The debate over which LSU star the Pirates should draft with the first overall pick next month—outfielder Dylan Crews or right-handed pitcher Paul Skenes—continues to pick up steam as they’ve carried their team to the cusp of a national championship.
While Crews is batting .418 with 18 home runs, the kind of college bat baseball fans dream of drafting, Skenes should be the pick when Pittsburgh goes on the clock next month.
He’s a 6-foot-6 flamethrower who threw 46 of his 123 pitches at or above triple digits in LSU’s win over Tennessee in the double elimination round of the College World Series. He’s a talent so polished that pundits say he could join the big league roster of whichever team drafts him as soon as this summer.
A Look at the Numbers
Skenes logged a 1.69 ERA in 19 starts this season ranks as the best among Power Five hurlers. His FIP (2.08) and the OBP (.206) and OPS (.449) he allows to opposing hitters rank No. 1 as well. Skenes racked up 209 strikeouts to date this season, 51 more than the next closest pitcher in just 122.2 innings. He could add more to his tally tonight, as he’s in the mix to pitch on just three days’ rest after turning in eight scoreless innings on 120 pitches in a do-or-die game against Wake Forest to send the Tigers to the final.
Not only can Skenes mow through opposing batters like a wood chipper while peppering the strike zone with 100 mph offerings, he possesses the endurance to do so for most of a ball game, turning in pitch counts that look like video game numbers in the era of the quick hook.
Big Game Arm
Skenes has shown his ability as a big game pitcher in the Tigers’ run for an NCAA championship, seeming to increase his performance as the lights become brighter. MLB hitters are sure to challenge him more than the college ones do, but his dominant performances with the season on the line evoke that of Madison Bumgarner in the early 2010s. Skenes has the clutch gene. It’s that simple.
Playing Devil’s Advocate
The major concern about drafting Skenes revolves around his usage, painting his need for Tommy John surgery as a matter of when, not if because of the volume of pitches he throws.
The reality is that elbow surgery is part of life as a major league pitcher these days as 100 mile per hour arms seem to pop out of the woodwork—compare it to being an NFL quarterback, where players are almost certain to deal with a season-ending injury at some point in their career. Injuries are part of the business for professional athletes, and the process of UCL reconstruction has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years. While Crews is widely viewed as the safer pick, teams don’t win championships by playing it safe. Punting on a pitcher who could become a generational talent because of a potential for injury is foolish.
What’s the Fit?
The Pirates still don’t have a clear-cut ace pitcher, although Mitch Keller has made excellent strides in that direction over the past two seasons.
Even if Keller does turn into a bona fide Cy Young threat, you can’t ever have enough pitching. Look no further than Pittsburgh, where starters JT Brubaker and Vince Velasquez went down with year-ending elbow surgeries within the first two months of the season.
The Pirates haven’t spent much draft capital on starting pitching in the Ben Cherington era. Quinn Priester, their 2019 first-rounder (the last of the Neal Huntington era), has shown flashes but hasn’t managed to put it all together yet, remaining in Triple-A four years after the Pirates picked him. Mike Burrows went down with Tommy John surgery in April, while two-way threat Bubba Chandler may choose to devote his talent to becoming a position player as he struggles to a 6.33 ERA in High-A Greensboro. If the Pirates are serious about winning, they need more pitching.
They aren’t going to shell out for top arms in free agency, so investing real draft capital is the way to go.
Paul Skenes, enter stage left.