Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Big Night for the Bucs

Not sure how much we all know about what happened last night, but it was ENORMOUS for the Pirates so I figure I'll give a little recap.

The MLB first-year player draft (also known as the Rule 4 draft) was held in Secaucus, New Jersey two months ago.  No players showed up because it was right in the middle of their seasons and it was in Secaucus, among other things.  

On that night, the Pirates selected RHP Gerritt Cole out of UCLA, one of the handful of players worthy of the top pick in what is considered to be one of the deepest talent pools in the history of the draft.  (Cole had been selected 30th overall by the Yankees, not because of talent but because of his strong commitment to UCLA, three years earlier and decided not to sign.)

In the second round, the Pirates took a flier on arguably the best high school hitter in the draft -- and remember, good hitters rarely even wind up in college because teams tend to snatch them up out of high school -- outfield monster-masher, Josh Bell.  With their first two picks, the Bucs had selected a legit frontline ace pitching prospect and one of, if not the, best bat in the draft.

Before we go on to explain why this matters -- teams spend money on top draft picks all the time -- a little about Bell:

Bell hit .548 as a senior at Jesuit (Texas) High School with 13 home runs, 54 RBIs and a 1.054 slugging percentage.

Baseball America ranked Bell as the nation's top corner outfielder available in this year's draft.

The reason he fell to the Pirates in the second round was that most (all) considered him unsignable.  About a month ago, Baseball America prospect expert, Jim Callis, explained that part of the equation:

Before the draft, Bell wrote a letter to the MLSB (MLB Scouting Bureau) stating his desire to bypass pro ball to attend the University of Texas. While some might see this as a bargaining ploy and note that Bell will be advised by the Boras Corp., multiple sources have told Baseball America that they believe Bell and his mother (a professor at Texas-Arlington) are set on him going to college. One said he didn't think Bell would sign for $20 million...
I think they could find plenty of money to tempt Bell with, but I think he's destined to be a Longhorn.

We have seen this before, but in most cases the industry shrugs off the initial gesture and gets down to business determining what dollar amount would get the kid to sign.  But for Bell, it appeared that even astronomical numbers had little chance at persuading him to forgo college.

But the Buccos drafted him with the first pick in the second round, and bless them for it.  Unlike last year, when the Dodgers selected strong LSU QB-commit, Zach Lee, in what appeared to be an attempt to punt the pick and save money (they did eventually sign him, thankfully), Pittsburgh G.M. Neil Huntington took Bell for all the right reasons: he was by far the best player on the board, a worthy investment of funds for the still-building Pirates and a low-risk gamble that would net them a compensatory pick in next year's draft just one spot later if he did, indeed, head to school.

And last night at midnight, he signed.  For $5 million, he shattered the previous record for a signing bonus outside of the first round (it was $2.25 million) and joins the growing stable of high-impact talent coming together in Pittsburgh's farm system that is rapidly becoming one of the best in the league.

A year ago they took the best pitching prospect in the draft with the second overall pick (Jameson Taillon, a flamethrowing high school righty out of Texas who has turned out to be even better than most expected) and another high-upside high schooler, Stetson Allie, in the second round for $2.25 million.  They paid nearly $10 million to sign both, a clear indication of their commitment to drafting AND signing top talent.

This year's performance eclipsed that.  It's official: if you root for a baseball team, you can now confidently say you want it to draft like the Pirates.  That is a far cry from what it used to be only a couple of years ago (under different management), when they routinely bypassed superior talent in favor of cheaper, less projectable players. For someone who grew up a Pirates fan and has heard his share of complaining, usually warranted, about the state of the franchise, I feel the need to give credit where credit is due.  

They set off in the right direction when they hired a smart, young G.M. with the sensibility to accept the way things were and dedicate resources to rebuilding.  Ownership has supported this movement and the results are unquestionably and overwhelmingly positive.  A fluky stretch this season that had them sniffing first place was nice, as were the token acquisitions of "big" name players like Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick to show the fanbase that the team cares.  

They have faded as predicted, but have remained focused all along on the bigger picture: building a contender within the next few seasons.  Reaching .500 would be great, and they still could, but getting to the playoffs consistently is the goal, and on Monday night they took yet another giant step towards that.  Raise the Jolly Roger, Let's go Bucs!


Sumner Widdoes said...

Josh Bell looks like the baddest mother to hold a baseball bat since Albert Belle. Holy bejezus

John Hendrie said...

That dude is in high school? Good god. Bobby Bonilla approves this pick.

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