An In-Depth Look at the Pirates Farm System and Options for the First Overall Pick

An In-Depth Look at the Pirates Farm System and Options for the First Overall Pick


An In-Depth Look at the Pirates Farm System and Options for the First Overall Pick


Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

“Tank for Kumar” was the slogan of hope for fans cheering on the bottom-feeding teams of the MLB in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season. After the Pirates finished with the worst record in the entire league last year (19-41 in 60 games), Bucs fans were all but sure the team would take the Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker. He was the projected best player in the draft heading into this season.

Now, after the emergence of another Vanderbilt right-hander Jack Leiter and a look at past drafting strategies by teams similar to the Pirates, the team has been rumored to be looking elsewhere. 

Ben Cherington has done an outstanding job through his second season as Pirates General Manager. The former VP of baseball operations for the Toronto Blue Jays has garnered significant returns for former players in his first few trades. 

In case you have forgotten, here is every move Cherington has made so far:

  • Selected Jose Soriano with the first overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft from the Los Angeles Angels (24th Prospect in Pirates Top 30; Level: MLB)
  • Traded for Luis Oviedo from the New York Mets for cash. (Level: MLB)
  • Traded Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals for RHP Eddy Yean (13th Prospect in Pirates Top 30; Level: A) and Wil Crowe (21st Prospect in Pirates Top 30; Level: MLB)
  • Signed international free agent OF Shalin Polanco, one of the best available int’l free agents, for $2.35M (Level: Rookie)
  • Traded Joe Musgrove to the San Diego Padres in a three-team trade with the New York Mets for:
    • OF Hudson Head (6th Prospect in Pirates Top 30; Level: A)
    • LHP Omar Cruz (23rd Prospect in Pirates Top 30; Level: High A)
    • RHP David Bednar (Current Set-Up Man in MLB Bullpen)
    • C/1B/OF Endy Rodriguez (26th Prospect in Pirates Top 30; Level: A)
    • Drake Fellows (2019 6th Round Pick; Level: Rookie)
  • Traded Jameson Taillon to the New York Yankees for:
    • RHP Miguel Yajure (12th Prospect in Pirates Top 30; Level: AAA/MLB)
    • RHP Roansy Contreras (20th Prospect in Pirates Top 30; Level: AA)
    • OF Canaan Smith-Njigba (25th Prospect in Pirates Top 30; Level: AA)
    • INF Maikol Escotto (Level: Rookie)

These trades don’t even include the Starling Marte trade, in which the team acquired 5th ranked prospect SS Liover Peguero (High A) and 8th ranked prospect RHP Brennan Malone (Rookie). 

The Pirates farm system already ranks eighth after being in the middle of the league a year ago. After adding in the first overall pick and other prospects from the first few rounds of this year’s amateur draft in July, the Bucs could be looking at a Top 3-5 Farm System in the league. This is an excellent sign for the future.

Speaking of the first overall pick, the Pirates have a big decision to make next month. The direction they choose to go in this draft can set the team up for significant success or another winning drought like they experienced from 1992-2012. 

With the luxury of having the first overall pick, the Pirates can quite literally choose anyone they want. While this is supposed to be comforting and provide confidence for fans, Pirates fans feel more worried that they could screw up the pick than get it right. 

The team can go three ways: Draft the best player available, draft a high school high upside player, or draft a college position player. I will examine all three routes below:

Draft the Best Player Available

The easiest and most popular direction to go would obviously be to pick from the cream of the crop: The best players available in the draft. If it were any other league, this would be the only direction to go. Since this is the MLB, however, it is not. 

The Pirates could make their fans extremely happy and take one of the two Vanderbilt pitchers with the first pick. These guys are Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter. 

Jack Leiter has come on this season and overshadowed his teammate as the top prospect for the draft. Leiter garnered first-round interest out of high school in New Jersey before going to Vanderbilt a few years back.

Leiter works between 90-95 mph with his fastball, which occasionally tops out at 97, giving his fastball scouting grade a 70 out of 80. It’s his premier pitch because of its riding life and unreal metrics such as its induced vertical break. He also features a 60-grade curveball as a tremendous secondary/off-speed pitch, and a slider that some evaluators think has more upside than his curve.

His control is a little spotty but definitely should be improved with experience. This season, Leiter owns an 8-3 record with a 2.28 ERA, 135 K’s in 83 IP, and has only allowed a .128 OBA with 36 hits and 36 walks in 14 appearances.

Kumar Rocker has statistically done better compared to his counterpart. Rocker owns a 12-3 record with a 2.65 ERA, 144 K’s in 98 IP, and has only allowed a .160 OBA with 56 hits and 33 walks in 16 appearances. Rocker came onto the scene with a 19-strikeout no-hitter of Duke in the 2019 NCAA Super Regionals and was voted Most Outstanding Player at the College World Series after earning two victories.

Kumar is an aggressive right-hander who can overpower hitters with his fastball-breaking pitch combo. His heater comes in around 93-96 mph and has reached 99. It also features some run and sink but is flat at times. All 19 of his strikeouts in his no-hitter came off the slider, which sits in the mid-80s and unleashes power and depth. His tertiary pitch is a low-80s curve with a mild vertical break. 

With the selection of these two players comes the money they sign for. The first overall pick obviously has the most slot money out of any choice in the draft, and the Pirates have the most bonus pool money out of any team in the league.

Leiter can demand more money (as he did when he was first drafted) because he has the ability to go back to college. While it is highly unlikely that he does, he can definitely use this to his advantage and sign for more money than the value of the slot. Rocker is near the end of his college career, so it would be unwise of him to try to barter for anything above slot money. 

On top of this, both of these players’ stocks have regressed a bit from the beginning of their seasons. Both have dealt with some issues, which have resulted in three losses for both of them. Because neither has been absolutely dominant enough to put any doubts for the Pirates to rest, the team has been rumored to be looking at other options for the first pick.

Draft a High School High-Upside Player

This route provides the Pirates with a higher chance to succeed overall from the draft. Selecting a high-school player is riskier because you don’t know if he wants to go to college, but being chosen first overall usually means the player signs a contract. The upside to picking high schoolers is tremendous, especially with the three highest-ranked high school players this year: SS Jordan Lawler, SS Marcelo Mayer, and SS Brady House. 

Jordan Lawler has apparently been on the Pirates’ radar as of late, and for a good reason. Lawler is a five-tool player that features a very quick swing, something the Pirates love. This is evident with their pick from 2020 (Nick Gonzales), as his swing is also swift. He has plus speed and has plenty of range for a shortstop. He struggled a little bit with striking out and defensive efficiency, but most high schoolers also do this. 

Marcelo Mayer is another high school shortstop with average to above-average tools across the board. He has an advanced approach and knowledge of the strike zone, and his stroke is quite pure. Some scouts see a Corey Seager-like offensive profile, as he has a lot of raw power to grow into like most high schoolers. 

Finally, Brady House entered the season as the best high school prospect before falling behind Mayer and Lawler. He showed raw pop to all fields and the ability to crush good velocity while handling quality breaking balls. He struggled mightily at the plate this season compared to other prospects and had to fix his swing, which had become long and slow. He has the raw talent but is still young enough to fix his flaws. 

If the Pirates went this route, the team could pay lower than slot value but still enough to get the player to skip college and go straight to pro ball. These players are top 10 players and would still be considered a good pick by the club. On top of that, spending less money this round would let the team pay more for another high schooler or college athlete who had the idea to go to school. Paying a higher bonus would draw them away from that idea.

The 2012 Houston Astros did this same thing. They selected Carlos Correa with their first pick instead of the presumptive first pick Mark Appel. They were able to give their savings from the first pick to their second pick, who was Lance McCullers, Jr. 

Draft a College Position Player

The Pirates could spend even less money with the first overall pick and select a collegiate position player with the first overall pick. While fans would probably be enraged that their cheap Pirates are once again not spending money, this would open the door for more money to be paid in later rounds than the previous option. The highest-ranked position players include Louisville C Henry Davis, Wake Forest SS Khalil Watson, Sam Houston OF Colton Cowser, or others down the board. 

The Pirates desperately need catcher depth throughout their entire system, but rarely does a team draft for need in the MLB. Player development takes years, and it just does not make sense.

What I Think the Pirates Should Do

The Bucs should take Jordan Lawler with their first overall pick.

Lawler has the most upside out of any of these players and has the potential to be a franchise-changer just like Rocker or Leiter. Leiter has been so dominant, but in the end, ask yourself this question:

Would you rather have a star player who takes the mound every fifth day or a star player who takes the field almost every day? Who makes a more significant impact?

Batters statistically have been more critical than even the best pitchers. A batter’s WAR is almost always higher than a pitcher’s WAR. Furthermore, having a player the fans can see nearly every time they show up to the ballpark or go on their phones is an excellent incentive for fan engagement. I’m not saying Lawler can reach that stardom, but I think this is the best direction the Pirates can head, and I think Lawler has a bright future in the league. 

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