Pirates hope top-pick Cole becomes big league ace

It didn’t matter to the Pittsburgh Pirates that Gerrit Cole was

not the ace of his college team’s staff.

To them, the hard-throwing right-hander from UCLA will develop

into a major league ace – something the franchise hasn’t

consistently had for years.

Despite Cole having his worst statistical season of his three

years at UCLA, Pittsburgh selected him with the first pick of the

baseball draft Monday night, adding another power arm to a system

that’s been infused with a much-needed jolt during the last 12

months.

”Scouting is about projection,” Pirates general manager Neal

Huntington said. ”It’s about looking into the future and

understanding what we believe a player will be in two, four, six,

eight, 10 years from now. The performance this year goes into it,

but ultimately he’s a big, strong right-hander with quality stuff

and quality competitiveness.

Cole was a freshman All-American at UCLA after not signing with

the Yankees, who took him 28th overall out of high school in 2008.

He went 6-8 with a 3.31 ERA this year, but his stuff was too good

for the Pirates to pass up.

”He was the guy we believe can make the biggest impact in our

organization,” Huntington said.

Former Pittsburgh general manager Dave Littlefield said after

the first round of the draft in 2002 that No. 1 overall pick Bryan

Bullington projected out to be ”a No. 3 starter” in the major

leagues.

Cole – by the numbers, at least – was the No. 3 starter for UCLA

this season. Teammate Trevor Bauer had a far superior statistical

season (13-2, 1.25 ERA, 203 strikeouts, .154 batting average

against) and went third to Arizona. Freshman right-hander Adam

Plutko also had a better ERA and batting average against than

Cole.

But when you consistently throw into the upper-90s – nudging 100

and rarely dropping below 95, even in the later innings of starts –

that type of potential excites teams.

”Looking at Gerrit, he has the physical size and tools,”

Pirates scouting director Greg Smith said. ”But not only do you

need to have the weapons, you have to be able to harness that

moving forward. Gerrit has the mentality, the makeup, the

competitiveness, a lot of the ingredients that make up a quality

starting pitcher down the road.”

Cole called Bauer after his teammate was drafted, and the two

congratulated each other. Bauer likely improved his draft stock

based on his numbers; with Cole, it was more about the raw skills

and a delivery that is thought to lead to durability.

”Obviously, this year wasn’t up to my standards, but I tried to

not think about it,” Cole said. ”I just control what I can

control and let the teams do their evaluation.”

This is the fourth time in 25 years the Pirates selected No. 1

overall. The results from their previous three attempts ranged from

the mediocre – third baseman Jeff King in 1986 and pitcher Kris

Benson 10 years later – to the full-out bust (Bullington).

In the months leading to the draft, there was no clear-cut No. 1

overall pick, with Cole, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon was

considered a potential No. 1 pick, as were University of Virginia

left-hander Danny Hultzen and Kansas high school outfielder Bubba

Starling all being mentioned.

”We walked through a handful of players in all four quadrants

of the board,” Huntington said, referring to college and high

school pitching and position players. ”And at the end of the day,

our guys felt very strongly about Gerrit, and that’s the direction

we went.”

Pittsburgh is mired in a North American major professional

sports record 18 consecutive losing seasons and without a Cy Young

winner since 1990. This is the fourth draft under the regime of

team president Frank Coonelly, Huntington and the Nutting family as

the team’s majority owner.

Breaking with its history to that point, Pittsburgh has been a

big spender lately in the draft. Cole is represented by Scott

Boras. When the Pirates drafted Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro

Alvarez second overall in 2008, negotiations got contentious, with

Boras and Coonelly exchanging verbal barbs.

”Signability is an issue with every player that comes off the

board in the first round,” Huntington said. ”We’re going to work

hard and we’re going to fight to find a common ground that makes

sense for both sides. We believe at the end of the day we’ll get a

deal done.”

Last season, the Pirates gave No. 2 overall pick Jameson Taillon

a $6.5 million bonus and fellow right-hander Stetson Allie, their

second-round pick. They also paid $2.6 million to secure

16-year-old Mexican right-hander Luis Heredia last summer.

”I’m going to let Pittsburgh and their guys do their

evaluations,” Cole said. ”Obviously, you want the business side

of things go as smoothly as possible, but I understand the business

side after having gone through it once already, so I feel like I’m

prepared.

”We have to take care of business throughout the summer, and it

will probably eventually take care of itself.”