This is the natural order of things. Being drafted and signed by a Major League Baseball team means you’re one of the relatively small percentage of people who have been deemed good enough for a team to invest in your raw talent and believe in your makeup enough to trust you’ll take to instruction. It doesn’t however guarantee you’ll ever make it, let alone be a star.
In the middle of this draft we were given a real life example of this dichotomy.
Will Craig was drafted 22nd overall in the first round of the 2016 draft by your Pittsburgh Pirates and let’s be honest here, the Pirates were just as responsible for his failure as he was.
He’s nearly 27 years old, and arguably having his best season in AAA, thing is, by 27, one would hope that’s the case right?
The power prospect topped out at 23 homeruns and his highest OPS was .775 until this season. The Pirates drafted a College senior and slow walked him through the system until it fell on Ben Cherington and crew to finally get a look at him in the Bigs, and he didn’t take advantage of his shot.
I’ll be blunt, Will was just not a good pick, but any shot he had started evaporating in my mind when they left him in AA for a full season when he was evidentially ready for a mid season jump. Compound that with leaving him in AAA for a full season while he was showing promise there too.
If you’re going to make something of a first round pick who’s that old, you can’t start him in Low A and damn him to at least a 4 year progression through the system.
All that being said, he never really stepped up to force their hand either.
The Pirates knew it, and in response they tried to hammer Josh Bell into being a first baseman, conversely as they quickly realized they had probably doomed Craig to never finding a place to play, the Bucs started trying to use Craig in the outfield.
Cole Tucker is in danger of a very similar story, but from the complete opposite side of the draft age spectrum. He was drafted 24th overall in the first round waaaaayyyy back in 2014 out of high school.
His journey being long was expected, in fact he’s still only 25 years old so it’s not like he’s aged out of MLB.
Here was a guy that continued to move on up through the system seemingly regardless of stats. In 2017 splitting time between A+ and AA he had 101 strikeouts and a .766 OPS. The next season, 2018, in AA, he had 104 strikeouts and an OPS of .689
He still somehow earned a promotion to AAA and his .261 Batting average and .759 OPS wasn’t impressing anyone.
Injuries in 2019 led to his emergency call up to MLB and before Kevin Newman was finally given opportunity to win the position after he recovered from his own injury issues Cole put numbers up that showed he wasn’t ready. 40 strike outs to 10 walks, a .211 batting average and .626 OPS.
2020 for some reason I still don’t quite understand the Pirates decided to try him in CF and his batting numbers were even worse, 31 strike outs vs 5 walks, a .220 batting average and .527 OPS.
He’s scarcely gotten a chance in MLB this season and at AAA he’s not taking the bull by the horns either. He’s all but out of the plans, at 25 years old. To the point I’d actually be shocked if he made the cut for the 40-man next season, I actually could see them finding a team that wants to see if they can do better with him before they have to risk losing him for nothing like Mr. Craig.
These two players alone have been the poster boys for poor development, and more than even the Archer deal, failing to develop draft picks, specifically in the first round led to the wholesale changes we saw after 2019. And it doesn’t matter if you think they falsely accelerated or held back guys because at the end of the day poor pick was still on the table as on the GM and his team.
2015 first round pick Kevin Newman had a wonderful 2019 as long as you don’t look at the numbers behind the numbers. That’s caught up with him and while his glove has become elite, his bat is very much so below the line. Zero pressure from behind will keep him where he is for a bit here but make no mistake, he needs to at the very least get his OBA to a point where his speed can help the club, cause his bat isn’t doing it. I can’t call him a bust per se, because his pick at 19 overall afforded the Pirates the space to grab Ke’Bryan Hayes with their Comp A pick number 32.
Mark Appel never signed after being picked 8th in 2012, and it wasn’t a shock, he had been very vocal he wouldn’t. Turned out he was never destined to make the league anyway. Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire were traded off in two of the dumbest moves the club has ever made. Meadows as part of the Archer Deal, and McGuire as part of a payroll dump to get Francisco Liriano off the books.
So going through all this, you start to realize development alone wasn’t the issue, it was drafting and development.
As we sit here, we’ve of course not seen any of Ben Cherington’s draft picks make the league, let alone make an impact. I can do no more than tell you after they sign these picks this year he will have 7 or 8 of the Pirates top 30 in his portfolio.
We’ll watch this unfold over the years and nobody bats a thousand in the draft, but it is the key to making ALL of this work. If the identifying of talent and development of said players is improved, everything will come together.
You can expect more exits as the season evolves. We’ve seen Kevin Kramer moved and promotions will require more decisions to be made. Next season AAA needs to have more real options that could factor into the MLB club’s plans. For that to happen, the dead wood needs to be cleared away.
As cheap as Bob Nutting has been over the years, there have been very few developed players since Cutch/Marte/Polanco who warranted money. That needs to change, not just so the team can improve but because providing cover for someone who would rather not spend in the first place by having nobody worthy does nothing but perpetuate the problem.
This draft has been a positive experience for many Pirate fans, myself included, on paper Ben Cherington killed it. Now the real work begins.