This morning I spoke with a scouting director whose team owns a top-10 pick in the draft, and he said if he had the No. 1 overall selection, there's no question whom he would take. He'd choose Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton, giving him at least 70s on the 20-80 scouting scale for raw power, speed, center-field defense and arm strength, as well as 70 potential as hitter. The director likes him more than Bubba Starling, the best athlete in the 2011 draft, saying that Buxton has a better package of tools, a better swing and better ability to recognize breaking pitches.
As for pitchers, the director raved about San Francisco righthander Kyle Zimmer, particularly the athleticism in his delivery—which he likes more than Stanford righty Mark Appel's. Zimmer has been flying up draft boards with his performance this spring, and he could join Appel and Buxton in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick. Zimmer had blister issues in a Friday loss to Fresno State, but the former infielder has posted 25-1 K-BB ratio while pushing his fastball into the upper 90s and backing it up with a sharp curveball.
The top choice in each category was obvious. Angels outfielder Mike Trout's combination of bat-to-ball skills, strike-zone awareness and speed should result in a big league batting title one day. Several scouts say that Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is the best young power hitter they ever have seen. And Reds shortstop Billy Hamilton's crazy speed helped him to become the first minor league in a decade to reach 100 steals in a season.
My top five lists for hitting, power and speed:
Best Hitting Prospects
1. Mike Trout, of, Angels
2. Jurickson Profar, ss, Rangers
3. Jesus Montero, c/1b, Mariners
4. Anthony Rendon, 3b, Nationals
5. Nolan Arenado, 3b, Rockies
Youngsters to watch: Javier Baez (Cubs), Oscar Taveras (Cardinals), Christian Yelich (Marlins).
Best Power Prospects
1. Bryce Harper, of, Nationals
2. Miguel Sano, 3b, Twins
3. Jesus Montero, c/1b, Mariners
4. Yoenis Cespedes, of, Athletics
5. Gary Sanchez, c, Yankees
Youngsters to watch: Jorge Alfaro (Rangers), Josh Bell (Pirates), Guillermo Pimentel (Mariners).
Best Speed Prospects
1. Billy Hamilton, ss, Reds
2. Mike Trout, of, Angels
3. Gary Brown, of, Giants
4. Roman Quinn, ss, Phillies
5. Terrance Gore, of, Royals
Youngsters to watch: Glynn Davis (Orioles), Bradley Marquez (Mets), Mason Williams (Yankees).
True No. 1 starters may be the hardest talents to find in baseball. There aren't that many pitching prospects with plus stuff, command and makeup, and I use a stricter definition than most. For instance, I'm bullish on Rangers lefthander Martin Perez, I can't slap a No. 1 tag on a guy who had a 6.43 ERA, 72 hits allowed and a 37-20 K-BB ratio in 49 Triple-A innings last year, even if he was young for the level at age 20. I'm more comfortable projecting him as a No. 2 starter.
By my count, I see 11 prospects who grade as No. 1 starters, with the Diamondbacks (Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs), Mariners (Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen) and Pirates (Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon) having two each. Arizona has a potential third in Archie Bradley, if he can repeat and command his overpowering fastball and curveball.
The other No. 1 starter prospects are Matt Moore (Rays), Yu Darvish (Rangers), Julio Teheran (Braves), Dylan Bundy (Orioles) and Shelby Miller (Cardinals). My next tier of pitching prospects includes Carlos Martinez (Cardinals), Perez, Drew Pomeranz (Rockies), Jacob Turner (Tigers) and Jarrod Parker (Athletics).
The Astros will continue to develop him as a starter, but given that righthander Jarred Cosart's control and health have been inconsistent, he could wind up in the bullpen. He has the stuff to succeed as a closer, with a fastball that has peaked at 98 mph as well as a hard curveball.
Righthander Paul Clemens, Houston's second-best pitching prospect behind only Cosart, has a similar profile. If those two remain in the rotation for the long run, the Astros' best relief prospect is righty Juan Abreu, who has a 93-98 mph fastball. After averaging 5.4 walks per nine innings in the minors, he'll have to throw more strikes to finish games in the majors.
As for the Diamondbacks, we jammed Parker into their 2015 lineup as their closer because he ranked behind Bauer, Skaggs and Bradley as a prospect and the club already has Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson entrenched in the majors. Arizona's incumbent closer, J.J. Putz, saved 45 games last season but will be 38 in 2015, so the best choice is probably David Hernandez, who excelled as his set-up man.
If the Diamondbacks' future closer isn't currently on their big league roster, then the best bets are a pair of 2011 draftees. Fourth-rounder Evan Marshall reached Double-A last summer thanks to a 91-96 mph fastball and a low-80s curveball that has so much quick bite that it often gets mistaken for a slider. Second-rounder Anthony Meo will get a chance to make it as a starter, but his package (91-98 mph fastball, inconsistent secondary pitches, effort in his delivery) may play better out of the bullpen.