In 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted four players who would eventually become All-Star caliber or better players. But, not all of the picks reached their potential in Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have had their fair share of busted drafts. Everyone from Daniel Moskos to Bryan Bullington to Pedro Alvarez have been selected when they had the opportunity to select someone like Buster Posey, Zack Greinke, or Josh Donaldson. But, in 2011, the Pirates, who had the number one overall pick, could have had the greatest draft in the history of the team.
The first pick the team made was Gerrit Cole. Now, obviously, things didn’t end well for Cole in Pittsburgh, but for the first few seasons, Cole looked like a budding ace. From 2013 to 2015, the former top 10 prospect had tossed 463.1 innings of 3.07 ERA, 2.89 FIP, and 1.15 WHIP baseball. Despite his strikeout rate sitting at a mediocre 8.5 K/9, especially for someone with velocity like he has, Cole still carried a strong 0.6 HR/9 rate, and walked just 2.2 batters per 9.
This three season span also included a 4th place finish in Cy Young voting and a 6.9 bWAR in 2015 when he helped the Pirates win 98 games. Cole was traded to the Houston Astros after posting sub-par results in back-to-back seasons in 2016 and 2017 for a mediocre return. In Houston, Cole finally turned into that reliable ace the Pirates had hoped he would become. Sadly it was just for a different team. In 412.2 innings, Cole threw for a 2.68 ERA, 2.67 FIP, and 0.96 WHIP. Despite his walk rate barely budging from his best days as a Pirate, going to 2.6 per 9, Cole Struck out 602 batters. This also included 327 K’s in 2019, the 22nd most in any single season of baseball history. In comparison, Cole struck out only 734 batters in his entire Pirates tenure.
The second round included the Pirates’ current first baseman. Originally drafted as an outfielder, Josh Bell made the transition to first base in 2015, and has been there ever since. Bell made a big splash in 2016, hitting a grand slam off of Cubs’ ace Jake Arrieta in just his second MLB plate appearance.
In 2017, Bell would go on to have a solid rookie campaign that included a .255/.334/.466 line, 26 home runs, and 109 OPS+ and a 108 wRC+ across 620 plate appearances. Despite his power decrease in 2018, Bell improved his plate discipline. His on base percentage rose to .357, while he saw his walk rate go from 10.6% to 13.2%, and strikeout rate drop from 18.9% to 17.8%. Bell has finally seemed to put it all together now, as he broke out in 2019. In 613 plate appearances, the slugger crushed 37 home runs, and racked up 37 doubles. All-in-all, he slashed .277/.367/.569, finishing with a 143 OPS+ and 135 wRC+. Bell did suffer a summer slump during ‘19, but seemed to find his groove again at the end of the season, posting an OPS of nearly .900 (.892 to be exact) through August and September.
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Going into 2020, Bell looks to build on 2019, and continue mashing baseballs whenever the next season starts. With an exit velocity in the 96th percentile, Bell should be able to keep up production more consistently going forward.
The Pirates didn’t really select anyone too notable in the next two rounds, that being Alex Dickerson and Colten Brewer, but selected yet another Cy Young hopeful starter in the 5th round. With the 152nd pick in the draft, the Bucs selected Tyler Glasnow. Throughout the minors, Glasnow looked like a Nolan Ryan Jr. Although he would post walk rates that were in the 4’s, he would compensate that with striking out 11+ batters per 9 innings.
In 2016, Glasnow appeared to be on the verge of being the next big thing for the Bucs. Sadly, that never happened. At least not in a Pirates uniform. During Glasnow’s first long look at the Majors in 2017 the youngster struggled. He issued 44 walks in 62 innings, struck out only 56 batters, and gave up 13 home runs. In total, he had a FIP of 6.30, and a DRA of 8.17. In 2018, Glasnow was strictly used out of the pen, where he did much better, but still not the numbers the Pirates were expecting from another former top 10 prospect. In 56 innings, Glasnow carried a 4.34 ERA, but a 3.62 FIP, 2.88 DRA, SIERA below 4. He had returned to his big strikeout rates, with 72 K’s, but walked 34 batters as well.
The Pirates must have felt Glasnow had reached his ceiling as a reliever, as he was sent to the Tampa Bay Rays in what is now one of the most lopsided trades in recent baseball history. When the 2020 season does start, Glasnow is projected to be one of the three aces in the Rays’ rotation. Although he was limited to 60.2 innings because of injuries throughout 2019, Glasnow posted a 1.78 ERA, 2.26 FIP, and 0.89 WHIP. Glasnow was still carried over his strong strikeout rate, getting 76 batters on strike-3, but the Rays had finally solved Glasnow’s walk issue. He walked just 14 batters, resulting in a 2.08 BB/9, and 5.43 K/BB ratio. The all time K/BB ratio leader is Chris Sale, who carries one of 5.37. Home runs became a non-issue, as he surrendered just four, and got batters to hit a ground ball 50.4% of the time.
Now the Pirates selected one other player who has become an All-Star caliber performer for his team. He just won a World Series, and that player was infielder Trea Turner.
Turner was drafted in the 20th round by the Pirates, but did not sign with the team. He elected to go to North Carolina State University before re-entering the 2014 MLB draft where he was selected in the 1st round by the San Diego Padres. He didn’t last long in the Padres’ organization, as he was traded in December 2014 to complete a trade made in June 2014. The trade included three teams, the Padres, Nationals and Rays, which saw 11 different players, including Turner, being moved.
Turns out, the trade was a steal for the Nationals. Not only did they get Turner, but also Joe Ross in the trade. Turner has blossomed into a top 10 shortstop in MLB. In 2016 when Turner got a long look in the Majors, the speedy infielder mainy played centerfield, and slashed .342/.370/.567, hit 13 home runs, stole 33 bags, and posted a 142 OPS+ in 342 plate appearances. Turner went on to post some not as impressive numbers in 2017 and 2018, hitting just .276/.342/.429 with a 100 OPS+, and missed a good chunk of 2017 because of an injury, but Turner has seemed to find his groove again in 2019. In 569 plate appearances, Turner hit .298/.352/.497 with 19 home runs, 37 doubles, and 35 stolen bases. He posted a 117 wRC+, which ranked 7th among primary shortstops. Although his glove isn’t the best, he still gets passable numbers at the position. In the future, he could eventually move to second base to help his defense. Regardless, Turner’s wheels are the big attraction. Last year, his 30.4 feet/second sprint speed was 2nd in all of baseball.
The Pittsburgh Pirates nearly had the chance to have two Cy Young caliber aces, one of the best slugging first basemen in baseball, and a top tier shortstop, all in one draft. This had the potential to set the Pirates up for years to come, but why didn’t it work? There’s no one to blame for the Pirates not being able to sign a 20th round pick, but the others have been part of horrible decisions that likely caused this draft to go sideways.
We can likely blame the lack of good coaching and guidance for the lack of success from Glasnow and Cole after 2015. They were power pitchers, and power pitchers are supposed to be high strikeout pitchers. They forced a ground ball/pitch-to-contact approach on them. Just like groundball pitchers can’t be strikeout pitchers, strikeout pitchers can’t be groundball pitchers. Both were also part of what are now horrendous trades. Bell obviously has turned out great, but he’ll enter 2020 at 27 years old. He only has 2 years of control, and he’ll be entering his prime right as the Pirates set themselves up for another rebuild.