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In exactly two weeks, when the annual draft is set to begin, the Pirates will make what quite possibly will be their most important personnel decision of the year.
Until then, about only this much will be certain: The organization will have the first overall pick, and the mystery man won't be known until it's time to reveal his name.
“Publicly, it will absolutely come down until two minutes before the draft,” general manager Neal Huntington said.
The internal discussions may not cease until right before then.
Unlike the last two years, when pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper were the consensus No. 1 picks, there is no obvious candidate this time around. For that reason, if one asked five talent evaluators for their selections, he probably would receive two or three different responses.
“It is a deeper draft than it is top-heavy,” Huntington said. “If you look back at the 2008 draft, it was remarkable in that regard. If you look at the 2009 draft, it seemed to be two players that stood above the rest of the group. If you looked at last year's draft, it seemed to be three players that stood above the rest of the group.
“This year it's a more clouded issue at the top of the draft. Maybe it was clearer to some coming into the year, but because some guys have faded back and others have elevated, there's not a clear-cut No. 1 this year. That's why we continue to work and follow a handful of players and do our due diligence and dig up as much information as we can and evaluate them appropriately.”
In recent weeks, scouting director Greg Smith and his staff have watched dozens of candidates in person, spoken with representatives and acquaintances, pored over information and game films and debated the possibilities. According to Huntington, Smith will make the final determination with input from himself, team scouts and a select few others in the organization. Seven-to-10 persons among them will have seen the top pick perform in person this season.
Indications are that the first pick is likely to come from this short list of candidates:
Pitcher, 6'1", 200 lbs, Owasso (Okla.) High School
Why Bundy will be the first pick: In the absence of a Strasburg type, why not draft an 18-year-old phenom whom some scouts believe has the biggest upside of them all? Some locals consider him to be the greatest prep athlete ever in a state that has produced Johnny Bench and Mickey Mantle among others. Not only has his fastball reached triple figures this season, but his curveball rates as a plus pitch and his change-up isn't far behind. At his current rate, he could arrive to the big leagues as early as the 2013 season.
Why Bundy won't be the first pick: High school pitchers fail at a high rate, and the Pirates cannot afford to whiff at the top pick especially. Representatives reportedly told interested parties that he wants a six-year, $30-million contract. If accurate, that would leave less money to spend in later rounds. Although he may have a growth spurt ahead of him, the organization prefers taller pitchers who throw on steeper downhill planes. He is a strong advocate of a long-toss program, and there has been talk about a clash of philosophies along those lines.
What ESPN analyst Keith Law says: “The rare high school pitcher who looks like a college pitcher and could be in the big leagues in that short a time."
Pitcher, 6'4", 220 lbs, UCLA.
Why Cole will be the first pick: The junior possesses the best combination of size, strength, durability and experience, which translates into the safest pick with the most potential. His fastball has been clocked in the mid-90s consistently, while his slider and change-up are above average. The consensus is that he will develop into a No. 2 or 3 starter eventually. The New York Yankees drafted him three years ago, and since then, he has matured into a team leader.
Why Cole won't be the first pick: Statistically, he hasn't wowed anyone this season. The drop-off was largely the result of three consecutive sub-par starts. He lacked command and confidence, although he has fared better since then. While most scouts project him to be a top-of-the-rotation starter, others believe he will be a closer down the line. The latter could be the same career path taken by Stetson Allie, whom the Pirates drafted in the second round last year.
What Baseball America says: “Though Cole has battled his command recently, he'd seem to have the advantage over the wounded (Anthony) Rendon."
Pitcher, 6'3", 200 lbs, University of Virginia.
Why Hultzen will be the first pick: The organization prefers someone who is on the fast track to the major leagues, and many scouts consider the southpaw to be more polished than the rest. He also could be more affordable than the others, which would allow for greater flexibility in later rounds. An uncanny strike-thrower who doesn't beat himself, the junior relies on a low-90s fastball, an advanced change-up and an above-average slider. His athletic talents have allowed him to hold his own as a part-time outfielder or designated hitter.
Why Hultzen won't be the first pick: As much finesse as fire, he lacks the power arm that one associates with the No. 1 pick. While the junior may pay more immediate dividends than the others, there's a chance that he will max out earlier as well. His arm slot has been inconsistent at times, which may be problematical in his career.
What Law says: “Polished and ready to go. One of at least three starters in this draft who could probably go straight to Double A (ball).”
Third baseman, 6', 180 lbs, Rice University.
Why Rendon will be the first pick: He's the consensus choice as the best pure hitter in a draft that has a shortage of them. The junior is the definition of a tough out–a highly disciplined hitter who lays off pitches outside the strike-zone, attacks pitches that he can handle and doesn't waver in his approach. His strong wrists and forearms generate excellent bat speed, and as a result, he is able to hit for power despite his average size. In the field, he's a solid fielder who should improve with experience. He has a good feel for the game.
Why Rendon won't be the first pick: Health concerns. Because of a strained right shoulder that the junior sustained early in the season, he has been limited to a designated hitter role since then. His statistics have taken a noticeable turn for the worse across the board, and because his corner has not released a medical update, it's unclear whether the decline is related to health or stricter NCAA bat standards or both. Earlier in his college career, he underwent surgeries to repair ligament damage and a fracture in his right ankle.
What Baseball America says: “As frustrating as this season has been, Rendon remains a strong candidate to go No. 1 overall.”