See Also: 2011 Updated Top 60 (5/16)
Kris Kline had it easy.
The past two drafts have been defined by one player, and the Nationals’ scouting director held the first pick both times. Two years ago, righthander Stephen Strasburg captured the country’s attention as one of the most dominating college pitchers ever. Last year it was all about Las Vegas phenom Bryce Harper, who graduated high school two years early to become draft eligible.
This year, after a 57-105 2010 campaign, the Pirates hold the first pick, and with less than a month before draft day, no Strasburg or Harper has emerged as an obvious No. 1 overall talent. The top three players coming into the season have all had some hiccups this year. Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon has been mostly used as a DH this year while nursing a shoulder injury, UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole has been inconsistent and hasn’t dominated lineups like his stuff would indicate and Texas Christian lefthander Matt Purke has been sidelined with shoulder soreness.
Questions At The Top
This year will mark the third time the Pirates have held the first-overall pick. In 1986 the franchise selected shortstop Jeff King out of Arkansas. In 1996 Clemson righthander Kris Benson was the top choice, and Pittsburgh famously chose Ball State righthander Bryan Bullington in 2002 over B.J. Upton.
Bucs scouting director Greg Smith has selected within the top four picks the past three years and used those choices to grab third baseman Pedro Alvarez (second overall in 2008), Tony Sanchez (fourth, 2009) and Jameson Taillon (second, 2010). For Smith, this will be the second time he’s had first dibs on any player—his first year as scouting director in Detroit was 1997 when the team drafted Rice righthander Matt Anderson.
Smith has scouted literally thousands of players since that pick and feels the extra experience makes him much more prepared this time around.
“I don’t know if many first-year scouting directors are prepared to have the No. 1 pick, just for all the things that go into the process,” Smith said. “Yeah, you can go out and scout players and you can travel, but when you take all the dynamics that go into a No. 1 selection, I think we as an organization in Pittsburgh and myself, individually, are much more prepared and much more equipped to make the selection now.”
Smith would not tip his hand as to which players were still in the running to be the top pick, but it’s safe to assume that group definitely includes Rendon and Cole, the two guys that have been neck and neck at the top all spring. Others like Virginia lefthander Danny Hultzen, Florida prep shortstop Francisco Lindor and Kansas prep outfielder Bubba Starling have entered the discussion, according to industry sources.
“We’ve definitely narrowed down the field and tried to fine-tune the list of realistic candidates but, at the same time, still try not to short-change the process,” Smith said.
At just over $30 million, the Pirates have spent the most money on draft talent over the last three years. Smith said they will continue to be aggressive in that regard and will select the best player available.
Mapping It Out
Despite the uncertainty at the top, this year’s class does offer good depth. It may even wind up as a better class than 2005—a year that featured Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce and Colby Rasmus, to name a few.
“I’ve been doing it a while and I would say not even in the 2000s, or maybe even before that, was the last time I saw this kind of depth,” a National League scouting director said. “It’s been a long time.”
While 2005 obviously featured a lot of high-upside position players, this year is very strong on the mound. There’s a surprising amount of velocity and it’s an above-average year for high school players. As usual (and unlike ’05), there aren’t a lot of impact bats at the college level and things start to thin out quickly at up-the-middle positions teams covet like catcher and shortstop.
“It’s a really good draft,” an American League scouting director said. “In this year’s draft, there might be some fourth- and fifth-round picks that maybe in an average year could be late first-round, early second-round picks.”
It’s a bit surprising that it’s such a strong collection of talent because none of the typical hotbed states—California, Texas, Florida and Georgia—are home to a banner crop this year. Instead, many premium players are from non-traditional states.
“There are so many high school guys in small towns this year,” an American League crosschecker said. “Typically you can spend 10 days in Atlanta and see a bunch of guys within a little bit of a radius, but not this year—you’re all over Oklahoma, Wyoming, just out-of-the-way places.”
There’s Starling in Kansas, a Nebraska football signee who will likely be the highest-drafted high schooler the Sunflower State produced. Oklahoma has prep righthanders Dylan Bundy and Archie Bradley, there’s outfielder George Springer and righthander Matt Barnes at Connecticut and high school catcher Blake Swihart in New Mexico.
The state of Oregon has produced one first-rounder (Jacoby Ellsbury) over the past 16 years, but should have another this year with Ducks lefthander Tyler Anderson. There’s also first baseman C.J. Cron at Utah, second baseman Kolten Wong at Hawaii and high schoolers like Dillon Howard in Arkansas and Brandon Nimmo in Wyoming. That type of depth stands out more to some scouts who don’t consider it a historic class.
“The college position players are really down,” an AL scouting director said. “I keep hearing how deep this draft is, but go back three years ago, you had Posey, Smoak, Davis, Alonso. We have no one like that in this year’s draft. It’s deep, but it’s not extraordinary at the top.”
The depth of this year’s class combined with the uncertainty regarding future draft parameters with Major League Baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring at season’s end creates a perfect storm for the possibility of record bonuses this August.
With the possibility of a future hard-slotting system, teams are concerned this may be the last year they can spend whatever it takes to sign players that slide in the draft due to injuries, strong commitments to college or the desire to play another sport.
“I think people are drawing that assumption, that everybody’s going to go crazy and spend a lot of money in light of the fact that that might not be able to happen or may be curtailed a bit in the future,” an NL scouting director said. “But I don’t know if that will be true. I think some people are talking a great game to try and scare guys their way and hope that they can answer the bell there.”
One scouting director said he has not heard anything with regards to MLB’s slot recommendations, but does not expect much change from where those numbers were last year.
“I think there’s still a group that is very concerned about an international draft as a top priority,” he said. “I think there’s groups that are concerned about a slotting system to try to curtail the money that we go crazy with during the draft. I think there’s all kinds of factions that have concerns that are ranked differently. I hope a slotting system is addressed because I think it will curtail some of this crazy activity. It puts some people behind the eight ball and some people tend to thrive on it. . . I just think we’ve got to get a hold of that and put everyone on an equal playing field and let the guys that can scout scout and the ones that can, we’ll find out real fast if everybody’s spending the same thing.”
There have also been rumblings of modifying or doing away with the free-agent compensation process.
That process greatly benefitted Tampa Bay this year. After losing Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Brad Hawpe, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate and Chad Qualls to free agency, the Rays inherited 10 extra picks in the first and supplemental first round. Combined with their own first round pick, scouting director R.J. Harrison and the Rays will make 11 of the first 75 selections.
“Tampa’s having the best draft in 2011,” a third National League scouting director said. “You can book it right now. Just get it right on 40 percent of the (extra) picks and that’ll do it.”
Only time will tell.