A few weeks ago, my friends Bill and The Common Man over at The Platoon Advantage contacted me with a rather ambitious project. They wanted to conduct a three-round MLB expansion draft with the two of them acting as GMs of new MLB franchises and with individual bloggers acting as GMs of their favorite teams to make the list of protected players. They asked me to step into Neal Huntington's shoes and make the protected lists for the Pirates and I of course agreed because, 1.) it's an awesome idea that I was honored to be asked to be a part of and 2.) Cam Bonifay's decision to not protect Joe Randa in the 1997 expansion draft is one of the most underrated moments in the 2001-2003 Pirate debacle, as it lead directly to Aramis Ramirez's arbitration clock ticking away early and there was absolutely nothing good that came of that.
I think their results are interesting and what's really interesting to me is how much my opinion of some players within the Pirates' system has shifted even in the couple of weeks that have passed since work on this began. Here are the relevant links over to TPA: Introduction, first round, second and third rounds, and Keith Law's draft breakdown. Bill and TCM put a ton of work into this and the final product is really impressive and highly recommended.
And if that's not enough, I've got 1000+ words under the jump about the players I protected and the reasoning behind my choices and thoughts about proven vs. unproven talent, etc.
The predraft 15
Each team got to choose 15 players to protect from the expansion draft before the draft began. Because the theoretical draft is taking place after the 2011 season, the assumption is that free agents-to-be will be free agents, so I didn't worry myself with guys like Paul Maholm or Ryan Doumit. All 2010 and 2011 draft picks are exempt from the draft, as are all players drafted and signed at the age of 18 or younger in 2009. That last part means high schoolers, which means I didn't have to worry about any of the Hickory guys like Colton Cain, which made my choices a bit easier. Here's how I broke down the first 15 to protect.
The no brain position players: Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Starling Marte
I don't think these six need much explanation; they're all young, talented, and under contract for a long time. Losing any of them would be disastrous to the future of the Pirates
The pitchers: Joel Hanrahan, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, Brad Lincoln
Again, Morton and McDonald are young pitchers who can eat innings and who haven't even hit arbitration as of 2011. The Pirates can't afford to lose them. I was loathe to cover up a reliever with one of my first 15 spots, but Hanrahan's been so good and his trade value is so high that losing him for nothing would be unacceptable. The four guys from Altoona's rotation were a bit tougher to peg; they're all talented and advanced enough that an expansion team may take a flier on them, but they're all fringey enough that using nearly a third of my roster space on them was difficult. To be honest, I made out my Top 15 list on May 30th and as of today, I'm not sure I'd include Morris given his struggles this year and the fact that he may be moved to the 'pen. At the time, I was asking myself if it was worth keeping one year of a guy like Kevin Correia or a couple years of a guy like Jeff Karstens safe at the risk of losing one of the four minor leaguers entirely. There's not an easy answer, so I went with the youth.
The Final Spot: Alex Presley
Not an easy choice at all. I considered Evan Meek on the same principle as Hanrahan (trade value, more on Meek in a bit), but decided I wasn't wasting two spots on relievers. And with a ton of pitchers already covered up, I decided to keep Presley on the idea that he's a 0-2 guy and his gaudy Triple-A numbers would make him attractive to a Triple-A team, making him more succeptible to being picked than Josh Harrison or Chase D'Arnaud.
The next three
I lost Kevin Correia in the first round, which wasn't all that surprisng. He was someone I'd identified as an acceptable loss, given that the Pirates only have his rights for one more year after 2011 and his trade value is never going to be that high. The Bucs will miss the innings in the short term, but he's not a long-term Pirate and he's replaceble through free agency. After losing Correia, I got to pull three more players back and I chose Josh Harrison, Chase d'Arnaud, and Evan Meek.
I picked Harrison and d'Arnaud on the same principle as Presley; they're young players under control for a long time that an expanion team would probably be happy to have around. I thought d'Arnaud was particularly important to protect given the Pirates' weakness at shortstop and I think Harrison has the potential to be a useful utility guy. I'm not at all happy with protecting Meek and to be honest, I wouldn't do it again right now, much less after the season. I made the pick before he went back on the disabled list and was thinking at the time that his pedigree as an All-Star reliever would give him plenty of trade value after the Pirates auctioned Hanrahan off to the highest bidder. If I were making this list today, I'd probably protect the exact guy that I ended up losing in the second round: Jeff Karstens.
As you all know by now, Karstens isn't really my favorite Pirate, but he's a versatile and useful pitcher capable of eating up chunks of innings, which is exactly what the team would need after losing Correia and Maholm to free agency. Like Correia, losing Karstens isn't a devastating loss, but in tandem I'm digging a pretty deep hole for my 2012 Pirates in terms of pitching.
The final three
I got to choose three more players to pull back for the final round. Having lost Correia and Karstens, I decided to hang on to Dan McCutchen to protect at least some Major League innings (we're also getting down to the nitty gritty of the roster here). McCutchen doesn't have that much service time and I think he's got the chance to be a Karstens-type swing-man/fifth starter and he's been a pretty strong reliever this year. I also covered up Kyle McPherson and Eric Fryer, simply because they're the sorts of players I don't think the Pirates should be losing.
I ended up losing Tim Alderson in the final round, which I wasn't really all that thrilled with. Not because Alderson's a great prospect right now, but just that he's a 6'6" guy that's still only 22 and he seems to be putting at least something back together in Altoona this year. Still, he's struggled of late and I was kind of in a pickle: having lost Correia and Karstens I really didn't want to risk any more big league pitching, even if I'm not Dan McCutchen's biggest fan.
In the end, I think I did OK. My main goal was to protect the players that will make up the Future Pittsburgh Pirates and if Alderson's the best prospect I lost, it's hard to say that I lost much in the way of prospects. Losing Correia and Karstens would hurt short-term, but neither is an irreplaceable or long-term part of the Pirates. Knowing that the Bucs should head into the winter of 2011 with money to spend and hopefully able to make a better case for themsevles as a free agent destination, it's possible that both spots could be shored up via free agency without missing much of a beat.
I do think it's interesting how quickly opinion can shift on these guys. I made my picks for the first round two weeks ago and the later rounds even more recently, but in that short of a turn-around I'd really reconsider guys like Morris and Meek today. Some of that is hindsight (honestly, if I cut Morris off of the first round list I would've been picking between Harrison, d'Arnaud, and Correia for that spot and I probably wouldn't have chosen Correia) and some of that is colored by the success the Pirates have had in the few weeks since. It really does illustrate what a precarious point the Pirates are in in their rebuilding process, I think. I know I say this a lot, but I really wouldn't want Neal Huntington's job right now.