This Year's Draft Is Loaded

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The 2011 draft may not have a prospect generating the same hype as the last two No. 1 overall picks, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But this year's crop has more than its share of talent, and scouting directors believe it will be one of the best in recent memory.

There's balance, with depth on both the college and high school sides, and in both hitters and pitchers. The only glaring weakness is college catchers. There's more pitching talent than in 2008, which had a crop of hitters such as Pedro Alvarez, Eric Hosmer, Buster Posey, Gordon Beckham and Ike Davis.

This year is shaping up as the most talented draft since 2005, which produced 26 big leaguers among its 30 first-rounders, including Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Matt Garza and Colby Rasmus.

"It's better than 2008, and it has a chance to be better than 2005," an American League scouting director said. "I remember in the summer of 2004, we were thinking the guys the next year were good, but we didn't walk into 2005 thinking it was stacked. We knew Ryan Braun was good, but we didn't know he'd be this good. The same could be said of a lot of guys, like Jay Bruce. This year, the college arms are so deep, we're going to be talking about guys throwing 96-97 mph in the second round."

When the draft kicks off June 6, the leading candidate for the No. 1 overall choice is Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, an all-around talent who would be the first college position player to go that high since Pat Burrell in 1998. Rendon's main competition for the top spot are UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole and Texas Christian lefthander Matt Purke, both of whom were first-round picks out of high school. Cole and Purke are at the forefront of an exceptional college pitching class that also included potential top-10 picks Sonny Gray (Vanderbilt), Taylor Jungmann (Texas), Matt Barnes (Connecticut), Danny Hultzen (Virginia), Jed Bradley (Georgia Tech) and Trevor Bauer (UCLA).

Though college products are expected to dominate the early selections, there are plenty of desirable high schoolers as well. The two best prep prospects, righthander Archie Bradley (Broken Arrow, Okla., HS) and outfielder/righthander Bubba Starling (Gardner-Edgerton HS, Gardner, Kan.), have college football scholarships to play quarterback at Oklahoma and Nebraska, respectively.

Several other high school arms—led by Daniel Norris (Science Hill HS, Johnson City, Tenn.), Dylan Bundy (Owasso, Okla., HS), Henry Owens (Edison HS, Huntington Beach, Calif.), Jose Fernandez (Alonso HS, Tampa) and Dillon Howard (Searcy, Ark., HS)—profile as first-rounders. Shortstop Francisco Lindor (Montverde, Fla., Academy) and catcher Blake Swihart (Cleveland HS, Rio Rancho, N.M.) are more attractive than any college players at their positions.

"It's a better group than I thought," a second AL scouting director said. "This year's draft is pretty good. There are a lot of college pitchers, a big group of high school pitchers, some college athletes. The draft is so deep. There are people who may think they're going in the sandwich or second round who aren't going to as high as they think."

Pirates Own First Pick

The Pirates own the top choice for the fourth time in their history. They used previous No. 1 overall picks on Jeff King (1986), Kris Benson (1996) and Bryan Bullington (2002). In the last case, then-owner Kevin McClatchy insisted Pittsburgh take a college player over consensus top prospect B.J. Upton, and then-GM David Littlefield famously described Bullington as a potential No. 3 starter.

Pirates scouting director Greg Smith expects no such interference this June. Pittsburgh has spent more money ($30.6 million) on bonuses in the last three drafts and will focus simply on getting the best player available. Though Rendon plays the same position at Alvarez, Smith says that won't matter if Rendon ranks atop the Pirates' draft board.

Smith has experience picking at the top of the draft, having selected Matt Anderson No. 1 for the Tigers in 1997. He also has had the No. 2 pick three times: Justin Verlander in 2004 with Detroit, and Alvarez and Jameson Taillon last year with Pittsburgh.

Smith says there's not much difference between choosing first or second, with the one exception coming in 2009 when Strasburg, the best pitching prospect in draft history, clearly stood out.

"As long as you like your options, you're in a good spot," Smith said. "This year we're in a good spot, but last year we were in a good spot too when we were picking at two. We're not going to treat this year any differently than last year. We're just picking one spot higher."

No team has more options than the Rays, who leveraged seven departed free agents into 10 compensation picks. That gives Tampa Bay 12 choices in the first two rounds, breaking the record of 10 set by the 1990 Expos.

The Rays never had any extra picks in their first 14 drafts before having three compensation choices in 2010. Tampa Bay scouting director R.J. Harrison is looking forward to his team's draft bonanza, but like Smith says his team's approach won't change. MLB's bonus recommendations for those 12 selections totaled $9.1 million in 2010, but Harrison doesn't anticipate having to make discount picks.

"Our strategy is to do the best job we can of scouting players who fit in those areas," Harrison said. "We'll set up and go from there. It's far too early to set up a specific strategy. We'll spend more time getting more looks at more players to put us in good stead to make decisions on those picks. I'm not sure I'll see more players than usual. I'll just see more players we've evaluated at the top of the draft."

Other teams with the opportunity to stock up on talent early in the draft include: the Diamondbacks, the first team ever to have two of the first seven choices (their own at No. 3 and a compensation pick at No. 7 for failing to sign 2010 first-rounder Barret Loux); the Red Sox, who received four of the first 40 selections for the loss of free agents Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez; the Blue Jays, who have seven picks in the top two rounds for the second straight year; and the Padres, who have six choices in the first two rounds.

Expect More Spending

Teams have set new records for bonus spending in each of the last three drafts, pushing the standard from $188.3 million in 2008 to $189.3 million in 2009 to $194.8 million last year. The industry consensus is that teams will be more aggressive than ever in 2011 because they fear mandated draft bonuses will be part of the new Collective Bargaining  Agreement. The current deal expires on Dec. 11.

The commissioner's office currently recommends specific bonuses for each pick in the first five rounds, and a maximum for all choices afterward. But MLB is powerless to prevent teams from spending what they wish, and clubs want talent.

Last year, 76 high school players signed above-slot deals worth a total of $75.1 million. Many of those players might have opted for college if their earning potential was limited by a structured bonus system, and scouting directors figure more teams will ever will load up in what might be the last draft in which they can freely sign players for whatever they want.

"Everybody thinks the draft is going to get bombed," a National League scouting director said. "The big spenders are going to spend even more than usual. The small-revenue teams are still going to have budgets, but it's safe to assume a lot of them could spend more. None of us knows for sure what's going to happen with the CBA, but we all believe it will change. If this is the last year without slots, and a lot of us spend more money, what's MLB going to do to you anyway?"

In addition to having to open their checkbooks wider, teams will also have to adjust to evaluating hitters using less-lively bats. The NCAA has instituted new regulations designed to make metal bats perform more similar to wood bats, and NAIA, junior college and high school programs have followed suit.

College coaches and scouts believe the new bats will result in a severe dip in power. Teams that rely on performance data to evaluate college players will have to figure out how to compare 2011 statistics to 2009-10 numbers.

"One thing I can see is there's been a little more effort in swings," said a third AL scouting director who saw several teams in fall practice as well as in early-season juco action. "You've got to really swing through the ball and hit the ball on the sweet spot. In the past, you'd see guys who were strong enough to catch the ball below the sweet spot and hit it out. That's not going to happen as much this year."