Eleven days into the minor league season, three of the top four strikeout pitchers in the minors are prominent picks from the 2011 draft. Garrett Richards of the Angels leads the way with 21 whiffs in as many innings, followed by three of the first 43 choices last June: Diamondbacks first-rounder Trevor Bauer (20 in 16) and sandwich pick Andrew Chafin (18 in 11), and Marlins first-rounder Jose Fernandez (18 in 11).
Bauer and Archie Bradley, two of the top seven overall picks, grab most of the attention from Arizona's 2011 draft, but Chafin could prove to be a steal. He lasted until No. 43 because he had Tommy John surgery in 2009 and faded a bit late last spring, but Chafin is a lefty with a low-90s fastball that peaks at 95 mph and a slider that can be devastating. He has the potential to be a frontline starter or a closer.
Last year's draft was considerably stronger than the current crop, starting with the fact that 2011 had seven players (Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen, Bauer, Dylan Bundy, Bubba Starling, Anthony Rendon, Bradley) who would have been worthy of a No. 1 overall pick in many drafts.
Buxton is the top prospect in 2012, though as I wrote in in my latest magazine column , that doesn't mean the Astros will select him with the first pick. Other clubs believe Houston doesn't want the increased risk and development time that comes with taking a high school player.
Buxton compares favorably with Starling, as he's a similar athlete—some scouts say better—with a smoother swing and superior pitch-recognition skills. Given how much teams covet advanced pitching, I don't think Buxton would have gone ahead of Cole, Hultzen, Bauer or Bundy a year ago. He would have fit as the No. 5 overall pick, though whether the Royals would have taken him over a local product in Starling remains to be seen.
Kansas City coveted an advanced pitcher a year ago, so it's possible it might have popped Appel at No. 5 if it fell in love with his pure stuff and didn't have qualms about his inconsistency. But if we're lining all these players up on the same draft board, Appel wouldn't rank ahead of the first seven choices from last year.
Based on stuff, Appel would go in front of the second tier of college pitchers in 2011, which included Taylor Jungmann (No. 12 overall), Jed Bradley (No. 15), Sonny Gray (No. 18) and Matt Barnes (No. 19). While his track record isn't as impressive as all of them, Appel's upside would probably put him at the front of that list. He'd go somewhere in the 8-12 range, depending on whether teams would take him over promising if raw position players Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, Cory Spangenberg and George Springer, the Nos. 8 through 11 choices.
Hanson earned "Helium Watch" kudos in the inaugural 2012 edition of the Prospect Hot Sheet, and he's hitting .404/.451/.809 with four homers and four steals in 11 games. He obviously won't keep that pace up all year, but he's a legitimate prospect and a terrific breakout candidate.
Hanson, 19, is undersized at 5-foot-11 and 152 pounds, but he's an athletic switch-hitter with plus speed and precocious feel at the plate. He projects as a player who will hit for average with some pop and plenty of stolen bases. The biggest knock on him is his fringy arm strength, which may necessitate a move from shortstop to second base, though he should have enough bat for either position.
My top breakout picks among pitchers aren't off to scintillating starts at West Virginia, but keep an eye on righthander Nick Kingham and lefty Zack Dodson. Kingham, 20, showed a 91-93 mph fastball to go with an advanced changeup and control in his pro debut last summer. Dodson, 21, has similar fastball velocity and a solid curveball but had his 2011 season derailed by a broken pitching hand.
MLB has tried to curb amateur bonus spending almost forever. In 1946, 19 years before the creation of the draft, baseball instituted the first of several variations of a bonus rule. None of them proved effective, in part because under-the-table payments were rampant.
"We'd pass a bonus rule and by the time we got out of the room, we already figured out how to skin the cat," former Tigers GM Jim Campbell told me years ago. "There was no way to really police it. You could hire a kid's uncle as a scout. He might actually be qualified, but it was still questionable."
Don't expect to see similar hijinks with the draft rules in the new CBA, however. MLB has informed clubs that any attempt to avoid the tax and draft-pick penalties for overspending is prohibited, specifically mentioning undisclosed agreements between teams and draftees. If a club hires a relative of a draftee and pays him an exorbitant salary, Commissioner Bud Selig will step in.