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Cook: Pirates' timing bad in draft

Wednesday, June 05, 2002

The afternoon got off to a fairly rotten start when Pirates General Manager Dave Littlefield quoted a longtime scout as calling the 2002 baseball draft talent pool the worst in the sport's history.

It didn't get much better when Littlefield emerged later to say of the Pirates' No. 1 pick, Ball State right-handed pitcher Bryan Bullington, with less than overwhelming enthusiasm, "We feel comfortable projecting him as a No. 3 starter."

That's it?

The first pick in the entire draft isn't going to be another Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez or even Mark Prior?

He's going to be a No. 3 starter?

It seems pretty obvious the Pirates picked a lousy year last season to lose 100 games and end up with the No. 1 pick.

"You might get the same guy at No. 19 that you get at No. 1," Baltimore Orioles scouting director Tony DeMacio told Baseball America.

That might make them happy in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers picked first baseman James Loney with the No. 19 selection, but it can't do much for the Pirates, who now must pony up the going-rate signing bonus of between $4 million and $5 million for a player who might end up being another Josh Fogg if all goes well or another Jimmy Anderson if it doesn't.

That isn't to say Bullington was a bad choice. The other players the Pirates considered -- five-tool shortstop B.J. Upton and left-hander Adam Loewen -- were high school players. It doesn't matter that some overly optimistic scouts are saying Upton could be the next Derek Jeter and others are comparing Loewen to a young Steve Carlton. The Pirates couldn't wait five years for them to develop. In case you haven't noticed, they're headed toward their 10th consecutive losing season and need help quickly. Bullington, 21, is a lot further along and has fewer obstacles to clear to get to the big leagues. Littlefield is hoping he can make it "in a couple of years ... "

"Our draft isn't like the NFL or NBA draft," Littlefield said. "They draft players from the next-highest level under theirs. Our sport goes to much lower levels -- to the high schools and to four-year colleges. Even the best college players need up to two years to make it to the major leagues. Most need four to five and high school kids even longer. There's significantly more risk with players who are five or six years away."

If nothing else, Bullington appears better suited than Upton or Loewen to deal with the enormous pressure that goes with being the No. 1 pick, especially of a small-market franchise that can't afford any more mistakes -- Clint Johnston, Mark Farris, Charles Peterson, etc. -- in the first round. Noted soft touch Jeff King, whom the Pirates took with the No. 1 overall choice in '86, struggled mightily with the expectations early in his career. Bullington should be tougher mentally. He played basketball for his father, Larry, an Indiana hoops legend, at Madison, Ind., High School.

That, too, is pressure.

"When you're the coach's son, you're under a pretty tight microscope," Bullington said. "If you're going to play, you had better be able to play well."

The heat here isn't on only Bullington. It's just as much on Littlefield, and even more is on new scouting director Ed Creech, whom Littlefield slyly fingered as the man "mainly responsible for this pick."

Rough translation:

Blame ol' Ed if Bullington is a bust.

It would be nice if Bullington is the real deal because he's going to get the big money, but it's just as important that Littlefield and Creech are right about a few of their other picks yesterday and today. The Pirates aren't going to get better by adding pricey free agents. They have to do it through the draft. Their past three drafts, under former scouting director Mickey White, were generally highly regarded around baseball. The five before that were horrible because of bad scouting and a worse budget and explain why the team was a 100-loss joke last season.

"We're hoping that our scouting group is more talented than the others," Littlefield said.

It can happen.

Littlefield loves to point out that the Cincinnati Reds seemingly secured their outfield for years by drafting Austin Kearns No. 1 and Adam Dunn No. 2 in the '98 draft. "We need a draft like that." He also loves to point out that New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza was a 62nd-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in '88. "It doesn't matter where they come from. We just need to find better players."

The sooner the better.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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