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Hot Prospect at the Hot Corner

Rice University third baseman Anthony Rendon, favored to become the Pirates’ next millionaire as the first overall pick in June’s 2011 MLB Draft, has plans for his signing bonus.

Considering that MLB’s past two No. 1  picks—Stephen Strasburg in 2009 and Bryce Harper in 2010—signed contracts totaling $25 million, Rendon was asked if he preferred a Jaguar or a Mercedes for his first post-draft purchase.

“I’m a BMW guy,” Rendon said with a laugh. “Mercedes is kind of girly.”

Turning serious, Rendon said he’s not afraid of the pressure that comes with being a No. 1 pick.

“I guess we will find out if it happens,” said Rendon, not sounding concerned. “I can’t say there won’t be pressure because there will be. But I’m just going to play good baseball and have fun.”

Rendon has certainly had fun the past two years. He won national Freshman of the Year honors in 2009, hitting .388 with 20 homers and 72 RBI. Last year, he was named the nation’s Player of the Year—the Dick Howser award—after hitting .394 with 26 homers and 85 RBI.

He may not put up such huge numbers this season because of the new NCAA-mandated bats that have taken much of the sting out of aluminum. In addition, teams are reluctant to pitch to Rendon.

Such was the case in Rice’s recent 10-2 win over Florida International. Rendon drew a pair of walks and finally got a pitch to hit when the bases were loaded. Rendon promptly lined a shot to right field that cleared the bases.

“What’s impressive about him is that he can hit breaking balls as good as he can hit fastballs,” FIU coach Turtle Thomas said. “He doesn’t have a clear-cut weakness, which is different from nearly every other college player.

“Secondly, he has great range at the plate. He can handle the ball on the outside corner or a pitch off the inside corner, and that’s hard to do with these new bats that have half the sweet spots as the old ones. The sweet spot now is only 3.5 inches.”

FIU pitching coach Sean Allen compared Rendon to MLB star Albert Pujols – a player you pitch around if possible.

“Most hitters need a couple of at-bats to make adjustments, but Rendon adjusts right away,” Allen said. “The barrel of his bat stays in the strike zone so long. I told my pitchers: ‘If you throw him a breaking ball, make sure it’s out of the strike zone. If he gets something in the middle of the plate, he’s going to kill it.’ ‘’

About the only question with Rendon is whether he can stay healthy consistently. He has had two surgeries on his right ankle – once after he stepped in a “pothole” chasing a foul pop and the second after he was hurt running the bases.

Earlier this season, he was forced to play designated hitter for several games after straining  his throwing shoulder… while stretching.

Rendon was asked how he would respond to critics who say he is injury prone.

“I would say the same thing as them if I didn’t know me,” Rendon said. “But they were freak injuries, unrelated.”

Rendon is aware the Pirates have the top pick and said it would be “a great honor” if the Bucs select him.

The Pirates already have a pair of ex-Rice infielders in the organization. Second baseman Brock Holt was the Pirates’ ninth-round pick in 2009, and shortstop Brian Friday was a third-rounder in ’07.

Holt, Friday and Rendon have joked about forming a Rice-dominated infield while playing for the Bucs.

But, assuming the Pirates take Rendon, it will be interesting to see where they play him. Pedro Alvarez is a star on the rise at third base. Rendon, a high school shortstop who is considered more skilled defensively than Alvarez, could possibly stay at third while Alvarez moves to first.

For now, Rendon is just a college kid in awe of Alvarez, who hit 16 homers in 95 games as a major-league rookie last season.

“I hear he can hit the ball a mile,” Rendon said.

Rendon has done a pretty good job of that himself. Every year, Rice plays a three-game set in the Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park, and Rendon has a home run in each series.

Clearly, major-league stadiums do not intimidate Rendon.

Rendon’s  teammates have taken note of his confidence, his ability and his elevated draft status.

“A lot of them have joked that we’re a package deal – you draft one of us, you have to take both,” Rendon said. “Others have said they’d be my gardener or my driver.”

After all, someone has to take care of his BMW.

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