Friday, May 11, 2012

Time Machine: Rebuilding The Pirates

I guess you could call it "Draft Remorse".

I hear folks talking all the time about where the Pirates have made mistakes in the draft, and how different things could be today if just a few decisions were changed.

Let's examine this, shall we?

Why not begin with the most egregious, painful error in the recent history of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, Dave Littlefield's decision to draft low-ceiling relief pitcher Daniel Moskos over stud catching prospect Matt Weiters.

Let us presume that we have a time machine that allows us to transport ourselves back in time and somehow incapacitate Littlefield before he can draft Moskos. Instead, the Pirates thrill fans by selecting their catcher of the future.

2007: Matt Weiters, C

No need to change the decision made the following year. I don't think many would have chosen differently then, though you can make an argument that they may choose differently now. I remain optimistic.

2008: Pedro Alvarez, 3B

The 2009 draft is where things get interesting. The Pirates went with a unique draft budgeting strategy, spreading their spending throughout the draft. That meant a conservative pick in the first round, catcher Tony Sanchez. Well, in our alternate timeline, there's no longer any need to select Sanchez because the Pirates already have Weiters. So, who do the Bucs select instead with the 4th overall pick?

There was a run on pitching right after the Pirates selected Sanchez at #4, the next eight picks were all pitchers. The following two picks were a pair of super talented high school prospects, Matthew Hobgood (selected by the Orioles) and Zack Wheeler (Giants). Considering the fact that Neal Huntington selected Jameson Taillon with the #2 overall pick the following year, I think it's safe to assume he would go with a high school pitcher here. Wheeler has proven to be a strikeout machine in the minor leagues. If Huntington had to choose between the two, I'm guessing he goes with the youngster posting a 10.3 SO/9 during his professional career.

2009: Zack Wheeler, RHP

Taking Zack Wheeler gives the Pirates their best starting pitching prospect in a generation, precisely what Jameson Taillon would become the following year. But since we're in the alternate timeline, where Wheeler is already scorching overmatched hitters in the minors, the Pirates can address another glaring need on their organizational depth chart. Why don't we get a top prospect in the middle infield? Seems like a simple pick, but perhaps not in Huntington's eyes. Since his first draft as Pirates general manager in 2008, he's steadily drafted fewer high school position players. Take a look at his track record for selecting such prospects in the first 25 picks of the draft.

2008: Robbie Grossman, OF (6th Round); Robert Gardner, OF (13); Wes Freeman, OF (16); Jarek Cunningham, SS (18); Patrick Palmeiro, 3B (22); Brian Litwin, 3B (24)

2009: Joey Schoenfeld, C (10); Walker Gourley, SS (13); Aaron LaFountaine, OF (25)

2010: Jared Lakind, 1B (23)

I'm not sure why Neal Huntingdon seems to be shying away from high school position players as the years go by, but the trend is there. So, as badly as I want to say the Pirates would have selected Manny Machado with their 1st round pick in the alternate timeline, I think the draft history of Neal Huntington tells us it would be someone else.

2010: Christian Colon, SS

That brings us to last year's draft. With Wheeler and, presumably, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia in the farm system and more depth up the middle than they have right now, there's no reason to think the Pirates would do things differently than they did.

2011: Gerritt Cole, RHP

So, does all this actually leave the Pirates in a better place than they are right now? Referring to BaseballAmerica's prospect rankings for 2012, I was able to put together the following:

2012 Pittsburgh Pirates Top 10 Prospect Rankings (Alternate Timeline Edition)
1. Gerritt Cole, RHP (BA #12)
2. Zach Wheeler, RHP (BA #35)
3. Josh Bell, OF (BA #60)
4. Starling Marte, OF (BA #73)
5. Luis Heredia, RHP
7. Robbie Grossman, OF
8. Stetson Allie, RHP
9. Jeff Locke, LHP
10. Alex Dickerson, 1B

I'd love to let Christian Colon have the #10 slot, but it's frankly not deserved. He entered 2011 as #51 on BaseballAmerica's prospect rankings, but his season was a disappointment. He was unranked by BA coming into this season, and barely hanging on in the organizational rankings I looked at for the Kansas City Royals. He no longer appears to be part of that franchise's long-term plans. No doubt, there is much angst among Pirates fans in the alternate timeline over this selection.

There's good news. Matt Weiters is in Pittsburgh, along with fellow super prospect Pedro Alvarez. Weiters has been occupying the 5th spot in the Orioles batting order for most of this season, so I'd assume that's where he'd land in the Pirates lineup once Alvarez worked out his early season slump. The Pirates batting order probably looks something like this:

2012 Pittsburgh Pirates Batting Order (Alternate Timeline Edition)
1. Jose Tabata, RF
2. Neil Walker, 2B
4. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
5. Matt Weiters, C
7. Alex Presley, LF
8. Clint Barmes, SS
9. (Pitcher)

I'm sure you'd get some platoon situations involving Josh Harrison and Yamaico Navarro as we move forward.

The fallout from the alternate timeline 2010 draft is interesting. I find it hard to believe the Orioles would pass on Jameson Taillon at #3. He'd be the O's #2 prospect according to BaseballAmerica, behind pitcher Dylan Bundy. That leaves the Royals to select Manny Machado at #4. He'd be their top ranked prospect today, according to BA, and probably would've cost Alcides Escobar that nice contract extension he signed during the offseason.

So, what do we take from this exercise? You can almost make the argument that this scenario plays out worse for the Pirates than the one we're all witnessing in the "prime" timeline. In this scenario, the huge draft bust that set back the franchise isn't all the way back in 2007, it's fresh in everyone's minds. By now, fans in the alternate timeline are realizing Christian Colon probably wasn't the right selection in 2010. They're hating the fact that the other three players taken in the top four picks of that draft are all top prospects: Bryce Harper, Taillon and Machado.

Zach Wheeler's arrival is still probably at least a season away, as is Gerritt Cole's. Still, there's a big hole in the middle of the Pirates' lineup that's been filled and appears stable for years to come. The decision not to draft Matt Weiters haunts the Pirates, and unless you have a time machine lying around, there's no way to undo the damage.