Pirates Battling Uncertainty With No. 1 Pick

Tonight's MLB Draft could be the beginning of the long-awaited next chapter at PNC Park. Or not.

Pat Lackey is veteran blogger and a frequent guest of Pulling No Punches. Today, he breaks down the Pirates’ possible first-overall draft picks. You can read part one of his draft blog, "The Curse of First," here.

Make no mistake, tonight’s MLB Draft is big. The Pirates’ first overall pick is an enormous opportunity to compliment an already fast-developing stable of young talent. You can see the outline of a successful team coming together in Pittsburgh this season, but while it’s true that the farm system is improving, the Bucs still have quite a lot of work to do. Adding premium talent never hurts.

Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing I’m certain of in advance of tonight’s draft. Neal Huntington’s front office is notoriously closed-door about personnel decisions, and with the hours ticking away there is still no clear favorite to go no. 1. The best we can do is narrow the field down to three potential choices. Let’s take a quick look at the three college juniors the Pirates are giving long looks:

Anthony Rendon: A year ago, Rendon seemed like the obvious choice. In his sophomore year at Rice, the third baseman hit .394/.539/.801 (average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) with 26 homers in 226 at-bats. Combined with his 20-homer freshman campaign, he was being compared favorably to Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman, two of baseball’s best young third basemen.

Unfortunately, he suffered a broken ankle at the end of the season. Though he was expected to make a full recovery, the injury was obviously a concern for a team in the Pirates’ position. He seemed to be recovering nicely, but he injured his throwing shoulder before the 2011 season started and he’s spent most of the year at as a designated hitter. Recently, he’s played some second base, raising questions about the health of his arm and his long-term ability to stay at third.

Most worryingly, his power has taken a big dip this year; in 2011 he’s hitting .327/.523/.535 with six homers. His ability to stay healthy long-term is the biggest question surrounding him now.

Gerrit Cole: Early in the season, the right-handed Cole’s fastball (which tops out at 100+ mph) earned him comparisons to Washington Nationals’ flamethrower Stephen Strasburg. The UCLA pitcher doesn’t have the numbers to match that comparison, though; this year he’s striking out just over a batter an inning and he’s allowed 92 hits in 107 innings, which gives him a 3.28 ERA. He’s had a couple of very rough starts and though there’s no questioning his talent, his inability to dominate at the college level is certainly raising some questions about picking him with the first overall pick. Still, most polls and mock drafts have Cole as the slight favorite to go no. 1.

Danny Hultzen: Hultzen’s the late-comer to the party, trying to fill the vacuum that’s been created by Rendon and Cole not stepping up. The lefty from the University of Virginia has dominated this year, striking out 12.7 hitters per nine innings and putting up a 1.59 ERA. He’s only allowed three runs in a start once and he’s never allowed more. Plus, Hultzen has only given up double-digit hits in one start this year. He’s obviously talented and has been lights-out this season.

So what’s the concern? For one, college pitchers that get tagged with seemingly encouraging reviews like "most polished" or "fast-riser," both terms that are used to describe Hultzen, often end up with careers like the Pirates’ own Paul Maholm. That’s no knock on Maholm, but he’s never going to be much more than a mid-rotation guy. There’s a clear ceiling. Is Hultzen cut from the same cloth?

Other prospects: The Pirates have also indicated at least some interest in Dylan Bundy (a high school pitcher from Oklahoma with a 100 mph fastball), Bubba Starling (a Kansas high school outfielder that’s committed to play quarterback for the University of Nebraska), and some have speculated that Cole’s teammate at UCLA, Trevor Bauer (a smaller pitching prospect with great numbers but high pitch counts and unorthodox mechanics), has played his way into consideration.

So what will the Pirates do? Keeping the Pirates’ recent draft history in mind, Rendon would seem like the obvious choice. Since Neal Huntington took over as general manager, the Pirates have often avoided pitchers from elite college programs. Quite often, college pitchers get shouldered with huge workloads that result in injuries, and the Pirates thus far have shown a preference to work with high school arms that they have more control over. Still, ESPN’s Keith Law recently put the Pirates’ chances of drafting Rendon below 20 percent.

Personally, my preference would be Rendon. The injuries that have slowed him down in 2011 aren’t supposed to be lingering issues and while there’s some fear that he might turn into a Ryan Doumit-type who is constantly broken down, Rendon is likely less of a risk than Cole and Hultzen. You make decisions based on positional needs in baseball’s annual draft, and Rendon would add another potentially strong bat to a team that needs more offense at the major league level (and that coincidentally doesn’t have a whole lot on the way in the minors).

The stumbling block is his injury. However, MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo reported this week that teams have medical information on Rendon’s shoulder. Mayo predicted him to go second overall to the Mariners. Since a few previous mock drafts had Rendon sliding further down in the top ten because of the injury concerns, I read that to mean that there’s nothing too troubling in the medical file.

There’s really no easy choice for the Pirates here; they would be justified in taking any of the top five or six players available due to concerns with just about everyone in the top of this draft class. I think Rendon makes the most sense for them on a lot of levels, though, and he’s the guy I’m hoping the Pirates draft tonight.

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