Thursday may have been Opening Day for the minor leagues, but Sunday felt even bigger. Nationals righthander Stephen Strasburg made his first official pro start, averaging 98 mph with his fastball and striking out eight in five innings in a win for Double-A Harrisburg.
Reds lefthander Aroldis Chapman was even more dominant in his first pro start, reaching 100 mph five times while striking out nine in 4 2/3 innings for Triple-A Louisville.
Cincinnati righty Mike Leake also made his pro debut—in the big leagues. The eighth overall pick in the 2009 draft, Leake rarely topped 90 mph but kept the Cubs off balance, scattering four hits and seven walks while allowing only one run in 6 2/3 innings.
Let's stack Heyward up against the No. 1 prospects from the past decade: Rick Ankiel (2000), Josh Hamilton (2001), Josh Beckett (2002), Mark Teixeira (2003), Joe Mauer (2004 and 2005), Delmon Young (2006), Daisuke Matsuzaka (2007), Jay Bruce (2008) and Matt Wieters (2009). While Heyward would definitely rank No. 1 in fanfare received as a prospect, let's ignore all the hype swirling around him and focus solely on talent.
Heyward hit .323/.408/.555 as a 20-year-old in high Class A and Double-A (and a three-game cameo in Triple-A) last season. The only position players to top his performance were Matt Wieters (1.053 OPS) and Mark Teixeira (1.005 OPS), both as 22-year-olds in high Class A and Double-A. Jay Bruce had a .962 OPS but didn't control the strike zone close to as well as Heyward did.
Among the hitters, I'd take Heyward second. I'd put Wieters No. 1 because of the positional value he has as a catcher, and I'd put Heyward ahead of Teixeira for having a comparable performance while two years younger.
It's more difficult to compare Heyward to the pitchers. Matsuzaka arrived in the United States with the reputation for having six pitches that graded as plus at times (not even counting the mystical gyroball), as well as a track record of sterling success in the Japanese majors and international play. Beckett was spectacular in 2001, going 14-1, 1.54 with 203 strikeouts in 140 minor league innings before an impressive September callup. Ankiel was nearly but not quite as good in 1999, and he was two years younger than Beckett.
For me, Heyward would rank third among the last 10 No. 1 prospects, behind Wieters and Beckett. You could make an argument that Heyward could go as high as second and as low as fifth or maybe sixth. This much is certain: He's not among the weaker No. 1 prospects in recent memory.
Depending on your perspective, the Rangers showed the most foresight or let the most talent get away in 2007, when they took Ranaudo (11th round) and Pomeranz (12th), who could be the first two pitchers drafted this June, as well as Wilkins (25th), who could go in the first two rounds.
The only other clubs to choose three high schoolers in 2007 who project to go in the top two or three rounds in 2010 were the Astros (Georgia Tech shortstop Derek Dietrich, third; Arkansas righthander/outfielder Brett Eibner, fourth; Texas Tech righty Chad Bettis, eighth) and Red Sox (Auburn first baseman Hunter Morris, second; Georgia righthander Justin Grimm, 13th; Grandal, 27th). Other significant high school draftees from 2007 include Middle Tennessee State outfielder Bryce Brentz (Indians, 30th), Cal State Fullerton outfielder Gary Brown (Athletics, 12th), Colon (Padres, 10th), North Carolina righthander Matt Harvey (Angels, third), Louisiana State outfielder Leon Landry (Reds, 36th), Texas A&M righty Barret Loux (Tigers, 24th), Florida Gulf Coast lefthander Chris Sale (Rockies, 21st), San Diego lefty Sammy Solis (Diamondbacks, 18th) and Texas righty Brandon Workman (Phillies, third).
In general, the players drafted the earliest were considered the most likely to sign. The Red Sox and Morris disagreed on what bonus parameters the two sides had agreed to before the draft, scuttling those negotiations. Early in the summer, the Phillies thought they would reach a deal with Workman, but he opted to join the Longhorns instead. The Astros, who gave away their first two choices as free-agent compensation, misread the signability of Dietrich, Eibner and Bettis in one of the biggest disasters in recent draft history. After entering 2007 as the draft's top-rated high school prospect, Harvey slipped slightly but still wanted a big league contract.
High schoolers selected after the first 10 rounds rarely come to terms, and most of the players mentioned who went that low were taken as low-risk gambles just in case they changed their minds about attending colleges. Others, such as Brentz and Sale, have blossomed into much better prospects than they were three years ago. Landry may have been the closest to signing among the later choices, as the Reds thought they had a deal in place before he changed his mind.
Just like any real-life scouting director would, I feel good about my picks. My first draft, in 2003, was my worst, in part because I focused too much on keeping costs down, but I've done much better since giving myself a real budget.
I've averaged picking 19th overall in my eight drafts, with just four sandwich picks and no choices after the 10th round. I failed to sign 2005 first-rounder Luke Hochevar and blew my top pick the next year on Brett Sinkbeil, but I also nabbed 2009 first-rounder Kyle Gibson (ninth round, 2006) and projected 2011 first-rounder Mikie Mahtook (10th round, 2008) with much lower picks out of high school. I've graduated four players to the big leagues—Aaron Cunningham (fifth round, 2005), Micah Owings (10th round, 2004), Jordan Schafer (third round, 2005) and Ryan Sweeney (first round, 2003)—and also had Michael Bowden (sandwich round, 2005) and Daniel McCutchen (eighth round, 2005) reach the majors.
My Top 10 Prospects include four players on BA's Top 100 Prospects list—which would tie for fourth place among MLB organizations—including the best prospect in baseball. Here's my Top 10:
1. Jason Heyward, of, Braves (first round, 2007)
You may have heard of this guy.
2. Kyle Gibson, rhp, Twins (ninth round, 2006)
I saved $1.35 million by signing him three years early.
3. Christian Friedrich, lhp, Rockies (first round, 2008)
Like Colorado, I'm thankful he slid in the first round.
4. Shelby Miller, rhp, Cardinals (first round, 2009)
Less polished but has more upside than Gibson, Friedrich.
5. Chris Archer, rhp, Cubs (fifth round, 2006)
Heavy fastball tops out a 96 mph, kept opponents homerless last year.
6. Everett Williams, of, Padres (sandwich round, 2009)
Combines tremendous athleticism with hitting ability.
7. Garrett Gould, rhp, Dodgers (second round, 2009)
Power fastball/curve combo gives him frontline starter upside.
8. Max Stassi, c, Athletics (third round, 2009)
All-around catcher gives me four first-round talents from the 2009 draft.
9. Michael Bowden, rhp, Red Sox (sandwich round, 2005)
Moved quickly through minors but still looking for role in Boston.
10. Mikie Mahtook, of, Louisiana State (10th round, 2008)
Five-tool center fielder was a Louisiana prep sleeper.