Saturday, June 7th, 2008 by Adam Wagner

Pirates’ draft blowout

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Going into the 2008 MLB Draft, Pirates’ fans almost expected to be disappointed. After all, there was no way Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly could live up to the expectations thrust upon them by a fanbase that wanted to see fifteen years of mistakes fixed in one draft, right? I hate to break it to all of you, but depending on who they sign, Huntington and Coonelly came pretty damn close.

This draft was more important to Pirates’ fans than any other fans. For the last decade, we have been forced to embrace the hope that lies in the farm system instead of the product on the field. That meant that Dejan Kovacevic’s mailbags were filled with questions about the upcoming draft and the potential picks while stories about the draft were sometimes featured more prominently in the paper than game recaps even as the team quietly hovered near .500.

The fanbase seemed to be in general agreement that they guy it wanted was Vanderbilt 3B Pedro Alvarez, who was the consensus #1 prospect for much of the time since last year’s draft, but evidently fell beneath Georgia high school SS Tim Beckham in the eyes of the Tampa Bay Rays, who held the first overall pick. From there, Pirates’ management had to pick its poison: to pay for Alvarez or Florida State C Buster Posey.

Thankfully, they chose Alvarez who projects to be a superstar in almost every way. Yes, his numbers declined in his senior year due to a hand injury, but that injury reportedly only saps power for 12-18 months, so Alvarez could still be ready to make his first appearance at PNC in the pretty near future. There will be a contract battle between Huntington and Alvarez’s agent Scott Boras over Alvarez’s contract and whether or not it is a major league contract, but the issues are actually minimal.

For one thing, if Alvarez receives what he is demanding and produces like he is projected to, he will still be a bargain. Second of all, Alvarez’s receiving a major league contract won’t be that big of a deal. He’ll be here in between two and three year, taking up his spot at either third or first base while Neal Walker gets acclimated to the bench or Adam LaRoche is pulling on a Kansas City Royals’ jersey. (Of course, Alvarez would be more valuable at first base, but when was the last time the Pirates had a legitimate superstar bat in their lineup? You probably have to go all the way back to Barry Bonds.) Plus, Alvarez is a left-handed bat in a system that just doesn’t have any left-handed bats, somehow, which is just another plus to his all-around package.As Baseball America put it, it’s been a very long time since the Pirates picked the best talent in the draft and they did it this year, meaning they aren’t going to let him slip through their fingers. This is someone who we, as fans, should be very, very excited about.

Second round pick Tanner Scheppers was someone who the Pirates were actually connected to with the second overall pick for quite a while, so to get him at #48 was an accomplishment. Scheppers only fell so far because of either a stress fracture or a sprained/torn labrum in his shoulder, but the Mariners’ doctors had given them the go ahead to pick him at #20, reportedly, so the Pirates felt okay about taking him where they did.

If he is healthy, Scheppers is a potential top of the rotation starter. He throws a fastball that is consistently between 92 and 95 mph and that goes as high as 98 mph. He also has a cutter, a sinker, and a slider. There is some talk that he could actually gain more velocity as he gets stronger, as Fresno State actually recruited him as a shortstop.

Scheppers will demand a top-1o amount of bonus money, but Connelly and Huntington should be willing to shill it out. After all, if Scheppers is healthy, the Pirates basically had two top ten picks in this draft. That would be a phenomenal accomplishment and would add immediate strength to their farm system.

Scheppers is exactly the type of risk that teams like the Pirates have been shying away from on the conjecture that they “can’t afford” to make those mistakes and that teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox have been leaping at, because they can supposedly afford to make them, allowing them to stockpile players like that who have rewarded them. As long as the injury isn’t lingering, this was an awesome pick for the Pirates. As Baseball America put it, “They need impact talent, and Scheppers is an impact talent.”

Shortstop Jordy Mercer was selected from Oklahoma State in the third round. Mercer is a decent prospect, who has all five-tools, but does nothing extremely well. He’s the type of player who will probably work his way up the ladder level by level, taking some time to get acclimated and then doing well enough to get promoted each time.

At this point, it is worth noting that out of the Pirates’ first nine picks, six of them were either shortstops or third basemen, something that shows where Huntington and Coonelly think this organization could be weakest. It’s also worth noting, though, that those types of players are easy to move elsewhere. A third baseman who can mash can be moved to first base or a corner outfield spot. A shortstop can be moved to the outfield or second base, giving the organization some options about what to do.

Fourth round pick Chase D’Arnaud out of Pepperdine was a similar selection to Mercer, a solid shortstop who can probably hit. D’Arnaud had some questions raised about his bat after an abysmal performance in the Cape Cod League last summer, but he answered most of those by hitting .310 in his junior campaign and many scouts believe that whatever issues haven’t been resolved yet are still correctable.

Fifth round pick Justin Wilson, a left-handed starter out of Fresno State, seems like kind of a questionable pick. He is not at all consistent and didn’t get better during his time at FSU. If Pirate fans are looking for someone that Dave Littlefield would pick, this is definitely that type of pick. Wilson looks like someone who will just fill a spot in the minors and maybe have a cup of coffee in the majors, but never really contribute anything of significance to Pittsburgh.

Sixth round pick Jordan Grossman may be one of the steals of the draft. Scouts viewed him as a potential late first or early second round pick, but he somehow dropped to the Pirates at the beginning of the sixth round. His skill set has drawn comparisons to that of Reds’ phenom Jay Bruce due to their both having grown up in Texas, but Grossman is very rough around the edges. He is very gritty, but he doesn’t really excel in anything (granted, he was pitched around for his entire senior year of high school). The Pirates should attempt to sign him and bring him into the fold so that when he’s being picked with the fifth overall pick in three years, they don’t need to say “we could have had that guy.”

Shortstop Benji Gonzalez, the seventh round pick, has a commitment to Oklahoma State. Gonzalez is a flashy defender who can’t do too much with the bat, but he’s good enough on defense that his failure to hit might not matter. Interestingly, if the Pirates sign both him and Mercer, they will have four Oklahoma State infielders or commits in their system (Shelby Ford and Matthew Hague, who was taken in the ninth round. Hague is an interesting prospect, as he transferred from Washington, where he led the team in a bunch of batting categories, to finish his college career up at OSU.).

In the eighth round, Coonelly and Huntington set about correcting one of their greatest mistakes, drafting 3B Jeremy Farrell, Boston pitching coach and former Pirate managing candidate John Farrell’s son. Farrell, who had injury problems throughout college, seemed to right himself a bit this year. He is known as an advanced player, but he really doesn’t have that much power for a corner infielder. Like many of the Pirates’ picks, Farrell fell for some reason. He was projected to go right around the fifth round, but he somehow lasted until the eighth round, where the Pirates could no longer pass him up.

The Pirates’ tenth round selection was a very interesting one, as they selected pitcher Andrew Gagnon out of a California high school. Gagnon fits to a tee the definition of a pro pitcher, but said prior to the draft that he wasn’t going to go pro unless he was drafted in the first five rounds. If Coonelly and Huntington decide to wave some money in front of him, he might renege on that decision and choose to become a State College Spike instead.

The Pirates’ 15th round pick hails from North Pole High School in Alaska.  Chris Aure is a pitcher who has never really focused on baseball and is described as being “a perfect draft and follow” by Baseball America because of his potential for rapid improvement.

Even more interesting is the 16th round pick, Florida HS OF Wesley Freeman, who has committed to the University of Central Florida.  As Freeman’s possible coach at UCF, Bryan Peters, puts it, “Wesley Freeman is probably one of the most publicized guys we have ever had. He was an Aflac All-American and highly rated by Perfect Game USA. We are talking about a 6-foot-5, middle of the order hitter who can really run. His best tool, surprisingly with his 6-foot-5 frame, is that he has speed. He is a five-tool player with arm strength, big-time power, exceptional speed and good batting average and defensive skills. This is a high-caliber, high-class guy whose ceiling is really high. Just a phenomenal player.”  That sounds like the type of player that the Pirates desperately need to sign.

In the 20th round, the Pirates got SS Nick Akins out of Riverside (Cal.) CC.  Akins is a potentially very good prospect who has power and athletic ability, but supposedly had temper issues in the past.  In looking into the incident, I discovered this article from Baseball America.  Take from it what you will, but it seems as if Akins’ dad and the other team are more at fault for the incident than the player himself.

With their 26th round pick, the Pirates took 3B Zach Wilson out of Wilson High in Long Beach, California. Wilson’s story is pretty interesting as not only is he a stud prospect, hitting .485 with 13 doubles and five home runs, but he was raised in a single parent household where he describes himself and his mother as living “from paycheck to paycheck.” Read this article for more about Wilson. He sounds like he could be something, and, more importantly, someone special.

Coonelly was interviewed by Stan Savran on FSN prior to the game, revealing that the Pirates plan to sign 25-30 of their picks, a number that Huntington had placed as low as 20 as little as a month or so ago. For Coonelly to say that clearly indicates that he is excited about the talent in this draft, which could be one of the deepest for the Pirates since the final Mickey White draft.

If these prospects all come into the system, the Pirates will no longer have one of the most barren farm systems in all of baseball, but instead have one that is prepared to move into the middle of the pack with Huntington and Coonelly continuing their rebuilding job.

Pirates’ fans, we finally have something to be excited about again. Our team is definitely in the hands of men who know what they are doing. It feels odd, yes, but we need to trust them, meaning that, hopefully, the draft won’t be such a big deal next year.

(We will keep you updated on which of these guys the Pirates actually sign and which are allowed to re-enter the draft pool.)

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