By Emmet Mahon
When the Pirates won Major League Baseball’s first ever lottery, it gave General Manger, Ben Cherington, another opportunity to inject more talent into the burgeoning prospect system. By possessing the first overall selection, and its record high $9,721,000 slot value, Cherington has the luxury of selecting exactly who we would like. He will have an impressive field of prospects from whom to choose. College and high schools are now well underway throughout the country. Players are separating themselves from their peers or are causing scouts to reevaluate their initial opinions of them.
Who are the top prospects and how are they performing to date? Using Baseball America’s Top 300 Draft Prospects List, eight names should be receiving rigorous evaluation from Cherington and his staff.
1) Dylan Crews, OF, LSU: 35 Games, .500 BA (57/114), 60 R, 37, RBI, 12 2B, 9 HR, 3-3 Steals, 1.490 OPS
The premise of this article is that there are several prospects worthy of consideration of being selected first overall. That is somewhat misleading. There are very talented players in this year’s draft, but there is only one Dylan Crews. Crews is a star. Period. For the justifiable acclaim for the reconstruction of the Pirates farm system, the one thing that is truly missing is a bonafide, absolute star. It doesn’t hurt that Crews plays one of the thinner positions in the system. Crews murders baseballs. He has an exceptional sense of the strike zone and produces elite exit velocities. He peppers the gaps with line drives and has sufficient power to leave the park more than occasionally. Playing for one of the finest programs, he has already faced big game pressure in front of large crowds. He won’t be fazed in the big moments. He has good defense chops that will permit him to be an above average defender and remain in centerfield. If Crews is the Pirates selection, with an aggressive organizational approach, it is not unreasonable to expect Crews to
begin patrolling CF at PNC Park by mid-2025.
2) Wyatt Langford, OF, Florida: 30 Games, .377 BA (40/106), 49 R, 22 RBI, 10 2B, 3 3B, 9 HR, 11-12 Steals, 1.252 OPS
There are scouts who prefer Langford over Crews. That is primarily because of his intriguing raw power. In 2022, as a sophomore, Langford tied the Gators' HR record with 26. The ball flies off his bat to all parts of the field. He is not the overall hitter as Crews, nor as disciplined on breaking pitches. He will be susceptible to bouts of swings and misses as he moves to higher levels of professional baseball. His power potential and acceptable defense will have him manning the corner outfield in the majors.
3) Paul Skenes. P, LSU: 9 Games, 6-1, 1.69 ERA, 53.1 IP, 104:9 K:BB, 10 ER, 28 H, 3 3 2B, 2 HR
Operating under the notion that Crews will be selected first, should Skenes follow, it would be the first time college teammates would fill the first two slots in MLB history. A transfer from the Air Force, Skenes and his 6’6”, 235 lbs. frame have been dominating very good SEC hitters. Not surprisingly given his size, Skenes can bring significant heat. He keeps batters off balance with solid slider and changeup offerings. In previous seasons, when he was not pitching, he was deployed in the field to keep his intriguing bay in the lineup. That fueled speculation that he could be drafted as a two-way player. However, he has yet to record an at-bat for LSU this season, indicating that most feel his future is on the mound.
4) Chase Dollander, P, Tennessee: 9 Games, 4-4, 4.18 ERA, 47.1 IP, 71:16 K:BB, 22 ER, 39 H, 9 2B, 2, 3B, 6 HR
When initial prospect lists for the 2023 draft were released, Dollander was the consensus top pitcher. Many had him rivaling Crews for the top overall spot. The reigning SEC pitcher of the year still possesses front of the rotation, ace like, talent. His 2023 numbers are skewed by a couple of rough outings, but he still has a devastating arsenal of weapons. His delivery produces desirable high spin rates and movement. His slider compliments a fastball that can touch 99 MPH. He effectively uses his changeup to set up his fastball/slider combination and he has enough command of his curveball to use it to get swings and misses.
5) Max Clark, OF, Franklin (IN) Community HS: 9 Games, .625 BA (14/24), 17 R, 14 RBI, 5 2B, 1 HR, 1.738 OPS
Clark is the highest rated prep player in the 2023 class. The Vanderbilt commit has been on scout’s radars for a long time. Clark is a versatile and complete ballplayer. Solidly put together at 6’1”, 190 lbs., Clark can drive the ball all over the field and over the fence. He has a sharp eye for the strike zone and rarely gets fooled. Playing in Indiana, he does not see top level competition. It is a good sign that he dominates his prep level. It is his production in the travel and showcase circuits that has teams impressed. He has the athletic ability to do well in the field and is likely to be Indiana’s first ever top ten prep selection.
6) Walker Jenkins, OF, South Brunswick (SC) HS: 2 Games, .375 BA (3/8), 4 R, .819 OPS
Like Clark, Jenkins has used the travel and showcase circuit to catch the team’s eyes. A North Carolina recruit, Jenkins lost time due to a hamate bone injury in 2022. However, the lost time did not diminish his luster. Jenkins uses his textbook left-handed swing to generate above average launch angles that unlock natural and raw power. He maintains a simple approach at the plate that permits him to adjust to poor pitches that he can waste, ignore, or turn into hits. That approach will punish pitchers for mistakes. He runs well for his 6’3”, 210 lbs. physique that should keep him in centerfield as his frame continues to fill out.
7) Jacob Gonzalez, SS, Mississippi: 36 Games, .349 BA (46/132), 35 R, 37 RBI, 15 2B, 7 HR, 1.098 OPS, 2-6 Steals
Gonzalez is the most polarizing prospect at the top of this year’s board. He looks like a player out of central casting, but his inconsistency can be frustrating. He does many things well. He hits for average and power and draws walks. Gonzalez is a good, if not above average shortstop, but his size makes many think a position change will be in order, lessening his value. This spring will be important to when he hears his name called on night one of the Draft. He was once strongly considered as the top player for 2023, so he has displayed the tools to be drafted higher than his #7 ranking.
8) Jacob Wilson, SS, Grand Canyon: 31 Games, .441 BA (52/118), 26 R, 39 RBI, 11 2B, 4 3B, 2 HR, 1.145 OPS, 5-6 Steals
The most notable thing about Jacob Wilson, as far as Pirate fans are concerned, is his lineage. He is the son of long- time Bucco favorite, Jack “Flash” Wilson. The elder Wilson is Assistant Coach at Grand Canyon, giving Jacob daily access to a wealth of knowledge in succeeding at the highest levels of baseball. The younger Wilson has jumped on WAC pitching at a contact rate of 91%. He is not merely a slap singles hitter. Jacob is more of a gap hitter than a home run threat. However, when he pulls a pitch, it has a decent chance of clearing the fence. Like his father, Jacob is a talented fielder who will deliver plus shortstop play in his professional career.
When the draft commences on Sunday night, July 9, Ben Cherington will have many options from which to choose. At this point, the top prospects align nicely with organizational needs and desires. While Crews appears to be an obvious choice, things can and do change over time. At any rate, the Pirates will walk away from the first round with a very talented player.
Notes: In addition to their record top slot bonus, the Pirates will have a total pool of $16,185,700 to sign their top ten picks. This amount should ensure that the bonus for the first player selected is not an issue. Any picks after the tenth round that sign for more than $150,000 must have that overage deducted from their total pool. The first two rounds, plus compensation and competitive balance picks will occur on Sunday, July 9. The Pirates will have selections 1, 42 and 67. Rounds three through ten will occur on Monday, July 10 with rounds eleven through twenty concluding the draft on Tuesday, July 11. After the first round, the Pirates will have the third selection in each round.