Pirates got it right with Paul Skenes

By now every self-respecting baseball fan knows the results of this year’s Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft, which was held in July, but for the benefit of those who forgot to pay their cable and internet bill and are just logging on now, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected hard-throwing Louisiana State University pitcher Paul Skenes with the first overall pick, as predicted in the excellent mock draft coverage by my colleague, Michael Dault. You’ve also seen Skenes’s eye-popping stats, but briefly, in his just-completed senior year during which he led the Tigers to the College World Series championship, he was 12-2 with a 1.69 ERA, 209 SO and 20 BB in 122-and-two-thirds innings, .75 WHIP and 45.1 percent strikeout rate.

Pirates general manager Ben Cherington got this one right. The consensus top-two picks were Skenes and his teammate, outfielder Dylan Crews. Crews was demanding a higher signing bonus than the assigned slot value and may have been difficult to sign. In a draft so crucial for the franchise’s future, the Pirates couldn’t come away empty with the first overall pick.

Elation and stupidity

Pirates fans seem equally divided over the choice. Some are, rightfully so, elated. The usual naysayers are flooding the internet and talk shows with stupidity. “He might need Tommy John surgery in a couple of years.” Yeah, and he might not, too. Applying that logic, Roger Clemens and Justin Verlander should never have been drafted in the first round. “He’ll leave once he hits free agency.” Maybe. If he leaves, he leaves. Seven years of a potential number one starter — as Skenes is projected to be — is better than none.

The importance of a #1 starter

Going for Skenes over Crews was the correct move on several fronts, Crews’s stance on his signing bonus notwithstanding. A small-market team like the Pirates will never be able to afford a number one starter on the free agent market. I have yet to hear one hit the market and proclaim Pittsburgh among his possible destinations. A number one starter is essential for postseason success. A team can slog through the 162-game regular season without one and qualify for a playoff spot. The postseason is a different animal. The Moneyball-era Oakland A’s made regular playoff appearances many years from 2000-2020. However, they had no bona fide number one starter and seldom made it as far as the Championship Series.

The Pirates, too, made quick exits from the postseason after losing the Wild Card Games of 2014 and 2015 against aces Jake Arrieta (Cubs) and Madison Bumgarner (Giants). I hate to keep harping on the small-market angle, but if the Pirates ever reach the point where they’re making regular postseason appearances, it’s unlikely they’ll consistently find themselves in a position where they’d ever draw a bye. They’ll have to get past the wild card round, which now consists of three games. Imagine the Pirates in a three-game playoff with Skenes and Mitch Keller starting the first two games.

With great pitching, a team can cobble together enough runs to win some games. It’s much harder to out-slug teams on the way to a championship.The 1963 Dodgers won the World Series, sweeping the mighty Yankees behind the pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. In a 10-team National League, the Dodgers were sixth in runs scored, seventh in home runs and OPS and eighth in slugging percentage. But they were first in ERA, and Koufax was 25-5, 20 games over .500 for a team that finished 99-63.

Past failures

This was the sixth time the Pirates ever had the first overall pick. It can best be described as a checkered history. They got it right with Gerrit Cole in 2011. They also appear to have made a good choice with Henry Davis in 2021.

At the other extreme, there were Jeff King (1986) and pitchers Kris Benson (1996) and Bryan Bullington (2002). King was a decent major-leaguer, nothing more. Whenever he came to bat in a clutch situation, he looked as if he wished somebody else were up. On the plus side, King was the third baseman on the Pirates’ three National League East Division champions in 1990-1992. But they bypassed Matt Williams and Gary Sheffield to get King. With one of those gentlemen occupying third base, the Pirates may have had enough to advance to the World Series in those playoff years.

Benson, never a favorite of manager Llegendary Lloyd McClendon, was 43-49 with a 4.26 ERA as a Pirate and never achieved the stardom projected for him. He was more famous for having married a stripper. There’s a joke in there somewhere but I’ll refrain. I like to keep this family friendly.

Most puzzling was then-general manager Dave Littlefield’s choice of Bullington in 2002, after which Littlefield famously proclaimed Bullington a number three starter. One immediately wondered, if Littlefield wouldn’t select a number one starter with the first overall pick, when would he? Littlefield’s Pirates tenure with marred with bad drafts, trades and free agent signings and a lack of any clear plan. On the bright side, he made mistakes only on days ending in “y.”

Bullington was 1-9 with a 5.62 ERA in 26 games over a five-year major-league career, two of which were in Pittsburgh. In selecting him, Littlefield passed over B.J. Upton, Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels, James Loney, Jeff Francoeur and Matt Cain. Enough said.

A pitcher and a hitter?

So far in Cherington’s four seasons at the helm, his first round picks have been Nick Gonzales, Davis, Termarr Johnson and Skenes. It seems he’s on the right track in managing the draft for the Bucs.

Appearing on the KayRod Cast of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball on July 2, Skenes said he saw himself as a pitcher and a hitter in the majors. So far, Cherington has been noncommittal on that front and Skenes has dodged the issue since being drafted. In his college career, Skenes batted .367/.453/.669, 24 HR and 81 RBIs. It’s something the Pirates should consider. They can’t afford to leave a stone unturned when assembling a roster.

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