Heading into 2020, Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting decided to finally shake things up at all levels of the organization.
After a disastrous 2019 season that saw the Bucs finish dead last in the National League Central, the team decided to part ways with general manager Neal Huntington, team president Frank Coonelly, and manager Clint Hurdle along with most everyone else in the front office and coaching staff. This move was met with cautious optimism by many, as fans laid much of the blame for recent failures at the feet of Huntington’s outdated philosophy.
The draft would provide fans with the first look at Huntington’s replacement, Ben Cherington. Cherington brings 21 years of scouting and executive experience to Pittsburgh. From 1999 to 2015, he was with the Boston Red Sox, starting as an area scout and eventually working his way up to GM.
He most notably built the 2013 Red Sox championship roster from the ground up, taking home the Executive of the Year award that same year. Most recently, Cherington was the vice president of baseball operations with the Toronto Blue Jays for three years before becoming the Pirates’ GM after the 2019 season. Due to COVID-19 delaying the start of the MLB season, the draft served as the first test for Cherington in Pittsburgh.
With the seventh overall pick, the Pirates selected shortstop/second baseman Nick Gonzales from New Mexico State. Gonzales joins the organization after a highly-accomplished college career. He is a three-time All-American, 2020 Collegiate Baseball Newspaper National Player of the Year, and 2019 Division I batting title winner. Gonzales has a nice tight swing; his hitting mechanics are comparable to Mike Trout with the way he finishes through the ball. His career statistics are just as impressive as his accolades; in three years at New Mexico state, Gonzales lit it up at the plate:
128 Games / .399 Avg / .502 OBP / .747 SLG / 1.249 OPS / 152 RBI / 37 HR
Gonzales will likely be developed at second base long-term, since the shortstop position is already occupied by a few high-potential young players in Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman, and ONeil Cruz. Also at 28 years old, there is some question as to whether Adam Frazier will still be starting at second by the time Gonzales is ready for that role. Getting an offensive middle infielder is huge for this team. If he can develop into a star, the Pirates’ infield could be one of the best in the league. That of course, is if Josh Bell is still in town, and Ke’Bryan Hayes pans out at third. This pick gives the teams a few good options going forward in the middle infield.
With the 31st overall pick, the Pirates went with right-handed pitcher Carmen Mlodzinski, out of South Carolina. Mlodzinski is the first in a series of pitchers taken by the Pirates that were position players in high school. He is a talented arm with limited experience at this position. He will have room to grow as he gets more experience in the Pirates’ system. His career stats in the SEC don’t jump off the page (81.2 IP, 4.74 ERA, 1.531 WHIP), but his 2019 was cut short by a broken foot and 2020 was cancelled after only four starts.
The Cape Cod League is where Mlodzinski really turned heads. Due to the shortened 2020 season, many scouts and GMs gave the Cape Cod League more consideration. In this time, Mlodzinski put up some nice numbers:
29.1 IP / 2.15 ERA / 0.648 WHIP / 40 SO / 4.6 H9 / 1.2 BB9 / 0.3 HR9 / 12.3 SO9
He has three pitches in his arsenal: a mid-high 90s fastball, a polished slider, and a changeup that will get better. Cherington no doubt made this pick to address and huge need on the mound. It will be interesting to see how this guy develops over the next few years; he is certainly oozing with potential.
The Pirates went with another right-handed pitcher in the second round; this time, they chose a high school arm. Jared Jones is one of the most powerful arms in the 2020 prep class. For a high school player, Jones has an absolute cannon for an arm. He already wields a fastball that consistently sits around 94 to 97 miles per hour, and he has hit as high as 99. He also throws a tight slider that has good lateral break and can throw a curveball that still needs work. Jones will need to work on his control at the next level, but for his age, he has a very advanced arm.
Jones is also a good athlete who can swing the bat some. With more talk about adding a universal designated hitter, however, this may not be a factor by the time he is ready for the bigs. This pick fits Cherington’s draft theme of taking exceptional athletes with a ton of potential on the mound. Jones will be exciting to watch as he makes his way through the system.
The Bucs’ third round pick was used on Nick Garcia. Garcia is the most interesting pick in the draft. At Chapman College, he dominated his Division III competition. Garcia posted a career 1.08 ERA, and 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Many thought that he was a first-round talent, and he most likely would have gone in the first round had he attended a Division I school. Garcia works with three pitches: a fastball, a curveball, and a cutter. He will need to focus on his control going forward.
This was a great find for Cherington in the third round — possibly the best value of any pick in the draft. Cherington liked Garcia’s size (6-foot-5, 215 pounds) and thought he could eventually be a starter in the major leagues. Garcia is another pitcher who didn’t start pitching until college; he originally played infield. During the draft, Garcia drew comparisons to Hall of Famer and former Cy Young winner John Smoltz. That’s a stretch at this point, but if he’s half as good as Smoltz, this pick will be a steal.
In the fourth round, Pittsburgh went with right-handed pitching again. This time, they selected Appalachian State’s closer Jack Hartman. Cherington continued to address the club’s biggest needs. If Hartman can develop into a reliable bullpen arm, this pick will be huge for the team. He had an impressive start to a shortened 2020 season with four saves and 22 strikeouts, which led the Sun Belt in both categories. Hartman uses a fastball in the mid-90s, a cutter, and a slider.
Hartman has some good stuff and is a great competitor by all accounts. There is always value to adding players that have experienced success in their college career. The Pirates especially could use some winners as Cherington tries to change the culture in the organization. Hopefully, Hartman’s success as a closer in college will translate and he will be able to contribute in the future. The club needs relievers that can make an impact badly. The more bullpen talent, the better.
With their last pick, the Pirates went with yet another right-handed pitcher. Logan Hofmann had a good performance in the Cape Cod League, and dominated in his four 2020 starts. In the shortened 2020 season, the Cape Cod All-Star pitched 28 innings with a 0.00 ERA and a 0.841 WHIP. Hofmann was the fifth right-handed pitcher taken by the Pirates in this draft as Cherington continued to draft for pitching needs.
It’s hard not to like the potential of a player who can dominate his competition like Hofmann did in the Cape Cod League and at Northwestrn State. He is the smallest pitcher the Bucs drafted at 5-10, and 190 pounds. He was previously drafted in the 35th round of the 2019 draft by the St. Louis Cardinals, but did not sign. Hofmann is an underslot pick here, giving the Pirates the ability to sign their earlier picks.
Overall, this class deserves an A- grade. Cherington found a good mix of getting the best available player, and drafting for needs. The one knock on this class would be the fact that five of the six players are right-handed pitchers. It would’ve been nice to see some variety since the team has a variety of needs. One or two lefties would have been nice, especially since most of the pitchers currently with the Pirates are also righties.
This isn’t a big problem however, since it’s more important to get the most talented pitchers rather than choosing by handedness. It would have also been nice to have seen Cherington grab a catcher, but he could fill that need through free agency or a trade. This is one of the more competent Pirates drafts in recent memory. The Ben Cherington era is off to a promising start.