither of you was here for the last draft?
COONELLY: I'm not that tired of it. I understand why our fans are very interested to see if we're going to select the player who we view as being the best player available, the one who will have the greatest impact for the Pittsburgh Pirates, at No. 2, No. 48 and on down the line.
It might match up to Baseball America's rankings. It might not. It might match up to the consensus of the writers. It might not. But it will be the player we believe is the best available to us.
Q: With Alvarez and Posey, these are players most scouts see as capable of a fast track to the majors, even as early as next year in Alvarez's case. Are you looking for the player who can reach the majors the fastest or the one who can make the greatest impact?
COONELLY: Our priority now -- and this will remain our priority -- is to get the player who can make the greatest impact in the long term for the Pittsburgh Pirates, as opposed to worrying about getting that player to Pittsburgh by 2009.
HUNTINGTON: Couldn't agree more. We're looking for the best player. The right player. If you go back through draft history, there's no such thing as a safe pick. If you take the safe pick, you end up with a nice player. We don't need nice players. We need very good to great players.
Q: Is there such a thing for this franchise as drafting by need, especially with the top pick?
HUNTINGTON: Absolutely not. We need to fill our organization with talent.
With Cleveland, I remember that they had shortstops beyond belief. Every level. The only shortstop that ended up playing more than three years in the majors was a second baseman in the New York-Penn League. The reality is that we can never have enough talent.
Q: Given all the first-round pitchers who have been injured here -- six major surgeries in the past eight picks who were pitchers -- is there any concern about the public reaction you would get if you took a pitcher?
HUNTINGTON: We have to be aware of why pitchers get hurt, but the reality is, if there's a top-of-the-rotation pitcher out there that we believe can be healthy and a 220-inning horse, we have to take that player. We can't be scared away because of the track record that came before us.
COONELLY: I would agree with Neal. You don't have to watch the Pirates or any major-league team play to understand that you need quality starting pitching. If we, based on some history that preceded us, said we can't take any risk, we're not going to be a successful organization.
HUNTINGTON: If I can add, we're not ignorant to the draft's history. We understand that there are certain elements of draft picks that have led to repeated successes or repeated failures. But, when you talk about a sample size of a handful of selections, we can't be impacted by that.
Q: Obviously, neither of you was here when the Pirates bypassed Matt Wieters last summer. But I also know that both of you have done due diligence on what came before, just as I know you have scouts still on your staff who were involved. What is the best way, based on the information you have, to explain what happened?
COONELLY: Let me start by saying I don't think it's very productive to engage in that. But my diligence has led me to believe that, one, the scouts we've retained, we like and think are productive members of the organization. Two, the decision was made by the former baseball operations department to take Danny Moskos over Matt Wieters. That was their decision.
Q: For baseball reasons only?
COONELLY: That was their baseball decision. It was not a decision that was dictated to them by ownership. I do know that much.
Q: One problem under previous management, from my understanding, was a lack of scouting coverage in key areas such as California and Georgia. You've said you have confidence in the scouts you kept, so what has changed? Why should this draft be any different when the majority of the scouts are the same?
HUNTINGTON: Well, without speaking to the past, the structure that we've put in place has added to the supervisory level. We've added five full-time people, one area scout, two regional supervisors, one national cross-checker and added Larry Corrigan, a special assistant, to the mix. We have four people, including Greg Smith, who see the entire country.
That's allowed us to have more eyes on more players. I can tell you that, of the top nine or 10 players on our board, almost every one of our supervisors has seen every one of those players. That gives us nine or 10 reports on each kid. We could have three looks on a 10th-rounder.
Overall, our number of scouts now is in the upper half of the industry. We're a little heavier on the top than we'd like to be, but we have some very young area scouts, and we feel we can get a lot of energy, a lot of production from them.
Plus, we've changed the valuation process for each player to a system that allows for us to have a detailed, comprehensive look where we're all on the same page.
We're very excited about the scouting system we have in place and are very excited about this draft.
Notes The Pirates today will reinstate shortstop Jack Wilson from the 15-day disabled list and return shortstop Brian Bixler to Class AAA Indianapolis. Wilson, out since April 3 because of a strained left calf, will join the team tonight in Cincinnati after a rehabilitation that included 11 minor league games. He batted .323 (10 for 31) for Class AAA Indianapolis and Class AA Altoona, including a hit and a walk as a designated hitter for the Curve yesterday. Bixler made 25 starts in his first major league action, batting .175 with two doubles and two RBIs. He committed six errors. ... The Pirates hired Mike Steele, formerly the pitching coach at Michigan State University, to be pitching coach at Class A Lynchburg. He replaces Bob Milacki, who resigned last week for personal reasons.
First Published May 26, 2008 12:00 am