As the college baseball season started in earnest over the weekend, the year's best pro prospects -- Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, UCLA righthanded starter Gerrit Cole and TCU lefthanded starter Matt Purke -- began their campaigns not only for national player of the year but also No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft.
"If the draft were held today," a major league scouting director said, "those would be the first three names off the board."
That assessment was echoed by a second club scouting director and by Jim Callis, the executive editor of Baseball America, meaning the chore of the Pirates, Mariners and Diamondbacks -- who hold the first three selections this year, respectively -- between now and June is mostly a question of order rather than identity.
The 2011 draft is poised to be one of the deepest in years. At its best, this year's draft has a chance to match the historic greatness of 2005 -- Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Matt Garza and Clay Buchholz, among others -- but, failing that, could draw comparisons to the 2008 draft, in which Pedro Alvarez, Brian Matusz, Buster Posey, Gordon Beckham and Ike Davis are among those who have already made their mark in the majors.
But Cole, Purke and Rendon stand above their draft-class peers -- at least for now.
Cole was spectacular in his 2011 debut for the Bruins on Friday night, hurling a complete-game shutout in a 1-0 win over San Francisco. He struck out 11 and allowed just five baserunners (four hits, one walk). A 6-4, 220-pound junior, he was 11-4 with a 3.37 ERA and 153 strikeouts (third nationally) in 123 innings last year.
Purke departed after four innings on Friday with an 8-0 lead, allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out three for the Horned Frogs, ranked No. 1 in the country by several polls (and by SI.com). A wiry 6-4, 180-pound sophomore who is eligible for selection because his 21st birthday is within 45 days of the draft, went 16-0 with a 3.02 ERA (second nationally among starters) with 142 strikeouts and 34 walks in 116 1/3 innings as a freshman.
Rendon started the year 3-for-12 in three games this weekend against Stanford, whose sophomore shortstop, Kenny Diekroeger, also has a chance of being the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft, according to Callis. Rendon, a 6-foot, 190-pound junior, won the 2010 Howser Trophy as national player of the year after batting .394/.530/.801 with 26 home runs, 85 RBIs and 65 walks in 63 games.
There's no transcendent praise surrounding any of these three, unlike the past two years when Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were obvious No. 1 overall picks for the Nationals. They were definitively the best talents available in the past two drafts and were arguably the two most-hyped prospects in history, owing in part to the sexiness of their tools: Strasburg had the 103-mph fastball and Harper hit the 500-foot home runs.
This coming draft is particularly deep with college pitchers. Callis said there are eight college arms who in any other year would be top-10 picks; in this draft they may get crowded out. Cole and Purke are the two ace-caliber arms atop that pack -- that also includes Vanderbilt's Sonny Gray, Texas' Taylor Jungmann, Georgia Tech's Jed Bradley, UConn's Matt Barnes, Virginia's Danny Hultzen and Cole's UCLA teammate, Trevor Bauer -- but according to the first scouting directory it will most likely be Rendon who goes No. 1.
Callis said at the time of last year's draft that, had Rendon been eligible, he would picked him over Harper -- a notion he still stands by.
"I would still take him over Harper, as much as I love Harper," Callis said last week. "I still think Rendon beats him to the big leagues -- not that it's really a consideration -- but he's also proven himself against premier competition. He plays a more premium position now that Harper has moved to the outfield. I don't buy that Harper's a longtime centerfielder. No one touches Harper's power but Rendon is no slouch."
Cole and Purke are no strangers to the first round. Both were drafted there out of high school -- Cole was picked No. 28 overall by the Yankees in 2008; Purke was taken No. 14 overall by the Rangers a year later -- but neither signed. According to Callis, as the summer went on, Cole simply realized he preferred to go to college. Purke, meanwhile, reportedly had an agreement with Texas for a $6 million bonus, but the club's financial distress (that would later lead to bankruptcy) led Major League Baseball to nullify the deal.
Now, both pitchers are poised to receive equal or even larger bonuses.
"They have to get through the year healthy," said the scouting director, "but for the kind of money both of them turned down out of high school, 99 out of 100 times you don't get that kind of money three years later."
Herewith, a closer look at each of the top three candidates for National Player of the Year.
Callis raved about Rendon's strong and fast wrists, good plate discipline and bat speed. Callis added that Rendon could become Gold Glove caliber in the field, that he is the best pure hitter in college baseball and that he might have the most usable power in his swing, as opposed to raw power in the weight room.
"There's no real weakness other than getting his ankle hurt two times," Callis said with a chuckle.
That injury history -- he tore ligaments in his right ankle in 2009 and then fractured that same ankle in 2010 -- will no doubt be in the back of the mind of all major league teams, but Rendon has been pronounced fully healthy.
Rendon is thus expected to follow in the recent line of great college third basemen. The Rays' Evan Longoria is the gold standard, Callis said, but the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman, the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez and two guys who moved to the outfield as professionals -- the Brewers' Ryan Braun and the Royals' Alex Gordon -- were both drafted as third basemen.
"Rendon is the best college bat in the game," the scouting director said. "He's not Longoria offensively and he's not Zimmerman defensively, but he's somewhere in the middle of both of them. He's a hit-first guy and he's going to grow into some power."
The scouting director noted how special major league shortstops are athletically and that many top American infielders move to third in college because shortstops are so often signed out of Latin America. Several more are drafted out of high school. Indeed, upon further review, 17 of the 30 projected starting shortstops in the majors are from Latin America, while eight went to college and five were selected out of high school. Roughly 28 percent of all players on 2010 Opening Day rosters were foreign-born but twice that figure -- 57 percent -- of starting shortstops are foreign-born.
The first scouting director said the decision between Purke and Cole may be a matter of preference: "Cole versus Purke -- they're both plus breaking balls, both plus fastballs. Both have performed. Which do you want: the lefthander or the righthander?"
Callis said that Cole might be a little farther along than Purke right now, guessing that a poll of 30 major league scouting directors would probably find a 17-13 split in favor of the righty. He said Cole has the best fastball in the draft, sitting at 95 and dialing it up to 99, with a high 80s slider. His command has improved since attending Orange Lutheran High (Woodland, Calif.), as has his temperament.
"You have to give him credit for being more consistent and more mature," Callis said.
He's been the clear-cut best player in his class for two years running: in 2009 as Rivals.com's top high school prospect in the nation when he was a senior at Klein High in Spring, Texas, and then in 2010 when he was named consensus national freshman of the year in first season with the Horned Frogs.
Beside the 91-to-94-mph fastball and nasty slider, Callis said, Purke's competitiveness really stands out. And while few college pitchers really need a third pitch, Purke has shown the makings of a pretty good one.
His arm slot for his delivery is lower than some lefty starters and, given the scrutiny top picks go under, it will no doubt be dissected by scouts and general managers across the majors.
"He throws from a low arm angle which makes it hard to pick up as a lefty batter," Callis said. "It adds life and deception [to his pitches] but some scouts will look and say that might not work as a starter."
In general, however, Callis said the consensus is that Purke is more consistent with his command and control, even if that delivery will bother some baseball people. "There's no one way to throw a baseball," said Callis, who compared Purke to the White Sox' No. 1 pick last year, lefty Chris Sale, who reached the majors in September.