Head Of The Class

Draft's top talent is creating LeBron-like hype




Major League Baseball's amateur draft has increased steadily in popularity and availability over the past few years, from 1998, when the draft results were made public for the first time, to 2001 when the conference call was first streamed live online to 2007 when the first round was televised on ESPN. This year's draft, scheduled for June 9-11 at the MLB Network studios in New York, is getting a lot of attention thanks to the guy at the top.

Let's take a look at some of the prevailing themes of this year's crop . . .

Class Of His Own

TOP 50 DRAFT PROSPECTS
1. Stephen Strasburg, rhp, San Diego State: The consensus top pick and it's not close. Touches triple digits with his fastball and has nearly two strikeouts per inning.
2. Grant Green, ss, Southern California: Starting to heat up after pressing early in the season.
3. Dustin Ackley, 1b, North Carolina: Hitting really well, as expected, but still mostly playing first base.
4. Tyler Matzek, lhp, Capistrano Valley HS, Mission Viejo, Calif.: Great overall package, but missed some time in early April with a blood blister on left index finger.
5. Kyle Gibson, rhp, Missouri: Using his fastball more often has led to improved results.
6. Donavan Tate, of, Cartersville (Ga.) HS: The son of former NFL running back Lars Tate, this five-tool athlete is committed to UNC for baseball and football.
7. Alex White, rhp, North Carolina: Hasn't looked as sharp this season as he did at the end of last season, and some scouts have expressed concerns over a change in his arm action.
8. Aaron Crow, rhp, Fort Worth Cats: Did not sign after being selected by the Nationals with the ninth overall pick last year. Will pitch for the independent Fort Worth Cats beginning this May.
9. Shelby Miller, rhp, Brownwood (Texas) HS: Physical righthander has reportedly touched 97 mph this spring.
10. Matt Purke, lhp, Klein (Texas) HS: Works in the low 90s and touches 95 mph but is slipping further behind Matzek as top prep lefthander due to mechanical questions.
11. Brett Jackson, of, California: Plays hard and does a little bit of everything, but strikeouts could be a concern.
12. Rich Poythress, 1b, Georgia: His .430/.528/.852 line looks even better in a year thin on power. Father was a Cubs farmhand in the '70s.
13. Mike Leake, rhp, Arizona State: Ultimate competitor has been carving up the Pac-10 for the past three years.
14. Mike Minor, lhp, Vanderbilt: Knows how to pitch, but stuff was down a bit this spring before a bounceback start against Arkansas.
15. Rex Brothers, lhp, Lipscomb: No one has more helium than Brothers, who has been sitting 94-97 mph with a hard, wipeout slider.
16. Jacob Turner, rhp, Westminster Christian Academy, St. Louis: Ideal pitcher's build at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds with a fastball that touches 94 mph.
17. Jared Mitchell, of, Louisiana State: Superb athlete has big tools and also plays wide receiver for LSU's football team.
18. Luke Bailey, c, Troup HS, LaGrange, Ga.: Top prep catcher in a great year for prep catchers.
19. Tyler Skaggs, lhp, Santa Monica (Calif.) HS: Scouts love Skaggs' projectable 6-foot-5, 190-pound frame.
20. Kentrail Davis, of, Tennessee: Draft-eligible sophomore's stock is down, and signability is a question.
21. Tim Wheeler, of, Sacramento State: Showing power/speed combo with .792 slugging and 12 stolen bases through first 33 games.
22. Andrew Oliver, lhp, Oklahoma State: Scouts know he has good stuff, but the results haven't been pretty.
23. Everett Williams, of, McCallum HS, Austin: Tools galore from Williams, whose cousin played in Reds organization, father played in NFL and two aunts are in pro softball Hall of Fame.
24. James Paxton, lhp, Kentucky: Slowed recently by knee tendinitis, the 6-foot-4 lefthander has been touching 97 mph.
25. Kendal Volz, rhp, Baylor: Athletic 6-foot-4, 225-pounder dials it up to 95 mph and puts hitters away with a hard 82 mph slider.
26. Jason Stoffel, rhp, Arizona: The top reliever in this year's class, Stoffel has a 94-95 mph fastball and loves being on the mound late in the game.
27. A.J. Pollock, of, Notre Dame: Parlayed a good showing on the Cape into a successful spring.
28. Brooks Raley, lhp/of, Texas A&M: Draft-eligible sophomore is leading the Aggies at the plate and on the mound.
29. Alex Wilson, rhp, Texas A&M: Dealing this year after missing '08 because of Tommy John surgery.
30. Bobby Borchering, 3b, Bishop Verot HS, Fort Myers, Fla.: Plus power from both sides of the plate.
31. Brian Goodwin, of, Rocky Mount (N.C.) HS: Fleet-footed center fielder profiles as ideal leadoff hitter.
32. Zack Wheeler, rhp, East Paulding HS, Dallas, Ga.: Commands three big league pitches and has effortless delivery.
33. Matt Hobgood, rhp, Norco (Calif.) HS: Big stuff—90-94 mph fastball and hard curveball—match big 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame.
34. Mychal Givens, rhp/ss, Plant HS, Tampa: Plays both ways, but velocity on mound is hard to ignore.
35. D.J. LeMahieu, ss, Louisiana State: Setting the table for potent LSU offense; range is questionable.
36. Sam Dyson, lhp, South Carolina: Draft-eligible sophomore dialing it up to 98 mph with a hammer.
37. Tony Sanchez, c, Boston College: Complete backstop is hitting .388/.475/.731 through first 134 at-bats.
38. Ryan Jackson, ss, Miami: Questions about his bat, but has the glove to stick at shortstop.
39. Jiovanni Mier, ss, Bonita HS, La Verne, Calif.: Rare prep shortstop who profiles to stay there as a pro.
40. Max Stassi, c, Yuba City (Calif.) HS: One of the top pure hitters in this year's high school class, at a premium position no less.
41. Kyle Heckathorn, rhp, Kennesaw State: Has rebounded nicely after slow start.
42. Brad Boxberger, rhp, Southern California: Has three average pitches, although lacks a true out-pitch and struggles with control.
43. Ben Tootle, rhp, Jacksonville State: Cape Cod standout is probably a reliever in the long run.
44. Wil Myers, c/3b, Wesleyan Christian Academy, High Point, N.C.: Hitting well while playing all over the diamond—catcher, third base, first base and pitcher.
45. Jake Marisnick, of, Riverside (Calif.) HS: Superb athlete has five-tool potential, but has struggled offensively early this season.
46. Matt Davidson, 3b, Yucaipa (Calif.) HS: Some of the best raw power in this year's high school crop.
47. Austin Maddox, c, Eagle's View Academy, Jacksonville: Tremendous arm behind the plate, but throws can be erratic. Rare amateur player allowed to call his own game.
48. LeVon Washington, 2b/of, Buchholz HS, Gainesville, Fla.: One of the fastest players in the draft: runs a 6.35 60-yard dash.
49. Chad James, lhp, Yukon (Okla.) HS: Strong, pro body means his 88-90 mph fastball has room to grow.
50. Tanner Scheppers, rhp, St. Paul Saints: The wild card of this year's draft. Slipped in last year's draft with a shoulder injury, hoping to rebound with indy ball stint this spring.

Compiled By Jim Callis, Aaron Fitt, Conor Glassey and John Manuel
The first thing that stands out about this draft is the blue-chipper at the head of the class. Far and away the consensus top talent, San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg isn't just generating a substantial amount of buzz for an amateur baseball player . . . he's reaching LeBron James circa 2003 territory. The Nationals own the No. 1 pick and Strasburg's adviser, Scott Boras, has already floated a $50 million price tag and called him a real-life Sidd Finch. The record guarantee for a drafted player is Mark Prior's $10.5 million from 2001.

Strasburg put his name on the map when he was the No. 1 prospect in the New England Collegiate League as a freshman in 2007, then became a national story when he struck out 23 batters against Utah as a sophomore last April. The buzz has grown into a roar after he was the only college player named to the U.S. Olympic team and as he's been lighting up triple digits on the radar gun this spring.

Of course he's been featured here in the pages of Baseball America, but he's also had articles written about him for ESPN The Magazine, Sports Illustrated and USA Today, among others. He has fan blogs, dozens of YouTube videos and on eBay, certified Strasburg autographed cards are already selling for more than $500.

Google "Stephen Strasburg" and there are 389,000 results. To put that in perspective, doing the same for last year's first-overall pick Tim Beckham gets you just 44,700. Strasburg even has more Google results than his coach, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.

Veteran scouts can't remember the last time a player was this far ahead of the rest of the draft pack, and the gap is even bigger behind Strasburg because there's not a consensus No. 2 prospect.

"There's probably not anybody right behind him where teams are going, 'Oh well, if we don't get Strasburg, we'll get this guy, so we're okay,'" a National League scouting director said. "All the guys that were supposed to be there have all kind of been struggling a little bit, so I'm sure the teams right behind the Nationals are kind of scratching their heads."

David Price was a wire-to-wire 1-1 guy in 2007, but Matt Wieters was right there. Similarly, Prior was out in front in 2001, but fell to the second-overall pick because of his price tag. The Twins chose Joe Mauer first that year and Mark Teixeira was right in the mix, too. In 1999, the debate was which Josh would be selected first: Hamilton or Beckett.

The other guys at the top of teams' draft boards all have unanswered questions. USC shortstop Grant Green got off to a soft start offensively, North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley has the tools to play center field, but has been out there for only a handful of innings this spring and teams will be hesitant to select him that high without seeing him out there. The top high school position player, Cartersville (Ga.) HS outfielder Donavan Tate, is the son of former NFL running back Lars Tate and is committed to North Carolina to play both baseball and football. Like Strasburg, the Scott Boras Corporation also advises all three of those players.

"I get the sense that number two hasn't defined himself yet and there might not be a consensus number two right up to the draft," an American League scouting director said. "Particularly with so many Boras clients up at the top, signability is also going to be a factor."

Strasburg's draft-stock prominence could be the greatest since 1989 when the Orioles made LSU righthander Ben McDonald the first overall pick. Washington State's John Olerud, who was BA's 1988 College Player of the Year, would have challenged McDonald for the top spot, but a brain aneurysm caused him to miss most of the season and he was eventually drafted in the third round, 79th overall, by the Blue Jays.

There are certainly some parallels between Strasburg and McDonald.

Teams had Big Ben tabbed as the No. 1 pick a year before the draft. In 1988, McDonald was on the U.S. Olympic team after his sophomore year of college—a feat Strasburg repeated 20 years later, though in '88 the Olympic team was all college players, while in 2008 Strasburg was the only amateur on a professional roster. McDonald also set a draft-bonus record at the time and Strasburg is likely to follow in McDonald's footsteps in that regard, as well. In our 1989 Draft Preview issue, we ran a headline, "Top choice only thing certain a bout '89 draft." Sound familiar?

Giants scouting director John Barr was the Orioles' scouting director in 1989 when Baltimore took McDonald No. 1 overall.

"I remember watching him pitch against Oklahoma State in the dome in New Orleans and he just had a dominating type of performance," Barr recalled. "You sit there and you look at it and one of the most dominating starting pitchers I ever saw was Ben McDonald. We were happy and excited that we picked him 1-1, but there were actually other guys—not just from that draft, but even on that LSU staff in Paul Byrd and Russ Springer—that ended up pitching longer in the big leagues. That's not to take anything away from Ben McDonald, because I don't want it to be that way, but even when you have somebody that far ahead, you just don't know what's going to happen. But it was a thrill to watch Ben McDonald in college and as a pro, just like it is to watch Stephen Strasburg."

The gap between Strasburg and the rest of the pack could be the biggest since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1987 or Darryl Strawberry in 1980. Then again, it could be unprecedented.

"It could be," another American League scouting director said when asked if Strasburg's stock is the furthest ahead since McDonald. "It's been a long time and I don't know when there's been another Strasburg. I can't remember the disparity being like this as long as I've been a scouting director and I think you could probably make the case that it's never been this big. Strasburg is kind of a unique prospect, so it's a unique situation."

Arms Race

Scouting directors seem to agree that the strength of this year's class is pitching. Since 1987, the first year the draft was limited to only one phase, the most pitchers selected in the first round is 20—in 2001 and 1999. We have 19 pitchers listed in the top 32 of our Midseason Top 50 list (compensation picks to the Nationals and Yankees for not signing righthanders Aaron Crow and Gerrit Cole, respectively, have made this the biggest first round ever). This year's group is essentially the opposite of last year, when there were only 10 pitchers selected in the first round, the second-lowest total since 1987.

"It's a real strong year for pitching," the National League scouting director said. "It seems like there's a lot of velocity in this draft—more than we've seen in a while and it's good for high school and college and there's a few lefthanders in there as well. So, that's been fun to sift through."

Outside of Strasburg, there are 10 more pitchers currently projected to go in the top half of the first round: college players like Missouri righthander Kyle Gibson, North Carolina righthander Alex White, Arizona State righthander Mike Leake, Vanderbilt lefthander Mike Minor and Lipscomb lefthander Rex Brothers. While Kentucky's James Paxton, another southpaw, had been the high riser about a month ago, he's lost some helium due to a knee injury, while Brothers' stock has skyrocketed after as his fastball has sat at 94-97 mph this spring with a power mid-80s slider. He struck out 11 in six innings at Fresno State, then wowed more than a dozen scouting directors in an April 3 matchup with Kennesaw State's 6-foot-9 righthander Kyle Heckathorn. The stocky 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior ranked 77th on BA's College Top 100 in the preseason but has smoothed out a head whack in his delivery, improving both his velocity and command.

The group also includes high school lefthanders Tyler Matzek of Capistrano Valley High in Mission Viejo, Calif. and Matt Purke of Klein High in Spring, Texas, as well as righthander Shelby Miller of Brownswood (Texas) High and the aforementioned Crow, who will be playing for the independent Fort Worth Cats beginning in May. Only three pitchers were selected in the top 15 picks last year.

The scouting director said the weakness this year is established position players. While last year's college crop was brimming with polished college bats, that's not the case this time around.

Another scouting director echoed that sentiment. "Every year is different," the first American League scouting director said. "This year, I think the prevailing theme is the lack of high-end hitters, if I had to come up with one theme that jumps out to me ahead of all others. Luckily, I think it's offset by the depth of high-end pitchers, specifically college pitchers."

Bailout On Spending?

With the country's current economic status the way it is, teams may cut back on draft bonuses this summer.

"I think it's a concern for every organization—not only organizations, but all businesses in general," Barr said. "I think we're all in a situation where you have to take a long hard look at things and realize you have a limited amount of dollars to invest. And that's not bad, I think we are all accountable, but we're going to have to make decisions on how to spend that money—whether it's on free agents or international guys or on the draft."

The record spending we saw after last year's draft could be in sharp contrast this time around. After Josh Fields signed with the Mariners just before spring training, the total bonuses from the 2008 draft were a record $188.3 million. Only four teams didn't go over slot to sign a player. The Royals spent a record $11.1 million, and the Red Sox ($10.5 million), Rays ($9.9 million) and Pirates ($9.8 million) all broke the old record of $9.7 million, held by the 2005 Diamondbacks.

The National League scouting director thinks draft bonuses could be down, just as free agent signings were this winter.

"My guess is the agents think they're still going to get their money," he said. "Because they'll think if they don't get it now, they won't get it in the future. But maybe there won't  be as many teams spending big. I think going over slot is going to be something you're not going to see as much. If teams were willing to walk away from established free agents, they're going to do it with amateurs too."