05/21/2002 3:54 pm ET
Establishing a draft philosophy
Pirates GM Littlefield sets the tone for draft day
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
This is the second in a series of stories detailing what three people in baseball will go through as they prepare for the First-Year Player Draft. MLB.com is also profiling high school pitching prospect Scott Kazmir and Padres scouting director Bill "Chief" Gayton.
It's difficult enough to figure out who to take in the first round of the draft. Try coming up with a plan to cover 50 rounds over two days.
That's the challenge facing Dave Littlefield and the 29 other Major League general managers as the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, to be held June 4-5, creeps closer. As much attention as the Pirates are getting for having the good fortune/burden of making the first selection, Littlefield and his staff are preparing for the entire draft just like everyone else.
"Our situation is a little different than the norm because I'm a new general manager, was appointed in July, and had hired a new Scouting Director, Ed Creech, in December," Littlefield said. "Although we're new with the Pirates, Ed Creech and myself have worked together for six or seven years in the past, and are very familiar with our philosophies."
Littlefield and Creech may be on the same page with each other, but they had a lot of work to do to get up to speed on their new team. Constructing an overall draft philosophy has more variables than an algebra problem, and organizational needs might top that list.
"We talk about that, and evaluate our scouting reports that we do internally to get an idea of what our strengths and weaknesses are throughout the organization," Littlefield said. "Even so far as what kind of ballpark you play in, and maybe there are inherent advantages to certain types of players that may be, over the course of time, more oriented to having success in a ballpark than others."
Types of ballplayers might be factor No. 2 to consider. Are you a tools guy? Do you like the raw athlete with a ton of upside? Or are you a fan of college arms? Obviously, this factor is tied into the first variable -- organizational need -- but different teams, different scouting directors and GMs specifically, have different approaches on this issue.
The high school vs. college argument is a fairly basic one. While there might be some unbelievable talent, albeit unrefined, in the high school ranks, college players generally are more mature -- both physically and emotionally -- and have played at a higher level of competition. In other words, there's a better idea of what you're getting when you draft college players.
Littlefield wouldn't say where he leans officially, but don't be surprised if the Pirates hit the campuses hard this draft. Littlefield mentioned the maturity issue, as well as the fact that studies have shown that high schoolers, especially pitchers, have a greater tendency to run into injury problems as they move through the minors.
"We will consider both college and high school players, but the true key is you have to identify the right guy," Littlefield said. "Easy to say, hard to do. In general, there's significantly less risk in drafting a college player than drafting a high school player."
The "low risk" route may make the most sense for Littlefield. When he was hired to take over the Pirates, he was enlisted to turn a franchise around. Any GM will tell say there is a limited window to show he can right the ship. Given that pressure, it would only make sense for Littlefield to be college-heavy, picking guys who might be able to help out much sooner than most high school picks would.
And it's also why he freely admits he looks at other teams' draft strategies to help craft his own.
"I think it's a healthy thing to analyze the industry, particularly when you look at teams present day," Littlefield said. "How did those teams get there? How were they built? You go to an Oakland, who I look at as a model out there for a market that we're in, with what they've done. You look at the (Mark) Mulders, the (Barry) Zitos, the (Tim) Hudsons, (Eric) Chavez, what they've done in Latin America.
"As the Pittsburgh Pirates, we lost 100 games last year and finished in last place. I came in as the general manager and I certainly want to look out there for models, what the Phillies have done, what the Twins have done, Oakland, the White Sox. [Those are teams] that are at the spots we'd like to be at, and [we'll] try to get moving in that direction, maybe through some of the philosophy they've used in the past."
The implementation of their philosophy really starts before the draft. Every team will have its own lists and own rankings of the thousands of draft-eligible players. How Littlefield and his staff arrange that list will go a long way toward determining how they stick to their strategy.
"We do have a plan in place in general, but that plan is implemented in how we go about categorizing the players in preferential order," Littlefield said. "As those players get selected, we will have the best player available ready to pick off the board.
"We'll map out what we consider to be the best players, not only in preferential order, but by position. As things unfold, and the names get pulled off that draft board, there will be an indication as you get down to that selection as to who the best player available is, and that generally is the decision that you make."
Of course, a philosophy is never set in stone. As much as the Pirates will head into the draft thinking about which players they want to get when, they do have to be ready to shift their thinking if the tenor of the draft changes.
Littlefield thinks it can be one of the biggest dangers in the draft: getting caught up in a run. Every year, there's plenty of right-handed pitching to be had, but not nearly as many lefties available (Littlefield points out that about 12 percent of the population is left-handed, yet every team wants a couple of lefties in the bullpen and one or two southpaw starters). So when one team picks a left-hander, it can create an avalanche.
"When one or two go off the board, there seems to be a pretty good run of those same types of players picked because a lot of organizations get into the mind-set, 'We better grab one while we can,'" Littlefield said. "They're really at a premium and they're hard to come by. Often, you'll see that, when some type of premium catcher is taken, all of a sudden in that round, you've got five catchers taken, because everyone starts to -- I don't want to say panic -- move quickly so that they don't go through the draft without getting the quality catcher they wanted."
Yet another factor Littlefield has to consider is: what's in the draft pool. It's fine to have a strategy to load up on college pitching, or power-hitting infielders, but only if it's clear those kinds of players exist when and where you want to draft them."
"I do believe in strategy as you pick by round," Littlefield said. "What is out there in the pool will determine to some degree how you go about selecting those players."
Fifty rounds, thousands of players to sort through, and all those factors: organizational needs, college vs. high school talent, the depth of the draft pool, not to mention signability issues. With all of that swimming through a GM's mind, it can become tremendously difficult to create a philosophy and stick with it. For that reason, Littlefield tries to keep a basic tenet as simple as possible.
"One of the difficult things, particularly early in the draft is that you have to draft the best players available," Littlefield said. "I believe that if you get too many factors involved in your selection, you're going to end up going towards areas that really aren't the reason why you should be drafting that player.
"When you look at the track record of drafts throughout baseball history, we haven't been overly successful as a whole. I think when you get other factors into it, other than drafting the best player, it gets confusing."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
"I believe that if you get too many factors involved in your selection, you're going to end up going towards areas that really aren't the reason why you should be drafting that player."
-- Pirates GM Dave Littlefield