Joe Starkey: Pirates have great options with top pick. I’d take the pitcher

Tribune Content Agency

PITTSBURGH — Thanks to their epic tank job (besides the one they’ve pulled this month), the Pirates have the No. 1 pick in the rapidly approaching MLB draft.

This would be a bigger deal if it were football or hockey. It should be a big deal in this case, too, because the options are enticing and potentially franchise-altering. Many drafts do not offer a generational choice at the top. This one might offer two when the Pirates take the podium July 9.

That is the glorious dilemma at hand.

There could be some outliers in the mix, and there is always the option to avoid the big-money guys in order to save allotment cash for other picks. But everywhere you look, LSU teammates Dylan Crews (center field) and Paul Skenes (pitcher) sit atop the board.

Do you want the potentially electric, everyday bat or the potential ace?

I could make arguments for both. I’ll take the ace.

I’ll take the 6-foot-6, 247-pound flame thrower who hits 100 mph, could join the staff in no time and is considered by some to be the best college pitching prospect since Stephen Strasburg in 2009 or Gerrit Cole in 2008.

I’ll take a guy veteran draft analyst Keith Law called “the hardest-throwing starting pitching prospect I’ve ever seen.”

Give me that guy.

Arm injuries are the risk with pitchers. I get it. We’ve seen it. Strasburg is Exhibit A (although he’s also won a World Series MVP, plus 113 wins while striking out 1,723 batters in 1,470 innings). Jameson Taillon was the No. 2 overall pick and had two Tommy John surgeries. Shane Baz was a first-round pick the Pirates dealt to Tampa Bay (you might remember that trade) but now will miss an entire season. The centerpiece of that deal was Tyler Glasnow, who has experienced a multitude of injuries. The list goes on.

But that’s actually part of the reason I’d take the 21-year-old Skenes. The Pirates have already begun to experience high-profile injuries to their minor- and major league pitching depth. They need to replenish. They need to add as many arms as possible — and they might never find another arm like this.

Ben Belford-Peltzman just posted a well-reported piece at in which he interviewed LSU coach Jay Johnson, an assistant at San Diego when Strasburg was pitching for San Diego State.

“Nobody knows how good a college pitcher Stephen Strasburg was than me,” Johnson told Belford-Peltzman. “We lost to him a lot over three years. I remember one game in particular in 2009, he strikes out 18. He threw, like 120 pitches, and he threw a (breaking pitch) like 87 pitches. I mean, it was just remarkable. … And for me, (Strasburg) is the best college pitcher I’ve ever seen until I saw Paul do what Paul did this year. So I think it’s probably the most accurate comparison you can make.”

What Paul did was this: 10-2 with a 1.89 ERA and a ridiculous 167 strikeouts in 90 innings.

Jonathan Mayo of interviewed 29 MLB evaluators and decision makers on who they would take No. 1 overall.

A sampling of the responses:

— “Crews is clearly the best player in the draft and is approaching some of the best college position players in the last few years. Skenes would be a worthy 1-1 if Crews wasn’t around and taking a pitcher 1-1 wasn’t so scary.” — National League scouting director

— “It’s a generational college pitcher in Skenes.” — NL national cross checker.

— “Skenes’ stuff can play immediately.” — American League scouting director.

— “Crews is the best bat in the draft. Skenes is easily the best arm in the draft. I’m taking the premium position player over the arm.” — NL scouting director

The rationale there is easily defensible. The majority of evaluators polled, in fact, would opt for Crews because of his bat and the fact that taking a pitcher is so risky — although it’s also true that pitchers such as Strasburg regain top form after major arm injuries.

And isn’t there risk everywhere? Going into the 2020 draft, the Pirates’ previous five position-player, first-rounders were Travis Swaggerty, Will Craig, Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker and Austin Meadows.

A transfer from the Air Force Academy, Skenes also was an outstanding hitting prospect, with 24 home runs and a .367 average before he arrived at LSU.

Skenes put away the Ohtani dream this season. He put down the bat. He might be tempted to pick it up when he sees this Pirates lineup (he could probably hit cleanup in San Francisco). But as much as they could use an elite hitting prospect, I’m way more enamored with a prospective ace. I’m imagining Skenes and Mitch Keller atop the rotation.

How about you?