PITTSBURGH -- Under the watch of general manager Neal Huntington and his crack scouting army, the role of the First-Year Player Draft in the revival of the Pirates franchise has been unmistakable. The Bucs spent aggressively, leading to Major League Baseball's establishment of well-defined ground rules for Draft budgets.
They have also spent wisely, evidence of which is on regular display but was most vivid, for the first of many times, last Sept. 19. With Tony Sanchez catching Gerrit Cole against the Padres, and the battery backed up by third baseman Pedro Alvarez, second baseman Neil Walker and center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the Bucs' lineup included five first-round choices within a seven-year period, 2004-11.
Scouting director Joe DelliCarri and Huntington will have a different playing field for today's 2014 Draft. The last two years, the Bucs paired having outstanding records at Draft-time with high picks resulting from previous finishes -- an encouraging confluence, always a favorite word in the city where the Allegheny and Monongahela merge for the Ohio.
Now the Pirates will deal with the opposite dynamic, challenged to stay afloat in the National League Central race and to make the most of lower Draft picks.
In 2013, Pittsburgh had two of the Draft's first 14 picks (one as compensation for being unable to sign 2012 top pick Mark Appel). Its highest pick this time around is at No. 24. That first-round pick will be followed by Nos. 39, 64, 73, 100 and 131.
So there is less pressure, nothing like what comes with making a high pick everyone will watch through success or flop. But a lot more homework.
"We've had to alter our approach a bit," Huntington admitted. "When you're picking two or four, you really only have to narrow in on four or five players. Now we have a broader approach. A deeper board, and it will allow us to have a deeper Draft.
"But, it's probably a good year to be picking in the middle of the pack," added Huntington, referring to the popular perception that the '14 talent pool lacks those obvious, boldfaced prime choices of recent years. Indecision among teams picking higher could drop some elite prospects down to the Pirates' level.
The 2014 Draft will take place today through Saturday, beginning with the Draft preview show on MLB.com and MLB Network on at 6 p.m. ET. Live Draft coverage from MLB Network's Studio 42 begins at 7 p.m., with the top 74 picks being streamed on MLB.com and broadcast on MLB Network. MLB.com's exclusive coverage of the second and third days will begin with a live Draft show at 12:30 p.m. ET on Friday.
MLB.com's coverage includes Draft Central, the Top 200 Draft Prospects list and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of Draft-eligible players. Every selection will be tweeted live from @MLBDraftTracker, and you can also keep up to date by following @MLBDraft. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.
Given the rich lodes of recent Drafts that have stocked the Bucs' system into one of the Majors' highest rated, the Pirates will not select out of need, but have the luxury of adhering to the organization's mantra: The "best player available" model.
"We feel like we're going to get a player. We do think there's some depth to it," Huntington summed up. "We always go into it thinking we'll get a good guy. It is very different picking 24th than in the top 10 somewhere. We hope not to pick in the top 10 anytime soon."
The only ones able to fulfill that hope are the current Pirates, who, at this late-May snapshot, are in line to "earn" 2015's No. 7 pick. The future Pirates' roll call begins on Thursday.
In about 50 words
The Bucs didn't address a looming issue -- an answer at third base for Pedro Alvarez's approaching free agency -- in last year's Draft, when their first pick at the position was No. 329. And the chronic problem remains at the other corner of the infield. Look for them to be more aggressive at those positions, both in terms of prospects already established there -- such as Stanford third baseman Alex Blandino, or Kentucky first baseman A.J. Reed -- or athletes projected as good candidates to switch there.
Bursting with provincial pride, Western Pennsylvania is exerting significant pressure on the Bucs to seriously consider Brendan McKay, the Blackhawk High School (Chippewa) left-hander who had a scoreless streak of 71 2/3 innings until his recent loss in the WPIAL Class AAA Championship. However, removing emotion from any kind of decision is a staple of the Huntington organization.
"We would love to have another Neil Walker come through the system," Huntington said. "But we'd hate to take a guy because he's local over a guy we like a bit more but not local, then have that guy go on to be a good player."
The Pirates realize No. 24 is not where you find quick-impact talent, so projections -- both in terms of development and needs -- become paramount. They can also be on the lookout for predicted high picks who for some reason could trickle down to them -- such as East Carolina pitcher Jeff Hoffman, a big talent waylaid by Tommy John surgery -- but could be reluctant to pull that trigger after the ploy failed two years ago with Appel.
Pirates bonus pool
The Pirates' bonus pool, which covers the first 10 rounds, got a boost on Sunday, when the Bucs dealt reliever Bryan Morris to Miami for the Marlins' Competitive Balance Round A selection (No. 39 overall). With the $1,457,600 attached to that pick, the Pirates' pool total jumped from $5,606,100 to $7,063,700.
Those figures dramatize the changes the team influenced by signing Cole for $8 million in 2011 and even outfielder Josh Bell for $5 million one round later. The Bucs have played by the new rules, a year ago giving top pick Austin Meadows his slot bonus ($3,029,600) and signing their second first-round pick, catcher Reese McGuire, $200,000 below his $2.569 million slot.
Thus, as you can tell, the team's entire pool is only slightly bigger than their two first-round slots of a year ago. Tighter purse strings impel you to make diligent decisions.
The Draft and the launch of the international signing period come less than a month apart. The Pirates' international bonus allotment is slightly below $2 million, and clubs who fall short of their needs in the Draft could view the international talent pool as a second chance to fill in the gaps. The Bucs don't take that approach, due to the disparity of prospects' ages.
"We work to be consistent and take the same philosophy into both," Huntington said. "The hardest job in baseball is Latin American scouting director, because he's looking at 15-, 16-year-olds and trying to project where they'll be in 10 years."
Huntington is a "big arm" guy, but the Pirates' annual focus on college-developed pitchers finally freed them to take a more general approach to last year's Draft -- eight of their top 15 picks were position players -- and that trend will continue this June.
There could be another trend closely followed by high-end prospects considered MLB-close: The Pirates' growing reputation for slow-advancement through the system, which could influence some draftees' signability.
* RECENT DRAFT HISTORY *
He's still a ways off -- he turned 19 three months ago -- but McGuire has been an instant hit in the professional ranks, batting .323 as a pro rookie last summer and recently taking off on the longest hitting streak by a West Virginia player since Starling Marte, in 2009.
Right-hander Casey Sadler has zoomed from afterthought territory -- a 25th round pick, in 2010 -- to Triple-A Indianapolis' ace. He has already gotten one brief call to the Majors, and impressed in a couple of relief outings, and has moved to the head of the next-man-up line.
As noted, the Pirates are rich in No. 1 and other top-tier picks with more, especially pitchers, clamoring for attention on the farms. Tough company in which to be noticed, but Brandon Cumpton, a ninth rounder -- overall No. 267 -- is the newest permanent member of the Bucs' starting rotation. His responses to numerous spot opportunities became too compelling to ignore as Wandy Rodriguez was designated for assignment to create a vacancy.
In The Show
Even with Sanchez, expected to take over as the No. 1 catcher in 2015, now back in Indianapolis, the Pirates' regular lineup tilts toward homegrown. Until Cumpton's arrival, Cole was the only system-product in the rotation, but the bullpen is rich with the Bucs' own, with the backend of Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli the exceptions.
The heart of that bullpen consists of converted starting pitchers, a great showcase of why the club values drafting for talent and not need, then adjusting as situations warrant.
The Pirates' recent top picks
2013: Austin Meadows, OF, --- *
2012: Mark Appel, RHP, Astros' Class A Advanced Lancaster
2011: Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pirates
2010: Jameson Taillon, RHP, ---**
2009: Tony Sanchez, C, Triple-A Indianapolis
* Has yet to play in 2014, due to a tight hamstring; concluded 2013 with Single-A Jamestown. ** Recovering from Tommy John surgery; finished 2013 with Triple-A Indianapolis.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less