By John Perrotto
The Pirates, as much as any of the game's 30 franchises, were the reason why Major League Baseball totally revamped its draft rules last winter when the owners reached a new collective bargaining agreement with the Players Association.
The Pirates continually exceeded MLB's recommended slot bonus suggestions on draft picks during general manager Neal Huntington's first four drafts. They also set a record last season by spending $17.075 million on their selections.
While the new rules limit the Pirates to spending $6.653 million on its 11 selections this year or face penalties as stiff as forfeiting their first two draft picks next year, they remained aggressive in the draft that ended Wednesday by taking players who figure to be tough to sign. Any pick from the 11th round must be signed for $100,000 or his bonus will also count against the team's pool.
"We said all along that we would stay true to our draft board and take the guys we felt were the best players," Huntington said. "I feel like we did that. I'm very happy with the players we were able to draft. I feel we had a deep draft and I'm hopeful we can bring a lot of them into the organization."
Now the question is whether the Pirates will indeed be able to sign those players.
The biggest question surrounds first-round pick Mark Appel, a right-hander from Stanford who slipped to the No. 8 overall pick. It had been speculated for weeks that Appel would be selected by the Houston Astros with the first pick.
Speculation has ran rampant that the Astros passed on Appel because his represented by Scott Boras, the toughest-negotiating agent in the business. However, an Astros source said they took Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa because "we were blown away by his workout" and not because they felt they would have a hard time signing Appel.
Six other clubs also passed on Appel before the Pirates took him at No. 8. Sources from three of those teams also said there was no Boras effect at work.
"Appel is going to be a good major-league pitcher but it's not like he was the clear-cut best player in the draft," one scouting director said. "Appel going No. 1 was a media creation more than anything. I don't think anyone in the industry though the Astros were dead set on taking him. I bet if you polled all 30 teams, less than half of them had Appel at No. 1 on their boards. He was the best player left when the Pirates picked but he wasn't necessarily the best player overall."
Huntington is optimistic the Pirates will sign Appel without having to skimp on their other picks in the top 10 rounds. MLB's recommended bonus for the No. 8 pick is $2.9 million, but based on history, it would not be shocking for Boras to ask for $6 million, the recommendation for the No. 1 pick.
No one knows what Appel's camp is thinking as he declined the Pirates' request to participate in a conference call with reporters after being drafted. Monday night. Appel initially posted positive comments about the Pirates on his Twitter account but they had been deleted within 90 minutes of his selection.
A Pirates' source says they will not go overboard in trying to sign Appel. If the sides fail to reach agreement, the Pirates would receive the No. 9 pick in next year's draft as compensation.
"We won't be afraid to walk away from it," the source said. "If we don't get a deal done, we'll stick that No. 9 pick in our back pocket and come back next year."
John Perrotto has covered the Pirates and Major League Baseball for 25 years.