PITTSBURGH -- Don’t bother asking general manager Ben Cherington whom the Pirates will select first overall in the 2021 MLB Draft. He's not going to tell you -- not because he’s being rude or secretive, he just doesn’t have an answer yet.
“The truth is, we don’t know,” Cherington said. “We know there’s a lot of good, talented players who will be eligible for the Draft next year. We’re going to take the time that we have to get to know them as well as we possibly can. Excited for that process.”
Cherington explained parts of that process during an MLB Pipeline podcast interview with MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo, touching on everything from his experience overseeing this year's Draft to next year’s top pick to the future of the Minor Leagues.
The Pirates earned the No. 1 pick in 2021 by finishing with a 19-41 record this season, their first under president Travis Williams, Cherington, assistant GM Steve Sanders and manager Derek Shelton. Pittsburgh won’t officially be on the clock until July 11, 2021, when the Draft begins during All-Star Week in Atlanta ahead of the Midsummer Classic at Truist Park, but scouts and executives are already deep into the evaluation process as they conduct Zoom interviews with players.
Although the Pirates have actively avoided using the word “rebuild” to describe their plan, it’s clear that acquiring young talent is their primary focus at this point. Williams recently emphasized the importance they’re placing on acquiring and developing prospects, in fact. As Pittsburgh works to modernize the Pirates’ player development process, picking first in the Draft will provide Cherington with an opportunity to add a potential star to the farm system.
The Astros, for example, landed Carlos Correa first overall in 2012 and Alex Bregman second overall in ’15. Those two formed part of the core of Houston’s 2017 championship team. Yet the Astros also erred on two consecutive No. 1 overall picks, selecting Mark Appel in 2013 and Brady Aiken in ’14. That serves as a reminder of just how difficult and unpredictable the Draft can be, yes, but also how a rebuild will not succeed or fail based on one choice in the Draft.
“To build a winner in Pittsburgh, we’re going to have to do a lot of things well outside of making the right choice next July. We know that,” Cherington told Mayo. “Sure, look at the Astros. They did a lot of things well outside of the Draft, then they did some things well in the Draft also over time, that led to great success. We’re going to need to be the same.
“That said, I’d rather not take the chance or count on that. I’d rather make it a little easier on ourselves and get a really good player when we have the No. 1 pick. That’s certainly what our focus will be on. I’m confident we will.”
Maybe that No. 1 pick will turn out to be Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker, the big starting pitcher with a wipeout slider who came to national fame as a freshman following his 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke in the 2019 NCAA Super Regionals. Perhaps it will be fellow Vanderbilt pitcher Jack Leiter, the son of longtime big leaguer Al Leiter. Or it could be high school shortstop Jordan Lawlar, arguably the top prep prospect in this year’s Draft class.
There’s a pretty big distinction between taking a polished college pitcher and a less proven high school position player. The former could make it to the Majors more quickly, providing more immediate impact. Conventional wisdom suggests the latter might offer more upside while requiring more time to reach PNC Park.
What approach will the Pirates take?
“It will truly be our choice with the first pick,” Cherington told Mayo. “I don’t think we would think about it like, ‘Well, we need to sort of run toward a particular demographic,’ but rather we just have to look at all of the inputs and weigh them appropriately and figure out who is the right fit for the Pittsburgh Pirates and get to know players in the process and let them get to know us, just as importantly.
“We want players to be able to learn about what we’re trying to be as an organization and what we can offer and the kind of environment they’d be coming into. That needs to be a two-way exchange of information, and we look forward to that process.”
The Pirates’ Draft preparation will be led by Joe DelliCarri, senior director of amateur scouting, a holdover from the Neal Huntington front office who reports to Sanders. Sanders is a Cherington hire who previously oversaw three Drafts as the Blue Jays’ director of amateur scouting. Although Cherington ultimately leads the baseball operations department, one thing he’s emphasized is trusting the opinions of the scouts and analysts who are most familiar with the players they’re considering.
DelliCarri guided Pittsburgh’s scouts through an unprecedented 2020 Draft, which took place remotely and with less information available than usual amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Pirates were pleased with their haul, headlined by second baseman Nick Gonzales -- the seventh overall pick who’s now MLB Pipeline’s No. 32 overall prospect.
The unusual circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic forced teams to think creatively about different ways to evaluate players, and Cherington said the Pirates have incorporated some of those changes into their process for next year. For example, they learned something useful that so many remote workers have come to understand this year.
“Boy, you can do a lot through Zoom these days,” he said. “We could’ve done that a year ago or two years ago. I think we found that we can do some of the work virtually, maybe even more efficiently. It might even make it easier on players sometimes. We’re right in the middle of doing some Zoom interviews with players right now in December, leading up to the holidays, and we’re able to get touchpoints with players and involve more staff than we would’ve if we were all doing it in person. That’s one simple, small example.
“I think there’s some things we’ve learned from 2020 -- not just around the Draft, but really just the entire operation, that we will carry forward with us.”