2014 Draft: Astros’ Uncertainty Over Top Pick Unprecedented

NEW YORK—The drama was real. San Diego prep lefthander Brady Aiken really didn’t know for sure that he was going to become just the third high school pitcher ever selected with the No. 1 overall pick in 50 years of Major League Baseball’s June draft.

Brady Aiken

Brady Aiken (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

“We actually did find out on TV—we were kind of going back and forth, and we just kind of found out,” Aiken told viewers on MLB Network shortly after the Astros selected him first. “It was a crazy moment. It’s been a fun experience, and this whole thing, it’s crazy.”

Aiken spoke shortly afterward with Houston’s general manager Jeff Luhnow, who made the selection that started the draft for the third straight year. Luhnow and the Astros have set a consistent course in that time, playing close to the vest with information, both with the media and the rest of the industry.

As a result, teams picking just behind Houston didn’t know who would be available and how the first 10 picks would fall. Several scouting directors contacted on the first day of the draft agreed that the lack of certainty was unprecedented in their experience.

Despite that, the first three picks followed exactly the order of Baseball America’s final predraft rankings, with top talent Aiken going first. No. 2 prospect Tyler Kolek, a righthander from Shepherd (Texas) High, went second to the Marlins, followed by No. 3 prospect Carlos Rodon of North Carolina State going third to the White Sox.

The White Sox chose Rodon despite not having selected a Boras Corp. client with a premium pick since failing to sign Bobby Seay in 1996 and Jeff Weaver in the second round in 1997. Rodon was reported to be looking for an $8 million bonus, which would tie the record set in 2011 by UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole, now with the Pirates. White Sox general manager Rick Hahn declined comment on the negotiations.

When Kolek followed Aiken, he tied draft history as the highest-drafted prep righty ever, joining Bill Gullickson (1977), Josh Beckett (1999) and Jameson Taillon (2010) as high school righthanders drafted No. 2 overall. The Marlins’ decision to draft Kolek included tough negotiations as well, reportedly within Miami’s draft room. Owner Jeffrey Loria was said to prefer Rodon, the Cuban-American native of Miami who moved to North Carolina when he was 9. The Marlins’ scouting department, however, preferred high school talent and was tied all spring to Aiken, Kolek and San Diego prep catcher/outfielder Alex Jackson.

Scouting director Stan Meek was at Kolek’s final start in May and eventually the scouting department prevailed, making Kolek the selection. That made the 2014 draft the first ever to start with back-to-back prep pitchers.

That was appropriate, because evaluators considered this draft deep with pitching, and particularly hard-throwing pitchers. That was borne out with 20 pitchers in the 34-pick first round, 10 of them college arms. That tied a record with the 1993 (when there were 28 first-round picks), 1999 and 2001 (30 picks) drafts.

Erick Fedde

Erick Fedde (Photo by Danny Parker)

Nine college pitchers went out with the first 19 picks, including two who had Tommy John surgery in the month before the draft. Those injuries, to East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman and Nevada-Las Vegas’ Erick Fedde, shook up an already volatile first round, and medical concerns also dogged Texas Christian lefthander Brandon Finnegan and Evansville’s Kyle Freeland. Both wound up with clean reports, Finnegan bouncing back with a strong regional start six days before the draft and Freeland getting a fresh MRI exam. Freeland went to the hometown Rockies, whose team doctor had performed surgery on the Colorado native’s elbow when he was in high school.

Hoffman wound up being drafted ninth overall to the Blue Jays, who had a second selection at No. 11, while Fedde went 18th overall to the Nationals. Washington has had plenty of Tommy John experience with aces Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, plus 2012 first-rounder Lucas Giolito, whom they selected that year knowing the procedure was likely.

Who’s Next On North Side?

Because the first three picks went to form, the drama really started at pick No. 4, where the Cubs had Aiken and Rodon at the top of their board. The injured college arms prompted them to formulate a Plan B, shopping for a hitter who would accept the right kind of deal with the fourth pick, which has a $4.62 million pick value. They chose Indiana catcher Kyle Schwarber, whom they announced as a left fielder. The 6-foot, 230-pounder hit 32 home runs the last two seasons, walking more than he struck out.

Kyle Schwarber (Andrew Woolley).

Kyle Schwarber (Andrew Woolley).

“He does everything that we like from an offensive standpoint in terms of controlling the strike zone, hitting for average, hitting for power,” senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod told reporters. “His makeup is off the charts.”

The Cubs wound up drafting pitching aggressively in subsequent rounds, taking arms in the second round (hard-throwing Maryland ace Jake Stinnett) and then rounds 4-12. The group included high-ceiling preps such as lefthanders Carson Sands and Justin Steele and athletic righty Dylan Cease, a potential first-rounder entering the spring who missed much of his high school senior season (on the mound, at least) with an elbow injury.

The next surprise in the first round came at No. 12, where the Brewers made lefthander Kodi Medeiros the highest-drafted Hawaii prep ever. Medeiros was the third high school pitcher drafted and was expected to sign quickly after a strong workout at Miller Park in Milwaukee. He was likely to sign for below the $2,805,700 bonus allotment but for more than $2 million.

The Brewers then could use the savings—plus those culled from four seniors they drafted on the second day—on two exciting prep talents who fell due to signability and hitting questions: No. 41 overall selection Jacob Gatewood, the shortstop out of Clovis (Calif.) High, and No. 50 selection Monte Harrison, an outfielder out of Lee’s Summit (Mo.) who has a football scholarship offer from Nebraska. Both players signed two days after being selected, for a combined $3.63 million.

Spreading The Wealth

The Brewers weren’t the only team with a portfolio approach. The Pirates took Arizona prep shortstop Cole Tucker, a consensus second- or third-round talent, with the No. 24 selection, but scouting director Joe Delli Carri said Tucker fit the traits that they look for in position players. Pittsburgh added college outfielder Connor Joe, who was considered more of a third- to fifth-round talent, and two high-ceiling prep righthanders in second-rounder Mitch Keller of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Texas prep righty Trey Supak.

Jacob Lindgren

Jacob Lindgren

“We have followed him through several stages of development, and he’s on a good path,” Delli Carri said. “He’s young for his peer group. We’ve seen a great deal of development and progress in the last calendar year. We think he should hit, we like the body and the athlete, the strong defensive tools, and the consistent ability to get the barrel to the ball. As his strength continues to come on, we think the bat will continue to develop.”

Keller was one of the draft’s late risers as he pitched in spring showcases in Iowa, which holds its high school season in the summer. He was one of six North Carolina recruits selected in the first 74 overall picks on the draft’s first day.

The Phillies went in the other direction. Picking seventh overall, they drafted Louisiana State ace Aaron Nola, getting one of the closest-to-the-majors players available and the reigning Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year. But the Phillies surprised the industry with a college-heavy approach; in taking Cal Poly lefty Matt Imhof, they went for back-to-back college picks at the top of the draft for the first time since 1998. They drafted 26 college players overall, their highest total in the first 40 rounds since 2004.

The Yankees and Orioles were the last two teams do draft, having forfeited selections for signing free agents. New York drafted 55th overall and got one of the draft’s fastest movers in Mississippi State lefthander Jacob Lindgren, a first-team All-American who struck out 100 in 55 relief innings this spring (16.3 K/9).

The Orioles, who didn’t pick until No. 90, started with prep first baseman Brian Gonzalez out of Miami’s Archbishop McCarthy High, then followed with Notre Dame righthander Pat Connaughton, one of the draft’s top two-sport athletes. Connaughton has said he plans to play one more season on Notre Dame’s basketball team before committing himself full-time to baseball.

Other Notes

• Several players with family ties went in the first round. No. 5 overall pick Nick Gordon, the Twins’ pick, is the son of ex-big leaguer Tom Gordon and younger brother of Dodgers infielder Dee. Rays first-rounder Casey Gillaspie also has a big league brother in White Sox infielder Conor, while Indians first-rounder Bradley Zimmer has an older brother, Kyle, who was the Royals’ first-round pick in 2012.

Nick Gordon (Photo by Tomasso DeRosa).

Nick Gordon (Photo by Tomasso DeRosa).

• Rodon and shortstop Trea Turner (13th overall, Padres) played all three years together at N.C. State, making 12 times in the last 13 drafts that teammates had been drafted in the first round. Rodon became the highest-drafted player in Wolfpack history.

• Mississippi led all colleges with nine players drafted, far from the record 14. Six colleges—Florida State, Louisville, Oregon State, Stanford, Virginia and Washington—ranked second with eight.

• The Rockies drafted Forrest Wall at No. 35 overall, making him the highest-drafted high school second baseman in draft history. The Orangewood Christian High (Winter Park, Fla.) product was rumored to be a potential first-round pick, thanks to being one of the best pure hitters in the draft. A pair of shoulder injuries and a 20-grade arm on the 20-80 scouting scale kept him from going out much higher, however.