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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

May 31, 2011 at 10:34 AM

Tough draft choice looming for Mariners

rendon.jpg

(Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon in March. Photo by Associated Press).

For a time, it looked like the Mariners couldn’t go wrong in the 2011 MLB draft, which begins one week from today. Selecting No. 2 overall, they would merely select whichever one of the “Big Two” the Pirates left them — either Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon or UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole.

But as I wrote Sunday, neither Rendon or Cole are the sure things they appeared to be.

Rendon, who in previous years had ankle injuries, has been hampered all year by a shoulder strain. It has limited him primarily to DH duties, though he emerged on the field last week in the conference tournament to play second base. The idea was to show MLB scouts he was healthy enough to throw, but for those teams eyeing Rendon as a third baseman — like the Mariners, who already have Dustin Ackley earmarked for second base — I’m not sure if that inspired much confidence. Throw in offensive numbers that are down markedly from last year, and the Pirates and Mariners will have to think long and hard about whether they can use the first or second pick on Rendon.

Rendon’s offensive downturn (from .394/26 HR/83 RBI, .801 slugging percentage in 2010, to .327/6 HR/35 RBI, .535 slugging percentage in 2011) can be written off largely to the change in bats in collegiate baseball this year, designed to make them perform more like wooden bats. It’s working, perhaps too well: Home runs are down about 40 percent across the board. Also, teams are clearly pitching around Rendon, who has 78 walks. And certainly, the shoulder strain is likely to have hampered Rendon’s swing. If you believe, as many do, that the injury is not serious and just needs some time off to heal, then Rendon’s stock is still going to be very high.

Here’s what Baseball America’s Jim Callis wrote in an online chat last week about Rendon:

“In college, he has gutted through it at less than his best to help his team. I’m not a doctor, nor a scout, but I’m believing in the 100-percent healthy Rendon we saw as a freshman and a sophomore. That guy was a stud.”

Speaking in general terms, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik told me last week that he’s a big believer in looking at a player’s total history, not just how he’s doing lately. He pointed out that they’ve followed the top players extensively through summer leagues, Cape Cod, high school showcases, All-Star Games, etcetera.

“You’ve seen guys a ton,” he said. “If a guy is a little subpar because of nagging injuries, or something more substantial, you have to step back, weigh the talent to risk, and make a decision.”

Much could depend on whether or not the Rendon camp (he’s “advised” by Scott Boras) releases his medical records. As Zduriencik said, “If a player has a chance to go very high, it makes sense if you feel very good about your medical history, why not release it? Disclose it. It could benefit the player. If you don’t get (the medical history), for whatever reason, you might have to ask why.”

Some analysts, like Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein, aren’t overwhelmed by the 6-foot-0, 190-pound Rendon as a physical specimen. Compared to third basemen like Evan Longoria (6-2, 210), Ryan Zimmerman (6-3, 230), A-Rod (6-3, 230) and Scott Rolen (6-4, 245), he doesn’t measure up, but there are guys like David Wright (6-0, 210) and Adrian Beltre (5-11, 220), who have thrived at third baseman at a smaller stature.

“I want my $6 million guy to be an awesome baseball player and also look totally cool when he gets off the bus,” Goldstein told me last week. “I want the combination. When Bryce Harper gets off the bus, people go, ‘Wow!.’ ”

As for Cole, he has overpowering stuff, but it hasn’t translated to great performance this year for the Bruins. He’s been good, but not as dominant as he started out to be early in the season, when he zoomed in the estimation of many analysts into the favorite to be picked first. He has a 6-7 record with a 3.28 ERA, striking out 108 in 107 innings. Those numbers pale in comparison to teammate Trevor Bauer, who is 12-2 with a 1.27 ERA, including 189 strikeouts in 127 innings.

Bauer, who is often compared to Tim Lincecum because of his slender build, has worked his way into top 5 draft consideration. Here’s what Bauer told the Arizona Republic this past weekend after stifling Arizona State with a complete-game, 14-strikeout effort:

“After my freshman year of high school, I started changing my delivery around to try to maximize what I had because I’ve never been the biggest guy. Right about the time I was learning about momentum to the plate and using arm action was the time he (Lincecum) came up with the Giants. So I looked at a guy who was 5-10 on a good day and when when he came up throwing 97-98 (mph) out of that frame and I said he has to be doing something right. So I watched as much video as I could on him and tried to pattern myself after him.

“I personally think he has the best mechanics in the big leagues. He’s the most efficient. I don’t buy into the over-torquing. The more you torque and use your body and the stronger muscles on your body, the less stress you put on your arm. I actually think that’s preferable to the guys who are using mostly arm.”

Having embarrassingly missed out on Lincecum in the 2006 draft despite having him in their own backyard, Bauer could prove tempting to the Mariners. Then again, the Mariners obviously have a dire need for offense. Then again, Zduriencik said he doesn’t believe in drafting for need, preferring to take the best available player. Then again, there are many who believe the best available player is actually a pitcher named Dylan Bundy out of Owasso High School in Oklahoma. Then again, the Mariners need help quickly, so perhaps they don’t want to take a high school player. Then again, Zduriencik had great luck taking a high school player named Prince Fielder when he ran Milwaukee’s draft. Then again, if you’re willing to take high school players, how about the five-tool outfielder Bubba Starling from Kansas, or the power-hitting, switch-hitting shortstop Francisco Lindor from Florida?

I think it’s safe to predict the Mariners’ pick will come from the group of Rendon, Cole, Starling, Lindor or Bundy, with Bauer and University Virginia left-handed pitcher Danny Hultzen as longshots.

“It’s a good draft,” Zduriencik said last week. “You could take your choice. It’s got a little bit of everything — very, very nice college players, really nice upside high school pitching, really nice high school athletes. Picking No. 2, we’re going to have a pretty good choice. Obviously, we don’t know what Pittsburgh is going to do, and it really doesn’t matter. We’ll end up doing what we think is best for us.”

Who will that be? I’m not sure the Mariners know for sure yet, but I’ve got to think that despite all the talk about drafting the best player available, if all things are equal, they’re going to lean toward a hitter. And if his medicals check out, I think that hitter has a good chance of being Rendon. But if the Pirates take Rendon — a distinct possibility — or if the M’s don’t like what they see (or don’t see) with his meds, then they could go with Starling or Lindor (check out their swings here and here).

In their most recent mock draft, Baseball America had the Pirates taking Rendon and the Mariners picking Starling.

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