Draft Class Remains Muddled At The Top

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CHICAGO—Just like the 2011 draft, the 2012 draft is muddled at the top.
Last year's crop was loaded with more viable No. 1 overall picks than any draft ever. The Pirates ultimately tabbed Gerrit Cole, and Danny Hultzen, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, Bubba Starling, Anthony Rendon and Archie Bradley all would have been worthy choices as well.

This year, the confusion stems from the exact opposite problem. There aren't enough options. The consensus among teams is that the best prospect available is Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton. He's not as hyped as Starling was a year ago, mostly because Starling had a scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska, but Buxton is a comparable athlete who's a better bet to hit.

While Buxton is the top prospect in the 2012 draft, that doesn't mean the Astros will take him with the top pick. Houston is coming off a 106-loss season and has an awful major league roster to go with a farm system that can't provide close to enough answers. There's a growing sense among other clubs the Astros don't want the risk that comes with Buxton's upside—he's a high schooler from a tiny town (Baxley, population 4,400) who doesn't face much in the way of competition—and desire someone who can help them quicker.

The Twins, who own the No. 2 selection, have a surplus of athletic outfielders and a desperate need for pitching. That may mean that the Mariners, who have plenty of arms, can snap up Buxton at No. 3.

If Houston looks away from Buxton, there's no obvious alternative. There are some attractive college players, but no definitive No. 1 talents. Stanford righthander Mark Appel entered the year as the draft's top prospect and still has the best pure stuff of any pitcher available. But he hasn't shaken a reputation for not missing as many as bats as he should, leaving scouts to wonder if hitters see the ball out of his hand too easily, if his fastball is too straight and if his secondary pitches are too inconsistent.

Scouts are more enthusiastic about San Francisco righthander Kyle Zimmer, whose quality stuff plays better than Appel's. Zimmer only started pitching regularly last year, so while he has a fresh arm, there's also not much track record. His stuff also was crisper at the start of the season than it has been recently.

The safest No. 1 pick would be Florida catcher Mike Zunino, the best player in college baseball during the first half of the season (see Page 40). Zunino is a capable defender with above-average power and a solid approach, ingredients that add up to a potential all-star at a scarce position. At the same time, it's rare for a player with only one true plus tool to lead off a draft.

The Astros have two more months to figure out how to use the No. 1 choice. They, and the other teams selecting at the top of a thinner and more confusing draft than usual, will need every minute.

Injury Bug Doesn't Help

An unusual number of injuries to top prospects has made this draft even more difficult to decipher. The deluge began on the second weekend of the college season, when Georgia Southern outfielder Victor Roache broke his left wrist diving for a ball. Roache, who led the NCAA with 30 homers in 2011, still could go in the top half of the first round because he's the best power prospect in the draft and his injury shouldn't affect his long-term value.

California high schooler Lucas Giolito, who had a chance to become the first prep righthander ever taken No. 1 overall, saw that dream damaged when he sprained his elbow on March 6. He's opting for rest and rehab, and his draft status hinges on whether he can return (at least for workouts) and how well he can perform before the draft.

A healthy Giolito reaches the upper 90s with his fastball and backs it up with a hammer curveball. Elbow injuries aren't career-killers, so teams still have plenty of interest. But he was en route to a bonus of $5 million or more before he got hurt, and the new draft rules will make it tough for a team to pay him that much if he doesn't go in the first three choices.

A third player with a chance to go in the upper half of the first round, Ohio high school lefty Matt Smoral, developed a stress fracture in his right foot and had surgery on April 6. He's not expected to be able to pitch before the July 13 signing deadline, though he'll still draw significant interest because his arm is healthy and he's a 6-foot-8 beast who has hit 94 mph.

Two more potential first-rounders have gone down with injuries for the spring. California prep third baseman Rio Ruiz had surgery March 23 to break up a blood clot near his right shoulder. Texas prep shortstop C.J. Hinojosa was scheduled to have an operation to repair ligament damage in his left shoulder.

If that weren't enough, three additional players from Baseball America's preseason Top 100 High School Prospects list also saw their seasons end early. New Mexico bat Alex Bregman broke the tip of his right middle finger, New York outfielder Fernelys Sanchez fractured the fibula in his right leg and Georgia lefty Matthew Crownover had Tommy John surgery.