PITTSBURGH -- No matter what, this year’s MLB Draft was going to be different for the Pirates.
There were five rounds, not 40. Their evaluation period was cut short this spring by the coronavirus pandemic. They’d been meeting with prospects via Zoom. It was their first Draft under general manager Ben Cherington and assistant GM Steve Sanders. And with the Draft taking place virtually, Cherington and amateur scouting director Joe DelliCarri weren’t even in the same room on Wednesday and Thursday.
Despite all the adjustments they had to make, DelliCarri raved about Cherington’s involvement and the way he backed Pittsburgh’s scouting department throughout the process.
“We’ve had the full support from Day 1,” DelliCarri said, “and the group really felt it.”
The signing deadline this year is Aug. 1.
If a club exceeds its assigned pool, it faces a penalty. Teams that outspend their allotment by 0-5 percent pay a 75 percent tax on the overage. At higher thresholds, clubs lose future picks: a first-rounder and a 75 percent tax for surpassing their pool by more than 5 and up to 10 percent; a first- and a second-rounder and a 100 percent tax for more than 10 and up to 15 percent; and two first-rounders and a 100 percent tax for more than 15 percent.
In eight years with these rules, teams have exceeded their allotments a total of 149 times but never by more than 5 percent. Twenty-one of the 30 teams outspent their pools last year.
The Pirates expect to sign all six of their picks. They have a bonus pool of $11,154,500, the fifth-highest in this year’s Draft. The seventh overall pick (Gonzales) comes in with a slot value of $5,432,400. The rest of their slot values are broken down as such:
$2,312,000 (Mlodzinski, 31st)
$1,689,500 (Jones, 44th)
$780,400 (Garcia, 79th)
$538,200 (Hartman, 108th)
$402,000 (Hofmann, 138th)
The late selections of Hartman and Hofmann will likely lead to below-slot deals that free up pool money for the first four picks, particularly Jones. Cherington said he didn’t see any benefit in waiting to sign their picks, either. Even without player development activities happening now, the sooner they’re in the organization, the quicker they can start building relationships and talking about what comes next.
Cherington and DelliCarri said the Pirates simply selected the best player available every time their pick came around, but there were clearly some similarities shared by their final five picks. For starters, obviously, they were all right-handed pitchers.
Mlodzinski, Jones and Garcia ranked highly on the Pirates’ Draft board, with the club intrigued by the strikeout stuff -- and presumably the signability -- of Hartman and Hofmann. Gonzales has a high floor given his ability to hit, but there was a clear preference for players with upside and untapped potential.
All five pitchers have recent experience as position players, with less mileage on their arms as they begin their professional careers. DelliCarri said they wanted pitchers who have “athleticism and aptitude,” and those who could play shortstop (like Mlodzinski) or the outfield (like Jones) certainly qualify as athletic.
Additionally, the Pirates picked four players -- Gonzales, Mlodzinski, Garcia and Hofmann -- who excelled in the Cape Cod League. DelliCarri couldn’t quantify how much their performance in the competitive wood-bat league factored into their evaluations, but there’s little doubt that it mattered more considering teams weren’t able to get long looks at those players this spring.
“It was definitely valuable. We got a chance to see the guys compete at the highest level, which we didn’t get a chance to do a lot of this spring,” DelliCarri said. “Generally, you don’t get to the Cape as an unknown, so you have a lot of track record or some level of track record before you get there. So you’re talking about history with our scouts, then seeing them on that stage.”
Why’s that? Because Mlodzinski believes Gonzales was one of the best players available in this year’s Draft, somebody whose numbers tell the story of a potential superstar. Regardless of where he came from and how unlikely his success may have been, that’s what matters now.
“I’m happy I don’t have to face him, that’s for sure. He’s one of the best players in this year’s Draft, no question,” Mlodzinski said. “I was surprised he didn’t go first overall, so I think the Pirates definitely got a steal there.”
Gonzales hit .351 with a .451 on-base percentage, .630 slugging percentage and 1.081 OPS that led the Cape Cod League. He hit seven homers in 42 games, struck out in 11.9 percent of his plate appearances and walked in 10.8 percent. All of that led to Gonzales being named the league’s MVP, then he led the Cotuit Kettleers to a championship.
“He just consistently mashed up there in the Cape. He was the reason why we didn’t, in my opinion, win the championship up there,” said Mlodzinski, who played for the Falmouth Commodores. “Definitely happy I don’t have to face that guy.”
Day 2 name to watch
The Pirates were excited to land Jones and Garcia, both of whom displayed first-round talent at times, but let’s focus here on Garcia. The right-hander was an infielder when he went to Chapman University (on the Division III circuit), but he quickly emerged as a dominant reliever during his sophomore season and pitched well out of the bullpen in the Cape Cod League last summer.
Garcia continued to show promise as he moved into the rotation for Chapman this spring, touching 97 mph with his fastball and pairing that with a cutter and a slider. The Pirates believe Garcia has tons of upside, an incredible work ethic and the ability to be a starting pitcher in the Majors.
“There have been some really good players to come out of Division III -- not a ton, but there are some,” Cherington said, “and we’re banking on Nick being another one.”
Non-drafted free agent strategy
Beginning Sunday morning, the Pirates plan to communicate directly with players they like but didn’t draft. Cherington said they were able to speak before the Draft with some potential candidates to sign for up to $20,000, and he expects that they will approach specific players during this part of the process.
“We’re trying to really present an opportunity and why signing with the Pirates might be a unique opportunity for a particular player. It seems easier to do that honestly if it’s a little more of a targeted group,” he said. “The other half of that is we also need to look at any non-drafted player we sign and bring in is in some way in competition with a player who’s already here. … So, I think we’ll target guys that we feel honestly have opportunity with the Pirates and who we feel we can help in some way.”
The last word
“Just as simple as [picking the best player available]. We didn’t go into it looking for any particular position. Those were the best guys there. The first four guys we took ranked really highly on our board, including the three pitchers. Then the last couple pitchers there were interesting guys with really good stuff -- a combination of stuff and swing-and-miss ability.” -- Cherington