Image via daveynin, Wikimedia Commons
The Pittsburgh Pirates finished 19-41 in the 2020 MLB season, resulting in the organization holding the first overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft.
Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington and the team surprised many Sunday, picking Louisville sophomore catcher Henry Davis with its first overall selection. Davis hit .370 at Louisville along with 15 home runs and 31 walks opposed to just 24 strikeouts across 50 games — MLB scouts widely regard Davis as “the best college bat in the draft.”
After most analysts predicted that the Pirates would go in another direction, many in the fanbase met the pick with disbelief and even disappointment. Some would have preferred others to Davis, but there is no denying that going this route allowed the club to use its financial advantage over other teams. The Pirates also owned the highest bonus pool of any team in this year’s draft. This is where their advantage comes into play.
“Each choice in the first ten rounds comes with an assigned value, with the total for a club’s selections equaling what it can spend in those rounds without incurring a penalty,” MLB.com’s Jim Callis said.
Cherington was adamant that the club would spend every penny of its allotted pool money.
Coming into the draft, many were led to believe that the Pirates would opt to select the No. 1 prospect in the entire draft — Eastlake High School senior shortstop Marcelo Mayer. Not only was Mayer ranked the best prospect in the draft, but many believed he would sign for under the slot value, another attractive reason for the Pirates to select him with their first pick.
The Pirates slot value with its first overall pick was $8,415,300 and their strategy coming into the draft was to sign a player for under this value, so that in later rounds they could go over slot values to maximize its talent.
It seemed inevitable that Mayer would hear his name called by the Pirates.
But Cherington said in an interview last week that despite much speculation that the team already zeroed in on Mayer, he still did not yet know who they would take with its first pick. He added that that club would let the draft process run its course and evaluate talent all the way until the day of the draft.
It wasn’t Mayer who made his way to the stage with a Pirates hat on, but the team rather found their man in the Louisville backstop. Davis will likely sign for well below slot level — playing a large role in his selection.
No, this doesn’t mean the organization is being cheap.
Signing Davis for less than the first overall pick slot value allows the Pirates to spend money in later rounds over their slot value to convince talented young players to sign.
This strategy isn’t uncommon. The Astros went under the slot value to sign Carlos Correa in 2012 with the first overall pick, when he signed under slot value for $4.8 million — well under the $7.2 million slot value. The Astros then went over the slot to sign Lance McCullers with the 41st pick of that same draft. The Astros went on to win the World Series five years later, with both players playing a key role in the postseason run.
The Pirates were able to draft three first round talents with their next three picks in the draft on the second day of the draft. The Pirates selected three high school players with their next three picks of the day, selecting left-handed pitcher Anthony Solometo with the No. 37 pick, outfielder Lonnie White Jr. with the No. 64 pick and right-handed pitcher Bubba Chandler with the No. 72 pick — all three ranking in Baseball America’s top 32 prospects.
All three players mentioned above have yet to officially sign, but rumors point to them following putting pen to paper in the near future — Solometo and Chandler have already hinted at signing with the club. This wouldn’t be possible without going under the slot to select Davis. That is how you maximize talent in your system, and rebuild a club.
The Pirates have executed this draft about as well as you could possibly ask for. Heading into Day Three, the squad was ranked as having the best draft out of any team in the league.
This strategy isn’t purely about the money though — the Pirates got arguably the best player in the draft in Davis. The site ranks the Pirates as the No. 3 development system in all of baseball pre-draft — the addition of the Louisville catcher only bolsters it further.
According to MLB Pipeline, Davis has a 70 current and raw power grade and also a 70 grade arm, scores that are considered “well above average.”
Teams shouldn’t draft for need in baseball. Unlike many other sports, players drafted to the MLB are usually at least a few years away from competing at the Major League level, and teams can’t predict how a team will look several years down the road. Cherington mentioned after the selection of Davis that he was the best player on their draft board, adhering to this philosophy.
Not only did the Davis pick unlock the potential for an outstanding draft allowing for the team to add more value in later rounds, but the first-team All-American has potential to be an impact player on the next winning team in Pittsburgh as well.
If all goes well, Davis will likely reach the Majors during the prime years of first time All-Star outfielder Bryan Reynolds and franchise cornerstone third-baseman Ke-Bryan Hayes. This, along with the arrival of various other top prospects in the same timeframe, sets the Pirates up for a competitive window that may begin very soon.