There seems to be a feeling that the Pittsburgh Pirates can’t catch a break in the Major League Baseball draft over the last few years. In 2009 the Pirates had the fourth overall pick. Unfortunately, only two players stood out from the rest: Stephen Strasburg and Dustin Ackley, who went first and second overall respectively. In 2010 the Pirates had the second overall pick, but only one player stood out from the rest: Bryce Harper.
That’s not saying the Pirates didn’t get good players with their selections in 2009 and 2010. The Tony Sanchez pick in 2009 obviously drew some controversy, although it’s not like there was a consensus pick on the board at the time (I wanted Jacob Turner, but there were a lot of prep arms to choose between). Last year Jameson Taillon was selected, and there definitely wasn’t any outcry over that selection. However, it wasn’t the consensus pick, as there was a tough choice between Taillon and prep shortstop Manny Machado.
Heading in to the 2011 season, it looked like the Pirates were finally going to experience what the Nationals experienced the last two years. Anthony Rendon came in to the year as the consensus number one prospect, and the Pirates held the first overall pick. Just like the Nationals with Strasburg and Harper the previous two years, it looked like the Pirates would have their slam dunk pick in 2011. That hasn’t been the case.
There have been plenty of issues surrounding Rendon this year. His numbers are down, currently at a .327/.530/.512 line coming in to this weekend. His power production has been low, with four homers in 162 at-bats, after hitting 26 in 226 at-bats in 2010. He’s also been limited to designated hitter duties, due to a shoulder injury that has kept him off the field for most of the 2011 season. The poor numbers could also be related to the shoulder injury, at least the lack of power, although the new bats and the fact Rendon isn’t being pitched to also could play a factor.
Rendon’s struggles this year have opened the door for other people to enter the number one overall picture. Gerrit Cole was the first to step up, after a strong start to the season. Cole had a 1.74 ERA in his first eight starts, with a 64:11 K/BB ratio in 57 innings. He sits in the upper 90s, and has improved his change-up to a plus offering this year, giving him three above average or better pitches. That drew a Strasburg reference from Keith Law earlier in the year, although Cole isn’t as dominant as Strasburg was.
Cole has struggled in his recent starts, with a 6.58 ERA in his last four outings, along with a 22:5 K/BB ratio in 26 innings. The worst part would be the high pitch counts. Cole has topped 120 pitches twice in those games, and even threw 110 pitches in less than five innings of work during one start. There has been a focus on Rendon’s struggles, although Cole hasn’t exactly been a slam dunk pick either, with a drop in his strikeout numbers from 2010, a slight rise in homers and batting average against, and the only big improvement being a lack of walks.
Pretty much all of the Cole hype has come from Keith Law and ESPN. Everyone else still has Rendon at the top of the board, with Cole second. It seems like Cole has more hype, but that’s due to Law shouting it often, and throwing out the opinions of anonymous scouts saying Cole is the better of the two, in order to support his claim. I have two issues with this approach. First of all, if every scout Law talks to like Cole better, then why is Law the only one who has Cole over Rendon? Wouldn’t Baseball America be talking to the same scouts, and if so, why do they have Rendon over Cole?
The bigger issue is that I don’t really trust Law’s rankings. Law is constantly taking a stance that is different from everyone else. That’s not a bad thing, as I’m not encouraging a group think mentality. However, the stances seem to be more of a publicity stunt, trying to get attention and reactions. As an example with the Pirates, Law had Pedro Alvarez in the 30-40 range in his 2009 top prospect list, while everyone else had him in the 5-15 range. His reasoning was that he played poor defense and struggled against left handers, mentioning that Justin Smoak was ranked higher than Alvarez due to being better in those areas. The only problem was that Alvarez had better numbers than Smoak against left handers, and played a harder defensive position. That continued this year when Law ranked Jameson Taillon 30th overall, despite Taillon ending up in the 5-15 range by everyone else.
It feels like Law has a habit of taking extreme ranking stances in order to appear smarter than the room. How much attention did he get when he originally said Cole was better than Rendon (back when Rendon’s numbers looked a lot better)? Right now I’m talking about him, so mission accomplished if that was his intent. However, this isn’t to say that Rendon should be standing alone at the top of the draft rankings.
Peter Gammons recently mentioned that University of Virginia left hander Danny Hultzen could be on the radar for the Pirates, with some predicting that the Pirates will select him first overall. Jonathan Mayo backs this up, recently polling scouts as to who they think the Pirates will take. Nine scouts said Cole, three said Rendon, and two said Hultzen. Hultzen currently has a 1.19 ERA in 75.2 innings, with a 112:12 K/BB ratio. The left hander can touch 95 MPH with his fastball, and usually sits 91-93 MPH. He also throws a sinker, which gets a lot of strikeouts, and a good change-up, which is important for a left hander to have. His biggest asset is his command, as shown with his low walk rate this season.
I saw Hultzen pitch last year, and was impressed with his performance. On that day he out-pitched 2010 first round pick Deck McGuire. The issue I have with Hultzen is the same I have with Cole: he’s a college pitcher, and has been subjected to high pitch counts, which make him an injury risk. S far this season, Hultzen has thrown 120 pitches once, in an eight inning appearance, and 119 pitches in a seven inning appearance during his very next start. He also threw 107 pitches in a six inning outing, which is his highest pitch per inning ratio on record this season.
There are also two dark horse candidates from the prep ranks. Bubba Starling is considered one of the best athletes in the draft, and currently has a commitment to go to the University of Nebraska, where he has a scholarship to play quarterback. Dylan Bundy is a prep pitcher who has touched 100 MPH this year. However, Mayo mentions that it’s more likely the Pirates take someone from the college ranks.
My preference is still Anthony Rendon, mostly because I don’t like college pitchers. I also still like Rendon because I’m looking beyond his struggles this year. His injuries aren’t a long term concern, and he’s displayed a strong defensive ability in the past, along with the ability to hit for power. If the draft was just about who had the best numbers this year, then we might be talking about UCLA right hander Trevor Bauer, or someone else who isn’t as talented as Rendon, Cole, or Hultzen. However, a Rendon pick wouldn’t be the unanimous choice that it was coming in to the 2011 season.
The schedule for Rendon, Hultzen, and Cole this weekend:
5:00 PM EST – UVA (Hultzen) vs Miami
7:30 PM EST – Rice (Rendon) vs Memphis
9:00 PM EST – UCLA (Cole) vs Cal State Bakersfield
3:00 PM EST – Rice (Rendon) vs Memphis
2:00 PM EST – Rice (Rendon) vs Memphis
People to follow on Twitter for updates:
And you can follow me @pirateprospects.