In less than three weeks, the Pittsburgh Pirates will make the important choice of who they want with the first overall pick in the MLB draft. Normally, the number one pick is a gift for a team in need. This time last year, if the Pirates had the number one overall pick, they’d be set to take one of the best young talents in the history of the draft: Bryce Harper. If they had the pick two years ago, they would be in position to take Stephen Strasburg, one of the best college pitchers ever. In fact, when the Pirates “clinched” the 2011 number one pick, they were in prime position to take Anthony Rendon, a sure bet to win the NCAA Player of the Year award in back to back years.
Instead, the first overall pick seems to be a curse. There’s no consensus top talent in the draft, which is on June 6th. Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding the draft, and the pressure to take a guaranteed future star player with the first overall pick, put the Pirates in an impossible situation. Even though there is no “right” pick to make, the Pirates will surely be criticized for making the wrong choice, no matter who they take.
Anthony Rendon came in to the year as the consensus number one pick. He was coming off a year where he hit for a .394/.539/.801 line with 26 homers in 226 at-bats. He plays a strong third base, and drew comparisons to Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman. Yet Rendon’s 2011 season has been filled with question marks. He is currently hitting for a .326/.530/.520 line with only five homers in 175 at-bats. He’s dealt with a shoulder injury all season, which has not only kept him off the field, but has also brought on some rumors about the possibly need for surgery. His power has been down, which is partially due to the shoulder, and partially due to the new bats. Despite his previous success, his lack of power this year, along with his designated hitter duties, have people questioning his long term power and defensive skills, in a “what have you done for me lately” kind of way.
Despite the question marks surrounding Rendon, he still looks to be the overwhelming choice by the fans. In a poll that I ran on the site yesterday, just over 70% said they would take Rendon with the first overall choice. No other player listed got more than 9.48% of the votes. Rendon came in to the year as the consensus choice, and he seems to remain the consensus choice among Pirates fans, but that’s not the case in the latest rankings.
Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus just released his rankings, and has Rendon ranked 4th, and prep pitcher Dylan Bundy ranked first overall. Baseball America still has Rendon ranked first overall, and Jim Callis is still high on him, saying he’s a future .300 hitter with 25 homers a year and above average defense. Keith Law has Rendon ranked second behind Gerrit Cole, and has the Pirates taking Danny Hultzen in his latest mock draft.
In the voting yesterday, there seemed to be four tiers. Rendon was the obvious majority. Behind him, Dylan Bundy stood ahead of the rest of the group, perhaps due to the “he’s better than Jameson Taillon” comparisons being thrown around. After that, Danny Hultzen, Bubba Starling, and Gerrit Cole were in a group of their own. Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer rounded out the list in the fourth tier. So the question is: would the Pirates be justified in taking someone other than Rendon, or would we immediately get the “Daniel Moskos/Matt Wieters” comparisons?
Ultimately the only rankings that matter belong to the Pirates. We’ve seen them agree with top rankings before, going with Pedro Alvarez in 2008, and Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie in 2010. However, we’ve also seen them go against top rankings, taking Tony Sanchez in the first round in 2009, and going with Mel Rojas Jr. over first round talent A.J. Cole in the third round in 2010.
The impossible situation the Pirates are in is that they are expected to make that slam dunk pick in a draft where there are question marks about everyone who could be considered as a top choice. They’re expected to add a future star, but who in this draft looks like a guaranteed star?
Rendon would obviously qualify as a candidate in that category. It just depends on how much stock you put in his 2011 season. Even if he needs surgery on his shoulder, it shouldn’t set him back too much, as he won’t be in the majors until 2013 anyways. We’ve seen the strong defense and the power out of him in the past, so I don’t feel that a down year as a designated hitter should alter his projections. Obviously you want to see a guy performing well heading in to the draft, but how much of that is just to set your mind at ease? It’s all about drafting talent, not numbers.
I’ve remained in the Rendon bandwagon, as rocky as the ride has been this season. That said, I’d be lying if I said there were no questions surrounding Rendon. But which player is question free? The other potential star in the draft, at least in terms of being close to a guarantee, is Gerrit Cole. Cole drew Stephen Strasburg comparisons early in the season from Keith Law, although he definitely hasn’t been as dominant as Strasburg was. Cole has a great arm, throwing in the upper 90s, along with a great changeup, which has made him very effective this year. However, he’s struggled lately, with 24 runs allowed in 35 innings over his last five starts. He’s also dealt with some high pitch counts, including 110 pitches in less than five innings during one start, and over 120 pitches on two other occasions.
Cole’s struggles lately are a bit of a mystery. Had he continued his early season success, he’d probably be the consensus number one pick right now. His struggles have opened the door for more people to step up and challenge Rendon for that honor. One of those recent contenders is Danny Hultzen, a left handed pitcher from the University of Virginia. You can’t say “left handed pitcher” in Pittsburgh without drawing a Paul Maholm or Zach Duke reference, but Hultzen does not fit that category. He can touch 95 MPH with his fastball, and has outstanding control and command, as shown with his 121:13 K/BB ratio in 82.2 innings this year.
Hultzen has the numbers, with a 1.42 ERA on the year. He’s also projected as a potential top of the rotation starter, although he probably has less of a chance of being a star pitcher than Cole does. He would definitely be a signability pick, as he’d cost less than Rendon and Cole, who are both represented by Scott Boras. However, “signability” doesn’t mean he isn’t talented or un-worthy of the number one pick. He has actually had success this season, has the stuff to profile as a top of the rotation guy, and doesn’t have the questions surrounding him that Cole or Rendon do.
My issue with Hultzen is my issue with all college pitchers: pitch counts and workloads. Hultzen just threw 127 pitches in his last start, following a two week layoff. He also doesn’t go deep in to games, usually hitting the 100 pitch mark around the sixth inning, which doesn’t scream “dominating stuff”, even if the numbers do. I have the same issues with Trevor Bauer, who has a 1.40 ERA in 109.2 innings, along with an incredible 167:32 K/BB ratio. Bauer has put up a lot of high pitch counts, including some up in the 140 range, which doesn’t scream “dominance”. Hultzen and Bauer are both getting strikeouts, which can elevate the pitch counts, but their pitches per innings tell us that they’re going deep in to the count often, rather than getting the quick strikeouts.
Dominance is more of what I see from Cole, who has thrown five complete games this year while keeping his pitch count at 116 or fewer pitches. Hultzen, by comparison, has thrown 116 or more pitches on four occasions, and has only pitched beyond seven innings twice this year. If I’m taking any college pitcher in this draft, it’s going to be Cole.
Then there’s the high school route. Dylan Bundy has emerged as a top option, ranking first overall in Kevin Goldstein’s rankings, and coming in second in yesterday’s poll. I have to say that I’m intrigued by Bundy, a right hander who can touch 100 MPH and has some incredible numbers this year. In fact, some scouts are saying he can be a fifth starter in the majors today. For the record, I’m a sucker for prep pitchers. I wanted Jacob Turner in 2009, I wanted Jameson Taillon in 2010, and I love that the Pirates have been stockpiling prep pitchers in the later rounds the last three years. The appeal with prep pitchers is that you can control their development, try to keep their pitch counts and workloads low, and hopefully you stumble on to the next Clayton Kershaw, or find a later round pick that adds velocity and becomes a huge sleeper pick.
The problem with Bundy comes with the workload. I wrote an article about him the other day, referencing a four day stretch last year in which he started three different games, combining for 293 pitches, including 181 in a single day. That raises some huge concerns with me. First of all, it’s doubtful that this was a one time deal. You don’t just have a guy throwing 80 pitches per outing, then send him out for almost 300 pitches in three starts over four days, including both games in a double header. While Bundy is a big workout freak, and didn’t get injured from the workload, that doesn’t mean the damage hasn’t been done.
On the position player side in the high school ranks, there’s Bubba Starling and Francisco Lindor. Starling is one of the top talents in the draft, and is considered the best athlete available. My big concern comes with his football scholarship. Starling has a scholarship to play quarterback at the University of Nebraska. I don’t like two sport athletes, mostly because they’ve got options. What happens if Starling struggles two years in to his pro career, and I mean “Jose Tabata with the Yankees in 2008” struggling? Does he switch sports? Does he stick with it? How much does he actually like baseball, compared to football? I also think that Kevin Goldstein brought up some good points that there’s some potential high rewards due to his athleticism, but also some high risks involved, as he seems kind of raw. To me, Rendon would be less of a risk, and would arrive sooner.
I figured a lot of Pirates fans would want Francisco Lindor, simply because he’s a shortstop. There have been mixed reports on Lindor. The defensive reports have been great, but the offense is inconsistent. Some say he could be a monster with 15-20 homers a year, while Keith Law says it’s close between Lindor and Manny Machado. The big concern with high school shortstops is their ability to stay at the position long term. That’s not an issue with Lindor. The issue with Lindor is that he might not measure up, talent wise, to the other players in the draft.
The biggest problem with the prep players is the timing. In a best case scenario, they would arrive during the 2014 season. Considering that people are saying Anthony Rendon and Gerrit Cole could arrive as early as 2012, Pirates fans may not be willing to wait that long, especially if the team continues their recent struggles for the remainder of the year. Fans are going to want immediate help.
So who do you take? Rendon and Cole are the closest things to guaranteed stars, although each player has struggled statistically this year, and there are questions surrounding both of them. Hultzen and Bauer both have the strong numbers, but are seen as lesser talents, which definitely wouldn’t go over well in Pittsburgh. Bundy, Starling, and Lindor are all talented players, although their ETA definitely wouldn’t be favorable.
Like I said, it’s an impossible situation. Take Rendon and Cole, and there are complaints about their question marks. Take Hultzen or Bauer, and you get the “signability” calls. Take a prep player, and you get the “by the time he arrives, everyone on the current roster will be gone” line. It almost makes you envy the position the Washington Nationals were in the last two years where they could fill out their card in Spring Training, and hand it in on draft day un-changed. That’s definitely not the case for the Pirates this year.