If the Pirates do indeed select UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole with the first overall pick of the 2011 MLB Draft instead of highly-touted position player Anthony Rendon - as sources continue to speculate that they will - then Pirates fans and Pittsburgh media will forever link Rendon's career to the Pirates franchise, with potentially-devastating consequences. Fairly or not, any success Rendon finds in his career will in some way reflect negatively on the Pirates, and if Rendon does become a more valuable player than Cole by any reasonable margin, it'll usher in a wave of fan backlash and vitriolic blog posts the likes of which Pirates Nation hasn't seen since ... well, they actually see them on a near-hourly basis. But these will contain far more all-caps F-words.
I'm not suggesting that the Pirates or any front-office should make decisions based on fear of public backlash. I happen to agree with Charlie Wilmoth that the Pirates should draft Rendon, but if Bucs GM Neal Huntington truly believes that Cole has a higher ceiling or represents a better bet because of Rendon's injury troubles, then Huntington absolutely should stick to his guns. I'm simply suggesting that no matter how defensible a Cole selection appears at the moment, Pirates fans will track Rendon's performance throughout his entire career with anticipation and possible envy. If Rendon ends up being a superstar and Cole doesn't, the team's decision not to draft Rendon will likely alienate even some of the most hardcore Pirates fans from the current front office to an irreparable degree.
Conversely, if the Pirates do end up taking Rendon, and Cole ends up being the bigger star, there would still assuredly be disappointment and second-guessing amongst Pirate fans, but to nowhere near the same degree. Rendon has been a premier, no-brainer type of draft talent for nearly two years now, and while his stock has fluctuated because of lingering injuries and relatively low power numbers this season, he's still a dominant college position player who some scouts last year said they would've "drafted over Bryce Harper." Cole appears at No. 1 or No. 2 overall on most scouts' lists, but he simply does not possess the superlative cachet that Rendon did at his perceived peak. If Cole becomes a superstar with another team, making a 'The Pirates didn't realize Cole could be this good' argument in 2015 will be a lot easier than making the same argument of Rendon.
I'm not arguing that Cole is the bigger risk (though he very likely is); we can debate Rendon's shoulder injury versus college pitchers' arms in general ad nauseam, with no way of ever really knowing. I'm simply stating that if the Pirates do not select Anthony Rendon, they will ensure a link between Rendon and their franchise for the rest of his career. But if they select Rendon over Cole or any other non-ultrahyped player in this largely muddled draft field, it wouldn't create quite the same forever-linked relationship between the Pirates and those prospects.
I realize we're speaking in terms that appear to be largely hypothetical (a high school English teacher once told me to "always stay out of Hypothetical Land" after reading my (terrible) paper arguing that Macbeth's kingship was doomed from the start), but I'd argue that predicting Pirate-fan backlash is one of the surest bets in sports. We have no way of knowing whether Rendon will in fact become a bigger star than Cole, but I'd argue that were that to happen, predicting that this would mark enormous fan-and-media backlash towards the current Pirates front office is borderline-automatic.
The worst-case scenario is so easy to imagine, it's almost tangible:
-P- March 2013: Cole undergoes Tommy John surgery. Cue 900,000 columns and blog posts about the Pirates' awful injury history with drafted pitchers, each including the word "curse" no fewer than three times.
-P- May 2013: After tearing through the minors, a healthy Rendon gets called up by the Mariners and appears on the cover of ESPN Magazine's "Who's NOW" issue alongside Dustin Ackley and, let's say, Taylor Lautner.
-P- June 2013: Neal Huntington makes the offhanded comment that "We had the best information available at the time" regarding Rendon's shoulder, prompting Ron Cook to write a column blasting Huntington and including three back-to-back one-fragment paragraphs, "Best information? Shame on Huntington. Shame on medicine."
-P- September 2014: Cole's fellow UCLA pitcher Trevor Bauer makes his MLB debut with five scoreless innings, prompting Bob Smizik's subsequent blog post that Cole wasn't even the best prospect on his own college team. It will include the word "Ha!"
-P- October 2014: As Rendon's stardom swells, the rest of us in the blogosphere are so taken aback by the collective undirected ire of Pirates fans and media that we write columns defending the decision to draft Cole, saying, "I would've taken Rendon too, but let's calm down people - the Pirates believed X, Y, and Z and these things aren't completely crazy."
-P- November 2015: Mass suicide.
Ehhh, probably not, actually, that's too far. It'll just remain an increasingly pleasant-sounding fantasy.
Or maybe, you know, Cole will just become a superstar and all this will be moot. Either way, let's just hope that when 2015 rolls around, our iPad 7s have capslock.