A few weeks ago in a Baseball America draft podcast, I discussed how teams crave athletes and don't let too many five-tool players escape to college. For that reason, I speculated that most 20-homer/20-steal seasons come from players signed out of high school.
Thanks to a friendly programmer (who wishes to remain anonymous), we have some actual data to back up that point. Since 2000, there have been a total of 104 20-20 seasons compiled by 56 different players. Just 19 of those seasons came from college products, with 15 different players contributing. Those 15 are: Jason Bay (Gonzaga), Aaron Boone (Southern California), Ryan Braun (Miami), Eric Byrnes (UCLA), Jose Cruz Jr. (Rice), Darin Erstad (Nebraska), Curtis Granderson (Illinois-Chicago), Ian Kinsler (Missouri), Corey Koskie (Kwantlen, B.C., JC), Matt Lawton (Mississippi Gulf Coast JC), Mark Reynolds (Virginia), Reggie Sanders (Spartanburg Methodist, S.C., JC), Drew Stubbs (Texas), Troy Tulowitzki (Long Beach State) and Chase Utley (UCLA).
You'd think that the scarcity would make the college athletes stand out, but that list features nearly as many double-digit round picks (Bay, Kinsler, Koskie, Lawton, Reynolds) than first-rounders (Braun, Cruz, Erstad, Stubbs, Tulowitzki, Utley).
Let's take this question to 12 and go back to the turn of the century. I answered the exact same question two years ago (in the Feb. 9, 2009 Ask BA), and I'm surprised to see that I put David Price ahead of Stephen Strasburg. I gave Price credit for being lefthanded and succeeding against much tougher college competition, but by the end of his junior season Strasburg clearly was the better prospect.
Below is my updated ranking of how all the No. 1 overall picks since 2000 stacked up as prospects heading into the draft. Strasburg was clearly the best, but you could argue the next four guys in any order.
1. Stephen Strasburg, rhp, Nationals (2009)
Perhaps the best prospect in draft history, and definitely the best pitching prospect.
2. David Price, lhp, Rays (2007)
Became an American League Championship Series hero 14 months after signing.
3. Justin Upton, of, Diamondbacks (2005)
Billed as 2005's No. 1 pick after starring at the 2002 Area Code Games at age 14.
4. Anthony Rendon, 3b, Pirates (projected 2011)
The second coming of Evan Longoria, with a little more bat and a little less power.
5. Bryce Harper, of, Nationals (2010)
No draft prospect ever has had more power or more hype.
6. Joe Mauer, c, Twins (2001)
Rated as the No. 3 prospect in his loaded draft class, behind Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira.
7. Delmon Young, of, Rays (2003)
Top prospects in 2003: Young, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Harvey, Jeff Allison, Kyle Sleeth. Ouch.
8. Tim Beckham, ss, Rays (2008)
Five-tool shortstop hasn't lived up to billing. Imagine if Rays had taken Buster Posey.
9. Bryan Bullington, rhp, Pirates (2002)
Bucs opted for top college prospect (Bullington) over top overall prospect (B.J. Upton).
10. Luke Hochevar, rhp, Royals (2006)
Kansas City passed up Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw to take BA's No. 7-rated pitcher.
11. Adrian Gonzalez, 1b, Marlins (2000)
Considered a mid-first-round talent, was dealt twice before proving worthy of the top pick.
12. Matt Bush, ss, Padres (2004)
How misguided was the decision-making behing the worst No. 1 pick ever? See here.
Harper would be in the mix to go No. 1 overall, along with Rendon and UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole. As you can see from my answer above, I believe Rendon is a slightly better prospect in his draft year than Harper was in his. It's close, but Rendon plays a more valuable position, is a better all-around hitter, has proven himself against better competition and causes fewer concerns with his makeup. He'll also be big league-ready earlier in his career than Harper will be in his, because Rendon is more than two years older.
Harper is the best power prospect in draft history, not to mention a good athlete, so he'd be a tremendous top pick as well. I've asked several scouting directors over the last two years whether they'd prefer Harper or Rendon, and the results have been split evenly. For what it's worth, the Pirates would have taken Jameson Taillon over Harper if they had owned the No. 1 choice in 2010.
As I wrote in our Early Draft Preview , the 2011 draft crop looks like the best since 2005. The 2005 group included 26 big leaguers among its 30 first-rounders, highlighted by Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki in the top seven picks. If you added Harper to the 2011 mix, we'd be talking about where this draft would fit historically, not just in the last decade.
As of this moment, the top five picks in the 2011 figure to be Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole (battling for the No. 1 spot), followed by college pitchers Matt Purke (Texas Christian), Sonny Gray (Vanderbilt) and Taylor Jungmann (Texas) in some order. There are several other players who have the talent to go that high, including outfielders George Springer (Connecticut) and Bubba Starling (Gardner-Edgerton HS, Gardner, Kan.), righthanders Matt Barnes (Connecticut) and Archie Bradley (Broken Arrow, Okla., HS), and lefthanders Danny Hultzen (Virginia) and Jed Bradley (Georgia Tech).
No member of the 2012 draft class would be a lock to be a top-five selection this June. That's more a statement about how good and how deep the 2011 draft is than a knock on the 2012s.
Stanford righthander Mark Appel is a quality arm, but he's not clearly better than the guys I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Shortstops Kenny Diekroeger (Stanford) and Deven Marrero (Arizona State) are the best college position players available, and they wouldn't elbow all of those college arms out of the top five. The top high schooler in 2012, Jesuit High (Tampa) righthander/shortstop Lance McCullers Jr., might be better than this year's best (Archie Bradley), but he wouldn't be guaranteed to go in the first five picks this year.