At this time last year, predicting the top of the 2017 draft was cloudy thanks to a light college class that lacked hitters and two prospects then at the top of draft boards who were unique profiles to go No. 1 overall—Hunter Greene would have become the first high school righthander selected with the top pick, while Brendan McKay would have become the first college first baseman selected No. 1 overall (though yes, he is admittedly more than just a first baseman) had the Twins popped him.
One year later and the chore of predicting even simply the top of the first round seems no easier. The 2018 class is stronger than last year’s, according to almost every front office executive and scout we’ve talked to.
And at the top of the class, there are no unique or unheard of profile questions, with a slew of college arms (Brady Singer, Casey Mize, Ryan Rolison) including a lefthander who can touch triple digits (Shane McClanahan).
Yes, there is another righthander near the top of the class on the high school side in Ethan Hankins, but alongside him in the top tier there’s also a projectable lefthander (Matthew Liberatore), a polished lefthanded hitting shortstop (Brice Turang) and a powerful, lefthanded hitting third baseman with 70-grade raw power (Nolan Gorman).
Aside from Hankins, none of those players have non-traditional No. 1-caliber profiles.
But when Baseball America talked with scouting directors and evaluators higher up in the scouting department hierarchy over the past few weeks, a consistent theme has emerged: The top of the class still has not shaken itself out. With two months to go until the draft, there’s less of a consensus with the top players than evaluators were expecting to see at this point before the season began.
A large part of that is because there is no consensus top prospect. Like every draft since 2010, there is no Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg at the top, simply waiting to have his name called before anyone else on day one. It’s also because, like 2017, the 2018 class is light on college bats. The top hitter in the class—Oregon State’s Nick Madrigal—is a 5-foot-8, 165 pound second baseman who has played in just six games this season thanks to a fractured hand.
Auburn righthander Casey Mize has done the most to establish himself as the top player in the class, with a 5-0, 2.04 record through his first six starts and otherworldy K/9 (13.4) and BB/9 (0.57) numbers that have both improved following a 2017 season when he led Division I arms in strikeout-to-walk ratio. At the same time, with an extensive injury history that dates back to his time as a high schooler, Mize is one of the more risky players at the top of the class from a health standpoint.
All of the players at the top have their own flaws: Singer’s arm slot is not ideal; McClanahan might turn out to be a reliever; Rolison’s fastball command hasn’t been great; Liberatore’s velocity jump hasn’t held up; Hankins has dealt with shoulder issues this spring; Turang might not hit for enough impact; Madrigal is short and currently hurt.
If you want to nitpick players, you’ll be able to in this year’s class, though it remains deep and talented in its own right relative to the last few years. Teams picking in the teens and 20s will have a better group to choose from compared to last year. At the top of the draft, scouts are less confident that this year’s group tops last year’s—as one evaluator noted, Liberatore may be the best high school arm in this draft class, and he pales in comparison to MacKenzie Gore from last year’s draft.
Like the players in this year’s draft class, we at Baseball America have our own warts. We likely can’t predict the future with 100 percent certainty. Actually, we assuredly cannot. But that won’t stop us from trying, and it certainly doesn’t mean this exercise is any less fun—just foolhardy considering there are plenty of games between now and June.
Here’s how the first ten picks of the 2018 draft could look on June 4:
- Tigers — Casey Mize, RHP, Auburn. Only the White Sox have been more college-heavy in the top five rounds since 2013 than the Tigers. Additionally, during that same span and round range, the Tigers have selected the third-highest percentage of pitchers behind the Braves and the Cubs. Scouting director Scott Pleis has taken a number of SEC arms in the last few years including Florida righthanders Alex Faedo (2017) and Jonathan Crawford (2013) in the first round, so Brady Singer could certainly be in play here as well. With Detroit’s history of power arms, it might also be hard to pass up McClanahan’s stuff from the left side.
- Giants — Matthew Liberatore, LHP, Mountain Ridge HS, Riverdale, Ariz. The Giants have been a mixed bag in the first round recently, with no strong demographic preference that stands out. Liberatore made an impressive jump in velocity during his first spring start, though that hasn’t held up in recent outings. Still, the Giants took a high school lefty in the first round a decade ago by the name of Madison Bumgarner and that worked out pretty well. How about another southpaw they can develop in a system that has a strong history of producing arms?
- Phillies — Nick Madrigal, 2B, Oregon State. The last three years with scouting director Johnny Almaraz at the helm, the Phillies have gone hitter heavy. Despite his size, there’s no better college bat than Nick Madrigal. Many scouts don’t believe his injury will cause him to fall too far thanks to an extensive track record and a quick developmental path to pro ball. South Alabama outfielder Travis Swaggerty might be intriguing here as well, and the Phillies have taken two contact-oriented lefthanded hitting center fielders with the past two years in Adam Haseley (2017, No. 8) and Mickey Moniak (2016, No. 1). Still, Swaggerty seems high at No. 3 even with a loud start to the season. The Phillies train in Clearwater, so they’ve probably seen a good amount of McClanahan as well.
- White Sox — Shane McClanahan, LHP, South Florida. No one has been more college-heavy than the White Sox recently (in the 2013-2017 top five round span we’ll keep coming back to) and there are plenty of players to choose from here. They’ve been hitter-heavy recently with their first picks and just took Missouri State third baseman Jake Burger at No. 11 last year. Wichita State third baseman Alec Bohm shares some similar traits and is trending in the right direction. They also popped Carlos Rodon at No. 3 in 2014 and this seems like the right spot to have McClanahan go off the board if he’s still there. McClanahan has the best pure stuff in this draft class.
- Reds — Brady Singer, RHP, Florida. The Reds had no qualms about giving Hunter Greene a ton of money as the No. 2 pick of the draft last year, so they might be equally intrigued by Ethan Hankins, whose fastball might be even better than Greene’s thanks to its exceptional life and his ability to control it. At the same time, Hankins hasn’t thrown much this spring with a shoulder issue that currently doesn’t seem too serious. However, despite whispers of Singer sliding, most evaluators BA has talked to expect him to still go high given his extensive track record of success in the SEC. Florida pitchers have slid in recent drafts (A.J. Puk in 2016 and Alex Faedo in 2017), but the teams drafting them usually end up being pretty happy with the pick.
- Mets — Ryan Rolison, LHP, Mississippi. The last three times the Mets have picked in the top third of the first round they have gone with a college arm, and scouting director Marc Tramuta also took a college lefty with his first round pick in 2017 (David Peterson) in his first year at the helm. Ryan Rolison might be the best college arm available in this scenario, and he’s one of few lefthanders in a class that has incredible depth in righthanders. All of the other college arms already mentioned would figure to be in play here as well.
- Padres — Brice Turang, SS, Santiago HS, Corona, Calif. The Padres have leaned extremely high school-heavy in the top five rounds of the last five drafts and have leaned toward position players in that span as well. However, if you look at the first round, specifically, since Mark Conner took over as scouting director in 2015 the team’s first picks have all been pitchers. Ethan Hankins and Matthew Liberatore would be interesting here if available, especially with the recent production San Diego has gotten from 2017 No. 3 overall pick MacKenzie Gore (though Gore’s athleticism, pitchability and command with his entire repertoire tops Hankins and Liberatore at similar points in their development). Turang might be the best high school hitter in the class though, and is a 70-grade runner who should stick at shortstop. He also plays just two hours north of Petco Park with Santiago High in Corona, Calif.
- Braves — Ethan Hankins, RHP, Forsyth Central HS, Cumming, Ga. No team goes after pitching at the top of the first round like the Braves, and scouting director Brian Bridges has drafted five pitchers in the first or supplemental first round out of the six selections he’s had since 2015. Just one of those has been a college arm. Atlanta might be thrilled to get Hankins here after what he did last summer, and Kumar Rocker is another Georgia product with loud stuff and the big frame that Atlanta typically covets. The Braves have also gone off the board at the top of the draft in recent years, and there are some high upside arms like Florida righthanders Mason Denaburg and Carter Stewart and the top prep arm in California, righthander Cole Winn. Massachusetts righthander Mike Vasil might be a bit too far off the board currently, but is a Northeast arm with starter traits (Re: Atlanta’s 2016 No. 3 pick Ian Anderson) who could make a jump this spring.
- Athletics — Travis Swaggerty, OF, South Alabama. Oakland has leaned college recently in the first round despite taking Austin Beck No. 6 overall last season. In the five years prior to that scouting director Eric Kubota has gone to the collegiate game in the first round. They might love for Madrigal to slide here thanks to his wrist injury and questions about size—the Athletics likely aren’t worried too much about height after giving high school shortstop Nick Allen $2 million in last year’s draft. If the high school pick with Beck last year is a sign of a new preference then Wisconsin outfielder Jarred Kelenic or Florida outfielder/lefthander Connor Scott might be able to impress the team in a similar manner this year. If Turang is still on the board, he would be a good fit as well.
- Pirates — Alec Bohm, 3B, Wichita State. Last year, the Pirates loaded up on high school players with their first four picks, and with four selections among the top 85 this year they could take advantage of a deep prep class and go that route again. They’ve also gone hitter-heavy in the first round lately and lack a lot of power in the system. Arizona third baseman Nolan Gorman would make sense here, though he’s sliding of late thanks to concerns about a stiffer body this spring. Wichita State third baseman Alec Bohm has done everything scouts could have asked from him this season, has some of the best raw power in the class, and the track record for college third basemen in the first round is extremely solid. Given the lack of bats and how he’s performed, Bohm might not even make it to No. 10. Connor Scott could be interesting here as well, as could Denaburg and Stewart if the team wants to go with a high-upside arm again like last year with Shane Baz at No. 12.