Williams: Draft For Overall Value, Not Need

You don’t draft for need.

That’s been repeated over and over throughout this site’s history.

The best college players won’t arrive in the majors for at least a year and a half, and often three years. It can take a prep player four to five years to reach the big leagues.

The idea of drafting for need usually goes along the lines of “The Pirates don’t have long-term catching depth. They need to draft Louisville catcher Henry Davis.”

I could write an entire article on why Henry Davis is the best pick for the Pirates in this draft. Their current catcher, Jacob Stallings, is under team control through 2024, which would be his age 34 season. Stallings is a good stopgap right now, and will help the younger pitchers as they reach the majors over the next few years. The Pirates will need a replacement in the future.

The only two-way candidate in the majors is Endy Rodriguez, who is off to a good start in Low-A Bradenton. Rodriguez has the tools to stick behind the plate, and could have the bat to be a two-way catcher. He’s also in Low-A.

If the Pirates drafted Henry Davis tonight with the first overall pick, they would have a strong candidate for their catcher of the future. Rodriguez would then become a nice Plan B, boosting the depth in the system a bit. You could start to forecast a future team with Davis leading a young pitching staff that would mostly be made up of prospects in Double-A or lower right now.

Remembering back to the years of Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli, a good catcher can be essential to a winning team.

So, why isn’t Davis the slam dunk pick for a team with a 31-year-old catcher in the majors and one potential starter in the minors?

What if Davis doesn’t stick at catcher?

There are concerns that Davis wouldn’t stick, due to his blocking and receiving skills. The latter’s negative impact might be reduced by the seemingly inevitable future of automated balls and strikes. He’s got a 70-grade arm behind the plate, and there would be hope that he could move to third base with his athleticism, footwork, and arm strength.

Davis is the best college hitter in the draft, which is where the appeal comes from. It’s easy to dream about an amazing hitter who can stick behind the plate. That is a catcher you can build a contending team around.

If he doesn’t stick, then you’ve got a third baseman.

And that third baseman would be blocked by Ke’Bryan Hayes.

The appeal with Davis is the combination of the bat and the chance to stick that bat behind the plate. If he can’t stick there, his value with the Pirates plummets.

That’s why Davis might look great for need. There’s something inside my completist brain that gets activated when thinking about Davis as that pick. He slots into that open catcher space when you’re projecting the future, and you can feel some comfort knowing that every position pretty much has a top prospect attached.

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On paper, there are a lot of shortstop candidates in the Pirates’ organization.

In our projections, Oneil Cruz will likely end up in the outfield, long-term. Nick Gonzales and Ji-Hwan Bae look like long-term second basemen. The best shortstop prospect in the system is Liover Peguero, who is currently in High-A. The Pirates also have some interesting candidates in the lower-levels, led by Maikol Escotto.

So, unless you really believe in Cruz for the long-term, or feel that Gonzales or Bae can play short (both have played exclusively second base this year), then your shortstop hopes lie with Peguero, and maybe some lower-level fliers.

In that way, shortstop is not a massive difference from the catcher position.

I love Liover Peguero’s chances of sticking at the position, and his bat is promising. But, can you say yet that the Pirates are set at shortstop in the long-term with Peguero? How much different is that than saying the catcher position is set with Endy Rodriguez?

The strength of this draft class at the top lies with the prep shortstops. Marcelo Mayer out of Eastlake High School in California is the guy most attached to the Pirates in mock drafts. Jordan Lawlar, out of Dallas Jesuit High School (Josh Bell’s alma mater), is regarded by Baseball America as the top prospect in the draft, although there’s not a massive difference between the top guys this year.

Mayer and Lawlar both have a good chance to stick at shortstop, and both project to have the same future hitting tools that Davis has. Mayer looks especially appealing as a left-hander who could take advantage of PNC Park. Lawlar is right-handed, but does well hitting to right field, which can also play well at PNC.

A sleeper candidate is Khalil Watson, out of Wake Forest High School in North Carolina, who could stick at shortstop, could have the same offensive upside as Mayer or Lawlar, and could cost less than either of them.

When it comes down to it, there isn’t a clear “best available” in this group. The best pick might be the one who costs the least, offering a bigger upgrade with the second round pick.

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The Pirates have a strong farm system, despite not having a sure thing behind the plate or at shortstop.

That’s because there’s no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to prospects.

They can change positions. They can not hit as expected. They can get hurt.

When it comes to pitchers, that last factor is the huge risk.

There is no such thing as a pitching prospect.

I always hated that phrase, perhaps in the same way that some people hate the phrase “Defund the Police.” Behind each phrase, there’s a great discussion about how our perceptions, and perhaps respective actions need to change. But, the phrase that draws people into the discussion instantly sparks a “two-sides” debate about something that isn’t really the central message of the potential discussion to be had.

I didn’t like TINSTAAPP, because, well, there are pitching prospects. Today, we will momentarily get excited for Quinn Priester in the Future’s Game. He was the first round pick in 2019, and looks like a future top of the rotation candidate — one of the guys that the 2021 first overall pick might join on the next contending Pirates team.

Meanwhile, we’ll be lamenting not seeing Roansy Contreras, after the breakout pitcher went down with untimely forearm soreness.

I respect the discussion that TINSTAAPP leads to, because Contreras is a prime example of why you might not want to take a pitcher first overall. For one, I feel like you can more easily get good pitchers outside of the top five picks, than say a good shortstop or catcher. Contreras was one of four prospects brought back in the Jameson Taillon trade — a deal that sent away a pitcher coming off his second Tommy John surgery, with seemingly little value. While I don’t want to put Contreras up there with Priester at the top of the system, he certainly was entering the future discussion before being shut down.

Jack Leiter and his Vanderbilt teammate Kumar Rocker are the top pitching prospects in this draft. Rocker has the look of a power pitcher who will lead to concerns about needing a third pitch. Leiter isn’t as much of a power pitcher, but has good secondary stuff, and knows how to pitch. Plus, his dad is a former big league pitcher, for those of you who feel the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Leiter is appealing for that top pick. The future rotation in Pittsburgh will include some combination of Mitch Keller, Quinn Priester, JT Brubaker, Tahnaj Thomas, Brennan Malone, Cody Bolton, and perhaps others like Max Kranick, Carmen Mlodzinski, Michael Burrows, and of course, Contreras.

There’s a lot of potential, but just like catcher and shortstop, no guarantees for a position where you need five of them.

There is an argument to pick Leiter first overall, because pitching is the most important thing for a contending team.

However, TINSTAAPP.

If Leiter doesn’t reach his ceiling, you’re looking at a number three starter at best being taken first overall, which traditionally doesn’t go over well.

If Leiter gets injured — and he’s a pitcher, so it’s bound to happen — then his value could become non-existent.

The biggest concern with guys like Henry Davis or the prep shortstops is that they would have to move to a less valuable position. They would still have value, and could still be impact players with their hitting skills. Leiter might present more upside and an idea of certainty due to being a polished college pitcher. However, his risk and chance of his value plummeting would have me looking at the position players with the first overall pick.

That’s compounded by the idea that Leiter would probably cost more than those prep shortstops. There are actual pitching prospects, and Leiter would be one of them if he was drafted by the Pirates. At what cost? I feel you can find or develop a guy like Leiter easier than you can find or develop guys like Davis and the shortstops. And if taking one of the position players leads to a first rounder in the second round, then the scales tip further away from Leiter being a good pick.

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The MLB draft isn’t about need.

It’s about value.

It’s a fool’s errand to try and predict future needs for an organization.

Henry Davis might be the future catcher for the Pirates, but three years ago we were hoping for Elias Diaz to be the future, and you would get laughed off of Twitter if you suggested Jacob Stallings as the future starter.

Any one of the prep shortstops could become the next star shortstop in the big leagues. Any one of them could also end up with their own question marks, like the other shortstop prospects currently in the system.

Jack Leiter could get hurt and completely lose his value. And, with all of the manipulation to the baseball, and proposals to further change the game to reduce the effectiveness of pitchers, now might not be the time to be putting your hopes of value with the pitchers.

At the end of tonight, I have a feeling I will be writing an article talking about how the real value of this draft lies in the aggregate. It won’t be entirely about the number one pick — though we will talk about that guy as a key part of the next contender for the next few years.

Instead, it will be about the number one pick, and how much money is saved to maximize the value of picks 2-21 for the Pirates.

My thought is that Leiter and Lawlar would cost the most, Mayer would be the best balance of budget/upside, and Watson or Davis could maximize how much is saved to turn the second rounder into a mid-first rounder.

I don’t have any insight on this, other than the national reports we all have access to. I could be wrong on that assessment. If I’m correct, then I’d go with Watson or Davis with the first pick, followed by Mayer, Lawlar, and Leiter.

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