06/04/2002 7:00 pm ET
Only one chance to be right
Pirates GM weighed options as staff debated draft
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
PITTSBURGH -- Dave Littlefield wanted to make sure he did this right.
After all, how many times does a guy get the chance to make his first draft pick as a general manager with the first selection overall? Could anyone blame him and his staff for waiting until the last minute to make the call? It might have made some onlookers a little nervous, but Littlefield was never too worried.
"It's an exciting time, really, but I don't know if I consider it nail-biting," Littlefield said not long after finally taking Ball State right-hander Bryan Bullington. "It may seem that way from the outside. A lot of thought goes into it, and you ponder over a lot of issues. And sometimes you argue and disagree, but that's how we ended up with Bullington."
In the end, the Pirates went with the player they had No. 1 on their draft board. This draft had been well-publicized as a weak one, and that's just one of the many reasons Littlefield and his staff hesitated in making the pick. With no player separating himself from the rest of a group of top prospects, the Pirates took extra time to consider every possible variable.
"Ultimately, he was the guy we had rated highest," Littlefield said. "As we were wading through a variety of issues, people felt very good about us making the decision to select him. Even though we rated him highest, there are some other very talented players. It's not a black-and-white issue. There's a lot of gray."
The Pirates handled the gray by weighing college vs. high school, pitcher vs. position player, for a long time.
"Having to improve upon certain parts of all those players' games, and [project] what they're going to be in five years, those are very difficult decisions," Littlefield said. "I think the group, overall, was very pleased we made the decision, and I think we'll be a better organization for it."
To make that come true, the Pirates first have to make sure Bullington joins the organization. And if reports from the days heading up to the draft are true, that's far from a done deal.
Littlefield had maintained that signability would not be the determining factor in who the Pirates selected No. 1. He stuck to that tenet by taking Bullington. The Pirates reportedly had decided to take the Ball State pitcher days ago, but began looking at other options when he initially turned down their $4 million bonus offer. But both B.J. Upton and Adam Loewen, the other two prospects the Pirates were eyeing for the top spot, also seemingly balked at the offer, so Littlefield and company went back to their first choice.
And they did so without having any kind of verbal agreement in place. This isn't Littlefield's first draft, so he's well aware of the risk. But it's his first as a GM, and he knows that this pick will be on his resume from this point forward. He knows in some ways he's performing without a net and now that the decision on who to draft is done, inking Bullington and getting him in the system quickly will likely be his top priority.
Littlefield does take some solace in knowing he's not the only GM in the "Can I sign him?" boat.
"It's part of the landscape of selecting someone No. 1, or of selecting someone with any pick," Littlefield said. "It's a lot more high-profile with the first pick.
"Part of what I feel comfortable about is having an involvement internally [with drafts] for a good number of years where there are times it's been a little hairy when you select a guy, [unsure] if someone is signable within a certain range. But I am determined and comfortable that Bryan Bullington wants to be a part of the Pittsburgh Pirate organization. He realizes that he has an opportunity in this organization, in that it's an organization that needs talented players. It looks like a win-win situation to me."
The rest of the first day of the draft seemed to be a winner, at least from the Pirates' perspective. Five of Pittsburgh's early picks were very high on its draft board. Whether that leads to organizational success, of course, remains to be seen, but Littlefield was once again quick to praise the work of scouting director Ed Creech and his staff. Littlefield has learned that in many ways, especially in deciding who to take first, his role has been to be a consensus-builder, although his work as a scout does come into play.
"To some degree, that's true," Littlefield said. "Really the majority of the information has been gathered by Ed Creech and his staff. They're the ones who should get the credit in this regard. There's no doubt, for myself, having had some experience scouting, it helps me look at that and reference back to years past."
Not that it's always a good thing. Draft discussions often get heated, with opinions flying back and forth about who to pick and when. Littlefield loves to put his two cents in, but understands that what he says now carries more weight than, say, when he was an area scout mouthing off about a prospect.
"One thing I do realize, having the position I have, you can influence things," he said. "Sometimes in a positive way, sometimes in a negative way. You have to be cautious about how strongly you go at a certain issue, because it's just natural when you have a position of higher authority, sometimes it sways people's views."
It's a tough balancing act for a guy who still has a lot of scout in him. He needs to consider the overall organizational agenda, but he wants to make sure he doesn't beat his staff into submission with it.
"You are looking at things from a bigger-picture view, but at the same time, if you go in there and try to dominate the conversation and push it in one direction that fits what my opinion is, that maybe differs drastically from what the group's opinion is, that doesn't make sense," he said. "I want to have this thing go smoothly."
And that often means Littlefield has to turn himself down a notch. He makes sure his opinion is known, but he's more concerned in creating an open flow of ideas.
"There's a lot of banter back and forth," Littlefield said. "Sometimes there's loud voices; a lot of kidding at times, throwing jabs at different guys in regards to what they think about a certain player.
"It's a fun exercise in a lot of ways, but it is something that you have to be cognizant of the position because at times you can sway things. And you don't want to do that because it doesn't allow the good information to come out."
The good information leads to smart drafting. Smart drafting means turning the Pirates organization around, Littlefield's mission since being hired last July. And in a market like Pittsburgh, where free agency can't be the cure-all, the First-Year Player Draft can start the road to recovery.
"It's an exciting time because I know it's important in this organization to keep acquiring talent in any way possible," Littlefield said. "The amateur draft is an important part of that."
Wednesday: Littlefield recaps the entire draft experience.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.