I’ve seen you and others say Kumar Rocker is the likely first pick in the 2021 Draft. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Pirates to take a power bat who could help their lineup every day than a starting pitcher who only goes once every five days?
-- Sean N., Pittsburgh
Two tactics always apply in the MLB Draft, whether you’re picking first or 50th:
1) Don’t draft for immediate need.
2) Take the best player available.
Right now, Rocker -- the ace right-hander at Vanderbilt University with a big fastball and a wipeout slider -- is regarded as the best player in the 2021 Draft class. As long as the Pirates view it that way when they’re officially on the clock, they should make him the No. 1 overall pick rather than reaching down their board just to find a position player.
There’s an interesting argument to be made in the sense that some teams successfully rebuilt around young hitters and figured out their pitching later. The Astros and Cubs did that, for instance, with a foundation of “safer” position-player prospects. But those were bigger-market teams that knew they could supplement their rotations by paying the likes of Jon Lester and Yu Darvish, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, etc.
One thing I’ve heard since I was covering the Rays a decade ago is that small-market teams simply can’t count on acquiring impact starting pitching on the open market. They must draft frontline starters, sign them as international free agents or acquire them via trade. So when the Pirates have a chance to pick someone like the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Rocker, they should take it.
Rocker has been the likeliest No. 1 overall pick in 2021 since his dominant '19 season at Vanderbilt, when he became a national star following a 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke in the NCAA Super Regionals. But keep in mind that Draft boards evolve over time.
Some other college players to keep an eye on: fellow Vandy starter Jack Leiter, Florida outfielder Jud Fabian, UCLA shortstop Matt McLain and Miami catcher Adrian del Castillo. My colleague, Jonathan Mayo, also took a look last month at the top high school prospects for the 2021 Draft, including shortstop Jordan Lawlar, a product of the same school Josh Bell attended.
What’s the hope for fans for the next few years? I don’t see us being good next season or the year after. We’re not going to spend to get better, and the new general manager won’t even admit they’re rebuilding. Are they just kicking the can down the road and hoping everything eventually goes right?
-- James T., Pittsburgh
Somebody asked Ben Cherington a question like this a few weeks ago. Here was his answer.
"I think we know that we have to get better. I think we are honest about where we are, areas where we need to improve on in order to start winning more games. That's where our focus is,” Cherington said. “We need to focus on that, and a big part of that will be not just adding players -- young players and talent -- but developing those players. And I think from a fan perspective, as a fan myself, that's what I would be connected to. That's what I hope our fans could connect to, being part of that journey, part of that process as we build this team.
“Ke'Bryan Hayes is an example, but there's going to be more, and some of them are on our team now. Some of them are in the Minor Leagues. Some will be added next year. You don't have to look too far around the league to see the paths that teams have taken to success, and it's usually built on acquiring and developing and integrating really good, young talent. That's what we've got to do, and I think that's an exciting thing to be a part of.
“Then when the wins start coming, they feel really good, because you've been a part of it. That's something that really resonates with me. I hope it will with our fans, and believe it will, because Pirates fans are really smart and care about that. They know that's what we need to do. That's been a foundation for Pirates success in the past."
In other words, despite the organizational refusal to use the word “rebuild,” he’s asking fans to get in on the ground floor of what they’re trying to build from the ground up.
They’re asking you to believe in the next wave of prospects, because the system is not devoid of talent, and their ability to get the most out of those players. By 2023 or so, you could see the group of young players already in Pittsburgh -- Hayes, Mitch Keller, Bryan Reynolds, etc. -- joined by Nick Gonzales, Oneil Cruz, Travis Swaggerty, Cody Bolton, Ji-Hwan Bae, Quinn Priester, Liover Peguero, Brennan Malone, Tahnaj Thomas, the No. 1 overall pick in '21 and other prospects.
The key is spending to supplement that core when the time is right and, as Cherington said, properly developing those players. The Pirates had a very well-regarded farm system in 2015, but they botched a bunch of players’ development, traded some impact talent for minimal return and had some bad luck (in the form of pitching injuries) along the way. That can’t happen this time.
Looking to next season, the biggest question has to be the bullpen. Richard Rodríguez is the only arm that can be relied upon for next year. They have some guys with potential, some interesting guys, but nobody that has really performed across a couple of seasons. Do they spend some money shoring up the bullpen, or take chances on guys already in the system that they think they might be able to develop?
-- Jason D., Richmond, Va.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they take some low-cost fliers to fill out the bullpen. There should be a lot of available arms this winter, and the Pirates can offer an opportunity to pitch. But I suspect it will be more of the latter -- betting on the arms already in their system.
I’m on board with your overall assessment of their bullpen options, too: plenty of interesting arms with potential, but few sure things. Aside from Rodríguez and Chris Stratton -- two potential trade candidates this offseason -- all their internal relief options for next year come with questions about their health or production.
Nick Burdi, Kyle Crick, Michael Feliz and Clay Holmes have late-inning stuff, but they will be returning from injuries that cost them nearly all of this past season. Edgar Santana hasn’t pitched in two years. Blake Cederlind and Nick Mears are talented but inexperienced. You can be encouraged by what you saw from Sam Howard, Geoff Hartlieb, Nik Turley, Austin Davis and Nick Tropeano at times this year, but there’s not much of a track record there.
If you want to look on the bright side, you could note that I just listed a lot of relievers who have had some stretches of success in the Majors, shown the kind of stuff that should allow them to pitch better than their past results or displayed the potential to fill a role in the bullpen. With the Pirates' focus on the future, I think they’ll give those guys every chance to prove themselves again next year.
Adam Berry covers the Rays for MLB.com and covered the Pirates from 2015-21. Follow him on Twitter @adamdberry.