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Gorman: Pirates should pick UCLA pitcher

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Of all the possibilities for the Pirates to ponder in owning the first overall pick in Major League Baseball's first-year player draft, there's one unmistakable truth that could dictate their decision.

The draft goes the way Scott Boras wants it to go.

Boras just so happens to be advising three top-five prospects — UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and Kansas prep outfielder Bubba Starling — so the super agent has a vested interest in who the Pirates' pick.

If the draft goes how Boras wants, the Pirates will select Cole.

The Pirates are expected to take a proven college star instead of a promising prep prospect — not on owner's orders but because it's the best bet. Cole's four-seam fastball consistently touches 100 mph, a feat that could attract crowds to PNC Park and would be worthy of the $10 million signing bonus he's likely to command.

"You want the No. 1 pick to be someone who draws people to the ballpark, and if Gerrit Cole is still touching 101 every fifth day, the fans will show up," ESPN draft analyst Keith Law said. "You're never going to get Gerrit Cole in a trade or free agency. Those are the guys you have to target in the draft. The high, high-ceiling guys you only get one shot at, and that's if you stunk so bad the previous year you get the first pick."

This is the fourth time in franchise history the Pirates have stunk so bad they got the first pick, and they have yet to draft a superstar with it. Unless you consider 1986 pick Jeff King (.256, 154 homers) and '96 pick Kris Benson (70-75, 4.42 ERA) Hall-worthy.

The Pirates can't waste such a precious pick on another Bryan Bullington. The Ball State pitcher went first overall in 2002, when ownership worried more about affordability than potential, only to be billed by Dave Littlefield as a future No. 3 starter. Bullington failed to live up to even that, going 1-9 with a 5.62 ERA in 81 23 innings in the majors.

"The Pirates have lower margin for error not because of their history," Law said. "But if you pick No. 1, you have a tremendous opportunity, and you can't screw it up."

These are the Bob Nutting-owned Pirates, so they can screw it up.

They could choose Rendon, who some believe has the best bat and projects as a Gold Glove third baseman. Doing so could complicate matters with Pedro Alvarez, who insists on remaining at third base and also is represented by Boras.

They could choose Starling, but the two-sport star might play football at Nebraska instead.

Or they could choose Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen, the draft's most polished pitcher but not considered a top-of-rotation arm.

"Hultzen is better than Bullington, but you're losing the ceiling," Law said. "He's not an ace. He's as safe as they come, though. He's a big-leaguer and could fit in a lot of rotations right now.

"But for my money, when you pick No. 1, that's where you get your Griffeys and A-Rods. It's your best opportunity to get a franchise player."

This is no time to get cute. The Royals surprised everyone in bypassing Brad Lincoln, Andrew Miller, Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum to take a Boras client, pitcher Luke Hochevar, first in 2006. Hochevar is 22-37 with a 5.49 ERA in his career, while Lincecum is a two-time Cy Young Award winner.

Cole hasn't had the spectacular season expected of college baseball's best pitcher the way Benson and Bullington did, but the Pirates were present last Friday against Arizona State when the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder solidified his standing as the top choice by throwing six no-hit innings and reaching 100 mph in the eighth inning.

"It's not overrated, and it's the truth," UCLA coach John Savage told TribLIVE Radio. "His fastball is as big a fastball as I've seen in college. I mean, he's throwing bullpens at 93, 94, 95 mph. You just don't see that type of velocity because of the energy and competitiveness. The guy has a true, above-average fastball for a major league level."

This No. 1 pick is a tremendous opportunity, one the Pirates can't screw up.

One they won't screw up if they choose Cole.

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