Pirates must break the rules with first draft pick

APNeil Walker, left, rounds third past Detroit Tigers third baseman Dan Kelly after hitting a three-run home run in 2011.

Pirates must break the rules with top draft pick

It seems as though the Pirates and Neil Walker have made nice. After some friction between the popular ex-Bucco second baseman, relations have improved considerably since Walker’s retirement this spring, with Walker signed to appear on six television games and three radio broadcasts during the last six weeks of the 2021 baseball season.

In addition, Walker will be in Denver Sunday to announce the Pirates’ number one pick in this summer’s MLB draft; and although he has no say in whom the Pirates will select, all eyes and ears of Pirates fans will be glued on “the Pittsburgh kid” to hear the name of the baseball Moses who could lead the Pirates into the promised land of baseball relevance.

As early as last summer fans began drooling over Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker, who was the consensus top pick, with fellow righthanded pitcher Jack Leiter not far behind. However, recent rankings of potential top draft picks have blossomed into at least half a dozen players who could find their names being called by Walker Sunday night.

In addition to Vandy’s pair of righty hurlers, Louisville catcher Henry Davis and high school shortstops Marcelo Mayer, Brady House, Jordan Lawlar, and Kahlil Watson have muddied the draft waters, with various baseball brass tossing out their names as potential first picks.

As in all sports, consensus protocol says teams should pick the best player available, regardless of position. Anything less is abhorrent.

However, there are exceptions to every rule, and this is a time when the Pirates should pulverize the rules.

First, there is no clear-cut agreement on who that top player might be. It’s harder to criticize a top pick with so many different scouts pushing so many different players. And despite the regime, the organization hasn’t exactly hit a home run on its first selection. With Vanderbilt’s two hurlers often mentioned as top picks, you must remember that the Bucs have led the league in flops when picking a pitchers first: pitchers Sean Burnett (2000), John Van Benschoten (2001), Brian Bullington (2002), Paul Maholm (2003), Brad Lincoln (2006), Daniel Moskos (2007), and Mark Appel (2012) were all Number One Pirate picks, as management passed on other hurlers like Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Michael Wacha, and Cole Hamels.

The team also passed on some big future stars, allowing them to sign as first-rounders elsewhere: We’re talking Mike Trout, Prince Fielder, Eric Hosmer, Christian Yelich, Nick Castellanos, Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, and Anthony Rendon.

Of course, other teams also passed on future stars, and some of the Bucs’ top picks fared well. But for every Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, there is a Tony Sanchez and Will Craig.

Second, the team is being constructed to compete (if not win) in a couple of years. That should eliminate those players who just finished high school. They are already four years behind college stars and perhaps five or six years away from becoming MLB regulars. And in six years, current cornerstones Bryan Reynolds will be 32 (possible free agent in 2026) and Ke’Bryan Hayes will be 30 (possible free agent in 2027).

The Pirates need players who could be ready for the big leagues sooner rather than later, as many of the organization’s current top prospects are in the lower minor leagues.

So in 2021, the top pick should be catcher Davis, who has a shot to be the first non-pitcher taken in the draft. Pittsburgh’s system is woefully thin at the catching position as nobody at any level is projected as a future impact catcher. They must address this greatest need now.

All teams select players who are surpassed by better talents drafted later. But with the Pirates dismal record at picking pitchers as top choices and the recognition that high school athletes are too far removed from the big leagues, let’s hope Walker says the words “Henry Davis” into the microphone on Sunday night.

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