PITTSBURGH -- Brian Graham calls it the "biggest crapshoot in sports." Yet, there is perhaps nothing more critical than that crapshoot in deciding the long-range fortunes of a franchise like the Pirates.

It's the First-Year Player Draft, where the Bucs will pick fourth in the first of 50 rounds on June 6.

No matter how tirelessly the Pirates' legion of scouts scour the country -- and world -- even the surest of picks are likely still years away and far from a guarantee. Just take a look at the team's active roster. Of the Bucs' top draft picks over the past decade, only Paul Maholm is in Pittsburgh today.

"It's the most difficult job in sports," said Graham, the team's director of player development. "Kids develop differently. You don't have a crystal ball."

Making the task even tougher is the club's miniscule margin for error. Situated in one of the game's smallest markets, the Pirates have no visions of being major players in the free agent market. Therefore, the hopes of the club rest primarily on draft successes.

"We need to have these players be the major core of our organization," said Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield.

"It is very important that we get our draft picks right," Graham said. "We can't make mistakes because we just don't have unlimited funds to throw away."

Scouting this year's pool, the talent appears to be top-heavy with pitching, especially power arms. And though the Pirates are considerably deeper in pitching than they are in position players, Littlefield said that will have little bearing on how the club approaches the opening rounds.

"It's really difficult to get into needs when they are this far away," Littlefield said. "We'll be looking to pick the best guy that's the closest."

If they truly desire the player who's most big-league ready, the Pirates will likely look to the college ranks, as they did in 12 of the first 13 rounds last year. Collegians are typically regarded as the safer picks, but their ceilings may not be as high as those taken straight out of high school.

There certainly is a risk/reward dynamic to taking the high school route, but Pittsburgh isn't averse to it. With their last two first-round picks, the Pirates have taken high school position players in center fielder Andrew McCutchen and catcher Neil Walker.

Collegiate pitchers have still made their presence felt at the top of the Pirates' draft board, but it's an interesting trend.

Will the Bucs look to a high school kid for the third straight year? Here's a look at how those recent top selections have fared.

2005: Andrew McCutchen, OF, 11th pick overall: McCutchen has done nothing but impress the Pirates brass since making his pro debut. Though a wiry 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, McCutchen still possesses exceptional raw power and is a burner out in center field. In 58 games last season split between rookie and Class A ball, the 19-year-old hit .310. Through his first 23 games at Class A Lynchburg this season, McCutchen has hit .344 with three homers.

2004: Neil Walker, C, 11th pick overall: The switch-hitting catcher has progressed nicely in his transition from Gibsonia High School (15 miles from Pittsburgh). Far from a token local boy selection, Walker has the ability to hit for both average and power, and the Pirates are projecting the player Baseball America dubs the organization's top prospect as a middle-of-the-order fixture for years to come. In 120 games last season at Class A Hickory, Walker hit .301 with 33 doubles and 12 homers. After breaking his wrist playing in the Arizona Fall League last November, Walker is slated to begin his 2006 season this week at Lynchburg.

2003: Paul Maholm, LHP, eighth pick overall: It only took two years for Maholm to reach Pittsburgh and entrench himself in the Bucs' rotation. Though not overpowering, Maholm's outstanding command will likely make him a success in the big leagues. Last year, the 23-year-old was named the organization's Minor League pitcher of the year. And his brilliant 2005 season carried over to Pittsburgh when he got the late-season callup. In six starts with the Pirates, the lefty went 3-1 with a 2.18 ERA. Maholm got off to a rockier start this season, but he has recently put it together.