Countdown to the draft: Gerrit Cole has all the tools

UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole has the skills the Pittsburgh Pirates need at the #1 pick. (AP photo)

In the third part of a series analyzing the Pittsburgh Pirates options with the #1 pick in the 2011 draft, we take a look at UCLA RHP Gerrit Cole.

Every amateur draft has strengths and weaknesses. In this past weekend’s NFL draft, a strength was considered to be defensive lineman; the Pittsburgh Steelers took advantage and drafted former Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward. The strength of the 2011 MLB draft is starting pitching, and with the first selection, the Pittsburgh Pirates could very well take advantage and draft RHP Gerrit Cole out of UCLA.

Cole brings quite a skill set to the table, and it starts with his presence on the mound.  He stands at an intimidating 6’4”,  220 pounds, and he’s got a thick (not fat), athletic build. He also keeps a light beard that only adds to his presence on the mound. But the image he conveys is nothing compared to his repertoire of pitches. Cole’s fastball routinely touches the mid-to-high 90s, and has been clocked at 100 mph in the past. While that alone would baffle a lot of hitters, it’s not all that he brings to the mound. Cole complements his fastball with a slider (which many scouts consider to be the best breaking ball in all of college baseball) and he has a plus change-up to confuse hitters like few others can. He has phenomenal durability in his arm and projects to be a major inning-eating, power pitcher at the major league level.

Cole was good enough at a young age that the Yankees drafted him 28th overall out of high school in the 2008 amateur draft, but he ultimately decided to follow through on his collegiate commitment and attend UCLA. After an average freshman season, his talent exploded during his sophomore season, as Cole went 11-4 with a 3.37 ERA and 153 Ks in 123 innings pitched. He lead the Bruins all the way to the 2010 College Baseball World Series, and though UCLA lost to South Carolina in the final, Cole showed what he was capable of. He looked his best in a 6-3 win over TCU on June 21st that saw him throw eight strong, five-hit innings with 13 Ks and only two BBs while taking a one-hitter into the seventh inning.

Cole started this season right where he left off last year, but recently he has fallen off. Some speculate it as the pressure of living up to expectations, but no matter the cause, he’s leaving his pitches up in the strike zone and is getting belted because of it. Over his last three games, Cole has an 8.68 ERA and has given up 28 hits in 18 2/3 IP.  In his last start, he gave up a career high seven runs on 10 hits without making it out of the fifth inning, and its getting clear to those around him that he is losing his composure too easily and becoming frustrated on the mound. Unfortunately, this can be a career-altering trait for even the very best pitchers.

Attitude problems aside, concerns about Cole are few, though one pressing issue is his potential for injury. As it stands, he has yet to endure a major injury to his throwing arm, but scouts worry that with his quick arm action, it’s only a matter of time until something bad happens to his right arm or shoulder. For better or for worse, however, this same arm action is what makes Cole who he is. Some blogs have compared him to Stephen Strasburg, and while from some perspectives it’s understandable, ultimately, Cole is a step below where Strasburg was coming out of college. Both are power pitchers, yes, but Strasburg had four plus-pitches to work with when he was drafted, a little more heat behind his fastball and a little more movement on his breaking ball. With major league coaching, Cole could reach that level, but he’s not there yet. The Pirates need to address their minor league pitching depth, and Cole is the most major-league-ready arm in the draft, with an expected ETA of 2014 at the latest.

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