I still believe that Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole are the top prospects in the 2011 draft, but I'd still have at least a little trepidation if I had the No. 1 pick and was going to pull the trigger on either one of them right now. When a team uses a choice at the top of the draft on a player, especially one angling for one of the largest guaranteed contracts in draft history, it wants to see him at his best. Neither Rendon nor Cole is at his best right now.
Rendon has spent almost his entire season DHing because of a shoulder strain. While the injury won't have any long-term affect on his career, it has reduced his bat speed at times. That, along with less potent bats and getting pitched around more than perhaps any player in college history, has led to a .350/.552/.552 season, down from the .391/.497/.750 numbers Rendon posted while winning BA's Freshman of the Year award in 2009 and College Player of the Year award in 2010.
As Aaron Fitt detailed in a Draft Blog entry, Cole's command has deserted him in his last three starts. He still has a mid-90s fastball and swing-and-miss secondary pitches, but he nevertheless has put up this uninspiring line over the last three weeks: 18.2 IP, 28 H, 18 R, 18 ER, 4 BB, 17 SO. That includes a baffling outing against Stanford in which he allowed three homers and struck out just one batter.
Disconcerting as Rendon and Cole's performances may be, it can be worse to turn away from elite prospects who aren't performing at their usual high standard. When his club owned the top selection in the 2004 draft, then-Padres scouting director Chief Gayton's favorite prospect was Rice righthander Jeff Niemann. Niemann went 17-0 while helping the Owls win the College World Series in 2003, but he had arthroscopic surgery to clean out inflamed tissue in his elbow that fall. He also strained his groin during his junior season and didn't match his previous dominance. Unable to commit to Niemann, San Diego started down a road that would lead it to the worst No. 1 overall pick in baseball history, Matt Bush.
Let's start by heading to the Baseball America Draft archives and taking a look at our draft-year scouting reports on Hamilton and Harper, both of whom we rated as the top prospect in their draft class:
Scouts have flocked to North Carolina's Triangle (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) this spring, most notably a large delegation from the Devil Rays organization to see OF/LHP Josh Hamilton, who emerged in March as the probable No. 1 pick. Hamilton is a legitimate two-way talent who grades out highest as a hitting prospect. He also got a strong look as a pitcher because he was clocked up to 95 mph. Were it not for his prowess as an everyday player, Hamilton would have been looked at seriously as a late first-round pick as a pitcher. He's a five-tool talent who does everything easily, with fluid actions and grace. He has outstanding bat speed and extension on his swing. He projects top-of-the-scale power. His arm strength also is first rate. He does not have the speed for center field and should settle in as a prototype right fielder. Hamilton has made subtle adjustments to his game this spring. He's gotten stronger and understands how to play the game. He's tweaked his swing to eliminate a slight hitch. If anything, he needs to address pulling off pitches with the bat and use his legs more in his swing—all things that are correctable.
After Harper skipped out on his final two years of high school to enroll in a wood-bat junior college league, even his biggest supporters probably would have underestimated how he would perform this season. Over his 180 regular-season at-bats, the 17-year-old hit .417/.509/.917. The school record for home runs was 12, set when the school still used aluminum bats. Harper finished with 23. He has top-of-the-scale power, but scouts have differing opinions about what kind of hitter he'll be. Some believe his exaggerated load and ferocious swings will cause him to strike out 125-140 times a season and keep his average around .250. Others believe in his exceptional hand-eye coordination and expect him to calm down his swing in pro ball, figuring .280 to .300 isn't out of the question. Harper also has 80 raw arm strength on the 20-80 scouting scale, but he needs to shorten up his arm action for it to play better behind the plate. Scouts are also split on where he'll end up defensively. Some believe he'll be fine at catcher. Others think he will either outgrow the position or that his bat will be too good to hold back, so a team will want to move him to the position that gets him to the big leagues the fastest—either third base or right field. Harper has done some incredible things on a baseball field, like hitting 500-foot home runs, throwing runners out at first from the outfield, and scoring from second base on a passed ball. He's received more attention and unfounded criticism than any amateur player in years. Perhaps the biggest question now is: Is it possible for him to live up to the hype? He's seeking to break Stephen Strasburg's record bonus, and that certainly won't reduce the hype or the pressure.
Comparing the two, I give a very slight edge to Hamilton. Harper is the best power prospect in draft history, but Hamilton had prodigious pop as well and graded out better in other categories. He was a better pure hitter, maybe a hair quicker and offered more defensive value as a center fielder (we sold him short in that regard) versus Harper as a right fielder. Their arms were comparable.
Neither player had a huge advantage over the other in any area, but Hamilton offered a little more all-around ability and played a position that's harder to fill.
I see the Royals sticking with the philosophy that helped them build their enviable farm system, which is to identify the best player available and pay what it takes to sign him. They exceeded MLB's bonus recommendations to sign their top three prospects (first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, outfielder Wil Myers), as well as lefthander Chris Dwyer, outfielder Brett Eibner and righthander Jason Adam, among others.
If Kansas City keeps doing that, it very well could use the fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft on a high-ceiling guy who's going to need some time to reach his potential, such as Kansas high school outfielder Bubba Starling or Florida prep shortstop Francisco Lindor. There also are several talented college pitchers available, so the Royals could take someone who'll provide a more immediate return, like UCLA righthander Trevor Bauer. The worst thing they could do would be to focus too much on how quickly their choice could help them and sacrifice some talent in the process.
No matter how impressive a team's RPI and strength of schedule, it must finish over .500 against Division I opponents in order to be considered for an at-large berth. Since the Division I tournament field expanded from 48 to 64 teams in 1999, two teams have made the NCAA playoffs with a record of just one game over .500: UCLA (30-29) in 1999 and Houston (29-28) in 2001. Both teams received No. 3 seeds, with the Bruins winning one regional game and the Cougars going two and out.
In the 12 years with a 64-team tournament, a dozen teams have received at-large berth with a record within five games of .500. They've fared better than I would have thought, with four of them winning regionals (30-26 Miami and 31-26 Arkansas in 2002, 32-27 Houston in 2003 and 30-25 Stanford in 2006) and four others advancing to regional finals (30-27 Georgia and 30-25 Washington in 2002, 30-26 UCLA and 30-25 Nebraska in 2007). All told, the 12 teams went 25-18 (.581) in the regionals, a better record than their .534 winning percentage prior to the playoffs.
None of those four regional winners made it past the super-regionals and into the College World Series. Among at-large clubs, the CWS team with the worst pre-tournament record in the 64-team era was Arizona in 2004. The Wildcats went 30-24 before going 3-0 at the Notre Dame regional, 2-1 at Long Beach State in the super-regionals and winning a game in Omaha.
Georgia looks like a lock to get a bid provided it finishes with a record better than .500. My alma mater has shaken off a 9-13 start to post the fourth-best league record in the Southeastern Conference (13-8), behind only No. 2-ranked South Carolina, No. 4 Vanderbilt and No. 5 Florida.