Draft rich in intrigue and talent

The rebirth of the draft within the last decade altered baseball, and so much for the better. After salaries exploded and payroll disparities spread during the 1990s, the chasm threatened to ruin lower-revenue markets.

How could they possibly compete with free-agency behemoths? Easy, we now know: The Rule 4 draft, held every June, this year a week from today. It is why five of the eight teams with the lowest payrolls this season sit above .500 right now, and why the other three – Kansas City, Pittsburgh and San Diego – could join them by next season. The smartest teams realized there is no greater (or cheaper) place to find talent than in the draft and Latin America. And those who treat amateurs as a priority will rebuild faster and with a foundation far more stable.

Agent Scott Boras advises the top three players on one team's draft board.
(US Presswire)

This year's draft is as rich in intrigue as it is in talent. Not since 2005, and 1985 before that, has baseball seen such a surplus of impact players clustered in one draft. More pitching heavy than either of the previous standouts, which are widely considered the two greatest since the draft's inception in 1965, the Class of 2011 lacks a definitive No. 1 overall pick.

And so unlike last year, when Washington went no-brainer with Bryce Harper(notes), and the year before, when the Nationals took the no-brainer of no-brainers with Stephen Strasburg(notes), the Pittsburgh Pirates need to figure out upon whom they're going to lavish millions of dollars.

The franchise doesn't exactly have a draft history chockablock with success. Its previous picks in the first slot: Bryan Bullington(notes) (2002), Kris Benson(notes) (1996) and Jeff King (1986). Complicating matters: The likelihood they may have to draft someone represented by …

1. Scott Boras, the agent who more or less runs the draft. Think it's an exaggeration? The top three players on at least one team's draft board are Boras advisees. And even beyond the first handful of picks, Boras wields massive influence with his machinations.

Dallas Jesuit outfielder Josh Bell(notes) this week sent a letter to the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau urging it to tell teams not to draft him, according to Baseball America, because he was firm on his commitment to the University of Texas. It might be a tactic to drop Bell to a team with whom he really wants to sign. It surely will raise his price for whichever team drafts him and attempts to wrangle him. And it's undoubtedly a tactic of Boras, Bell's adviser, to take a system with team-heavy leverage and weigh it back to the player, in this case a switch hitter with immense raw power.

Randy and Alan Hendricks did it brilliantly last year with Zach Lee, a sure-thing LSU signee whom the Dodgers locked up for $5.25 million. And if Bell, whose mother is a professor, is serious about heading to Austin, he can only hope to mimic the success of …

2. Gerrit Cole and his million-dollar gamble. Cole grew up a New York Yankees fan. They chose him with the 28th overall pick in the 2008 draft in hopes of convincing him not to attend UCLA. They failed. While a firm offer never materialized, the Yankees were willing to pay upwards of $4 million to sign Cole.

He's going to get more this year as the player with the draft's best stuff. Cole is Strasburg Lite, which is to say he's an excellent version of the highest-touted prospect in the draft's history. Like Strasburg, Cole regularly hits 100 mph on scouts' radar guns. Like Strasburg, he's got a ruthless breaking ball. Unlike Strasburg, the stats don't match the scouting reports.

Four UCLA pitchers have started eight or more games this season. Cole's 3.28 ERA ranks last among them. While his walk rate is down significantly, so is his strikeout rate – 108 in 107 innings, a good number, yes, but for someone who throws 101 mph not so much.

Early in the season, Cole had, at very least, drawn even with …

Anthony Rendon

3. Anthony Rendon as the top candidate to go No. 1 overall, though his struggles this season have damaged the perception that he's a no-doubt star. The skills remain, particularly a .523 on-base percentage . A shoulder injury sapped his power, however, and limited him to DH duties nearly all season. Rendon dropped from 26 home runs last year to six this year. Even more, the injury threw into question his ultimate position.

A third baseman during his first two years at Rice, Rendon played second base last week. Whether it was to compensate for his shoulder issues – the extent of which remain unclear – or simply showcase versatility, it nevertheless interested one scouting director, who opined: "Is he trying to tell us something is wrong?"

He doesn't have to say it. Scouts smell it, like when …

4. Matt Purke started throwing in the high 80s this spring. The TCU left-hander joined Rendon and Cole in the first-pick discussion before the college season after going 16-0 last year, and he just as quickly dropped – and dropped and dropped and dropped – almost certainly out of the first round.

Like Rendon, Purke is suffering from an uncertain shoulder ailment. The difference: shoulder injuries devastate pitchers' careers, and any questions about a pitcher's health raises flags red and white – stay away from the kid, who ought to surrender any idea of a big bonus coming his way.

Already Purke has seen one come and go. The Texas Rangers drafted him 14th overall two years ago and offered him $6 million. He agreed. MLB vetoed the bonus, saying it was too much. The Rangers lowered the deal to $4 million. Purke rejected it, a move that looked smart before this year.

Purke does have options, even if clubs are balking at his 1.51 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings. A draft-eligible sophomore, he can pitch in a summer league to build his value before the mid-August signing date. Or he can just return to TCU and hope the new collective-bargaining agreement doesn't include mandatory slots that would drive down bonuses.

Wherever he goes, it's not going to be where he thought, leaving a left-handed-starting vacuum that …

Danny Hultzen

5. Danny Hultzen was happy to fill. Hultzen, in fact, was a lot like Purke his sophomore season. His stock dropped alongside his velocity, and while his numbers at Virginia remained strong, his hype disappeared.

The mph returned to his fastball this spring, and Pittsburgh is now considering Hultzen with the top pick. His stats certainly play the part: 10-3, 1.59 ERA, 136 strikeouts and 16 walks in 96 1/3 innings. His handedness (left), his intelligence (high), his polish (like a freshly shined shoe) and his path to the major leagues (short) only increase the attractiveness.

Hultzen is not as much low-ceilinged as he is a finished product, and he comes with leather seats and the Bose stereo. He doesn't include the V8 engine that …

6. Trevor Bauer brings to every start. Bauer draws the greatest differences of opinion in the draft. At least one team doesn't have him on its board, fearful of the injury risk. Another has him No. 1. The rest are trying to figure out whether he's really Tim Lincecum(notes) 2.0 or Dr. Thunder to Lincecum's Dr. Pepper.

Bauer looks the part. He stands a lithe 6-foot-1. He patterns his delivery after Lincecum's, and it's a mighty good imitation, long stride, limbs flying all over the place, everything. His fastball tickles mid-90s regularly, his curveball is slow and angry, and he's also got a slider and changeup he throws for strikes.

He's one of the three starters at UCLA whose numbers dwarf Cole's. Actually, they're better than anyone else's in the country. In 127 2/3 innings, Bauer has struck out 189 and allowed 107 baserunners. Opponents are hitting a silly .152 off him. His ERA is 1.27.

Bauer is Mr. Upside, a title regularly reserved for the best high school pitcher in each draft and one that mistakenly gets assigned to …

7. Dylan Bundy and his high-level repertoire. Bundy, out of Owasso, Okla., is the best high school pitcher in the draft, and not just because he has hit 100 mph this spring. He also resembles older players in stuff, body and work ethic.

Trained by his diligent father, Denver, since he expressed an interest in working out at 13, Dylan grew into a 6-foot-1, 200-pound machine who looks more running back than pitcher. He comes with a ready-made cut fastball – a pitch almost always learned on the cusp of the major leagues or once in them – and an arm that through years of long toss, his advisers believe, is conditioned to handle heavy workloads.

Bundy has been described as a college pitcher in a high schooler's body, while his friend …

8. Archie Bradley is a high school pitcher in a college quarterback's body. Yes, Bradley is one of the annual two-sport stars who must choose between millions of baseball dollars and the hundreds of thousands college football teams offer.

(Kidding. But not really.)

Bradley committed to Oklahoma, where Bob Stoops recruited him as perhaps Landry Jones' successor. For an Oklahoma kid, there is no better job, and it's why Bradley's name comes with a $20 million price tag. Absurd? Sure, especially considering Strasburg received $15.1 million. An indication that they expect well over the recommended slot? No doubt.

Even if Bradley gets one-third of what Strasburg did, it's going to be nothing compared to what …

Bubba Starling

9. Bubba Starling can ask. Starling – the third of the Great Plains' Great Trio, out of suburban Kansas City – is a Nebraska commitment as a dual-threat quarterback. He's also a 6-foot-5, 200-pound center fielder who Brian McRae, a coach of Starling's this summer, called "the best high school player I've ever seen."

Just how high Starling goes depends on a team's willingness to play chicken. One plus: Clubs can spread out dual-sport athletes' bonuses over five years. Another: Once players enter the realm of multiple millions of dollars – Starling would demand upwards of $7 million, a record for a high school player – it's almost impossible to turn down, especially if the NFL institutes a rookie salary cap and neuters the salaries of young players.

The minus …

10. Scott Boras represents Starling, and he's not afraid to send his advisees to college. Cole went. Bell could go. Plenty more top players from this draft who aren't Boras clients – Connecticut outfielder George Springer and right-hander Matt Barnes, Kentucky starter Alex Meyer, Vanderbilt ace Sonny Gray and Texas righty Taylor Jungmann – went, too.

Boras loves college baseball and believes the only thing standing between it and more success and exposure are scholarship limits. The NCAA allows baseball teams to hand out 11.7 scholarships. Lacrosse and cross-country/track and field get 12.6 each.

And yet Boras is a brass-tacks sort, and he sees what college did for Cole, for Rendon, for so many others. What Boras can do for them will be one of the fun subplots to watch over the next few months.

Pittsburgh hasn't been keen on taking Boras clients in the past. Neither, for a long time, was Kansas City. Then it took Mike Moustakas(notes) and Eric Hosmer(notes) in back-to-back years, starting the farm-system renaissance that today infuses its future with excitement.

Whoever the Pirates do pick, he should help. And that, after all, was the point of the draft in the first place: lift up the afflicted. For decades, only the smartest teams understood that principle. In a year like this, it's evident to everyone.