SECAUCUS, N.J. -- As the clock ticked toward Monday's 7 p.m. ET start to the MLB Draft, two longtime Pirates fans sat anxiously arguing about which player their beloved Bucs should take with the first overall pick that would be announced in mere minutes by commissioner Bud Selig. They debated the merits of 10 different players and still couldn't come up with a perfect choice they could both agree upon. "I think we have to go with a pitcher," said one. "No way," said the other. "It should be an infielder."
Were it not for the World Series rings reflecting underneath the glare of a bank of TV cameras, Al Oliver and Dave Cash could well have passed for just another pair of long-suffering Pirates supporters. Instead, they were the chosen on-site representatives of the team they had helped lead to the 1971 world championship and they would get a few minutes' head start on the news Selig would announce: who would be the No. 1 overall pick?
Just before Selig ambled to the stage, the phone rang at the Pirates' draft table in MLB Network's Stduio 42. Oliver picked it up. He listened for a moment and then said to Cash: "Gerrit Cole." Cash, the former second baseman who only minutes earlier had hoped his former club would select a fellow infielder, had a sudden change of heart. "That's who we needed," he said. "Without a doubt. You can never get enough pitching."
Indeed, that seemed to be the refrain in the opening few selections of the 2011 MLB Draft. For the first time since the draft's inception in 1965, the first four picks were all pitchers. Cole, the hard-throwing UCLA right-hander, was followed by Danny Hultzen, a lefthander from Virginia who went to the Mariners at No. 2; righty Trevor Bauer, a UCLA teammate of Cole's who was taken by the Diamondbacks; and righty Dylan Bundy, a prep star from Oklahoma who was snatched by the Orioles.
That pitching is a desired commodity around the game is certainly nothing new but a confluence of factors conspired to make this year's draft particularly so. The first was the obvious absence of an offensive force along the lines of Bryce Harper, the phenom whom the Nationals took No. 1 overall a year ago and who is currently tearing up pitching at Class A. The second is that as the past two seasons have shown, pitching has regained its supremacy over hitting, and teams looking to climb back into contention are more likely to do so on the strength of quality young arms than they are a middle-of-the-order bat.
Then there is the matter of availability. As teams focus more than ever on locking up starting pitchers long-term and buying out some of their free-agent years, the open market is less saturated with elite pitchers in their primes than it used to be. By the end of the 2012 season, when the top four pitchers selected on Monday could be getting ready to assume a significant role with their parent club, the free-agent market for starting pitchers will include few who have been proven No. 1 aces (Zack Greinke and, for a time, Cole Hamels) but a lot of hurlers with major question marks (Joe Blanton, Chad Billingsley). After 2013, the best starter available is likely to be Dan Haren, who will be 33 by then; beyond that are a series of middling options that come with the baggage of age (Tim Hudson), emotions (Carlos Zambrano) or health (Jake Peavy).
Even if there were enough attractive options, teams picking at the top of the draft would have to weigh the merits of paying big money for what is usually the declining years of a player's career when they can pay far less for the early years. Cole, for instance, is likely to command a signing bonus north of the $6 million-plus that the Pirates gave to Pedro Alvarez, their first pick in 2008 and Jameson Taillon, their first pick from 2009, but that is a mere fraction of the cost that a No. 1 or 2 starter would be in free-agency for a single season, much less the length of the deal.
Assuming the Pirates can sign Cole, who is being advised by Scott Boras, before the Aug. 15 deadline, they would suddenly have a minor league system heavy with quality starting pitching but light on cost. Cole would join Jameson Taillon, last year's No. 2 overall pick who received a $6.5 million bonus, and Stetson Allie, a second-rounder from 2010 who got $2.25 million, in giving Pittsburgh three quality pitchers who are young, cheap and capable of anchoring a Pirates staff that hasn't had a 20-game winner for 20 years.
Those three alone, of course, can't reverse the course of a franchise that has been drifting ever since Barry Bonds bolted for San Francisco. But while this year's version struggles toward what may well be a 19th straight losing season -- Pittsburgh entered play Monday night 28-30 -- it would also net another high pick next year and that one could very well come with comparably few signability problems. There is the growing chance that baseball will implement hard slotting caps for draft spots beginning next season, as long as ownership can get the players' association to sign off on it when the new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated at season's end. On Monday, Selig said he was "confident that we need it" to help improve competitive balance, even as he extolled the advances made in closing the gap between the haves and have-nots of baseball by pointing out the Pirates took two of three from their big-budget brethren the Phillies over the weekend.
Never mind that the differences between the Keystone State neighbors are vast, from on-field success (Pittsburgh hasn't had a winning season since Cole was two years old while Philadelphia has won four straight NL East titles) to off-field success (the Phillies have the majors' best attendance and the NL's highest payroll while the Pirates have drawn the second-fewest fans in the National League and have the league's smallest payroll). About the same time the commissioner was talking about implementing a plan that would help future teams drafting No. 1 overall ensure they could afford to take the best player available, Pirates GM Neal Huntington, confident he had just done the same from among a crowded field of possibilities, was saying he hoped to never have to pick that high again. If Cole turns out to be as good as Cash, Oliver and the rest of the Pirates' fans hope, he won't have to.