Pirates pick first, but injury worries follow slugging third baseman
February 20, 2011 10:00 AM
Anthony Rendon steps to the plate Friday for his first at-bat vs. Stanford.
Stanford takes batting practice at Reckling Park. The light tower that Rice's Anthony Rendon struck in November is in the background.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HOUSTON -- It was early November, and Anthony Rendon took to the batter's box at Rice University's Reckling Park, eager for a few informal hacks to shake off five months of rehabilitating a broken right ankle. And, with his second swing, he homered.
Halfway up the 60-foot tall light tower beyond left field.
Using a wooden bat.
Wearing a hard boot on that right foot, a sneaker on the other.
"We thought we'd seen it all, and then that," Rice pitcher John Simms recalled. "That kid is special."
Not everything comes so easily, though: In Rendon's first two official games coming off that injury, Friday and Saturday, he went a combined 1 for 8 with a single through the right side Saturday and little else beyond softly struck balls to the opposite field.
"Oh, I'm not worried about him," Rice's 20-year coach, Wayne Graham, said with a shake of the head. "He's a special one."
Rendon, a 21-year-old third baseman with equal pedigree on offense and defense, is the consensus choice as the No. 1 prospect available in Major League Baseball's June 6 amateur draft. And the Pirates, of course, own that pick, by virtue of their 57-105 disaster last season.
The tops 10 prospects available for Major League Baseball's June 6-8 draft, according to Baseball America's Feb. 3, edition:
1. Anthony Rendon, 3B, Rice University.
2. Gerrit Cole, RHP, UCLA.
3. Matt Purke, LHP, TCU.
4. George Springer, OF, University of Connecticut.
5. Sonny Gray, RHP, Vanderbilt.
6. Taylor Jungmann, RHP, University of Texas.
7. Jackie Bradley, OF, University of South Carolina.
8. Matt Barnes, RHP, University of Connecticut.
9. Archie Bradley, RHP, Broken Arrow High School, Oklahoma.
10. Bubba Starling, OF, Gardner-Edgerton High School.
There is no guarantee that the prospect and the team will converge, but, to hear folks talk about Rendon, that might be special if it happens.
As a sophomore for the Owls last season, Rendon batted .394 with an astounding .530 on-base percentage born largely of drawing 65 walks, 12 intentional. Using every inch of his 6-foot, 190-pound frame, he also hit 26 home runs and had 85 RBIs in 226 at-bats, making him that ultra-rare player who homered more often than he struck out, just 22 times for the latter.
All that, and he committed just five errors at third base and showed decent speed by stealing 14 bases.
It surprised no one that he won the Dick Howser Trophy as the NCAA's top player, an award he received on the field before the game Saturday.
Or that Baseball America, the industry's most respected publication, named Rendon its college player of the year for 2010, only the fourth underclassman in the award's 30 years. The other winners were Robin Ventura, John Olerud and Mark Teixeira.
Then, in its Feb. 3 issue, the publication rated Rendon No. 1 among draft-eligible prospects for 2011.
In fact, from the time Rendon's father stopped mowing the lawn to notice his 3-year-old swinging a stick at rocks, to the time Graham scouted Rendon at Texas' Lamar High School and told an assistant he was watching "Hank Aaron's wrists," to a National League scouting director recently telling Baseball America that Rendon has Evan Longoria's bat control and Ryan Zimmerman's glove, it all probably has been a blur for the young man.
"Yeah, there's been a lot, and I hear about it," Rendon said. "It's all pretty neat. But ... wow, I'm really just thinking about my game and helping this team."
Others, naturally, are looking further ahead.
"This is the best draft class in years and, while that means he's not a lock to go No. 1 like Stephen Strasburg two years ago, Rendon is the clear top prospect at this point," Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis said. "He's the best hitter in college baseball, he might have the most usable power, and he's the best defensive third baseman."
Callis contrasted Rendon to Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates' third baseman drafted No. 2 overall in 2008.
"Think of Alvarez with a little less power but more pure hitting ability, more athleticism and no worries that he eventually has to move off third," Callis said. "Some scouting directors say they would have taken Rendon over Bryce Harper if both were in the same draft."
Harper, a power-hitting catcher, was Washington's No. 1 overall pick last year.
ESPN analyst Keith Law, who once scouted for Toronto, also has Rendon at No. 1.
"He's extremely patient, with the type of pitch recognition that should put him on a fast track, and he's a third baseman with good hands, action and arm strength," Law said. "Teams picking first overall want ceiling but also some certainty that they won't get a zero return, and Rendon has the best mix of both."
The foundation of Rendon's offensive game is an innate ability to wait for his pitch.
"That's not something you teach," Rice hitting coach Mike Taylor said. "And Anthony's got supreme hand-eye coordination for this level, something I think he can take to the next level. He's also got the ability to keep his hands back and flick his wrists through the zone. I've been here 11 years, and the only hitter I've seen comparable through these ranks was Teixeira."
"I try to be patient, but I've also been taught to put a hard swing on the ball, put the barrel on it every time," Rendon said. "I try not to think too much or over-analyze what the pitcher's going to do. You do that, you're going to mess up your head. Just go up there, look for your pitch, and barrel it."
Defensively, he is a natural in every way, except that, as his coaches attest, he has worked tirelessly to improve.
"He's got those great reflexes and, when you put that together with all the work, it's pretty good," Graham said.
"I take a lot of pride in that," Rendon said. "My dad taught me when I was really young the importance of good defense."
But there are issues, too, almost all related to injury: Rendon's right ankle also sustained torn ligaments in 2009, meaning it has been twice damaged, including the fracture-dislocation July 14, 2010 while playing for Team USA after the college season. Moreover, his 6-foot frame does not appear the type that will add much muscle, so durability could stay a question mark.
"No, I'm fine," Rendon said before adding with a laugh, "Why? Do I look like something's wrong out there? It's just going to take me some time to get my timing back. It's been seven months since I played in real games."
Indeed, if anything looked amiss this weekend, it was Rendon's timing at the plate. His swings usually were late and lunging, and his pitch recognition nowhere near its peak. But the ankle showed no ill signs, including one springing leap -- in vain -- for a double down the line Friday and a fine play moving to his left Saturday that drew an ovation from the 4,000 on hand.
His mere presence at third base was an encouraging sign after Rice's staff had considered limiting his activity this weekend to being a designated hitter.
"It's been really frustrating, getting hurt each of the past two years," Rendon said. "But I've done everything I need to do not just to come back but to stay on top of my game. It's not a problem."
The Pirates are scouting Rendon -- including a presence here this weekend, plus two other recent visits -- but he is one of many prospects they expect to follow intensely. From the sound of it, their field for No. 1 is wide open, probably into double-digits.
"Our approach remains the same as it has been the past three drafts," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We will work diligently to put the players in order and select the player we like best. The only benefit to picking first is that we know the player we want the most will not be selected by another club."
If the Pirates draft Rendon, Alvarez could move across the diamond to first, where most scouts believe he would be better, anyway. Alvarez will remain at third this season.
"Whoever we draft is at least 2-3 years away," Huntington said. "Moving a current major-league player in anticipation of a drafted player is not something we would consider."
Huntington declined to specifically address any draft-eligible player.
Industry sources back the notion that there is no broad consensus that Rendon will be No. 1: Some scouting directors are enamored, others fret about his ankle, and the majority are open-minded, in part because of a wealth of quality college pitchers, notably UCLA's flame-throwing Gerrit Cole and Texas Christian's pinpoint left-hander Matt Purke.
Pressure on the Pirates surely will be intense, and the public reaction could be rough if they take a player other than the one widely perceived to be the best.
That was the case in 2007, when previous general manager Dave Littlefield took reliever Daniel Moskos rather than catcher Matt Wieters, an awful choice in retrospect and one some felt was motivated by avoiding the huge dollars usually demanded by super-agent Scott Boras, who represented Wieters.
A similar reaction probably would have come the next year, too, had Huntington not chosen Alvarez, but hindsight might be instructive here: The Pirates agonized between Alvarez and catcher Buster Posey. Alvarez was the headliner, and he was another Boras client. But Posey, as it turned out, blossomed into a superb rookie this past season in San Francisco, leading the Giants to the World Series title.
And yes, Rendon is being advised by Boras.
Under this management, the Pirates have been among the lowest spenders on major-league payroll, but their $30.6 million spent the past three drafts is highest of any team. That includes bonuses of $6 million for Alvarez and $6.5 million for pitcher Jameson Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick last year.
This will be the franchise's first No. 1 overall pick in nearly a decade, and the list of the previous No. 1s underscores the importance of getting it right: Jeff King (1986) was a serviceable contributor to three division champions, but Kris Benson (1996) and especially Bryan Bullington (2002) achieved little.
Do not waste time asking Rendon about the Pirates.
"I know they've been around, like, forever," he said, smiling. "That's about it."
Or Pittsburgh, for that matter.
"Never been there," he said. "But I know where it is."
Or even about the draft.
"Aw, man, that's in June! I mean, honestly, you'd have to think about it a little. Everyone wants to get to the next level. But if you're thinking about that 24/7, then you're not getting done what you need to do."
Some in Rendon's position feel the pressure and buckle, but those who know him laugh at the notion. He spends much of his day around the fields, the cages or watching other sports on TV -- a typical young athlete -- and appears to spend all the rest joking with teammates or even complete strangers.
"Everything just rolls off Anthony's back," Simms, the pitcher, said. "He just plays the game, plays it well and has fun."
"He's just not the kind of kid that anything's going to bother, though we'll keep an eye on it," Graham said. "I hope nothing bothers him. We've got ourselves a team goal."
That, Rendon said, is his sole focus: Get Rice into the College World Series for the first time since 2008, the year before he arrived.
"With my recruiting class, we just stopped going to Omaha," Rendon said. "I'd love to get there."
And all the other stuff?
"I'm just going to smile and have fun. Life's a blast."