Countdown to draft day: Pirates are on the clock

Pirates are on the clock -- is UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole on their radar as the #1 pick? (AP photo)

This year’s MLB draft will take place on June 6, 2011, and the Pittsburgh Pirates are on the clock with the first overall selection. In the days and weeks leading up to the draft, I’ll explore different aspects of the draft and players the Bucco’s could potentially pick. This week, we’ll examine what the Pirates have done with the first overall pick in the past, as well as the importance of this draft in the Pirates rebuilding effort.

Since the inception of the Rule 4 draft in 1965, the Pirates have held the first selection on three occasions with mixed results. The team drafted 3B Jeff King in 1986, RHP Kris Benson in 1996, and RHP Brian Bullington in 2002. King saw the most success in the majors, playing as a serviceable third basemen on the team’s three NLCS squads from 1990-1992. Though he was overshadowed by Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke, King provided solid defense at the hot corner to make up for a lack of offense during the playoff runs.

If King was the best of the number-one picks, Benson was the mediocre one. Benson, though not a bust, did not pan out as the Pirates had hoped. Coming out of college, Benson was the cream of the crop — he was named 1996’s College Player of the Year, Baseball America Player of the Year and ACC Player of the Year after going 14-0 with a 1.40 ERA and 178 Ks in 142 innings. He spent two seasons in the minors before making a splash in the majors in 1999 and 2000, posting career-highs in most major statistical categories in 2000 (10-12, 3.85 ERA, 184/86 K/BB in 217 IP). After the 2000 season, however, Benson needed Tommy John surgery and his career never recovered; the Pirates traded him at the deadline of the 2004 season.

Bullington was the bust of the group. He was not the most talented player in the draft, and it was widely considered that the Pirates selected him over other players because of his signability. Others in the draft included Cole Hamels, B.J. Upton and Prince Fielder, plus many more who have since had successful MLB careers. In his five years in the organization, Bullington was limited by injuries and lack of performance, and the team gave up on him after 2007. After failed stints with two other teams, Bullington found his way to Japan, where he is currently pitching for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

This year’s crop of players doesn’t feature a Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper, but there is no shortage of capable talent. RHP Gerrit Cole from UCLA and 3B Anthony Rendon from Rice appear to be the early favorites for the number-one pick, but, as the season progresses, more names are sure to come to the forefront. I’ll share more about both players, as well as other potential picks, in future posts.

The 2011 draft presents an opportunity for the Pirates to add a premier player as they attempt to climb into contention in the NL Central. The team is making great progress in its rebuilding effort, and the end result is starting to come together on the major league diamond in the form of Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez. These four players are the core of a team looking to increase its win totals; but, with each win, the Pirates move closer to the back of the first round. It is critical not to whiff on this pick; it could provide the final piece to a playoff-caliber roster in two or three years. Current team President Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington have shown they’re not afraid to take the best talent available no matter the price (Alvarez in  2008, Jameson Taillon in 2010), and there is no reason to believe they’ll change course this year.

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