BRADENTON, Fla. — A peek into the future, perhaps as near as the second half of the 2013 season:
Gerrit Cole stands atop the PNC Park mound, begins his windup and bends a wicked breaking pitch into catcher Tony Sanchez’s mitt.
Andrew McCutchen’s home run and Travis Snider’s two-run double give Cole a lead that he protects through six innings. He’s helped out of his biggest jam early in the game by third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who makes a diving stop with the bases loaded and tosses to second baseman Neil Walker for the inning-ending forceout.
When Cole needs more help later, from the Pirates bullpen, he gets plenty: southpaw Kris Johnson matches up with a lefty slugger to get the last out in the sixth, Vic Black and Brooks Brown team up in the seventh, and Bryan Morris works a perfect eighth.
Then Jason Grilli mows through the ninth for the save.
So? So every one of the 11 players mentioned above is a former No. 1 choice in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft, an uncommon collection of blue-chip talent that could be the team’s springboard from under .500 this past season into years of high orbit.
In a real-world sense, the menagerie is meaningless.
“I don’t think anybody in this game can hang their hat on what round they were drafted,” said Snider (national 14th pick in 2006). “Most important is what you do from that point until now.”
“If you’re a first-rounder, congratulations. And move on,” said Morris (26th in 2006). “Pretty soon, everybody is on a level playing field.”
“But to look around and be able to say there’s some good talent in this room — absolutely,” Snider had to add.
The collection speaks to the Pirates’ acumen to identify their own high-ceiling prospects and their willingness to invest big bonus money in these players. It also speaks to their general manager’s tendency to acquire others’ prospects. Grilli (Drafted No. 1 by the Giants in 1997), Brown (by the D-backs in 2006), Johnson (by the Red Sox in 2006), Morris (by the Dodgers) and Snider (by Toronto) came from outside in various manners; the other six were drafted by the Bucs.
There is, significantly, a very notable 12th No. 1: Jameson Taillon, the overall second pick in 2010. But in choosing No. 1 Draft choices who could all be on the field in the same game, it’s either him or Cole, not both.
“It’s a credit to those before us,” Neal Huntington, the general manager, said in deference to the Dave Littlefield-led regime that preceded his, “and a credit to the guys here now, in terms of scouting. And a credit to those players, for working hard. It’s not always an easy road — look at Jason Grilli — and sometimes guys get off track.
“Truth is, we need guys from the fifth round and from the 14th round to have impact as well. We’re working hard to deepen talent to help us win at the Major League level.”
There are no documented records in this regard, but merely having four former No. 1s in the regular lineup — a common occurrence in the second half of last season with the McCutchen-Alvarez-Walker-Snider connection — is special enough.
“And you’ve got me knocking on the door,” said Sanchez, the national fourth pick in 2009. “I hope you can include me as soon as possible. It’s a testament to the player development program. They made a lot of good Draft picks and had all of us come up through the system.
“It’s also a testament to what they do with us, and how they prepare us to succeed. They give us a lot of beneficial info that we use during games, a lot of instruction, a lot of ways to sharpen our discipline and our approach.”
It is still up to the individual how all the information is processed, and how quickly. The Pirates blue-chippers all agreed that one tangible benefit of being a No. 1 Draft choice is the number of chances that come with it.
“It’s an investment for the organization,” said Walker, national No. 11 pick in 2004, “and when you’re at the lower levels, you’re going to get more attention from coaches. You may get more opportunities here and there because of the investment the organization has in you.”
“It probably matters at the beginning,” echoed Morris, “because you might get more chances than a guy who was drafted low or not at all. It’s probably tougher on those guys to move on, because they really have to show something early in their Minor League careers.”
“But,” Walker stressed, “once you get to Triple-A, it means absolutely nothing. You have to prove yourself day in and day out. That’s especially true when you get to the big leagues; then nobody cares if you’re a first-round or 40th-round pick.”
“Look across the game: There are a lot of successful players, even great players, who weren’t even picked in the top 15 rounds,” Snider said. “When you look back, being a No. 1 means nothing more than we were talented and highly-touted coming into the Draft.”
The mandate that staff be patient with players who they highly regard is understandable; everybody wants to be proven correct. Perhaps the only thing more satisfying than that is proving you can amend others’ “mistakes,” which partly explains the presences of Brown and Johnson, who have each toiled for five years on other organizations’ Minor League ladders without a sip of big league coffee.
“It definitely doesn’t always pan out,” said McCutchen, the national No. 11 pick in 2005. “But that’s the name of the game. Sometimes it happens for you, sometimes it doesn’t. But for the most part, we’ve done a pretty good job of it — to have that many [No. 1s] at this stage.
“It’s a mixture of proper development and perseverance. And a sign that, yeah, things are moving in the right direction. People may not yet see that. We are not where we want to end up.”
Flood the field with Numero Unos, and people will notice.
“I haven’t thought of that. That’d be pretty cool,” Cole said of the possibility of keeping such first-round company. “Is that pretty unusual? It’d be pretty sweet, special.
“That’s a pretty consistent track record of not swinging and missing on the first pick,” added the right-hander, whose own swing-and-miss stuff is part of the talent lode.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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