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Pirates hope top-pick Cole becomes big league ace

It didn't matter to the Pittsburgh Pirates that Gerrit Cole was not the ace of his college team's staff.

To them, the hard-throwing right-hander from UCLA will develop into a major league ace — something the franchise hasn't consistently had for years.

Despite Cole having his worst statistical season of his three years at UCLA, Pittsburgh selected him with the first pick of the baseball draft Monday night, adding another power arm to a system that's been infused with a much-needed jolt during the last 12 months.

"Scouting is about projection," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "It's about looking into the future and understanding what we believe a player will be in two, four, six, eight, 10 years from now. The performance this year goes into it, but ultimately he's a big, strong right-hander with quality stuff and quality competitiveness.

Cole was a freshman All-American at UCLA after not signing with the Yankees, who took him 28th overall out of high school in 2008. He went 6-8 with a 3.31 ERA this year, but his stuff was too good for the Pirates to pass up.

"He was the guy we believe can make the biggest impact in our organization," Huntington said.

Former Pittsburgh general manager Dave Littlefield said after the first round of the draft in 2002 that No. 1 overall pick Bryan Bullington projected out to be "a No. 3 starter" in the major leagues.

Cole — by the numbers, at least — was the No. 3 starter for UCLA this season. Teammate Trevor Bauer had a far superior statistical season (13-2, 1.25 ERA, 203 strikeouts, .154 batting average against) and went third to Arizona. Freshman right-hander Adam Plutko also had a better ERA and batting average against than Cole.

But when you consistently throw into the upper-90s — nudging 100 and rarely dropping below 95, even in the later innings of starts — that type of potential excites teams.

"Looking at Gerrit, he has the physical size and tools," Pirates scouting director Greg Smith said. "But not only do you need to have the weapons, you have to be able to harness that moving forward. Gerrit has the mentality, the makeup, the competitiveness, a lot of the ingredients that make up a quality starting pitcher down the road."

Cole called Bauer after his teammate was drafted, and the two congratulated each other. Bauer likely improved his draft stock based on his numbers; with Cole, it was more about the raw skills and a delivery that is thought to lead to durability.

"Obviously, this year wasn't up to my standards, but I tried to not think about it," Cole said. "I just control what I can control and let the teams do their evaluation."

This is the fourth time in 25 years the Pirates selected No. 1 overall. The results from their previous three attempts ranged from the mediocre — third baseman Jeff King in 1986 and pitcher Kris Benson 10 years later — to the full-out bust (Bullington).

In the months leading to the draft, there was no clear-cut No. 1 overall pick, with Cole, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon was considered a potential No. 1 pick, as were University of Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen and Kansas high school outfielder Bubba Starling all being mentioned.

"We walked through a handful of players in all four quadrants of the board," Huntington said, referring to college and high school pitching and position players. "And at the end of the day, our guys felt very strongly about Gerrit, and that's the direction we went."

Pittsburgh is mired in a North American major professional sports record 18 consecutive losing seasons and without a Cy Young winner since 1990. This is the fourth draft under the regime of team president Frank Coonelly, Huntington and the Nutting family as the team's majority owner.

Breaking with its history to that point, Pittsburgh has been a big spender lately in the draft. Cole is represented by Scott Boras. When the Pirates drafted Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez second overall in 2008, negotiations got contentious, with Boras and Coonelly exchanging verbal barbs.

"Signability is an issue with every player that comes off the board in the first round," Huntington said. "We're going to work hard and we're going to fight to find a common ground that makes sense for both sides. We believe at the end of the day we'll get a deal done."

Last season, the Pirates gave No. 2 overall pick Jameson Taillon a $6.5 million bonus and fellow right-hander Stetson Allie, their second-round pick. They also paid $2.6 million to secure 16-year-old Mexican right-hander Luis Heredia last summer.

"I'm going to let Pittsburgh and their guys do their evaluations," Cole said. "Obviously, you want the business side of things go as smoothly as possible, but I understand the business side after having gone through it once already, so I feel like I'm prepared.

"We have to take care of business throughout the summer, and it will probably eventually take care of itself."