Life and baseball can be so unfair (or, ‘What should the Pirates do with the first pick in the 2011 draft?’)

In the last two drafts, there have been two incredible talents available. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were billed as the best pitching prospect and best hitting prospect in recent memory, and Strasburg’s injury aside, early returns on both are awfully good. I’m not complaining about Tony Sanchez or Jameson Taillon; they’re both excellent prospects that I think will have good (or better) Pirate careers. But now that it’s the Pirates’ turn to pick first, there’s a muddled crop of talent at #1 with no clear pick and everyone agrees that the value in this draft is in its depth, which makes it hurt even worse that there’s an entire round of supplementary picks before the Pirates have their second pick at #61. 

It’s not that I think Neal Huntington and Greg Smith will screw up the first pick; if there’s one thing I think that this front office has done an excellent job of, it’s drafting. They’ve shown willingness to pay for talent, they’ve shown willingness to make a pick they like even if no one else likes it, they haven’t been afraid of some of baseball’s scariest agents. It’s early on the results, but it’s really hard to complain about the process to this point in their tenure. 

So what do the Pirates do with this pick? At Baseball Prospectus, Kevin Goldstein has a good write-up of the Pirates’ dilemma at the top of this draft:

Over the last few weeks, what was thought to be a group of three has grown by one; Oklahoma prep right-hander Dylan Bundy has been nothing short of remarkable this spring and is a longshot to make draft history as the first high school right-hander ever to go first overall.

When it was Rendon or Cole, projecting the Pirates was an easier task, but the sudden flipping of the top talent could make things difficult for a team that is very conscious of how their selection will be viewed within the industry. “I know Pittsburgh is very sensitive to the perception issue of not taking the consensus guy,” said one team executive. But right now, there is no “consensus guy.”

So basically, we’re three weeks away from the draft and hardly anyone has any idea whether the Pirates should be taking Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen, or Dylan Bundy. That’s not to say that the Pirates have no idea, because they’re playing this close to the vest like they do with just about everything, but certainly the draft watchers are having a hard time parsing out the top pick this year. So let’s take what we know and try to figure out what the Pirates are going to do and if it’s what they should do. 

Let’s start with Cole and Hultzen. I think it’s notable and telling so far that the only prominent college pitchers the Pirates have drafted with Huntington/Smith are Justin Wilson, who was a mid-rotation guy at Fresno State that the club likely saw value in his secondary pitches, Tanner Scheppers, who they’d hoped would be a bargain in round 2 if healthy, and Victor Black, a tall-hardthrowing pitcher that pitched for a mid-level college program and didn’t throw a ton of innings. Cole and Hultzen both went over 100 innings last year and will likely do so again this year. They’re dangerous picks just because they’re front-line starters for elite college programs. The team said in the past that they would’ve picked Stephen Strasburg if they had the opportunity in 2009 and I don’t see any reason to doubt them, but I don’t think I’d put Cole in the same “exception to the rule” category as Strasburg and I’m almost certain that I wouldn’t put Hultzen there. 

So if we rule the college pitchers out (remember: theoretical exercise), then let’s look at Bundy. The Pirates did, afterall, take a college pitcher with the second pick last year. But when they did, they said that Taillon was the same sort of exception to the rule that they thought that Strasburg was. The club all but came out and said, “We’d never take a high school pitcher this high, except that this kid is really special.” Mostly everyone seemed to agree with that, too. Taillon was Baseball America’s 11th best prospect this year without even throwing a professional pitch. So here’s the question: is Bundy as good as a guy that pretty much everyone said was the best right-handed high school pitching prospect since Josh Beckett? In Goldstein’s article, one scout says that he is and Baseball America’s Jim Callis agrees. Still, at 6’1″, he doesn’t really fit the Neal Huntington/Greg Smith mold of pitchers, who tend to be tall and projectible. In reading about him he sounds kind of like a more polished Stetson Allie. So is that a guy the Pirates take at #1 overall? How much concern does his heavy workload in high school raise? 

That leaves Rendon. A year ago, people were comparing Rendon to Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman as a third baseman with a glove that could hit for average or pop and saying he was the sort of guy you could build a team around. He wasn’t a consensus #1, per se, but he definitely looked like the kind of player you’d want with the top pick in the draft. Then he broke his ankle, and shortly after that he injured his shoulder, which has been bothering him most of the year. Last year, Rendon hit 26 homers in 226 ABs and he put up a triple-slash line of .394/.539/.801. That was after a freshman year in which he hit 20 homers and slugged .702. This year? Just five homers in 171 ABs and a .322/.530/.515 line. Perhaps most concerningly, he’s been almost power-deficient in May with one homer, a .179 average, and a .321 SLG. 

My gut feeling here (and please remember that I’m not a scout or even the best Pirate blog to get this kind of analysis from) is that if the questions raised about Rendon can be sufficiently answered, that Rendon’s still the pick. He may be #4 on Goldstein’s list, but Baseball America still has him at #1 and I’m just not sure about any of the pitchers the Pirates have been linked to. The problem is that there are so many questions about him now that it’s hard to be sure about him, too. He’s supposed to be able to fully recover from the ankle injury and the shoulder injury is minor, but will he? Or is he just an injury-prone guy? How injury-prone? What about his 2011 performance? Is it worse because of his shoulder or worse because he’s getting absolutely nothing to hit or worse because he hasn’t adjusted to college baseball’s new metal bats or worse because the shoulder and/or bats have exposed some kind of fatal flaw in his swing or plate approach? Is he even seeing enough pitches to hit to make a judgment on the shoulder or his plate approach with the new bats? My guess (because I haven’t seen him play) is that his struggles are probably due to some combination of injuries and being pitched around and the frustration that comes from both of those things.

The problem is that I’m not sure there’s any way to get a definitive answer to these questions, and so to some extent this pick is a shot in the dark for the Pirates. They’re either going to gamble that Rendon’s more like the 2010 Rendon than the 2011 version, or that 2011 has told us enough about him that one of the three pitchers is a better prospect than he is. Either way, it’s not exactly an enviable position to be in when you have the first pick in the draft. 

Stats for Rendon, Cole, and Hultzen from Pirates Prospects’ draft trackers.  

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.