Ever since our beloved overlords first took over, they've taken great pains to make it very clear that they would not repeat Littlefield's draft errors of the past. No more settling for the Moskoses of the world: The vault doors would be open to acquire the best possible talent in the draft. A few quotes:
Coonelly at PirateFest, via the P-G:
Stressing each syllable when asked if the Pirates "honestly" will draft the best available player at No. 2 overall in June: "I'll say it again: We are going to select the best player. This organization has been criticized in the past for not doing that. We are going to do it."
Huntington at MLB.com:
The budget for Latin American signing bonuses has been doubled, and the money available for signing bonuses in the amateur Draft has also significantly increased. As a result, management has said that financial limitations will no longer dictate Draft selections.
A Dejan Q&A in October of 2007:
As for whether the Pirates will take the best player, Neal Huntington told me in the stongest language possible that, if his baseball people tell him there is an exceptional player and the Pirates are in position to draft him, they will do so. If that means moving money from one pocket to the other -- reallocating, if you will -- that will happen.
Believe me: He is well aware of the Matt Wieters incident here.
MLB.com, in the story announcing Smith as the new scouting director:
There have also been questions regarding how much Creech was bound financially in being able to draft the best players and not just the most affordable. When Smith was asked if he was assured the financial ability to draft the player he and his staff target with the overall No. 2 pick next season, he didn't hesitate.
"Absolutely," Smith said. "After meeting with [Pirates president] Frank [Coonelly] ... I think there is no doubt which direction which way our club needs to go."
There are many more examples, but I think you get the idea.
The Littlefield regime's decision to select Moskos in the draft, followed by their decision to trade for Matt Morris at the deadline, was quite possibly the single biggest public relations blunder of that whole sorry chapter of Pirate history. Which, given the presence of the Aramis Ramirez fiasco on the same administration's ledger sheet, is saying something.
Huntington, Coonelly, Smith, et al. have been given a free pass by many fans up until this point. Most realistic fans recognize that the 2008 Pirates aren't likely to contend for anything more significant than fourth place in a weak division, and they're OK with that, in large part because the men in charge have indicated that building for the future is going to be handled in a serious and sensible manner. When the team didn't pursue any free agents of significance this offseason (with no disrespect intended to Chris Gomez), and didn't consummate any trades, that was OK because management was conserving financial resources for the draft. There would be no quicker way for them to squander their borrowed credibility, and in so doing lose the support of the team's loyal followers, than to waffle on the draft-related promises they disseminated so lovingly this offseason.
For this reason, it was extremely discouraging to watch Coonelly hedge on Sunday:
It will be interesting to monitor the Pirates' economic approach to the draft under Coonelly. They have the second overall pick in June. Would they bust slot?
"We'll pay attention to the slot, but we'll take the best available player that we believe we have a chance to sign," Coonelly said. "If we think a player's value is over the slot, we'd certainly consider it." -The Philadelphia Inquirer, via Charlie
Did he just let the mask slip because he was tired? Did he think that it was safe to speak his mind in a Philadelphia paper that most people here won't be able to read?
Mr. Coonelly, let me be blunt. The 2008 draft is going to make or break you. You need to make a significant demonstration of financial outlay this July, including not only a top first round talent, but also some "tough signs" from later rounds. If you do any less, you are forfeiting your public credibility in baseball-related matters henceforth and forever. Fans are going to turn from you, go back into hibernation, and wait for your inevitable dismissal four or five years down the road, when they might hope to see some improvement under the next guy. Your empire will be over before it even began.
UPDATE: 3:45, 3/5/08
I e-mailed Dejan at the P-G to find out his reaction, and he graciously allowed me to summarize his response here. He feels that Coonelly's statement from last Sunday isn't a departure from his past statements on the matter. Dejan also believes that the language on Sunday is not inconsistent with their past statements on the matter, and that signability has been a part of the conversation all along. In Dejan's opinion, Coonelly was talking about signability in part to prevent agents from holding the team over a barrel during negotiations by preemptively issuing outrageous demands. He thinks that management knows that they will be under the microscope during this year's draft, and that they will act accordingly.
I hope that he's right. I trust Dejan in his response about the team's past statements when communicating with the press, but it certainly seems to me like they've gone out of their way when speaking to the public to imply that money will be no obstacle when acquiring prospects. I follow the team more closely than many fans, and this is the first time I've seen anyone currently connected with the team quoted as using the "S"-word. A quick Google News search turns up one hit for [Pirates baseball signable]: This February 11 ESPN column by Jerry Crasnick, which includes the line: "Under chairman Bob Nutting, the Pirates promise not to make trades simply to dump salaries (can you say Aramis Ramirez?) or choose less-talented draft picks simply because they're 'signable.'" Either they appear to have been somewhat disingenuous when dealing with the public, or the exact nature of their true position has not filtered down through the media. Nuance doesn't always transmit well to the masses, but I remain somewhat skeptical that their intent is pure.
In part, I am skeptical because the changes to the draft deadline eliminate much of the players' leverage when holding out for an unreasonable payday. The elimination of the draft-and-follow has made it much harder for agents to hold out the threat of re-entry into the draft, since a college junior/draft-eligible sophomore can no longer bank a strong follow-up season to enhance their draft status. That player can spend a couple of months in a wood-bat league (like the Cape Cod league), and then he has to fish or cut bait as far as turning pro is concerned. If we take the best available player, and then aren't able to sign him, we'll get the third overall pick next year (in addition to another probable top-10 pick for this year's likely out-of-the-money finish). That's not an ideal outcome, but the downside for us is much less than the potential downside for the drafted player, who would be risking a drop in the next year's draft due to injury or ineffectiveness, and even in the best-case scenario would be delaying the start of his pro career by a year, thus costing himself a year of service time (and in turn one year's ML salary from the middle of his career).
It's also possible that this will all be a moot point. There's plenty of time for players to shuffle around on the Big Board, and the best player at our slot may very well be someone who isn't preoccupied with maxing out the dollars on his rookie deal. Justin Smoak, for one, is on the record as saying that he'll sign quickly if he's offered a fair deal. I guess we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed, and keep a few torches and pitchforks on hand in case Coonelly and Co. try to cross us up.
UPDATE #2: 5:00, 3/5/08
Coonelly again addressed the issue of signability in a chat at MLB.com today.
Regretably, signability has been a principal factor for many clubs as they evaluate players in the Draft. What the Pirates will do going forward is select the best player available who we believe will help us build the championship-caliber teams we are trying to build. No one can ignore inflated demands by agents or players, but we will not allow signability to dictate our decision making.
So there you have it.