Thanks to an infusion of high-profile prospects into the pipeline, there is a light at the end of tunnel in Pittsburgh. Scouting director Greg Smith has brought some elite talent into the system in the past two years, highlighted by last June’s first-overall pick, UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole, and 2010 second-overall selection, Jameson Taillon. And don’t forget about last year’s second-round pick — the supposedly unsignable Josh Bell — who has as much potential as either Cole or Taillon.
Smith talked about his recent picks, the Pirate’s renewed efforts in the international market and the impact that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will have on future drafts.
THE DRAFT AND THE NEW CBA
Smith, on the importance of the last two drafts to the organization: “They’re probably not any more important than the ones prior, but only because we take the position that — as far as the amateur draft market goes — you have to continue that influx of talent. Where you’re picking, and the particular draft class — the landscape each year — only allows you so much opportunity to do that.
“The impact the scouting department has on each organization is that if you have a good draft, it can impact your club for years to come. Conversely, if you have a not-so-good draft, it probably impacts it even more because of the lack of talent coming in.
“There is no question that with us picking high in the last couple of years, a lot more attention has been drawn to it, and rightfully so. It’s something where — especially in the market we’re in — we need to put a lot of emphasis on the acquisition of amateur players.”
On the impact of the draft-related changes in the new CBA: “We’re going to have to make some internal adjustments. Look at our efforts a year ago, with Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell. I don’t know how many clubs, ourselves included, are going to be able to continue to do what we did.
“Being able to sign Gerrit for what we did — and obviously taking the risk on our next selection with Josh — is something that, given the new parameters of the CBA, will be a much more difficult dynamic to undertake. You still can, obviously, but the ramifications are going to be drastically different in the coming draft.
“Under the prior system, there were a handful of clubs — and we were very fortunate to be one of them — that were able to be very aggressive and very resourceful in the draft. With the new CBA, and some of the changes within it, we have to start making some adjustments because of the financial penalties and the potential loss of future draft picks.
“I know what we’re going to try to do in Pittsburgh, but I don’t know what the adjustments and strategies are going to be for other clubs. I don’t know how they’re going to approach this new landscape of the CBA, relative to the draft.”
DRAFTING AND SIGNING JOSH BELL
On taking a chance and drafting Bell: “Reflecting back on it, our chances of signing Josh were probably less than 50%. We knew the caliber of the player. We had obviously done our work on Josh throughout the course of the spring, in terms of evaluating him, so we put ourselves in a position to select him.
“We knew it was a gamble. We knew the risk, but we felt the upside of his ability warranted such a risk. It’s a credit to our scouts — as well as the people above me — with the resources they were willing to provide that allowed the stars to align. But there’s no question we went into it thinking it was a long shot.
“The majority of people we talked to during the course of the process said there was no way we were going to be able to sign Josh. There were obviously clubs that didn’t take him for just that reason. In their heart of hearts, they believed he was going to school. We knew that was a strong possibility, but it was a risk we were willing to take, because of his potential.
“We felt that [taking Bell in the second round] was our one shot. We felt that, with his ability, someone was going to take a shot, if nothing else, just to take the shot. Our internal discussions were, ‘Hey, if we’re going to consider this, it’s now or never.’”
On how they were able to sign Bell: “I think it was a combination of things. Mike Leuzinger is our area supervisor in [Texas] and he did his work with Josh and his family. We had the opportunity, through the course of the summer, to sit down with Josh, his mom, dad and his sister. He put himself in front of us, and we put ourselves in front of him.
“It was really unfair to expect Josh and his family to make a decision without all the information. What drafting him allowed us to do was educate him, if you will. We were able to say, ‘This is who we are — this is who the Pirates are — and this is what we’re prepared to do for you.’ Now he can make a completely informed decision about what’s best for his career, and what his next chapter should look like.
“I don’t think there was any doubt that he was set on going to school. It’s where his mom wanted him to go and where his dad was prepared for him to go. I just think that throughout the course of the summer, our communication — our dialogue — allowed him to make a completely informed decision.”
PTOJECTING BELL AND VIDEO SCOUTING
On projecting Bell as a hitter: “You’re looking into a crystal ball and trying to predict the future of these guys, what they’re going to be doing five to seven years down the road. And obviously, the ability to hit a baseball at the highest level is one of the most difficult things to do.
“I think that one of the things organizations, and scouts, have done a good job of is developing a good aptitude to identify good, young hitters. There aren’t that many of them, guys that show you an advanced ability to hit — the ability to barrel a baseball — and also possess the power factor. That is something that drew us, as well as other clubs, to Josh. He has the ability to hit and he has strength and leverage. Then you can add the component of him being able to hit from both sides of the plate. You take all of his attributes and you have one of the better young hitters we’ve seen in the amateur market.
“There are no guarantees in this game, because you’re dealing with human beings and so many variables outside of your control. I can think back to when I saw Todd Helton as a junior in high school, or Alex Rodriguez as a sophomore or junior in high school. With some of these guys, your reaction is, ’This guy can hit.’ There are guys who are advanced in their ability to hit. There is some strength, a good bat path, they can manipulate the barrel — there are ingredients and attributes that lead you to say, ‘This guy should become one heck of a hitter.‘ Do they all make it? No, but when you see those types of guys, you know you’re dealing with some of the more advanced, and elite, amateur hitters. They separate themselves and that takes it to a little bit different level of perspective, or comfort, if you will. In some cases, you could call it excitement.
On who Bell resembles mechanically: “You go in and watch these young players and sometimes you have a visual. You have your database and all of a sudden this guy reminds you of X, or this guy reminds you of Y. I’m not trying to compare players, but when I first went in and saw Josh, Cliff Floyd popped into my head. It was, boom, `There’s Cliff Floyd at a young age.’ I’m not saying that’s what he’s going to become, but you get that kind of visual.”
On video scouting: “We incorporate video into our efforts and a lot of what we look at is frame-by-frame. When you’re there live, you’re behind home plate, you’re down the lines and you’re watching BP. But you’re at the mercy of your eyes. You’re at the mercy of the speed at which they can capture what you’re looking for.
“Video allows you to come back and slow it down frame-by-frame. You can get different angles and different views. When watching a hitter live, you might see a lot of swings during the course of the day, but you may get very few swings.
“There are times you may see a Josh Bell barrel a ball and all of a sudden ask yourself, ‘What was the location of that pitch, and what was it?’ You have a pretty good idea, and you’re usually pretty accurate, but video confirms it for you. It might also show that a ball was actually more middle-in than you realized.
“In some cases — more so with the college guys, because you watch them with a longer timeline — you’ll see if there is consistency. Sometimes you’ll see that the mechanical aspects of someone’s swing have changed. Maybe he’s put his hands in a different position or his load is different than it was before. When you’re watching the progression, or evolution, of young players, will give you some different checkpoints along the way.”
GERRIT COLE, JAMESON TAILLON AND STETSON ALLIE
On Cole having been drafted out of high school — as a Yankees’ first-rounder — in 2008: “That’s an interesting one, because Gerrit had Scott Boras out of high school and he has Scott now. He didn’t sign then, and it was a concern with us going in. Gerrit had choices. We didn’t think he’d go back to UCLA for his senior year, but there was always that chance, especially with him being a client of Scott’s. There were other avenues out there that he could have pursued.
“I didn’t think Gerrit was wired that way, but at the end of the day, business becomes business and you never really know how these things are going to go. Was it a factor where he said ‘no’ before, so will he say ‘no’ again? Yes, that is in your mind somewhere.”
On Cole being only 14 months older than Jameson Taillon: “To be honest with you, that caught my attention last year when we were scouting Gerrit. You obviously go through the whole analysis — you’re looking at everything that can possibly factor in — and it was, ’Son of a gun, the chronological gap between Jameson and Gerrit is a heck of a lot closer than people probably realize.’ Gerrit was a young college junior.
“Developmentally, Gerrit has obviously gone through the college environment. He pitched at UCLA and for Team USA, and has faced some international competition. There are things that have been on his plate that have yet to come to Jameson, because of their backgrounds. However, Jameson has more professional experience. He’s been through a long season, spring training, the routine of every five days. He has pitched to wood more frequently. They bring some different things to the table, but there isn’t a lot that separates them — outside of some of those life experiences.”
On how they compare on the mound: “Gerrit throws harder, but not significantly. One of the things where Jameson has a head start on Gerrit is that he’s pitched more to wood and understands how to use his fastball with wood. Gerrit, coming out of the college ranks, is more used to pitching away from contact, trying to miss a few more bats. There has been more secondary usage early than maybe will be required at the professional level. Some of that is just a matter of time on the mound, or pure experience.
“Jameson has the curveball, while Gerrit is more of a slider. The changeup is part of both of their arsenals. Both are extremely competitive. Gerrit is probably a tad more emotional, while Jameson has a somewhat quieter demeanor. I don’t know if I’d want to say he’s calm, cool and collected, but it’s a quieter demeanor. Gerrit has a little more fire, at least on the outside. With Jameson, the fire is more internal. With Gerrit, it’s more external.”
On how [2010 second-round pick] Stetson Allie’s fastball compares to Cole’s and Taillon’s: “With velocity, it is very much [comparable]. Where Stetson is a little behind those two guys is command and the use of it. With Jameson and Gerrit you’re talking about more of what’s called a ‘pitcher mentality,’ and Stetson is still making the transition from simply throwing hard to having that mentality.
“As far as [explosiveness and movement], they’re all in the same neighborhood. Gerrit is going to be ahead, because he goes to gears that the other two don’t quite have. We’ve seen Gerrit at 101 [mph]. Some guys have seen him 102. In high school, we had Stetson right at 100. We haven’t seen him quite that high [in pro ball] but he doesn’t have to be; 95 to 98 is going to be plenty good. With Jameson, the routine of every five days with the bullpen in between, the throwing program and the long toss, his velocity has backed off a little. That’s to be expected.”
LUIS HEREDIA AND THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET
On signing players out of international markets: “A ton of accolades go out to Rene Gayo and his staff. Rene is our international guy, and as you know, down there the draft is every day. A bunch of us were actually just in the Dominican Republic. It’s a relentless effort to find the type of quality that is out there. We’re very fortunate to be afforded resources that can be utilized not only in the draft, but also in the international market. That’s what puts us into a position to acquire a player like Luis Heredia.
“I personally don’t get as many looks at the international players, but our scouts do. Again, a lot of credit goes to our guys on the ground. We have significant time with players like Luis, who we had been scouting for multiple years. That’s what it takes. When you get on them at 15, you’re late. There are guys you see who are 13 and 14 and you’re intrigued enough that you want to continue to watch their growth and development.
“Our efforts internationally are important and they’re ongoing. It’s a global game and you don’t want to miss out on a premium-on-acquisition talent. You have to go where the players are. But it’s a lot of work. To draft a Josh Bell, you have to do the work. To sign a Luis Heredia, you have to do the work. A lot goes into making those investments, so you need to have your ducks in a row — you need detail in your process — and you need to have conviction in what you’re doing. Guys like Luis — just like Gerrit, Jameson and Stetson out of the draft — are an important part of what we’re looking to do down the road.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.