Bucs prepping for first top pick since 2002
Pittsburgh narrowing down its choices leading up to Draft
Around 7 p.m. ET on Monday, June 6, Commissioner Bud Selig will stand behind a podium at the MLB Network Studios and put the Pittsburgh Pirates on the clock.
By virtue of having baseball's worst record in 2010, the Pirates will usher in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft by making the night's most anticipated decision. Selig will make the announcement, and the Bucs will make one amateur player the franchise's fourth No. 1 overall pick.
That much is known.
What's not yet known is the name Selig will read.
In contrast to the past two years, when it was known well ahead of time that the Nationals would make Stephen Strasburg (2009) and Bryce Harper ('10) the Draft's first selections, the Pirates are still considering multiple options.
Pittsburgh is said to be considering no more than five players for that No. 1 pick, though indications are that the organization's focus is particularly on three: UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen.
Not only are the Pirates still discussing -- and within the organization's inner circle, debating -- who that No. 1 selection should be, but the conversations are expected to continue up until the final days before the Draft.
Pittsburgh's scouts and various front-office members are gathering this week for their first set of Draft meetings. Everyone will then disperse across the country to take final looks at players before reconvening at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., about 10 days before the Draft. It will be in that final set of meetings that the Bucs will determine who their pick will be.
"There is not a clear-cut No. 1 this year," general manager Neal Huntington said. "That's why we continue to work. That's why we continue to follow a handful of players and do our due diligence. You like to have a unanimous pick at No. 1 like you did a couple years ago with Strasburg. We don't have it this year."
Huntington has seen Cole, Rendon and Hultzen in person this spring, as have at least a half-dozen other scouts or personnel within the organization. Such scrutiny and opinions are necessary as the Pirates anticipate handing out a signing bonus higher than the $6.5 million given to No. 2 overall pick Jameson Taillon last year.
"The signability factor always comes into play with decisions, but we've given full assurance we can take who we want," scouting director Greg Smith said. "It's an exciting deal for us. I laugh because we're picking [No. 1] as opposed to [No. 2], and there's a lot more attention given to No. 1. But it really doesn't feel all that different to me."
Smith knows as well as anyone how critical it is to not miss with that No. 1 pick. With all the talent he brought into the Tigers' organization during the eight years he served as Detroit's director of scouting, Smith's first pick was not an impact one.
His first season with the Tigers was 1997, when Detroit used its No. 1 pick to take right-hander Matt Anderson. The former college closer went on to appear in 257 games, all as a reliever. Anderson, who last pitched in the Majors in 2005, finished his career with an unimpressive 5.19 ERA and 1.58 WHIP.
The Pirates last picked first in 2002, when the organization chose right-hander Bryan Bullington ahead of B.J. Upton, Zack Greinke and Prince Fielder, among others.
Fielder is a two-time All-Star. Greinke has an American League Cy Young Award displayed in his home. Bullington won his first (and only) Major League game with the Royals last year and is now pitching in Japan.
The Bucs, who are clearly using the Draft as their primary pipeline for talent, need much more to come out of their first-round pick this time around.
"Somebody is going to make an impact out of this Draft," Huntington said. "We're going to turn around and somebody is going to be an All-Star. We're just doing everything we can to make sure we get him."
Cole, Rendon and Hultzen are all a part of a Draft board that is somewhat clouded near the top. The depth of talent in this Draft -- especially on the pitching end -- is exceptional. However, there is no clear-cut front-runner.
Rendon, widely considered to be the nation's best talent coming into the season, has been battling a shoulder strain for most of the year, and that has limited the third baseman mostly to DH duty.
His power numbers are down, though that's believed to be more the result of a change in the college bats than any issue with the shoulder. Rendon looks fully recovered from ankle surgery -- the second of his collegiate career -- and that is encouraging.
"He appears healthy," Smith said. "He's running fine. He's hitting fine. I haven't noticed a change in his swing or approach. His shoulder just hasn't come along like he thought it would."
The shoulder issue could be enough for the Pirates to pass on Rendon, and if they do, Cole could very well be the choice. He, too, has had his hiccups this season, but a right-handed power pitcher is impossible to overlook.
Cole had a particularly trying stretch in April, and his record (5-6) and ERA (3.42) are not nearly as impressive as that of teammate Trevor Bauer, who is likely to be a first-round pick as well.
Though Cole's results have not matched expectations, his advanced pitch repertoire -- highlighted by an upper-90s fastball -- makes him a lock to be taken at or near the top of the Draft.
Then there is Hultzen, who has worked his way into the discussion by having one of college baseball's best seasons. In his first 12 starts, Hultzen posted a 1.42 ERA. He had 121 strikeouts and just 13 walks in 82 2/3 innings.
One thing the Pirates are not prepared to do is pass on a pitcher simply because history shows that pitchers are the riskier investment.
"Historically, the game is built around pitching," Smith said. "The reality is that they're always one pitch away from hurting their arm. But unfortunately, there have also been position players that have injuries. It is a question that is going to require a lot of dialogue, but I think we showed last year if it's the right player with the right talent, we'll take him."
Since 2009, Pittsburgh has handed out more money in Draft signing bonuses than any other club, and the organization expects to be at or near the top of the list in spending again this year. Internally, there will also be significant focus on Rounds 2-50, as the Pirates' Draft strategy centers around being aggressive in later rounds.
Externally, though, the club realizes it's all about the name called out first.
"We get to pick [No. 1], and that is nice," Huntington said. "We're not going to see the player we want go off the board before us. We know we get the player we want."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.