The consensus top prospect in the 2011 draft is Anthony Rendon, the third baseman from Rice who was the college player of the year last year, and a favorite to win the award again this year. In 2010, Rendon hit for a .394/.539/.801 line, with 26 homers in 226 at-bats, or a homer every 8.69 at-bats.
Questions have been raised about Rendon’s health potentially hurting his value. Last Summer he suffered a serious ankle injury, his second major ankle injury in the last two years, and while he has fully recovered, there are concerns about how the ankle could hold up long term. He is currently dealing with a shoulder injury, which has kept him off the field, limited to designated hitter duties. Part of that is because Rice head coach Wayne Graham is being cautious about putting Rendon back on the field. Rice has won five of their last six games, and while the infield defense has suffered, they’re not feeling Rendon’s absence from the field.
Rendon is currently hitting for a .429/.565/.714 line with two homers in 35 at-bats. That’s been met with a “ho-hum” response so far. Part of this could be due to the expectations. Rendon put up a monster year in 2010, with a 1.340 OPS, so the expectations heading in to this year were extremely high. Part of that could also be due to the lack of power Rendon has displayed so far, although it’s still very early, and hard to determine whether the lack of power is due to the new NCAA bats, or Rendon’s shoulder injury.
While Rendon is the consensus top overall prospect, there are two top pitching prospects that follow him. One of those pitchers, Gerrit Cole, is making a strong case to be considered for the top overall pick.
So far this season, Cole has made two starts, combining for a 1.88 ERA in 14.1 innings, along with a 17:2 K/BB ratio. Cole’s numbers might have been better had it not been for a rain delay this past weekend. He pitched a perfect first inning on Friday, only to see the game suspended due to rain. The game resumed Sunday, and since Cole only threw nine pitches on Friday, he came back on Sunday to resume his start. Cole gave up five runs, three earned, in the sixth inning, exiting after throwing 86 pitches. It’s possible that the odd scheduling played a factor here.
A big reason Cole is getting so much attention is due to his velocity. In his first start of the season, Cole threw a complete game shutout, needing 104 pitches to get through the game. Cole struck out six batters in the last three innings, leading to 11 strikeouts on the day, and hit 98 MPH on his next to last pitch of the game. To be able to throw 98 MPH on pitch number 103 is very rare, and illustrates how special Cole could be.
It’s not just the fastball that has people talking about Cole. Jason Churchill and Keith Law of ESPN mention that his changeup is being called a plus pitch in some reports. They also mention that Stephen Strasburg was the last pitcher who had three-to-four pitches, with average or better command of two plus pitches. That’s not really saying that Cole is the next Strasburg, but it definitely shows how talented he is.
Rendon has been compared in the past to third basemen such as Ryan Zimmerman and Evan Longoria. I wouldn’t use the Strasburg comparison with Cole, but it would be safe to project him as a potential ace. In fact, Jim Callis of Baseball America mentioned that he would rank Cole ahead of Jameson Taillon. So who do the Pirates take? The potential All-Star third baseman, or the potential ace starter?
Both Rendon and Cole would be on the same time frame to the majors. Neither player would be expected to sign before the deadline this year, putting each in high-A and AA in 2012. That puts them on pace for an arrival to the majors in 2013, following a short stay in AAA. The current need for the Pirates is pitching, although the Pirates aren’t so set on hitting that they can afford to dismiss drafting a guy like Rendon.
Teams should never draft based on need, although that could be a deciding factor if two players are valued equally. With Rendon’s injury concerns, and Cole’s draft stock rising, the two could be closer in value than we originally thought. That said, just because the Pirates have a need, and just because a prospect is available that can fill that need, doesn’t mean that prospect WILL fill that need.
Last year, before the draft, I looked at the success rate for first round picks, broken down by their level (college hitters, college pitchers, prep hitters, prep pitchers). The results showed that college pitchers had reached the majors 69.77% of the time, had gone on to be above average players 39.53% of the time, and had gone on to be star players 11.63% of the time. Those last two figures were the worst among the four groups studied. By comparison, college hitters reached the majors 84.85% of the time, became above-average players 54.55% of the time, and became star players 18.18% of the time. All three of those figures were the best of the four different groups.
The biggest need for the Pirates is talent, regardless of whether that talent is on the pitching side or the hitting side. The previous success rates don’t guarantee future success, but they do give a strong indication on the odds of Rendon and Cole reaching their potential. The biggest need for the Pirates might be pitching, and Cole might be close to Rendon’s value, but based on the previous success rates and the Pirates’ overall need for talent, Rendon would be their best bet. The only way I see for Cole to pass Rendon is if his value becomes indisputably better than Rendon’s, similar to the difference in talent between Strasburg and Dustin Ackley in 2009. Unless Rendon’s injury problems get worse, I don’t see that happening.