Teams picking at the top of the 2012 draft privately lament their options. There isn’t an obvious choice like Stephen Strasburg in 2009 or Bryce Harper in 2010, and there isn’t an embarrassment of riches like there was a year ago. There were seven No. 1 overall pick-caliber talents available in 2011, and teams gobbled up Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, Bubba Starling, Anthony Rendon and Archie Bradley with the first seven selections.
This spring, Georgia high school center fielder Byron Buxton has emerged as the consensus talent and compares favorably with Starling, his parallel as 2011′s best athlete available. But the college position player crop drops off sharply after Florida catcher Michael Zunino, and the college pitchers aren’t in the same class as Cole, Hultzen and Bauer. With this year’s top high school pitcher (righthander Lucas Giolito from California) spraining an elbow ligament in March and not taking the mound since, there’s no prep arm close to Bundy or Bradley.
“This is one of the most volatile, erratic and weak drafts I can remember,” an American League front-office executive said. “The college position players have got to be the weakest group in 20 years. I’ve had some veteran guys tell me it’s the worst ever.”
Add in the most significant changes to the draft rules in years, and there may be more first-round surprises than usual. The news rules will impose severe penalties on clubs that exceed their assigned bonus pools for the first 10 rounds by 5 percent or more. So teams looking to move money around may make budget-minded picks at the top of the draft in order to give the savings to players who fall because of signability.
Our initial first-round projection doesn’t include Giolito. With little more than three weeks remaining until the June 4-6 draft, his health and bonus desires are too much of a wild card to determine which teams might be willing to gamble on someone who had a chance to become the first high school righthander ever chosen No. 1 overall.
1. ASTROS: Houston is focusing on Buxton, Zunino and the three best college pitchers (Stanford’s Mark Appel, Louisiana State’s Kevin Gausman and San Francisco’s Kyle Zimmer). Scouting director Bobby Heck has taken an up-the-middle position player with his top pick in each of his four drafts, and he and his staff are believed to favor Buxton, a five-tool center fielder. Rumors persist that the Astros’ higher-ups—new owner Jim Crane and new general manager Jeff Luhnow—prefer an arm who could help soon and fit at the front of their rotation.
Projected Pick: MARK APPEL.
2. TWINS: Minnesota needs plenty of pitching help too, but it will set its draft board and take the best player available. That should be Buxton, though Zunino would enable the Twins to shift Joe Mauer to a less taxing position.
Projected Pick: BYRON BUXTON.
3. MARINERS: Seattle is loaded with pitching prospects and needs offense, so a bat would seem to be the obvious choice. That was the case in 2011 as well, when the Mariners crossed up the industry by selecting Hultzen at No. 2. They seem to be locked in on Buxton, Zunino and Puerto Rican high school shortstop Carlos Correa. Correa draws comparisons to Troy Tulowitzki, whom Seattle was set to take in this slot seven years ago before making a late switch to . . . Jeff Clement.
Projected Pick: MIKE ZUNINO.
4. ORIOLES: Baltimore is looking at the same hitters as the teams at the top of the draft, but unless Buxton or Zunino falls, it likely will opt for one of the three college arms. The Orioles are the first club mentioned with Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero, but that seems like a reach given Marrero’s offensive struggles this spring.
Projected Pick: KYLE ZIMMER.
5. ROYALS: Kansas City picked in this spot last year and missed out on the advanced pitcher it coveted when Cole, Hultzen, Bauer and Bundy went with the first four choices. The Royals will try again in 2012, and one of the three top-tier college arms should be available. If Appel, Gausman and Zimmer all disappear, Kansas City’s best bet would be Zunino.
Projected Pick: KEVIN GAUSMAN.
6. CUBS: Once Appel, Gausman and Zimmer are chosen, there will be a run on position players, most of whom will be high schoolers. Chicago’s pick could come down to Correa and polished Florida high school center fielder Albert Almora. The Cubs took another prep shortstop of Puerto Rican descent (Javier Baez) at No. 9 a year ago.
Projected Pick: ALBERT ALMORA.
7. PADRES: San Diego would prefer to take a bat here, likely from among a group that includes Zunino, Correa and Clemson third baseman Richie Shaffer. The Padres also could be tempted by a pitcher like Duke righthander Marcus Stroman, who’s 5-foot-9 but has the most electric stuff in the draft, or Giolito’s teammate Max Fried, a lefthander whose performance was slipping in early May.
Projected Pick: CARLOS CORREA.
8. PIRATES: After spending $14.5 million in bonuses on righthanders Jameson Taillon (No. 2 overall, 2010) and Cole (No. 1 overall, 2011), Pittsburgh seeks a position player. The Pirates have been searching for a shortstop for years, which may lead them to Marrero, a gifted defender and one of the few locks to stay at the position in this draft.
Projected Pick: DEVEN MARRERO.
9. MARLINS: It’s easy to peg Stroman as a reliever because of his size, but his 93-95 mph fastball and dastardly slider probably aren’t getting past the first 10 selections. Miami also could go for a high school position player such as Almora, Correa or David Dahl, a center fielder from Alabama. Given the many Oklahoma connections in the Marlins’ front office, don’t rule out Oklahoma State lefthander Andrew Heaney or Oklahoma prep righthander Ty Hensley.
Projected Pick: MARCUS STROMAN.
10. ROCKIES: Colorado has had limited success taking pitchers with its top choice in five of the last six drafts. The Rockies are zeroing in on hitters and would love Almora, but they may have to settle for a slightly lesser version in Dahl.
Projected Pick: DAVID DAHL.
11. ATHLETICS: Oakland’s strength is pitching, yet the top options here will be Stroman or Fried unless other arms go higher than expected. If the draft plays out as projected here and the A’s want an impact bat, Texas high school outfielder Courtney Hawkins, North Carolina prep third baseman Corey Seager and Shaffer would be the best available.
Projected Pick: MAX FRIED.
12. METS: At this point of the first round, teams will react to which players fall to them. New York is the first club strongly linked to Hawkins, Louisiana high school shortstop Gavin Cecchini and Texas A&M righthander Michael Wacha.
Projected Pick: GAVIN CECCHINI.
13. WHITE SOX: If general manager Kenny Williams thinks his team can contend, Chicago figures to go for more immediate help from the second tier of college arms (Heaney, Wacha and Mississippi State righthander Chris Stratton). If Williams decided he has to move forward with rebuilding, the White Sox will go for a higher-ceiling, longer-term project such as Hawkins or injured Ohio high school lefthander Matt Smoral.
Projected Pick: COURTNEY HAWKINS.
14. REDS: Cincinnati is monitoring the same pitchers Chicago is, and the polished Wacha would help the Reds’ big league rotation in short order. (It’s also possible that Wacha could sneak into the top 10 somewhere.) College bats the Reds might consider include Shaffer and Texas A&M outfielder Tyler Naquin.
Projected Pick: MICHAEL WACHA.
15. INDIANS: Cleveland took a college or junior college product with its first choice in nine straight drafts before selecting prep shortstop Francisco Lindor in 2011. The Indians will get back in their comfort zone, probably with a college arm to replace the two first-rounders (Alex White, Drew Pomeranz) they sent to the Rockies in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal last summer. If Wacha and Heaney are gone, the Tribe could turn to Shaffer or Stanford outfielder/third baseman Stephen Piscotty.
Projected Pick: ANDREW HEANEY.
16. NATIONALS: After picking in the top 10 in the last four drafts (first overall in 2009 and 2010) and spending aggressively ($16.35 million on its top four choices in 2011), Washington is shopping in a new neighborhood. Stratton commands four average or better pitches and would be the best value on the board in this scenario.
Projected Pick: CHRIS STRATTON.
17. BLUE JAYS: Since taking over as Toronto general manager in October 2009, Alex Anthopoulos has stockpiled high-ceiling athletes. With that focus and five of the first 60 selections, the Blue Jays are the most logical candidate to gamble on Giolito. Some teams aren’t sold that Florida high school righthander Lance McCullers Jr. is a starter rather than a reliever, but he has top-shelf stuff with a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider.
Projected Pick: LANCE McCULLERS JR.
18. DODGERS: Los Angeles has popped pitchers with its top pick in the last nine drafts and has been bearing down on numerous high school arms in the Southeast, including righthander Walker Weickel from Florida. The Dodgers could really use some bats, however, and Seager had as much helium as any first-round candidate in early May.
Projected Pick: COREY SEAGER.
19. CARDINALS: Though St. Louis has a reputation for liking college performers, it used its first selections on the best player available in seven drafts under Luhnow before he left for Houston. That philosophy won’t change under new scouting director Dan Kantrovitz, who could choose between the likes of Naquin, Piscotty, Seager, Shaffer or Mississippi high school center fielder D.J. Davis. This is the first of two first-round picks the Cardinals have this year, this one courtesy of the Angels as compensation for the Albert Pujols signing.
Projected Pick: RICHIE SHAFFER.
20. GIANTS: San Francisco won the 2010 World Series and continues to contend thanks to its savvy in developing young arms. The Giants could go back to that blueprint with a Florida high school righthander such as Weickel or Nick Travieso.
Projected Pick: NICK TRAVIESO.
21. BRAVES: Atlanta’s modus operandi in the last two drafts has been to grab players it get under contract quickly and easily. Georgia Southern outfielder Victor Roache could fit that profile after missing most of the season with a broken left wrist, and he could be a steal here as the best college power hitter in the draft. Given scouting director Tony DeMacio’s affinity for lefthanders, Florida’s Brian Johnson or Georgia’s Alex Wood are possibilities.
Projected Pick: VICTOR ROACHE.
22. BLUE JAYS: Few players in this draft can match the ceiling or helium of Davis, a speedster with a promising bat. Toronto also could take a chance on someone like Smoral or Florida high school righthander Zach Eflin, who might not have lasted this long if he hadn’t missed a month with triceps tendinitis. This is the only supplemental pick of the first round this year, one the Blue Jays get for failing to sign Tyler Beede at No. 21 overall out of last year’s draft.
Projected Pick: D.J. DAVIS.
23. CARDINALS: Unless St. Louis is sitting on a pitcher—perhaps Eflin or Oklahoma prep righthander Ty Hensley—it probably will get another hitter with its second first-rounder. Cape Cod League batting champion Piscotty could be the most attractive option, especially if the Cardinals believe he could play third base.
Projected Pick: STEPHEN PISCOTTY.
24. RED SOX: Boston has been as aggressive as any team in recent drafts. While the new rules will force the Red Sox to tone down their approach, that doesn’t mean they can’t pick their spots to be bold. This could be one of those, as Smoral would have gone in the upper half of the first round had he not had surgery to repair a broken a bone in his right foot in April.
Projected Pick: MATT SMORAL.
25. RAYS: After having a record 12 selections in the first two rounds in 2011, Tampa Bay will have to make its picks count now with no extra choices and a relatively small $3.8 million bonus pool for the top 10 rounds. The Rays develop high school pitchers as well as anyone, and Hensley could give them another potential frontline starter.
Projected Pick: TY HENSLEY.
26. DIAMONDBACKS: Because he’s the best pure hitter in this draft and has a track record of college success, a guy like Naquin usually wouldn’t last this long. Some clubs see him as a tweener, but a player with a plus bat and arm to go with solid speed would be a nice value here.
Projected Pick: TYLER NAQUIN.
27. BREWERS: After including Alcides Escobar in the Zack Greinke trade, Milwaukee needs a shortstop, and Florida prepster Addison Russell has a better chance to stick at the position after dropping 20 pounds since last summer. With his plus speed, he could develop along the lines of J.J. Hardy—the last Brewers shortstop to reach the All-Star Game. The Brewers get back-to-back picks, with this one coming from the Tigers as compensation for signing Prince Fielder.
Projected Pick: ADDISON RUSSELL.
28. BREWERS: Milwaukee struck it rich with a big-bodied high school slugger in Prince Fielder in 2002′s first round, and could hope for a repeat with another in Nevada prep third baseman Joey Gallo. He has as much raw power as anyone in this draft, and offers a fallback option as a pitcher with a fastball that has been clocked up to 98 mph.
Projected Pick: JOEY GALLO.
29. RANGERS: Texas has built baseball’s best farm system by collecting premium arms and athletes. High school righthander J.O. Berrios put himself into first-round consideration after throwing 93-94 mph and touching 96 at Puerto Rico’s Excellence Tournament.
Projected Pick: J.O. BERRIOS.
30. YANKEES: New York is known for valuing offense over defense in its catching profile, which could lead it to Louisiana prepster Stryker Trahan. He’s a physical, athletic masher who will need time to develop behind the plate.
Projected Pick: STRYKER TRAHAN.
31. RED SOX: Boston gets a second first-rounder after losing Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies in the offseason and may look at shortstop, where it hasn’t had a long-term solution since trading Nomar Garciaparra in 2004. Florida’s Nolan Fontana isn’t flashy, but he gets the job done with steady tools across the board.
Projected Pick: NOLAN FONTANA.