Kevin Gorman of the Tribune-Review argues that the Pirates should choose UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole in the upcoming 2011 MLB Draft.
You've got to be wary of someone who rarely writes about baseball coming out of nowhere with strong opinions about something as hard-to-understand as the MLB Draft, but hey, we've all got to pay the bills. When SB Nation tells me it's time to write about arena football or Dancing With The Stars, hey - I do it. At least Gorman had the good sense to ask Keith Law what he thinks.
"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."
That's a good reason to pick Cole over someone like Virginia's Danny Hultzen, who will probably be a top-five pick but who arguably does lack upside. It's not a good argument for picking Cole over Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon.
The context of this argument is that Cole and Rendon are both top talents, but both have struggled somewhat this year - Cole has tremendous stuff, but has often given opposing hitters good pitches to hit, resulting in a somewhat disappointing 108 strikeouts in 107 innings, with a 3.28 ERA. Rendon's shoulder issues have limited him to designated hitter much of the year and have probably affected him with the bat, and he's currently hitting .327, with a .523 on-base percentage and a .535 slugging percentage. (These obviously don't look like disappointing statistics by major-league standards, but Cole has been overshadowed this year by his teammate Trevor Bauer, and Rendon's numbers are way off from his own 2010 performance.)
I agree with Law that the Pirates need to draft someone with a ton of upside with the first pick. I just don't think drafting Cole is the right way to do that. Rendon also has a ton of upside, and is probably actually a surer bet - even Gorman describes him as potentially the best hitter in the draft and a future Gold Glover. So what's Gorman's argument against Rendon?
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.
That's a terrible reason not to draft someone. Alvarez can't "insist" on staying at third. He's stuck with the Pirates for the next five-and-a-half years whether the Bucs want him to be their third baseman or their backup catcher or their second lefty out of the bullpen. Moreover, Alvarez shouldn't stay at third - he lacks the mobility and reactions to be an asset at that position, and he's probably going to be moved to first eventually anyway, with or without Rendon. And finally, you don't draft a player in the first round based on need. Whoever you draft is likely to spend a year or two in the minors anyway, and who knows what the team's needs might be when he's finally ready?
And naturally, Gorman had to sneak in this little gem:
"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.
Nothing like a completely irrelevant shot at Bob Nutting to convince the PNC-fireworks crowd to buy your sloppy argument, amirite? I don't particularly care if people don't like Bob Nutting, but bashing him in this context makes absolutely no sense, since the Pirates have spent more than any other team in the draft in past three years.
Anyway, the question is, why is Cole, the best college pitcher in the draft, better than Rendon, the best hitter in the draft? You could argue that Rendon's shoulder problems might be a good reason not to draft him. At this point, we don't really know, although the Pirates might - by now, Rendon has hopefully released medical information to the Pirates and other interested teams. But if the Pirates are satisfied that Rendon's shoulder won't be a lasting problem, then drafting him should be an easy decision.
Gorman invokes 2002 first-overall pick Bryan Bullington as evidence that the Pirates should pick Cole. To me, the Bullington example shows why they shouldn't take Cole. In retrospect, the salient point about Bullington isn't that former general manager Dave Littlefield predicted he would be a middle-of-the-rotation starter. It's that Bullington got drafted and then immediately stopped throwing as hard as he did in college. And then, a couple years later, he had shoulder surgery.
Bullington wasn't a bad first-overall pick because he was a low-upside pitcher, although that's what a lot of us thought at the time. He was a bad first-overall pick because he was a pitcher, period. Now, if you have an exceptional case, like Stephen Strasburg or David Price - a pitcher who towers over the rest of the draft class - then fine, take him, and deal with the risk that he'll someday get hurt, just as Strasburg did. In some alternate universe, Cole might have been that towering talent. But instead, he's had mechanical problems this year that have resulted in bouts of ineffectiveness against college hitters.
Pitchers are scary. High school pitchers have several years before they reach the big leagues, and you're never sure what kind of stuff they're going to have when they get there, or whether their arms will still be attached. College pitchers often have already had very scary workloads, and thus have a ton of wear and tear on their arms by the time they sign their first pro contract. And more broadly, hurlers' stuff - velocity, the bite on their breaking pitches - comes and goes. It happens to pitchers all the time, sometimes because they're hurt, and sometimes for reasons that are hard to identify. If you're picking in the middle of the first round, it might be fine to accept that risk and take a pitcher.
But with a pick as valuable as the first overall selection, you'd better be really careful. Couple that with the mechanical issues and command problems Cole has had this year, and you'd better be sure Cole's talent is enough to offset that risk.
Rendon's numbers have been somewhat disappointing this year, just as Cole's have. But Jim Callis of Baseball America has an explanation for that:
I'm not going to have the best answer to this, because I don't see how a team could think that the shoulder strain hasn't impacted his bat speed and swing. If he were in pro ball, Rendon would have sat out and gotten healthy and been fine. In college, he has gutted through it at less than his best to help his team. I'm not a doctor, nor a scout, but I'm believing in the 100-percent healthy Rendon we saw as a freshman and a sophomore. That guy was a stud.
Based on everything I've read and watched in this draft, the Pirates' pick should hinge on one thing: Anthony Rendon's shoulder. If it's going to be fine, they ought to pick him - he projects as an excellent hitter and plays great defense. If not, then I think picking Cole would be acceptable, but I wouldn't love it. Maybe he'll become a star. But with a pitcher, there's always a decent chance you'll be getting a Bullington.