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Originally published May 28, 2011 at 4:44 PM | Page modified May 28, 2011 at 9:22 PM

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Larry Stone

Mariners face not-so-easy picking in upcoming draft

With the draft looming on June 6, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole are no longer regarded as slam dunks to go in the top two. Both have had issues during their collegiate seasons that cloud their status.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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Turns out everything we thought we knew about the rapidly approaching MLB draft is wrong.

Or not.

Heading into this season, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon was the consensus No. 1 pick — until UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole got off to a sensational start and insinuated himself into strong consideration for the top spot.

I wrote a column in March saying that the Mariners, with the No. 2 overall pick, could wind up having an easy decision. Because Cole and Rendon were so widely regarded as the two top talents in the draft, Seattle would be able to take the one remaining after the Pirates had made the No. 1 overall selection.

But now, with the draft looming on June 6, Rendon and Cole are no longer regarded as slam dunks to go in the top two. Both have had issues during their collegiate seasons that cloud their status.

Cole has a rather pedestrian 6-7 record with a 3.28 earned-run average (and 108 strikeouts in 107 innings). He has been outpitched by Bruins teammate (and top-10 draft candidate) Trevor Bauer, who is 11-2 with a 1.37 ERA, and 175 strikeouts in 118-2/3 innings.

Rendon, after overcoming last year's right ankle surgery, has been hampered by a strained shoulder that has limited him to just six starts at third base. He hurt himself doing stretching exercises before the start of the season.

He has primarily been Rice's designated hitter, as well as making three appearances at first. On Thursday, in the Conference USA tournament, Rendon played second base with the intent of showing MLB scouts his shoulder was coming around.

"People think I can't throw or whatever, and then I go out and play pretty good and make a few plays," he told the Houston Chronicle. "I assume this helps (answer questions)."

Teams will have to decide if Rendon, who suffered a different ankle injury earlier in his Rice career, is injury-prone. They will also have to gauge the severity of his shoulder problem, and figure out its role in 2011 statistics that are markedly down from last year.

Rendon is hitting .330 with six homers and 35 runs batted in. Last year, he hit .394 with 26 homers and 83 RBI. His slugging percentage has dropped from .801 last year to .538 this year.

Keep in mind, however, that Rendon has little protection in the Owls' lineup and has walked 78 times. And new bat regulations have resulted in decreased production across collegiate baseball.

All those factors will make it hard for the Mariners, and other teams, to judge Rendon. Yet many projections still have Rendon going to Seattle — and no one is ruling out the possibility that he could go to the Pirates, who haven't tipped their hand.

Nor are the Mariners tipping their hands. Last week, they amassed all their area scouts to discuss the draft, then sent them back out for a final blitz of the top candidates. This weekend, the Mariners' cross-checkers came to Seattle for further strategy sessions.

Earlier this week, I asked general manager Jack Zduriencik — renowned for zealously guarding his draft intentions — if he knew yet whom the Mariners were going to pick.

"I could tell you — I'll be conservative — it will be one of five guys," he said. "I could probably narrow it a little less than that. I have my feelings about it, Tom (McNamara, the scouting director) has his feelings, and the scouts, too. I owe it for me to not commit my strong feelings. These guys have been working all year long. They deserve a chance to come in and be heard on equal footing."

While the Mariners obviously need offense, Zduriencik said they would consider taking a pitcher if that's the best player available.

"I'm not one to draft by need," said Zduriencik, who earlier this month hit the road to personally check out many of the top prospects.

Zduriencik also didn't rule out a high-school player, who presumably would have a longer path to the major leagues. Three of the most highly touted players in the draft — outfielder Bubba Starling, shortstop Francisco Lindor and right-handed pitcher Dylan Bundy — are high schoolers.

"In the end, you have to weigh every factor," Zduriencik said. "A really good high-school player might get there quicker than some college players. I've had that experience (in Milwaukee) with (Prince) Fielder and (Yovani) Gallardo."

He pointed out that in the now-legendary 2005 draft, which yielded college players Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria and Ryan Braun, among others, and in which the overall No. 1 pick was a prep outfielder, Justin Upton. Jay Bruce and Andrew McCutcheon were also taken out of high school in the first round and had a rapid rise to the majors.

"Who was wrong? Everyone was right," Zduriencik said.

In his latest mock draft, ESPN's Keith Law had the Pirates taking Virginia pitcher Danny Hultzen and the Mariners selecting Rendon. Law said that Zduriencik had recently viewed both Starling and Lindor.

In a mock draft released Friday, Baseball America had the Pirates taking Rendon and the Mariners selecting Starling.

Starling is a 6-foot-5 right-handed center fielder from Gardner, Kan., who has already signed to play quarterback for Nebraska. He would likely require a hefty bonus to induce him to sign a professional baseball contract. Law recently wrote, "I could make a good case for Starling as the single-most talented player in this draft."

Much could hinge on Rendon's medical records, which teams are eagerly awaiting him to release. Rendon, like Cole and Starling, is being advised by Scott Boras.

"You have to basically work through the agent," Zduriencik said of the medical records. "A player has to grant permission, and the agent is in the middle of that. A lot is at stake for them, too.

"If a player has a chance to go very high, it makes sense, if they feel very good about their 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."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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