Early Draft Preview: Overview

Strasburg towers over draft peers

Most years, the No. 1 pick isn't determined until weeks before the June draft. David Price in 2007 was a recent exception, but usually the club selecting first will stake out game after game involving a handful of candidates before settling on their choice.

Signability and the faltering economy may well play a role in who the Nationals take No. 1 on June 9, but on talent alone, right now there could only be one choice.

Stephen Strasburg (Photo By Brian Fleming)
Scouts can't find a flaw with San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg (right). He has the best fastball and breaking ball in the draft, breaks out a plus changeup from time to time, locates his pitches with precision and has a strong, durable frame.

"He's a good bit ahead of everyone else," a National League scouting director said. "We see good college pitchers every year, whether it's Mark Mulder or Kris Benson or whoever. But I've never seen a righthander as talented as this guy, other than Mark Prior. And he probably has better raw stuff than Prior did."

Strasburg headlines a deep group of college pitchers who should dominate the upper half of the first round, a reversal from a year ago, when only two went in the first 15 picks. Righthanders Alex White (North Carolina), Kyle Gibson (Missouri), Kendal Volz (Baylor) and Jason Stoffel (Arizona), and lefties Andrew Oliver (Oklahoma State) and Mike Minor (Vanderbilt) all could go that high this June.

In another reversal from 2008, which featured the best crop of college hitters this decade, this year features a steep dropoff in college position players after Southern California shortstop Grant Green and North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley. The high school talent pool is more balanced, led by outfielder Donavan Tate (Cartersville, Ga., HS) and lefthanders Tyler Matzek (Capistrano Valley HS, Mission Viejo, Calif.) and Matt Purke (Klein, Texas, HS).

Prep catching is especially deep, as Luke Bailey (Troup HS, LaGrange, Ga.), Max Stassi (Yuba City, Calif.), Wil Myers (Wesleyan Christian Academy, High Point, N.C.) and Austin Maddox (Eagle's View Academy, Jackson) all are potential first-rounders.

"You're going to see a lot of pitching go early," an American League scouting director said. "There's pitching depth in high school and college, some pretty good ones. There's Ackley and Green, but there aren't those ultra-special position guys staring at you this year."

Will Economy Affect Draft?

MLB's system of recommending bonuses for each specific draft slot began in 2000, and for eight years the commissioner's office exerted pressure on teams to toe the line. But when a handful of teams annually scooped up an inordinate amount of supposedly unsignable talent, MLB changed course in 2008.

After slashing slots by 10 percent in 2007, only to watch bonuses and holdouts rise, the commissioner's office encouraged clubs last year to draft players based on ability rather than signability. Both No. 1 pick Tim Beckham ($6.15 million from the Rays) and No. 5 choice Buster Posey ($6.2 million from the Giants) broke the old bonus record, and four of the six highest bonuses in draft history were paid out. The industry as a whole spent a record $186.5 million on draft bonuses, up $34.7 million from 2007.

But the United States is in the midst of a full-blown recession, which has had a pronounced affect on the free-agent market this offseason. Teams don't know if MLB will cite the economy as a reason to tighten the slot recommendations, or whether owners will seize an excuse to spend less on the draft, leading to uncertainty about how big draft budgets will be come June.

"I think it's going to affect a whole lot of other areas of this business, so it certainly could affect the amateur draft," the NL scouting director said. "I think we're all a little anxious on that one. I could see teams trying to say, especially if attendance is down by June and some teams are having a tough go of it, I could see ownership try to cut back."

The signability of Scott Boras Corp. clients makes many teams skittish even when the economy is booming, and this year the Boras stable includes Strasburg, Green, Ackley, Tate, Oliver, Davis and Turner—seven of Baseball America's 15 top-rated prospects entering the season. That could make for some interesting decisions at the top of the draft and for some talented players falling to wealthier teams at the bottom of the first round. As much as teams love Strasburg, he could command a deal in excess of Prior's record $10.5 million guarantee from the Cubs in 2001.

The Nationals are in a particularly interesting position, as the first club ever to own two picks in the top half of the first round. Washington claimed the No. 1 choice by virtue of having MLB's worst record (59-102) in 2008, and received the No. 10 selection after failing to sign Aaron Crow with the ninth pick in last year's draft. Signing Strasburg and a player worthy of the 10th choice could cost the Nationals upwards of $12 million, and they don't have the leverage of further compensation if they can't close a deal with the No. 10 pick.

A second AL scouting director, who doesn't have an early choice, cautioned that teams will only hurt themselves if they try to go cheap at the top of the draft.

"In the grand scheme of things, if you're picking in the top five picks, how can you settle for a lesser player unless the dollars are just ridiculous?" a second AL scouting director said. "Because of the economy? We've got bullpen guys and fourth outfielders getting $1.2 million, $1.5 million. Just stop doing that and add that to your draft pick."