Plenty of draft options for Pirates at No. 1
Holding the top pick in this year's draft, which begins Monday, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington is in an enviable position.
Huntington also is in a difficult spot. Unlike the past two years, when the Washington Nationals faced no-brainers in selecting slugger Bryce Harper and ace Stephen Strasburg, there is no consensus top-rated player as the Pirates make the opening selection for the first time since 2002.
Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, who a year ago was considered the top prospect in this class, has been bothered by shoulder injuries.
UCLA hard-throwing right-hander Gerrit Cole started the spring strong, then struggled. Still, he struck out his 100th batter of the season last weekend.
Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen has crept up the charts with reliable, impressive performances that helped the Cavaliers earn the top seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Pirates also could use their top pick on a high school player for the second year in a row by selecting right-hander Dylan Bundy of Owasso (Okla.) or outfielder Bubba Starling of Gardner Edgerton (Kan.).
"When I ranked my personal list, I had Bundy one, but of the first four guys I listed -- Bundy, Cole, Rendon and Hultzen -- you could put those names in a hat and draw them out in random order and say that's how I have them ranked, and I'd say, 'Yeah, that makes sense to me,' " Baseball Prospectus draft guru Kevin Goldstein said.
For the past week, a team of Pirates executives and scouts, including Huntington and scouting director Greg Smith, have been in Bradenton, Fla., where they pored over numbers and reports.
"It's time to talk about them until we get tired of talking about them," Smith said. "But you only get one shot to make the best decision we can. It's almost like, if someone was on the outside listening in, you're thinking we don't like any of these guys much. But it's like test-driving a car, comparing that car to this car and going through everything we can to select the best player."
As recently as December, given the choice between Rendon and Harper, some scouts said they'd take Rendon. They suggested that, with his big bat and Gold Glove potential, he could be in the majors within a year.
But an ankle injury slowed Rendon last summer and fall, then a shoulder injury this year has limited him to mostly designated hitter duties at Rice. College baseball's switch to a different type of bat hasn't helped, nor has the fact that no one wants to pitch to him.
"The Rice team has been disappointing, and he's the only guy who scares anybody," Goldstein said. "I know scouts who've sat all weekend to evaluate the kid, and the entire time he didn't see a single pitch to hit."
Health is a factor with every player, Smith said, and he admitted that this season hasn't been the best scenario to scout Rendon.
"I'm sure he's frustrated. ... It's not the season he anticipated," said Smith, who declined to specify whether the Pirates have or will see a medical report before draft day. "It's frustrating for us only seeing one side of his game."
Rendon has been on every team's radar for years -- as has Cole, who was drafted in the first round out of high school in 2008 by the New York Yankees but chose to go to UCLA. Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com and Keith Law of ESPN.com have the Pirates taking Cole in their mock drafts.
"I'm not convinced, and it may be something different, but I think despite the performance issues lately, he's still a guy who can throw in the upper 90s and maintains that deep into starts," Mayo said. "He has a long track record of being successful."
Cole's slider has been inconsistent this year, and it has gotten him into trouble. Mayo said there's also no real variation in his off-speed pitches. But with some fixes to flaws in his delivery, he has ace potential.
"This is one of those cases where last impressions are the largest ones," Mayo said.
If there is a safe pick from the college ranks, it's Hultzen.
"I think, because of the questions with (Rendon and Cole), they didn't separate themselves as much. At the same time, Hultzen has performed, and it hasn't been with typical finesse lefty stuff," Mayo said. "He has very good stuff, up to 93, 94 (mph) and touching 95 earlier. He probably has the best changeup in the class and a very good breaking ball. That's what vaulted him from a mid-first-round guy to a guy who will be gone in the first few picks."
Smith said it wouldn't be accurate to suggest the Pirates are only discussing college players — even though they used their top picks of 2010 on high school pitchers Jameson Taillon (second overall) and Stetson Allie (52nd).
"You do have to be mindful of what you're trying to do with the organization and player development, but if we feel a high school player warrants the first pick, we'll still do it," Smith said.
Huntington said that even if the Pirates have settled on a player, they won't reveal it publicly and affect their negotiating leverage. But he also promised they are willing to spend this year as they did last, when they shelled out $11.9 million in draft bonuses, just behind the Washington Nationals for most in baseball.
In the past three years, the Pirates have spent more than any team on bonuses — just shy of $30.6 million. That doesn't figure to change with Rendon and Cole being represented by agent Scott Boras and Hultzen repped by CAA. Any of the three will command a large bonus as the top pick.
"(Draft bonuses are) an important part of our process to get to be a successful major league team and an important part of sustaining that team when we get to the point where we're winning a lot of games," Huntington said. "The draft and international market are our lifeblood, and we're going to have to continue aggressively investing in both."
They're No. 1
The Pirates' top picks of the past decade:
Year: Player, selection, Position, Where is he now?
2010: Jameson Taillon, 2nd, P, Low-A West Virginia
2009: Tony Sanchez, 4th, C, Double-A Altoona
2008: Pedro Alvarez, 2nd, 3B, Pirates' third baseman
2007: Daniel Moskos, 4th, P, Pirates' bullpen
2006: Brad Lincoln, 4th, P, Triple-A Indianapolis starting rotation
2005: Andrew McCutchen, 11th, OF, Pirates' center fielder
2004: Neil Walker, 11th, C, Pirates' second baseman
2003: Paul Maholm, 8th, P, Pirates' starting rotation
2002: Bryan Bullington, 1st, P, Pitching for Japan's Hiroshima Toyo Carp
2001: John Van Benschoten, 8th, P, Pitching for the York Revolution of the Atlantic League
of Professional Baseball
Options at No. 1
Position: Third base
Height: 6-0 Weight: 190 pounds
2011 stats: .327 batting average, 20 doubles, three triples, six HRs, 35 RBI, 12 stolen bases
Noteworthy: Played second base Thursday and Friday in the Conference-USA Tournament for his first two games in the field since March 25. Before that, he'd been limited to DH duty because of a shoulder strain. ... Set Rice's new single-season walks record with 78. ... Was Baseball America's 2010 College Player of the Year playing at third base. Played final 23 games that year without making an error. ... Draws comparisons to Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman ... Hit .388 with 20 HRs as a freshman and .394 with 26 HRs and 85 RBI as a sophomore. Hit .394 with a .539 on-base percentage with 26 HRs, 85 RBI, 14 stolen bases and a 22/65 strike/walk rate in 2010.
Position: Right-handed pitcher
Height: 6-4 Weight: 220
Stats: 6-7, 3.28 ERA, 107 innings pitched, 23 walks, 108 strikeouts, eight home runs allowed, 15 appearances, four complete games
Noteworthy: Four-seam fastball in the 94 to 97 mph range and maintains that velocity throughout the game, and two-seam fastball is at 92 to 93 mph. ... Has a power change-up that's his best secondary pitch and another one he can use to get hitters out other than his fastball. ... Slide is much improved, although it's gotten in trouble this year at time. ... Healthy his entire career. ... UCLA team captain. ... Throwing a lot of strikes this year, extremely quick and powerful arm. ... Was member of UCLA's national runner-up team as a sophomore. ... Coach has compared him to Barry Zito ... Should be in majors sooner rather than later.
Position: Left-handed pitcher
Height: 6-3 Weight: 200
2011 stats: 10-3, 1.59 ERA, 96.1 innings pitched, 16 walks, 136 strikeouts, three HRs allowed, 14 appearances, no complete games
Noteworthy: Freshman All-American in 2009 who batted .327 and went 9-1 with a 2.17 ERA, then earned second team All-American honors in 2010 going 10-1 with a 2.83 ERA. ... Of all pitchers in the draft, could be the first to the big leagues. ... Doesn't have the upside of Cole or Rendon but also doesn't have any knocks against him. ... Above-average stuff, good velocity for a left-hander, great control, good breaking stuff. ... Semi-finalist for Golden Spikes Award last year. ... ACC pitcher of the year in 2010, ranks eighth in career strikeouts at Virginia (230). ... Finished eighth nationally in hits allowed per nine innings (6.02), 13th in strikeouts and 36th in ERA in 2010.