For the second straight draft, Stanford righthander Mark Appel entered the spring as the consensus best player available. Another college righthander, Oklahoma's Jonathan Gray, quickly joined him after a string of dominant starts.
With a month remaining before the 2013 draft, Appel and Gray remain alone on the first tier of prospects. "There's a severe difference between those two and everyone else," an American League scouting director said.
Scouts rate the overall crop of talent as mediocre, just as they did coming into the season. Several of the best college arms, most notably Indiana State lefthander Sean Manaea, have taken a step backward. That's bad news for clubs at the top of the draft who covet advanced pitching.
High school hurlers such as righthanders Kohl Stewart (Texas) and Phil Bickford (California) and lefty Trey Ball (Indiana) are flying up draft boards. Yet it remains to be seen how early teams will be willing to take players from what's considered the draft's riskiest demographic.
San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant, college baseball's runaway home run leader, is the top bat available. Outfielders Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows, who play for different high schools in Loganville, Ga., have lived up to their billing as the best high school position players, but there's a growing sense that one or both of them could slide out of the first 10 selections.
Last year, a new Collective Bargaining Agreement brought major changes with assigned bonus pools for the first 10 rounds and severe draft-pick penalties for exceeding them by more than 5 percent. As was the case in 2012, many clubs will seek discounts in the first round, saving money versus the CBA pick values and allocating that cash for later selections. Between teams looking to cut deals and little agreement as to how the talent lines up after the first 10-15 players, the bottom half of the first round is more unsettled than usual.
Here's our best guess as to how things will play out on June 6:
1. ASTROS: Houston, which has the top selection for the second straight year, says it's still evaluating seven players. Most industry sources believe Houston's decision will come down to Appel, whom it strongly considered a year ago before taking Carlos Correa, and Gray. While Appel has less leverage this time around because he's now a college senior, Houston won't be able to take as much of a discount as it did with Correa, who signed for $4.8 million. The Astros' pick is valued at $7.8 million, and whichever arm they pass on likely will be snapped up by the Cubs ($6.7 million) or the Rockies ($5.6 million).
PROJECTED PICK: MARK APPEL.
2. CUBS: Chicago has had scouts at every one of Appel's and Gray's starts this spring. While the Cubs insist they haven't narrowed their focus to just the two pitchers, it will be an upset if they don't choose whichever one the Astros leave on the board.
PROJECTED PICK: JONATHAN GRAY.
3. ROCKIES: Colorado may prefer a pitcher, but if Appel and Gray aren't available, there's not an obvious arm to take here. The Rockies could cut a deal with someone like Nevada righthander Braden Shipley or hope that Manaea regains his form from last summer in the Cape Cod League. Would they opt for a high school pitcher after getting burned by their $3.9 million investment in Tyler Matzek in 2009? More likely, they'll grab the best offensive prospect in the draft.
PROJECTED PICK: KRIS BRYANT.
4. TWINS: A year ago, Minnesota badly needed pitching but used the No. 2 overall choice on outfielder Byron Buxton, the 2012 draft's top-rated prospect. While the Twins aren't as desperate now, they're still looking at arms. Stewart comes with more risk but similar ceiling to Appel and Gray. Manaea and Ball are other options. Rumors persist that Minnesota could cut a deal with Washington high school catcher Reese McGuire and spend heavily further down in the draft.
PROJECTED PICK: KOHL STEWART.
5. INDIANS: Cleveland is another team searching for pitching. The Indians traditionally have been more comfortable with college arms, so they're one of several teams trying to figure out Manaea. Shipley could allow them to move money lower in the draft, helpful for a club that lost picks by signing free agents Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. If Bryant fell, Cleveland would grab him and focus on pitching later.
PROJECTED PICK: BRADEN SHIPLEY.
6. MARLINS: Other teams believe Florida will make a discount choice, with candidates ranging from Shipley and McGuire to New Mexico corner infielder D.J. Peterson and New Jersey high school lefthander Rob Kaminsky. If money is less important, Frazier could be a target.
PROJECTED PICK: REESE McGUIRE.
7. RED SOX: Boston has selected this high just once since 1967, getting Trot Nixon with the No. 7 choice in 1993. The Red Sox are looking to maximize their opportunity and will take a high-ceiling talent such as Frazier, Manaea or Stewart. They're also interested in sweet-swinging North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran.
PROJECTED PICK: CLINT FRAZIER.
8. ROYALS: Add Kansas City to the list of teams on the hunt for pitching. If Stewart and Shipley are gone, that would leave the Royals considering Ball, Manaea and Arkansas righthander Ryne Stanek—who pitched his high school ball in suburban Kansas City. The Royals are known for preferring curveballs to sliders, which could help Ball's cause.
PROJECTED PICK: RYNE STANEK.
9. PIRATES: Pittsburgh added this pick after failing to sign Appel at No. 8 last year, and it would get the No. 10 selection in 2014 if it can't close a deal again. The Pirates were on Moran more than most teams in high school, and he'd eventually allow Pedro Alvarez to shift across the diamond to first base. Ball and McGuire also get mentioned here.
PROJECTED PICK: COLIN MORAN.
10. BLUE JAYS: No team was more aggressive than Toronto in the 2012 draft, but it has no extra picks to play with this year. Expect the Blue Jays to go all-in here and grab the highest-ceiling player still available. If Stewart and Frazier are off the board, that means Ball or Meadows.
PROJECTED PICK: TREY BALL.
11. METS: New York appears to be targeting college bats. If Moran doesn't get to the Mets, they'll pick between Peterson and Missisippi State outfielder Hunter Renfroe.
PROJECTED PICK: D.J. PETERSON.
12. MARINERS: Meadows opened the year as the top-rated high school prospect, and while he hasn't had the senior season scouts hoped for, he's still a potential five-tool talent. Getting him here would be a nice value for Seattle. This is likely the floor for Shipley and McGuire, and the ceiling for Bickford.
PROJECTED PICK: AUSTIN MEADOWS.
13. PADRES: Meadows also would be a nice get for San Diego, which may be the lone club this high that prefers Ball as an outfielder. If the Padres don't see a high-upside position player, they may turn to Bickford or lefthander Ian Clarkin, a San Diego high schooler.
PROJECTED PICK: PHIL BICKFORD.
14. PIRATES: A year ago, Pittsburgh ditched a predraft deal with David Dahl and gambled the No. 8 choice on Appel when he unexpectedly fell. Could they do the same with another Boras Corp. college pitcher in Manaea, a potential No. 1 overall pick before his stuff backed up? No team has two picks as high as the Pirates do, and not signing Manaea wouldn't sting as much as missing out on Appel did in 2012. Pittsburgh also could grab Ball at No. 9 and get a college bat such as Renfroe or Notre Dame third baseman Eric Jagielo here. California high school first baseman Dominic Smith is a gifted hitter, too.
PROJECTED PICK: SEAN MANAEA.
15. DIAMONDBACKS: After an early run on pitchers, position players will be the strength of the middle of the first round. Count Arizona as one of several teams in this area who would love an unexpected shot at Meadows. Renfroe and California high school shortstop J.P. Crawford are better bets to be available.
PROJECTED PICK: HUNTER RENFROE.
16. PHILLIES: Philadelphia, which has its earliest pick since taking Gavin Floyd at No. 4 in 2001, loves toolsy athletes. Crawford is the best shortstop in the draft, a quality defender with hitting ability who'd make a fine replacement for Jimmy Rollins down the road.
PROJECTED PICK: J.P. CRAWFORD.
17. WHITE SOX: Chicago used its top choice on athletic outfielders in 2009 (Jared Mitchell), 2011 (Keenyn Walker) and 2012 (Courtney Hawkins), and could go that route again with Stanford's Austin Wilson or Fresno State's Aaron Judge, who have massive power potential and two of the best bodies in the draft. Sox executive Ken Williams is a former Cardinal outfielder himself.
PROJECTED PICK: AUSTIN WILSON.
18. DODGERS: Since Logan White took over Los Angeles' amateur scouting operations in 2002, he has used seven first-round picks on high school pitchers, most notably Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. The Dodgers could take another this year, with Bickford, Clarkin, New Jersey lefthander Rob Kaminsky and North Carolina righthy Hunter Harvey as possibilities.
PROJECTED PICK: IAN CLARKIN.
19. CARDINALS: St. Louis picked in the same spot a year ago and got a tremendous value with a college righthander in Michael Wacha. It could happen again, as Jacksonville's Chris Anderson and Florida's Jonathon Crawford have faltered after looking like top-10 talents earlier in the spring. It's not inconceivable that Manaea could fall this far if he doesn't right himself and/or doesn't appear signable, and the Cardinals have more flexibility than most clubs thanks to a pair of first-rounders.
PROJECTED PICK: CHRIS ANDERSON.
20. TIGERS: Detroit hasn't had a first-round pick since 2009. At their best, Crawford and Anderson have the type of well above-average fastballs for which the Tigers are always on the prowl. If they want a hitter, they could look at Jagielo or Texas prep outfielder Billy McKinney. The latter is similar to Detroit's top prospect, Nick Castellanos.
PROJECTED PICK: JONATHON CRAWFORD.
21. RAYS: Tampa Bay could go in several directions here, with the best options appearing to be position players. The Rays could opt for the highest ceiling available and grab Wilson or Judge. They could choose a more polished hitter in Smith or Samford outfielder Phillip Ervin. They could address their need at catcher with a prepster like South Carolina's Nick Ciuffo or Oklahoma's Jon Denney. They also could target a scarce position with East Central (Miss.) JC shortstop Tim Anderson, the draft's best juco prospect.
PROJECTED PICK: AARON JUDGE.
22. ORIOLES: Though Baltimore is set at catcher with Matt Wieters, it still makes sense to draft the best available talent in the first round. The Orioles have been linked to Ciuffo, who like Wieters played at a South Carolina high school.
PROJECTED PICK: NICK CIUFFO.
23. RANGERS: Texas has built a strong major league team and a deep farm system by shooting for ceiling. Smith is one of the best all-around hitters in the draft, comes with less risk than most high school bats and provides quality defense at first base as a bonus.
PROJECTED PICK: DOMINIC SMITH.
24. ATHLETICS: Athletic college players who can hit are a rare commodity, so getting Cape Cod League MVP Ervin here would be a coup. Oakland also may find it hard to resist high school lefthander Matt Krook, who flashes front-of-the rotation stuff, from nearby San Francisco.
PROJECTED PICK: PHILLIP ERVIN.
25. GIANTS: Krook pitches even closer to the Giants, who know a thing or two about developing pitching. Chris Anderson also might fit here.
PROJECTED PICK: MATT KROOK.
26. YANKEES: After losing Nick Swisher and Rafael Soriano to free agency, New York has three first-rounders, more than any team. The Yankees system is short on arms, and polished prep lefthander Rob Kaminsky pitches across the Hudson River in New Jersey. It may make more sense to wait on Kaminsky and go for Jagielo, who could shore up the aging left side of New York's infield.
PROJECTED PICK: ERIC JAGIELO.
27. REDS: Tennessee high school righthander Kyle Serrano will be difficult to sign away from a commitment to play for his father Dave at the University of Tennessee, but Cincinnati is one of the clubs most determined to try. If the Reds strike out there, they could pursue Tim Anderson.
PROJECTED PICK: KYLE SERRANO.
28. CARDINALS: The final six choices in the first round are compensation for departed free agents, beginning with this one for Kyle Lohse. High school righthander Devin Williams is making a push to go from the St. Louis suburbs to the first round, but that seems a bit rich, even for a local team with multiple choices. McKinney's advanced bat makes more sense here.
PROJECTED PICK: BILLY McKINNEY.
29. RAYS: Tampa Bay could pair a position player at No. 21 with a pitcher here. The Rays excel at developing high school arms and could select from among a group that includes Kamisnky, Harvey and Kentucky lefthander Hunter Green. They also could go for a quicker return, with the most polished college lefthander in the draft, Gonzaga's Marco Gonzales.
PROJECTED PICK: MARCO GONZALES.
30. RANGERS: Since 2006, Texas has used eight of its nine first-round picks on high schoolers. Most of the best preps at this point will be pitchers such as Kaminsky, Harvey and Green. Florida high school outfielder/quarterback Cord Sandberg is the type of athlete the Rangers traditionally covet.
PROJECTED PICK: HUNTER GREEN.
31. BRAVES: Atlanta scouting director Tony DeMacio is known for his love for lefthanders, which could lead him to Kaminsky, Gonzales or Green. McKinney would become the Braves' best hitting prospect if they could get him. Harvey's father Bryan, a former all-star closer, scouted for the organization, which also likes prep power arms.
PROJECTED PICK: HUNTER HARVEY.
32. YANKEES: New York may be able to finesse Kaminsky down to its No. 32 pick if it passes on him at No. 26. If not, Tim Anderson is another player who could help the left side of the Yankees infield.
PROJECTED PICK: ROB KAMINSKY.
33. YANKEES: No organization has a greater affinity for offensive-minded catchers than New York. Denney should be able to stay behind the plate, but he also has enough bat to profile at a less challenging position.
PROJECTED PICK: JON DENNEY.