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2011 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Preview

A year ago at this time, everyone was looking toward the 2011 draft and projecting who would get the first overall pick, trying to project who would get the chance to draft Anthony Rendon, the third baseman out of Rice University.  Rendon put up a .394/.539/.801 line in 226 at-bats, earning him Player of the Year honors.  This followed his freshman year, when he hit for a .388/.468/.702 line in 242 at-bats.  When the Pirates clinched the worst record in the majors in 2010, it was a bittersweet moment, as it meant the Pirates had a chance to draft Rendon.

All throughout the off-season, future lineups were projected with Rendon at third base, moving Pedro Alvarez over to first base.  Rendon had suffered a major ankle injury, which was his second in as many years, although that wasn’t a huge concern.  He was reportedly recovering fine from the injury, and he was considered a great bet to end up as a repeat of the college player of the year, as well as a lock to go first overall.

The Pirates “clinched” the number one overall pick on September 28th last year.  If I would have told you on that day that there would be no consensus number one pick, and that the Pirates were reportedly leaning more towards Gerrit Cole than Rendon, you’d probably wonder what happened.  So what happened?  What took us from tracking every loss in 2010, hoping to get the chance to draft Rendon, all the way to now, where it looks like Rendon won’t be the guy?

The Many Questions Surrounding Anthony Rendon

There are a lot of questions surrounding Rendon this year.

Coming in to the year, there were the questions about Rendon’s ankle, after he suffered his second major ankle injury in as many years.  Just prior to the season, Rendon was cleared to play baseball, and his ankle was considered fully healed.  There were very few questions surrounding him.  Outside of a casual watch to see if his ankle really was healed, the common approach was to sit back and watch him easily coast to being the number one pick in tomorrow’s draft.

Unfortunately for Rendon, it wasn’t as easy as everyone thought.  Early in the season, Rendon injured his shoulder trying to stretch it too much.  The injury was classified as a strain, and held him off the field, limited to designated hitter duties.  He went on a throwing program, and eventually returned to the field for one game, before being pushed back to designated hitter duties for the remainder of the year.  Rendon returned the last few weeks, playing second base to demonstrate that his shoulder didn’t have any long term damage, although the questions were already circulating about how serious his shoulder really was, considering it held him off the field for most of the season.

The injury wasn’t the only question mark for Rendon.  His numbers were down across the board, with a .329/.520/.526 line in 213 at-bats this year.  Part of that is due to the injury.  Part of that is because Rendon was pitched around, with 80 walks in 300 plate appearances, compared to 65 in 297 plate appearances in 2010, when he was putting up phenomenal numbers.  The new bats could also play a role in Rendon’s struggles this year.

The big issue is the lack of power.  Rendon only hit six homers this year, which is down from 26 in 2010, and 20 in 2009.  Again, it’s hard to pinpoint the reason for this power slump, which raises all kinds of speculation.  Is the lack of power because of the shoulder, and if so, is the shoulder a long term issue that will prevent Rendon from ever hitting for power?  Is the lack of power a sign that his previous numbers were a product of the old bats?

Rendon apparently has released his medical information to all teams, although that might not answer every question about his shoulder.  He’s currently projected to go second overall in almost every mock draft, and if that really does happen, it would be a disappointment that the Pirates didn’t select him first.  Rendon is advised by Scott Boras.  Boras doesn’t do anything that is going to potentially hurt the value of his client.  In fact, every move is a calculated approach to get the highest signing bonus possible.  If Rendon has some long term damage, I doubt Boras is advising him to release medical information.  Also, if it’s such a guarantee that Seattle will take him second overall, then why is he not the guaranteed pick for the Pirates, who are deciding between a group of three players, with no one player serving as the consensus best overall prospect?

Rendon has questions, but you could argue that the talent is there.  He hit for power prior to this year.  If you’re only basing your decision on this year, then you should be concerned about his future power potential.  If you’re looking at his entire body of work, you’ll see that not only has he displayed power, but he’s also displayed strong defense at third.  If his shoulder is fine for the long term, then I don’t see any reason to be concerned about his power and defense going forward.

We’re obviously not talking about Rendon as the consensus number one pick right now because these questions don’t have guaranteed answers.  However, the emergence of other players has also crowded the picture for the first overall pick.

The Rise (and fall?) of Gerrit Cole

Cole had a strong start to the 2011 season, but fell off statistically in the second half.

Gerrit Cole came in to the 2011 season paired with left handed starter Matt Purke as the 2A and 2B of the draft.  They were both seen as the top prospects behind Rendon, battling it out for the second overall pick.  Cole quickly broke away from the pack, partially due to injuries with Purke, but mostly due to a great start to the season.

He opened the year with a complete game shutout against San Francisco, allowing four hits, one walk, and striking out 11.  Cole only needed 104 pitches to get the shutout.  Two starts later he pitched another shutout, this time only needing 101 pitches at Nebraska, although the weather was cold that night, and very pitcher friendly.  Throughout the early part of the season, Cole was flashing an upper 90s fastball, sitting at 98 MPH late in the game, and even touching 100.  The biggest change from previous years was that he was flashing a strong change-up, which has been described as a possible plus offering.  Through his first eight starts, Cole had a 1.74 ERA, an 0.75 WHIP, and a 64:11 K/BB ratio in 57 innings.

Then, Cole started to struggle.  He allowed five runs in eight innings in his next outing on April 15th, although he did strike out 11.  The struggles continued in his next two outings, as he combined to allow 13 earned runs, only striking out six in 10.2 innings in the process.  Cole rebounded for a one run in 7.1 innings performance his next time out, but needed 125 pitches to get through the outing.  After allowing two or fewer runs in four of his first seven starts (not counting the shortened 3/21 start), Cole only allowed two or fewer runs twice in his last eight starts.  He only allowed more than three runs once in his first seven starts.  He allowed more than three runs four times in his final eight starts.

A big change was that Cole’s change-up, which was so dominant early in the season, wasn’t as effective at times.  A bigger issue was that his fastball was getting elevated in the zone.  He was still hitting in the upper 90s, but a 98 MPH fastball up in the zone is going to lead to hits.  Cole had a .165 BAA prior to his struggles.  He had a .302 BAA in his final eight starts, including a season high 11 hits in 7.1 innings against San Francisco in his final start before the draft.  That’s the same San Francisco team that he dominated to open his season.

Cole’s change-up has returned to the strong offering it was at the start of the year.  I don’t think you can flash a plus change-up, and have it just be a fluke, so I’d buy his change-up going forward.  He still throws in the upper 90s with his four seamer, and throws in the lower 90s with his two seamer, with late sink.  It would be hypocritical of me to point to Anthony Rendon’s skills and ignore the struggles, then focus on Cole’s struggles, and ignore the skills.  I think that Cole is an amazing pitching talent.  In fact, I had him about 50/50 with Rendon back in April, up until the point where Cole started his late season struggles.  I’ve said this before: you can fix a problem where a pitcher is elevating his fastball.  You can’t teach a pitcher to throw in the upper 90s with a strong change-up.

Cole definitely deserves to be in the picture with Rendon, and right now it looks like he’s the guy the Pirates will take.  It wouldn’t be a bad selection to take him.  It just depends on your preference for college pitchers.  Personally, I’m not high on college pitchers, due to the abuse the pitcher can be subjected to.  Every pitcher is an injury risk, but there are plenty of studies done showing that pitchers shouldn’t be throwing 120-130+ pitches around the age of 20.  That’s always a risk you face with college pitchers.  In this case, Cole has the talent, but you have to consider the risks.  Injury risks also exist with Rendon, which means the Pirates might have to evaluate the potential risks on each side, and see which player is the biggest risk, since they both definitely have the talent when healthy to be a number one overall selection.

The “Safe” Pick: Danny Hultzen

Hultzen came on to the scene late in the year, thanks to his strong stats.

The question marks surrounding Rendon and Cole this year have paved the way for Danny Hultzen to emerge as an option for the number one pick.  Hultzen had a very impressive season, with a 1.57 ERA and an 0.83 WHIP in 103.1 innings.  His most impressive stat was his 148:17 K/BB ratio.  Hultzen ultimately climbs in to the picture because of his impressive numbers.  He doesn’t have the same upside as Cole, and if the Pirates were picking a college pitcher, I’d rather they go with the guy who has the most upside, rather than taking a “safe” pick, if that type of pick even exists.

That’s not to say that Hultzen isn’t talented.  He’s a left handed pitcher that touches 95 MPH with his fastball, and has amazing control, as seen with his low walk numbers this year.  The problem I see with Hultzen is that he doesn’t really go deep in to games.  He only pitched eight innings or more on one occasion this year, out of 15 starts.  He only pitched past seven innings in two other starts.  It’d not like he’s being pulled early either.  In most starts, Hultzen is averaging 15-17 pitches per inning.  By comparison, Gerrit Cole pitched five nine inning complete games this year, and didn’t top 12.9 pitches per inning in a single outing.

Hultzen might have the strong strikeout numbers, but he’s clearly not as dominant as Cole.  Strikeouts are going to rack up the pitches, but if you’re dominant, you can get by without breaking 100 pitches by the sixth inning.  If you’re going deep in the count, which is what Hultzen’s numbers suggest, you probably won’t last more than six or seven innings.  I have the same concerns with Trevor Bauer, who has pitched nine straight starts with 130+ pitches.  The numbers look good, but he’s not efficient, and that suggests that he’s going deep in to counts with hitters, rather than getting the quick strikeouts that a dominating pitcher would get.

Hultzen is still in the picture, as the Pirates seem to have him mixed in with Rendon and Cole as finalists, with Cole the apparent leader.  He doesn’t really qualify as a “signability” pick, since he’s asking for $13 M, which is almost what Stephen Strasburg got.  Anything is possible, but right now it doesn’t appear like the Pirates will take him, which is fine by me.

The Wild Card: Dylan Bundy

A guy who has fallen out of the picture, but is definitely in my top three is high school right hander Dylan Bundy.  Bundy got attention a few weeks ago for reportedly telling the Pirates, and other teams, not to draft him, for fear that they would try to change his throwing program.

Bundy has a load of talent, with a fastball that can touch 100 MPH, and great secondary pitches to go with that fastball.  He compares to Jameson Taillon, and there are some reports that he is better, which might be a case of the shiny new toy syndrome.  It seems that the Pirates are looking more at college players, although Bundy wouldn’t be a bad selection.  He’s said to have the talent to pitch in the majors today, and he could move like a college pitcher, which would put him in the majors as early as 2013 (which is the same time that I project Rendon, Cole, and Jameson Taillon to arrive).

If the questions surrounding Rendon’s shoulder and Cole leaving his fastball up in the zone force the Pirates to look elsewhere, then I would much rather see them go with Bundy over a guy like Danny Hultzen, or even guys like Trevor Bauer or Bubba Starling.  Bundy profiles as an ace just as much as Cole, Hultzen, Taillon, or any other pitcher you could name.

Who Will Be The Pick?

I haven’t made it a secret this year that I would take Anthony Rendon with the first overall pick.  I don’t think I’m alone in that thinking either.  Back in March we held a poll asking whether you would take Rendon or Gerrit Cole.  Rendon won that poll by a 3:1 margin.  In mid-May we asked again who you would take with the first overall pick.  Rendon took an astonishing 70% of the vote.  We’ve asked the question again, and as of this writing, Rendon is out to a big lead, with around 50% of the vote.

The way it looks right now, Gerrit Cole will be the number one pick.  While my preference is Rendon (a preference that is based on the historical success rates of college hitters over college pitchers), I wouldn’t be upset if the Pirates took Cole.  I mentioned the other day about how I feel Cole is a better prospect than Jameson Taillon (I feel they both have the same upside, but Cole is further along in his development).  A rotation that could include guys like Cole, Taillon, Luis Heredia, and Stetson Allie is very appealing, even if only two of those players work out.  Think about that.  Drafting Cole would give the Pirates four pitchers who have legitimate number one potential.  How many farm systems have that?  Not all of them will reach their potential, but if just two of them do so, it would be huge for the Pirates.

As for Rendon, I still feel he can be the .300 hitting, 25 homer a year, above average defender that he was projected to be prior to the season.  I feel that too much can be made about short term performance.  We’ve seen Rendon’s power potential.  We’ve seen strong defense from him.  Outside of a long term injury issue, I don’t think those skills are gone forever.  I’ve already mentioned that I don’t think he’d be releasing his medical information unless it was clean, or clean enough to provide comfort with other teams.  If he’s good enough for Seattle with the second pick, then he should be good enough for the Pirates with the top pick.  As appealing as Cole would be, added in with prospects like Taillon, Heredia, and Allie, an All-Star third baseman is even more appealing.

The only other guy I’d be satisfied with would be Bundy.  He’s definitely got the talent to be a top pick in this draft, and he would basically be Jameson Taillon 2.0, with arguments that he’s better than Taillon.  There are rumors floating around that he is asking for a six year, $30 M deal, which is insane.  That amount is mostly to scare other teams off, and when you consider the likelihood that MLB will add a hard slotting system, it becomes unlikely that Bundy gets anything near a record amount in this draft.

Right now it’s looking like Cole.  I would rather have Rendon, and I’d be fine with Cole or Bundy.

Who Could Fall to the Later Rounds?

It’s almost a guarantee that the Pirates will go the over-slot route again in the later rounds.  In fact, I’d say it is a guarantee.  I listed the top prep players in the draft and their commitments yesterday.  It’s hard to predict who could fall to the Pirates, and when the Pirates would take those players.  Zack Von Rosenberg was the number 41 overall prospect in 2009, and fell to the sixth round.  Stetson Allie was considered a potential top 10 pick, and fell to the Pirates in the second round.  I’ll have a better look after the first round tomorrow, and will be keeping track of the best available players throughout the live chat.  For now, here are a few guys who are considered tough signs:

Austin Hedges – The catcher out of California is the 28th ranked player in the draft, and has a strong commitment to UCLA.  He projects as an everyday catcher with All-Star potential.

Joe Ross – The right handed pitcher has a strong commitment to UCLA and is the 36th best prospect in the draft.  He can touch 96 MPH with his fastball, and has a smooth delivery with good life on the fastball.

Brandon Nimmo – He’s apparently asking for $3 M.  The left handed outfielder is very speedy, and has some power projection.  Baseball America ranks him as the 37th best prospect.

Matt Dean – He’s a third baseman who projects to have plus power while hitting for a solid average once he fills out.  He has a strong commitment to Texas, and is the number 54 prospect in the draft.

Derek Fisher – The outfielder has a strong commitment to Virginia, with an asking price of $2.25 M.  He has above-average power, and plays center field now, although he projects as a future corner outfielder.

Check back throughout the day on Monday for the latest updates on the MLB draft, and be sure to come back at 6:00 PM for the live chat, which will extend through the first day of the MLB draft.

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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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OK3PC7EQODCEBHED3WCY2W7PFE Paul C

    I wonder if Cole would have never had that first performance against USF where this conversation would be now… it seems like people have hung on that for a while now… I know that is not his only positive but it seems to be a big one that people always mention when talking about Cole

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Even if you take out that first performance, Cole has a 2.06 ERA and a 0.79 WHIP in 48 innings, with a 53:10 K/BB ratio prior to his late season struggles.  He also pitched a complete game shutout at Nebraska (cold weather might have helped), a complete game allowing one run against Washington, and a complete game shutout the following week at Washington State.  His pitch counts for those games were 101, 116, and 113.

      I think a lot of attention comes from his change-up.  A plus change-up is the difference between Cole being a future star closer, and being a future ace starter.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OK3PC7EQODCEBHED3WCY2W7PFE Paul C

        Huh… I believe his career era with UCLA is closer to the 3.3 range,  this year alone he is 6-8 with a 3.31 era… I know he has had shining moments but in others not so much  but like you said a lot has to do with his change up and velocity… and If the FO feels that with coaching this guy can be a ace thing I guess I can’t complain too much..

        I can’t remember where I saw it but someone said they wouldn’t mind grabbing a position player seeing all the young, promising arms that we have in out farm system…(not just Allie, Tallion, and Heredia by the way)..

        I think that is a good argument, but hey if this guy turns out to be a Ace in time that would be great, we will really be stocked up then…

      • http://twitter.com/cbar30 Corey Barcus

        And the fact that he throws 96-97mph into the 8th inning. Same velocity on his 1st and 100th pitch.

  • Anonymous

    Coles changeup is the reason he will make it to the majors quickly, his other problems appear to be mechanical and the Pirates seem to be good at fixing mechanical problems.
    I believe the changeup is one of the pitches that the Pirates want their minor league pitchers to learn and perfect, even if it means getting hit around in the minors.
    He would be my choice in this years draft, Rendon is hitting with a bat similiar to wood and he does not have the same power he had with the metal bat, his people say that his shoulder has no effect on his swing, it only has and effect on his throwing from 3rd base.
    I have seen them both play and seen them both fail, the difference in the two is that I believe Cole’s problems are fixable and that Rendon is what he is.

  • http://twitter.com/cbar30 Corey Barcus

    I think if they are going to take a college picher Cole is the guy. Hultzun is a one year wonder, especially with the velocity. And I think the recent slumping of Pedro is giving the Pirates pause about taking another College 3b.