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  • Phase 2 Signing the Talent; Why Josh Bell Could Be an Easier Sign Than Expected by Jon Pennline

Since Bob Nutting became the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007, the franchise has tried to shake the stigma that they're one of the stingiest teams in Major League Baseball. In the 2008 draft they selected Pedro Alvarez to be their franchise third baseman. With Scott Boras as his agent, Alvarez signed a major league contract worth $6.335 million.

Heads began to turn. Finally, the team was selecting the most talented player and not just a player with a cheap price tag

In the 2009 draft the Pirates took Tony Sanchez in the first round which was viewed as a "signability" pick in what was a relatively shallow pool of elite talent. In that same draft, however, they went over-slot on multiple pitching prospects including Zach Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, Zack Dodson, and Jeffery Inman. For those who don't know, the term "over-slot" means the Pirates sign draft prospects for more money than the amount projected by round. While it is still way too early to tell if these signings will contribute at the major league level, the Pirates have at least showed they are serious about flooding the organization with talent.

After drafting and signing Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie from last year's draft, the Pirates have compiled a notable amount of prospects with MLB potential. They also compiled the most money in the league to sign those picks over the last three years combined. While credible media outlets, such as Baseball America and MLB Network, have labeled the Pirates as "a team heading in the right direction", Neal Huntington saw an opportunity in the 2011 MLB Draft to add more pieces to the puzzle. The question the Pirates now face is, will they be able to sign these players?

Gerrit Cole will be signed by the Pirates. Yes, he is advised under Scott Boras. Yes, he is the first overall pick. But the Pirates will get a deal done to add a fourth potential "ace" to the future rotation; the other three being Luis Heredia, Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie. At the very least, Cole gives the Pirates a better chance to add an elite arm to the major league roster should the other three pitchers not pan out. However since Cole is advised by Scott Boras, this will go down to the last minute of the signing date in August.

Josh Bell is, far and beyond, the biggest question mark when it comes to signability. Before the draft, Bell wrote a letter to all 30 teams, advising them not to draft him. Obviously, the Pirates did not listen to the young Texas high school outfielder when they selected him in the second round. There is credible doubt that the Pirates will not be able to sign him away from his scholarship to play at Texas. However, there are reasons for optimism that the Pirates will be able to sign him.

If Josh Bell truly had zero interest in turning pro out of high school, why did he select Scott Boras as his agent? Why not select his parents? Or, better yet, no one?
The Pirates, who always go over-slot on players in the draft, will have more cash to spend because they are not pursuing elite talent in the international market. The Pirates spent $2.6 million on 16 year old Luis Heredia, last year but appear to have no serious interest in potential elite players this year. With the later picks projecting to be relatively easy signs, including third round pick Alex Dickerson, the Pirates can focus most of their coin on the first two rounds.
Since this looks to be the last year teams will be allowed to sign over the slot, it is entirely possible Josh Bell will lose money by going to college. For example, if the Pirates offer Bell $4 million and he decides to go to school and become a redraft in 2014, he would most likely need to be a top 5 pick to earn the same signing bonus. If the Pirates offer more, it would be foolish to turn them down. Since college is extremely important to Bell and his family, why can't he go to college after his career ends? Why not go back to school when you have millions of dollars already secured instead of risking injury to fall off the draft board completely?
Whether the Pirates sign Bell or not, you cannot fault the front office for selecting him in the second round of the draft. He was listed as the top corner outfielder in the draft by Baseball America as well as the second best high school hitter. A switch hitter since the age of five, the kid simply adds depth to an otherwise shallow position pool. However, if the Pirates do not sign Bell, they'll get the same exact pick in the 2012 draft which contains a loaded high school class.

Then again, if the league does go towards a strict signing system in 2012, the Pirates can be more aggressive in pursuing Bell's talent. You can say what you want about GM Neal Huntington's trade history, but you cannot fault his ability to get a deal done. He's had to be aggressive in the past and Josh Bell could be his toughest potential client. Yet, as he stated in an email to MLB.com, "the upside is worth the risk [of Bell not signing]". If you want to know the potential difference of Bell signing from an organizational talent standpoint, think about this: without Bell the Pirates probably move from 19 in the talent rankings by Baseball America, to 11 or 12 (because of Gerrit Cole). If the Pirates do sign Bell the Pirates are easily in the top 10. The Pirates recognized that potential when they drafted him and the front office will do everything in their power to sign him. If they do, the price tag will likely be so high that the franchise's moniker of being "cheap" will almost seem laughable.

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