Former Pirates first-round pick debuting at PNC Park after spurning team in 2016

Lefty Nick Lodolo has Pittsburgh fans dreaming of what might have been as he toes rubber for a key NL Central matchup.
Jun 2, 2024; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Nick Lodolo (40) delivers a pitch against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 2, 2024; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Nick Lodolo (40) delivers a pitch against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports / Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
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When Cincinnati Reds starter Nick Lodolo takes the mound at PNC Park on Tuesday night, the Pirates’ front office may be dreaming of what could have been.

In 2016, Pittsburgh took a flier on the high school left-hander, who had already committed to Texas Christian University, by selecting Lodolo with the 41st pick of the MLB Draft. Lodolo opted not to sign, and a valuable prospect slipped through the Pirates’ grasp.

From the beginning, Lodolo profiled as a top arm. At the time, the Comp A selection was the highest draft pick spent on a pitcher by Pittsburgh since Gerrit Cole in 2011. Rangy and lean, Lodolo stood 6-foot-6 with a low-90s fastball. By the time he’d wrapped up three seasons at TCU, he had filled out his frame and was touching high-90s.

Lodolo caught the eye of Pittsburgh’s division rival, the Reds, who took him with the No. 7 pick in the 2019 MLB Draft. He was the first pitcher off the board that year, and he turned into one of the top prospects in Cincinnati’s system, and the No. 36 prospect overall in Baseball America’s pre-2022 rankings.

The failure to sign Lodolo is emblematic of the larger challenges of the mid-2010s Bucs. Of the 41 players drafted in 2016, only eight made it to the big leagues, and six were with the Pirates. These six played a total of 96 games with Pittsburgh, 54 of which can be credited to Geoff Hartlieb. Hartlieb and Lodolo are the only two selections still active in MLB, and neither play for Pittsburgh.

The loss of Lodolo did not even yield any returns with the 2017 MLB Draft when they held a compensation pick at No. 42. The Pirates selected high school right-hander Steven Jennings, whom they lost in the 2022 Rule 5 Draft. Jennings now plays in the Rangers’ organization at Double-A.

Lodolo, meanwhile, is turning in a tremendous season. His record stands at 7-2 with a 2.93 ERA. His 2.0 bWAR is better than any single player currently on the Pirates’ roster. He does still struggle with injuries, missing most of last season with a stress fracture in his tibia and parts of this year with calf and groin issues, but he seems to be finally fulfilling his promise as a first-round draft pick.

While Tuesday’s matchup will be Lodolo’s first start at PNC Park, the Pirates are not an unfamiliar foe. The lefty has twice tilted against Pittsburgh in Cincinnati, logging 11 Ks in 6.1 innings in a losing effort in September 2022 and striking out nine in five innings in his 2023 debut. The Pirates have hit their former draft pick hard, notching a .480 babip in the two games.

At the very least, it'd be nice if the Pirates weren't filled with regret Lodolo about slipping away any more after Tuesday.

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