Gorman: Pirates make power move

Kevin Gorman
| Tuesday, June 7, 2011

As soon as the Pirates picked UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole first overall in Major League Baseball's first-year player draft Monday night, we could dare to dream about a formidable future starting rotation.

The Pirates have stockpiled power arms in the past two drafts, loading up on flamethrowers in hopes of finding a future ace, knowing it's the one thing they cannot afford to attract in the free-agent market. It's why they took a pitcher in the first round for the 12th time in the past 16 drafts.

"Pitching is a game of attrition, unfortunately," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said soon after choosing Cole. "You can never have too much of it. It's the most valuable commodity in our game."

By adding Cole, the Pirates are sending notice to former first-rounders Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Tony Sanchez, as well as Jose Tabata, that top-of-rotation talent is on the way. They also are giving promising prospects Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia the necessary time to polish their pitching repertoire.

Mostly, the Pirates shot for the stars.

The safe pick, baseball analysts agreed, would have been Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen, who went to Seattle with the second pick. Sure, Hultzen has superior statistics to Cole, who finished 6-8 with a 3.31 earned-run average, 119 strikeouts and 24 walks and a .242 opponent batting average this season for the Bruins. Hultzen is 10-3 with 136 strikeouts and 16 walks this season, numbers eerily similar to a former Pirates No. 1 overall pick who was 11-3 with 139 strikeouts and 18 walks in 2002:

Remember Bryan Bullington?

That's not to suggest Cole will be a star and Hultzen a bust, or the other way around. But the Pirates had a scout at every one of Cole's games since January, saw the mechanical flaw in his delivery, saw his pitching plan and saw him getting battered around and still didn't flinch in selecting him first.

"If we were focused on taking the player who performed the best this year, you're right, there might have been other options," Huntington said. "We felt (Cole) has the biggest impact potentially for us of anybody on the board."

As we learned with Bullington, No. 1 overall is no place to play it safe. But Anthony Rendon's sore shoulder was scary enough that five other teams skipped on the Rice third baseman, who went to the Washington Nationals sixth overall. And, contrary to popular belief, the Pirates' system is short on pitching.

Hultzen might make it to the majors faster, but the Pirates were charmed with Cole. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has three above-average pitches, touching 100 mph on his four-seam fastball, and the Pirates believe he has a higher ceiling. You should love that Cole was a 2008 first-round pick who opted for college instead of signing with the Yankees. The Pirates love that he relished his role of pitching in the Pac-10 on Friday nights, developing a dangerous changeup and a promising slider under John Savage at UCLA.

"One of the things that we really stressed with our scouting staff and certainly in our draft room down here is our vision to see down the road and see what the biggest impact can be when you look at the crystal ball," Pirates scouting director Greg Smith said.

"When you look at Gerrit, the physical side, the strength, not only the weapons he has now but what we think can be harnessed going forward and can be helped and improved going forward. There's a lot of things where you like the ingredients, the makeup to be a starting pitcher down the road."

The Pirates now have the potential to pair Cole and Taillon at the top of the rotation, along with Charlie Morton and James McDonald or Allie and Heredia. When it comes to pitching, they have plenty of possibilities.

That's not even taking into consideration that the Pirates still have lefty Rudy Owens and righties Brad Lincoln and Bryan Morris at Triple-A Indianapolis, even if they project as middle-of-rotation or bullpen types.

That's why Huntington was talking about having options and depth. He has the flexibility to finally start making deals the way the Philadelphia Phillies did, using former first-rounder Kyle Drabek as the key to the Doc Deal that brought ace Roy Halladay from the Toronto Blue Jays in December 2009.

That's a concern for tomorrow, one that can't be considered until after the Pirates pay the ransom it takes for super agent Scott Boras to convince his client to sign. Today, we should celebrate that the Pirates made the bold pick, staring at the ceiling instead of focusing on the bottom line.

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