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The Strike Zone

Gerrit Cole and the spotty careers of pitchers drafted first overall

Gerrit Cole, PIratesGerrit Cole, the top pick in 2011, will make his major league debut tonight. (AP)

On Tuesday night, the Pirates will take the wraps off Gerrit Cole, the 22-year-old righty whom they made the overall number one pick of the draft in 2011 out of UCLA. With Wandy Rodriguez having exited last Wednesday's start after recording just one out due to tightness in his forearm, the Bucs need a spot starter, and they've chosen this opportunity to take their first look at a pitcher they planned to recall at some point this summer to augment their rotation.

The last time we saw a pitcher chosen first overall make his major league debut, it was Stephen Strasburg, and this was the result:

Cole almost certainly won't match that scintillating debut, but the scouting consensus is that he has the ingredients to join Strasburg as a top-of-the rotation starter. He's 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, athletic, with good mechanics, a fastball that sits at 94-95 mph and can touch 98, a sharp slider that rates as a second plus-plus pitch and a changeup that shows signs of becoming a plus pitch, though it's been inconsistent so far.

He's far from a finished product, however. While he has lit up radar guns and posted a 2.91 ERA in 68 innings at Triple-A Indianapolis this year, he's not missing nearly enough bats given the quality of his stuff: just 6.2 per nine, against 3.7 walks per nine. Maintaining intensity from pitch to pitch and batter to batter has been a problem; as Baseball Prospectus' Mark Anderson and Paul Sporer wrote, "He has looked bored at times in Triple-A, causing apparent lapses in focus and occasionally resulting in his being hit hard." It's possible that the reality check of big league hitters being less wowed by his velocity and current approach will be the spur he needs to improve, in which case there's little harm in giving him a shot.

Exactly what the Pirates will get on Tuesday night is unclear. As we've seen this year, even top prospects who have appeared to be more ready, such as the Orioles' Kevin Gausman, have been knocked around in their debuts. The annals of overall number one picks debuting at the major league level are rather spotty, and the road beyond Day 1 is littered with cautionary tales. Here's a look back at the performances of the 13 1-1's who have pitched in the majors since the draft was instituted in 1965, in chronological order.

Draft yearPitcherTeamGWARERA
1973David ClydeRangers840.74.63
1976Floyd BannisterAstros43126.94.06
1981Mike MooreMariners45028.54.39
1983Tim BelcherTwins39426.24.16
1988Andy BenesPadres40331.73.97
1989Ben McDonaldOrioles21120.93.91
1991Brien TaylorYankees
1994Paul WilsonMets1702.24.86
1996Kris BensonPirates20613.04.42
1997Matt AndersonTigers257-0.55.19
2002Bryan BullingtonPirates26-0.25.62
2006Luke HochevarRoyals1490.85.32
2007David PriceDevil Rays13415.23.29
2009Stephen StrasburgNationals577.12.85

1973: David Clyde, Rangers, June 27, 1973

In the The Big Book of Bad Ideas, rushing an over-hyped 18-year-old pitcher to the majors 19 days after his high school graduation, without the benefit of a single minor league appearance, gets its own chapter. That was what the Rangers decided to do to goose attendance after selecting the Houston native. They sold out Arlington Stadium (capacity 35,00-plus) for the first time in history, created a pregame show with representation from three area amusement parks including — to call upon Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite's account: "two lion cubs, a papier-mâché giraffe on wheels and a young man named Mike Bondurant who was dressed as an 'Orchin,' a mythical creature, apparently half bird and half fish, which, according to the creative department at Seven Seas, is the legendary playmate of whales." Amid the circus-like atmosphere and the sweltering heat, Clyde held his own against the Twins, yielding just two runs in five innings despite walking seven; he struck out eight while allowing just one hit, a two-run homer by Mike Adams, and he earned the win as the Rangers prevailed 4-3.

Alas, the move proved shortsighted. Clyde went 4-8 with a 5.01 ERA in 18 starts for Texas that season, struggled similarly the following year and developed arm trouble in 1975. When he could pitch, he spent the better part of three years in the minors before being traded to the Indians, and while he resurfaced for a time in 1978-1979, he was washed up by age 24, less than four weeks shy of a full player pension.

1976: Floyd Bannister, Astros, April 19, 1977

A lefty out of Arizona State University, Bannister made just seven minor league appearances across three levels in 1976, then broke camp with the Astros the following spring, two months before his 22nd birthday. His first taste of action came in relief of Joaquin Andujar; he allowed two runs in 1 1/3 innings against the Giants, striking out two. Despite that inauspicious beginning, he joined the rotation four days later, and while he was initially hit hard — an 8.65 ERA through  five appearances — he finished the year with with an 8-9 record and a 4.04 ERA in 24 appearances, and went on to a solid 15-year career that included All-Star honors in 1982, when he led the AL in strikeouts.

1981: Mike Moore, Mariners, April 11, 1982

A 6-foot-4 righty out of Oral Roberts University, Moore had just 13 minor league starts under his belt when he got the ball for Seattle. Facing Billy Martin's A's in the nightcap of a doubleheader for his debut, he was shaky, but despite walking six he managed a quality start: 6 1/3 innings, three runs, three strikeouts; alas, the Mariners scored just one run for him. Moore finished his rookie year 7-14 with a beefy 5.36 ERA and more walks than strikeouts (79 to 73). He was pushed back to the minors after an inauspicious April the following year, but while he took his lumps, he eventually emerged as a 200-inning workhorse whose 14-year career included an All-Star appearance and a 19-win season for the A's in 1989, capped by a pair of wins in the World Series.

1983: Tim Belcher, Dodgers, September 6, 1987

Chosen first by the Twins out of Mount Vernon Nazarene University, Belcher never pitched for them; he's the only one of this bunch to debut for a different team than the one who drafted him. As the story goes, he rejected the Twins' $100,000 bonus offer on the advice of a young agent named Scott Boras, went into the now-defunct January secondary draft seven months later, was selected by the Yankees (who paid him only a bonus of between $30,000 and $50,000), was lost to the A's just a month later as part of an also-abandoned free agent compensation scheme and was traded to the Dodgers in September 1987 in exchange for Rick Honeycutt.

Belcher debuted just three days after the trade and pitched the final two innings of a 15-inning marathon against the Mets, blanking them and earning the win. He made five solid starts for the Dodgers over the remainder of the year, going 12-6 with a 2.91 ERA while helping them upset the A's in the following year's World Series, and lasted 14 years in the majors.

1988: Andy Benes, Padres: August 11, 1989

Benes made a strong showing in the minors (3.33 ERA, 9.6 strikeouts per nine) one year after being taken first out of Evansville to earn a promotion to the majors in August. The 6-foot-6 righty lasted six innings and struck out seven in his debut against the Braves, but was rocked for six runs via homers by Darrell Evans, Dale Murphy and Oddibe McDowell. Benes did pitch well enough in his late-season stint (6-3, 3.51 ERA) to place fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, and went on to a solid 14-year major league career that included an All-Star appearance and a third-place finish in the 1996 Cy Young voting for an 18-10, 3.83 ERA season with the Cardinals.

1989: Ben McDonald, Orioles: September 6, 1989

McDonald, a 6-foot-7 righty from LSU,  made just two minor league appearances between signing and debuting in long relief; he threw 2 2/3 innings against the Indians after Curt Schilling had managed just 2 1/3 in a game in which now-Padres manger Bud Black threw a four-hit shutout. McDonald made a total of six relief appearances with an 8.59 ERA that September, but went a credible 8-5 with a 2.43 ERA in 15 starts and six relief appearances the following year. He had some good seasons in a high-offense era, but a torn rotator cuff ended his major league career before age 30.

1991: Brien Taylor, Yankees: None

Chosen out of a North Carolina high school, signed to a three-year, $1.55 million deal and ranked as the game's top prospect by Baseball America the following spring, Taylor appeared to be on track to the majors after a strong showing at Double-A in 1993. Alas, he dislocated his left shoulder and tore his shoulder capsule in a December 1993 fistfight, injuries that Dr. Frank Jobe called among the worst he had seen. He didn't pitch again until 1995, and when he did, he was battered in the low minors. The Yankees released him in 1998, and aside from a brief stint in the Indians' chain two years later, he was done.

1994: Paul Wilson, Mets: April 4, 1996

Wilson was billed alongside fellow Mets prospects Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher as "Generation K." After two years in the minors, the former Florida State star opened the 1996 season in the Mets rotation, and made a quality start against the Cardinals — six innings, three runs, six strikeouts — in his debut. It was mostly downhill from there; he finished the year 5-12 with a 5.38 ERA, having made a six-week return to the minors along the way. He didn't pitch in the majors again until 2000, after undergoing labrum and Tommy John surgeries and being traded to the Devil Rays. Arm troubles continued to dog him throughout a fairly disappointing seven-year major league career.

1996: Kris Benson, Pirates: April 9, 1999

The first of three Pittsburgh picks on this list, Benson spent two uneven years in the minors after being drafted before breaking camp with the big club in 1999. He made a strong debut, allowing just one run in six innings agains the Cubs, and fared well enough (31 starts, 11-14, 4.07 ERA) to place fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Alas, his nine-year career was spotty due to arm injuries that resulted in both Tommy John and shoulder surgeries.

1997: Matt Anderson, Tigers: June 25, 1998

Anderson could light up radar guns with triple-digit heat — said to be as high as 103 mph — but as closer material from the get-go, the former star at Rice was a waste of an overall number one pick. After dominating for half a season in the minors, he debuted in the majors by throwing a scoreless inning against the Cubs (who started a rookie named Kerry Wood). He finished the year with a 3.27 ERA and a strikeout per inning over 44 frames, but control problems and the lack of a second pitch prevented him from becoming even serviceable. Anderson walked 5.5 per nine during his seven-year carer, re-proving the old adage that man cannot live by fastball alone.

2002: Bryan Bullington, Pirates: September 18, 2005

An utterly terrible pick chosen for his signability rather than his talent in a draft whose first round included B.J. Upton (taken second), Prince Fielder, Nick Swisher, Scott Kazmir and more, Bullington methodically worked his way up the minor league ladder, making 67 minor league appearances over three seasons before his debut. It came in relief of battered starter Oliver Perez; Bullington yielded two runs in 1 1/3 innings against the Reds. A torn labrum cost him all of the following year; he didn't reappear in the majors until September 2007, threw a total of 18 1/3 innings for them before being lost on waivers the following summer, and notched exactly one major league win — that for the Royals in 2010. Since then, he's found some success with the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Central League, so there's that.

2006: Luke Hochevar, Royals: September 8, 2007

Hochever made an utter mess after being chosen by the Dodgers out of the University of Tennessee as a supplemental first-rounder in 2005; after suddenly switching agents from Boras to Matt Sosnick, he agreed to a $2.98 million bonus, then reconsidered the next day, reneging on the deal and returning to Boras. The Dodgers were unable to complete a contract before the 2006 draft, and Hochevar briefly bided his time in the independent American Association the following year before being selected first by the Royals. It paid off, in that he received a $5.3 million bonus from Kansas City. After an uneven minor league performance in 2007 (4.86 ERA, 8.2 K/9), he debuted with three innings of shutout relief work against the Yankees at the end of a blowout (Floyd Bannister's son, Brian, was KC's starter). After parts of five seasons in the rotation, he has found a home in the Kansas City bullpen.

2007: David Price, Rays: September 14, 2008

Chosen as the final first pick made under the banner of the Devil Rays, Price rocketed through the minors the following year as the newly-monikered big club attained respectability, and joined Tampa Bay in mid-September as it battled for the franchise's first-ever playoff spot. His debut was strong; working in relief of pummeled starter Edwin Jackson, he threw 5 1/3 innings of two-run ball against the Yankees, striking out four. He made four more regular season appearances, including one start, and then became a weapon out of the bullpen during the Rays' run to the World Series, most notably saving Game 7 of the ALCS against the defending world champion Red Sox. Last year, in his fourth major league season, he became the first overall number one pick to win a Cy Young award, doing so on the strength of a 20-win season with a league-leading 2.56 ERA. Alas, this year hasn't gone so well; he's targeting a July 1 return from a triceps strain.

2009: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals: June 8, 2010

The hype was off the charts by the time the San Diego State product debuted, as he'd cut through the minors like a buzzsaw (1.30 ERA, 10.6 K/9) before being called up by the Nationals. Strasburg didn't disappoint, striking out 14 Pirates — one shy of the MLB record for a first-timer — over seven innings while allowing just two runs. He made 12 starts with a 2.91 ERA and 12.2 strikeouts per nine before his elbow gave way; less than three months after debuting, he underwent Tommy John surgery from which he wouldn't return until late 2011. You know the rest of the story.
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