The 2011 Draft will be different. Since the end of the last season, it's been known that the Pittsburgh Pirates would make the first selection, courtesy of their 105-loss season. But as much as this year's Draft class has been lauded for being as strong as it's been in years, there is not a clear-cut choice for selection No. 1.
It appears that the Pirates are primarily looking at three candidates for the honor. Two of the three have been considered front-runners from the get-go, and one has forced his way into the picture by virtue of his performance. UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole and Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon have long been thought to be the most likely choices for Pittsburgh. And now University of Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen, who's been dominant all spring, is coming up in conversation.
If the Pirates want to switch gears and go the high-school route, they can go for a high-ceiling right-hander in Dylan Bundy or a toolsy outfielder in Bubba Starling. But all signs point to them going the college route. The process Pittsburgh is going through to make this decision is another matter, but it should be noted that there is no real consensus in the scouting industry about who the top talent is.
In an informal and anonymous poll, scouts and scouting directors were asked:
1. As of today, who do you think the Pirates will take No. 1?
2. If you had the No. 1 pick in this year's Draft, who would you take?
There was much more agreement on the first question than the second. A vast majority believed the Pirates will take Cole, a big right-hander with power stuff, despite the fact he had a stretch this season of uneven results.
One or two scouts polled answered simply with "No clue," passing on the question rather than to hazard a guess. Those who did respond did so based somewhat on what they thought the Pirates should do, where they believed Pittsburgh's focus had been this spring and perhaps who they thought was the best player available.
It was fairly evident Rendon didn't get as many votes because of his current shoulder issue. The top college hitter in the class has been limited to designated-hitter duties because of the shoulder, keeping him from playing his typical plus-rated third base. While most believed it likely won't be a long-term concern, they were reluctant to go with Rendon regarding either question before having more answers about his health.
Who scouts think the Pirates will take No. 1
Many scouts, particularly ones from teams picking late in the first round, had trouble answering this, given that they haven't scouted the top players this spring. That's why one scout picked Bauer. He hadn't seen Cole, Rendon or Hultzen, so he went with the other UCLA starter in Bauer, the best player he had actually scouted this season.
The scouts polled had a variety of reasons for picking the players they selected.
Who scouts would take if they had the No. 1 pick
Hultzen: "Hultzen's been the most consistent. Three weeks ago, the top two college pitchers were Cole and Hultzen. At this point, we'd probably take Hultzen."
Rendon: "It would be close. That type of bat, that type of player, what he's done over the course of his career -- this is his worst year and his numbers are still exceptional.
"I think there's less risk to what his upside could be as a middle-of-the-order run producer. There's always some risk to pitching. It's close, but I would take Rendon, assuming he's going to be OK. A third baseman with that kind of production, I think there's a better chance it will happen."
Cole: "That's the guy right there, the power stuff. That's what I think."
While those three have, in part, separated themselves from the rest of the class, there certainly wasn't anything set in stone that they would indeed be the top three taken, much in the way most knew last year's top of the Draft would go Harper-Jameson Taillon-Manny Machado, in some order, fairly early on. And scouts were quick to warn against betting too heavily on any front-runners in this one. With a few weeks remaining, some of those aforementioned high-school talents seemed to be gaining.
"This is going right down to the wire on this one," one scouting director said. "There's no clear-cut 'I'm your guy.' It's a horse race, and the horses came out of the gate pretty good. There's a group of guys coming around the turn and they might catch the top guys."
"The guy who picks [No.] 8 or 10 could have the No. 1 talent," another director said. "That's how good this Draft is."
This points out two things. The first is that it's still too early to tell what exactly the top of the Draft will look like. The other is that it's never a good idea to talk to scouts right after the Kentucky Derby is run.