It’s hard to say that a team has a type of player they look for in a certain round. Every draft is its own living organism and teams are taking players they want based on talent and signing bonus demands. However, one could look at the eight drafts completed under Neal Huntington and say that the Pirates might have a thing for college pitchers in the 5th round.
The 2016 draft will take place from June 9-11, so the 5th round will occur on Friday the 10th. There’s a better than average chance that the pick will be a college pitcher, especially one that is considered somewhat polished from a major program. In eight drafts, the Pirates have drafted five college pitchers in the 5th round. (A 6th pitcher was a high school pick by the name of Tyler Glasnow, who is obviously shaping up to be the most successful 5th rounder of all eight). Interestingly, the here-to-now bookends of Huntington’s tenure, 2008’s Justin Wilson and 2015’s Brandon Waddell, were both lefties and both prominent members of College World Series-winning teams.
The Pirates are very methodical at their placement and movement of players within their minor league system. For the most part, it is one rung at a time, with certain exceptions for players performing well outside the curve. But there’s seemingly always one college-drafted pitcher that gets skipped over Low-A during their first full season in the Pirates’ system. That happened to both Justin Wilson and Brandon Waddell, in addition to 2012 5th round draftee Adrian Sampson, who was traded to the Mariners for JA Happ last July and is flourishing in Triple-A for them.
Wilson is well-known to you, loyal Pirate fan, but to quickly recap — cultivated as a starting pitcher, but his control issues of routinely posting 4+ walks per 9 innings precluded him from starting in the Majors, became a powerful lefty reliever, traded for Francisco Cervelli. Brandon Waddell may be less known to you. Waddell got a taste of the minors last year after his extended run to winning the College World Series with Virginia. As I mentioned, he was skipped over Low-A and assigned to High-A Bradenton where he proceeded to put up five dominant starts (4-0, 0.93 ERA, 29 IP, 13 H, 2 BB, 26 K). He was then quickly promoted even further to Double-A Altoona on May 3rd. This is fairly unprecedented for the Pirates, who are reticent to move players up quickly, especially not until mid-June after the fresh crop of draftees are in the system and prospect promotions typically happen. Waddell has acquitted himself well in Double-A with a 3-0/2.41 ERA/18 IP, 15 H, 2 BB, 12 K performance in three starts.
Even though Waddell is off to a sizzling start, his ultimate upside is probably that of a #3/#4 starter. His fastball sits 90-92 mph with a very good slider and workable changeup, as well. I fear he may be relying on his somewhat deceptive release to fool lower level hitters at this point in his career. Getting to the Majors at all is a great feat for a 5th rounder. There have been some studies a few years back that showed the rate is around 30% for all drafted 5th rounders to make the Majors and less than 10% will enjoy careers featuring more than 1.0 WAR.
Barring injuries, Waddell seems as if he has a strong tailwind of support from the Pirates’ front office and will be pushed accordingly until resistance is met. It appears the Pirates may have been having an internal debate over his initial 2016 placement then promoted him early once he proved someone wrong. It would be hard to envision him moving up to Triple-A this season, but with Glasnow/Taillon/Kuhl all possibilities to see Pittsburgh this year, someone is going to have to pitch in the rotation in Indianapolis. Assuming he stays in Altoona the remainder of 2016, Waddell seems to be a lock to start at Indy in 2017. With Cole-Liriano-Taillon-Glasnow shaping up to be the front four in the rotation for 2017, there may not be a lot of room at the inn for Waddell to see Pittsburgh mid-2017. But his ascent heretofore has been swift and somewhat unexpected, so a mid-2017 debut in the Majors wouldn’t be the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard.
Two weeks from now all eyes will be on the Pirates’ 1st round pick on Thursday, June 9th. But keep an eye on who they draft in the 5th round the next day, too. Odds are in favor that it will be a solid, college pitcher that the Pirates have strong hopes for.