The Pittsburgh Pirates have selected right handed pitcher Gerrit Cole with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft. The move was not unexpected. Word broke over the weekend that Cole would be the pick, and today it was all but confirmed that the Pirates would be taking the UCLA right hander.
The selection of Cole is bound to draw some controversy. In a poll ran on the site last night, 54.5% of voters said they would have selected Anthony Rendon with the first overall pick. Cole came in second, getting 21.8% of the vote. That’s pretty much been the story of this draft. It even extends back to the final months of the 2010 season, when every Pirates loss was followed with an update on how close the Pirates were to getting the number one overall pick, with the chance to draft Rendon.
Cole isn’t a bad choice for the Pirates with the number one pick. He’s got the potential as a top of the rotation starter in the majors, and he should move quickly through the system, arriving as early as June 2013. Cole really improved his draft stock this year, mostly due to the addition of a plus changeup. He throws his four seam fastball in the upper 90s, touching 100 MPH on occasion, while even hitting 98 MPH in the ninth inning of games this year. His two seam fastball hits in the lower 90s, with late sink. He also has an above-average, high-80s slider. But his changeup is the difference between him being a star closer and a top of the rotation starter one day.
Cole’s changeup was definitely a surprise this year, working in the mid-80s. It’s a borderline plus pitch, although he did have some consistency issues with it during the middle of the year. The pitch was fine at the end of the year when he threw it, which wasn’t often.
The UCLA right hander had a great first half of the season, putting up a 1.74 ERA, an 0.75 WHIP, and a 64:11 K/BB ratio in 57 innings. However, he struggled in the second half, allowing 18 runs in 18.2 innings over his next three starts, and allowing four games with double digit hit totals the rest of the season, after only allowing more than five hits a game on one occasion in the first half.
The biggest reason for this change was that his fastball was getting elevated in the zone and his slider was flattening out, which are two common trends when trying to overpower the ball. 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 the second half of the season. Those issues are very similar to the issues that Jameson Taillon had in 2010 when he was hit around at the high school level. The Pirates selected Taillon with their first pick in the 2010 draft, and have been working on that mechanical flaw, trying to get him pitching on a downward plane, driving the ball down in the strike zone, rather than leaving it up in the zone to be hit. If the Pirates were comfortable selecting Taillon, it makes sense that they wouldn’t have a problem drafting Cole with the same issues.
As for further comparisons between Taillon and Cole, the question now has to be asked: who is the top prospect in the Pirates’ system? I would lean more towards Cole. Ultimately, Taillon and Cole have the same upside: a top of the rotation starter, and a potential star pitcher. However, Cole is further along than Taillon, and already has a strong changeup. There is still time for Taillon to develop a good changeup, and the fact that he doesn’t have one now is only because he never really needed one in high school. That said, since Cole already has the strong changeup, that edges him ahead of Taillon in my rankings.
Cole projects to arrive in the majors as early as June 2013, with some saying he could pitch in the majors today. The Pirates could always take the aggressive route and send him to AA next season, although it seems more likely that he will start in high-A, especially if he has mechanical issues that need work. Best case scenario, the Pirates could be looking at a June 2013 rotation that includes Cole, Taillon, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, and one of the many young starters in the upper levels of the system.
The big question now is: what happens next? Cole is represented by Scott Boras, which means we won’t see him signed until the August 15th deadline rolls around. UCLA’s season ended last night, so the Pirates don’t have to worry about Cole pitching anymore at the college level. That also means that Cole won’t be pitching for two months, which makes it impossible for him to pitch this season, since there will only be about three weeks between the signing deadline and the end of the minor league season.
As for his contract, I’d expect Cole to end up with a major league deal, similar to the contract David Price got as the first overall pick in 2007. That would be somewhere in the six years, $8.5 M range, with a signing bonus around $5-6 M. I definitely think Cole will set a new draft signing record for the Pirates, currently held by Jameson Taillon at $6.5 M. The major league contract also seems like a guarantee, considering major league deals have been handed out to the top pick every year since 2006, with the lone exception being Tim Beckham in 2008, who was a prep hitter.
The Pirates have the first pick in the second round as the 2011 MLB draft continues tomorrow at noon. Check back later tonight for a preview of day two, including some of the possible over-slot picks the Pirates could grab in the middle rounds.
UPDATE 7:28 PM: Greg Smith on Cole: He has size, strength, overall package of stuff & mentality to potentially develop into a top-of-the-rotation MLB SP.