Should the Pirates Look Beyond Rendon and Cole?

Should the Pirates consider someone other than Rendon or Cole?

There have been a lot of concerns brought up about Anthony Rendon this year.  The Rice third baseman – or should I say designated hitter, since he hasn’t played much third base this year – is hitting for a .350/.552/.552 line, with the main downside being a lack of power (4 homers in 143 at-bats).

There have been a lot of issues surrounding Rendon.  He suffered major ankle injuries in back to back seasons heading in to this year, and has been held off the field this year with a shoulder injury.  That combination has people questioning whether he can stay healthy.  There’s also the lack of power, which is hard to get a read on for a few reasons.  First of all, the NCAA has new bats this year, which have taken power down across the league.  Second, Rendon has been pitched around a lot, walking in almost one out of three plate appearances on the year, including 37% of the time in the month of April.

The questions surrounding Rendon have some moving in to the Gerrit Cole camp.  Keith Law of ESPN has been the loudest, and I believe the only, supporter of taking Cole over Rendon.  That’s been enough to get some Pirates fans on board.  And why not?  The Pirates have three potential ace pitchers in the system with Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie, and Luis Heredia.  Cole would add a fourth arm, and is more of a guarantee than any of those three.  After his first eight starts, he had a 1.74 ERA, a 0.75 WHIP, a 10.1 K/9, and a 5.8 K/BB ratio.

Things have changed with Cole over the last three starts.  In those starts, he’s combined to allow 18 runs in 18.2 innings, including seven runs in 4.1 innings last night, with six coming in the fifth inning.  Aaron Fitt of Baseball America watched Cole last night, and has a great report on his struggles.  Fitt mentions that Cole was still throwing 95-97, and touching 98.  He mentioned that his slider looked good, and that his change-up got a strikeout early in the game.  There have been reports that Cole is leaving his stuff up in the zone, making him more susceptible to getting hit hard in the last few starts.

It would be hypocritical of me to raise concern over three bad starts for Cole, especially after remaining on Team Rendon throughout his struggles.  Just like with Rendon, we have to look at the talent level, and look at whether the struggles are a long term issue.  Cole obviously has the talent, and his last three starts haven’t been any different, outside of what is being called a temporary mechanical flaw, which is causing him to leave the ball up in the zone.

The big problem I have with Cole, and this is my problem with any college pitcher, is the pitch counts.  That’s a situation that has only been exasperated in his last three starts.  I recently added an area on the Gerrit Cole tracker that lists his average pitches per inning.  Cole has been extremely efficient at times, keeping it under 13 pitches per inning, even in complete games.  However, there have been some alarming starts, and last night was the worst.  Cole threw 110 pitches in less than five innings last night.  That’s 25.4 pitches per inning.  For some perspective, the Pirates will pull a prospect if he throws 30-35 pitches in an inning, regardless of what inning he is in, all to prevent damage to the arm.

So the question is: which player do you take?  Do the recent issues with Cole, as well as the high pitch counts, have you back on Rendon’s side?  Do Rendon’s struggles at the plate this year, along with his injury history, have you ignoring Cole’s recent struggles?  Or perhaps option C?  Go with someone other than Rendon or Cole?

It’s not like this draft is without talent beyond those two players.  In fact, there are two players who have stepped up as strong top five candidates behind Rendon and Cole.  The first is left handed pitcher Danny Hultzen, from the University of Virginia.  Hultzen currently has a 1.19 ERA in 75.2 innings, with a 112:12 K/BB ratio.  For a comparison, Cole has an 81:15 K/BB ratio, also in 75.2 innings.  Hultzen throws 92-93 MPH, and touched 96 earlier this year.  He also has a great change-up, so there’s a good chance he remains a starter.

The there’s Bubba Starling, a prep outfielder who has been described as a freak athlete.  He throws 94 MPH as a pitcher, and is a five tool athlete as an outfielder.  As an outfielder, he’s been mentioned in the same conversations as guys like Mike Trout, who was drafted out of the high school ranks in 2009, and is currently the best prospect in baseball.  The one downside is that Starling has a commitment to be the quarterback with Nebraska, making him a tough sign.  I also hesitate with two sport athletes, as it would be easy for them to switch sports during the first signs of struggles.

Hultzen has been putting up better numbers than Gerrit Cole this year, although he doesn’t have the upper 90s stuff.  Starling is an outstanding athlete, although he would be further away than Rendon, Cole, or Hultzen.  The question is, do you take Hultzen or Starling over Rendon or Cole?  I guess that really depends on what you’re looking for.

If you’re only basing your draft decision on the 2011 numbers, then you should definitely take Hultzen first overall.  The problem is, you would be wrong.  The draft isn’t about taking the player with the best numbers that year.  It’s about taking the player who projects to be the best going forward.  That’s a decision that has to be made on a large amount of data, and not based on a small sample size, which is exactly what we’re going with Rendon and Cole.

Cole has struggled for three starts, but he still has better stuff than Hultzen.  Rendon has had a down year, but we know from previous years that he has power and that he can play strong defense at third base.  The big issue here is that people want to be comfortable with the first overall pick.  It’s easier to be comfortable with a guy who is putting up strong numbers.  But do you take a less talented player all so you can feel better in the short term?  Or do you take the guy with more talent, which gives you the better chance of success in the long term?  I think that answer is obvious.

It’s for this reason that I’ve never left the Anthony Rendon bandwagon.  He was the best pick in the draft heading in to the season, and according to most, still is the best choice.  He’s having a down year, but this isn’t the only year in his career we have to go by.  He’s already displayed the ability to hit for power, as well as strong defense on the field.  If we were only grading him on his 2011 performance, we could ignore these skills.  The fact is, Rendon is being graded on his entire body of work, which is why I can’t ignore the fact that he’s already demonstrated the ability to hit for power and play defense.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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