A Complete Mystery
The 2009 draft will be known as the Stephen Strasburg draft.
The San Diego State righthander entered the spring as the No. 1 prospect on virtually every draft board, then proceeded to destroy the rest of the field with a devastatingly dominant season. When he wrapped up his home schedule with a 17-strikeout no-hitter against Air Force, he cemented his legend as the best college pitcher of the modern era and as a draft prospect with unparalleled hype and expectations.
Strasburg's acclaim and relative celebrity should attract some casual baseball fans to pay attention when the draft starts June 9. It will be a new-look draft, debuting on MLB Network and spanning three days instead of the usual two. MLB Network will take the draft into prime time; the first three rounds will be shown beginning at 6 p.m., and it will take two days to do the rest of the 47 rounds clubs can use to select players.
This year's class should provide drama and excitement worthy of its time slot. It's a foregone conclusion that Strasburg is the No. 1 prospect, considering he's throwing 100 mph in virtually every start with a wipeout slider and posting cartoonish numbers—11-0, 1.24 in 12 starts, with 164 strikeouts and just 17 walks in 87 innings.
Strasburg has retained the Scott Boras Corp. as his advisers, and Boras has floated a $50 million price tag for Strasburg. The Nationals hold the first pick, and interim general manager Mike Rizzo—who has had the No. 1 overall pick before as the Diamondbacks' scouting director in 2005—has scouted Strasburg repeatedly. He was at the no-hitter and told the Washington Post, just before the game, that if the draft were held at that time, Strasburg would have been the No. 1 choice.
What happens after the top pick, though, is a complete mystery. Several scouting directors contacted for this story said a variation of the same phrase: the 30 teams will have 30 very different draft boards.
There's not even a consensus that the draft is good or not. Evaluators agree on several themes, however:
• The '09 class is shy on elite talent, particularly in terms of college hitters.
• Pitching will dominate the draft, not just the first round.
• The economy will play a role in the draft.
To Each His Own
One scouting director called the lack of position players "shocking," and the class hasn't been helped by a modest junior season from Southern California shortstop Grant Green, who was the runaway No. 1 prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer. Only North Carolina's Dustin Ackley, the best hitter in the class, is a sure thing among the position players, and even he has some questions as a speedy first baseman with little experience playing outfield.
The paucity of hitters should result in the few players scouts agree on, such as outfielders Marc Krauss (Ohio), A.J. Pollock (Notre Dame) and Tim Wheeler (Sacramento State) and catchers Josh Phegley (Indiana) and Tony Sanchez (Boston College), shooting off the board higher than their talent might warrant.
"This is the best depth draft from the second to fifth round I've ever seen," another veteran director said, "and the first round's horrible. It's one of those years you have to have the understanding, 'I won't laugh at yours if you won't laugh at mine.' It'll happen in the top 10, somebody will say, 'I can't believe that pick.' "
The shuffled board, combined with the legendary ability of new Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik to keep his preference a secret, mean no one's quite sure who might even go second, not to mention in the top 10. Further clouding the early selections are righthanders Aaron Crow and Tanner Scheppers, first-round and second-round picks a year ago who didn't sign and instead are pitching in independent leagues preparing for the 2009 draft.
Both had made three starts as of mid-May, and had shown flashes of why they ranked second (Crow) and third (Scheppers) among college pitchers eligible in the '08 draft. Crow failed to sign because of a failed negotiation between his agents, the Hendricks Bros., and the Nationals. Washington picks 10th this year in compensation for not signing Crow, making the Nats the first team in draft history to pick twice in the first 10 picks.
Scheppers, whose fastball was registering 98 mph in his indy ball outings, didn't sign because of a mysterious late-season shoulder injury at Fresno State. His agents, the Legacy Group, have had Scheppers evaluated by Dr. Lewis Yocum, the Angels' team surgeon and one of baseball's top medical examiners. Yocum sent a letter to teams in April that gave Scheppers' shoulder a clean bill of health, yet that assurance may not be enough for some clubs.
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Depending on the evaluator, it's either an average or above-average pitching class. That's due in part to a deep group of high school pitchers who were coming on strong as June approached.
BA's Top 200 Prospects won't come out for two more weeks, but in our research and reporting indicated up to 21 pitchers as first-round talents. The draft record for pitchers selected in the first round is 20, last accomplished in 2001.
In some ways, this year's draft class resembles the Class of 2006, which was panned most of the spring but has turned out to be quite fruitful, with 18 of the first 30 picks being pitchers. The '06 draft already has produced a Cy Young Award winner (Tim Lincecum) and Rookie of the Year (Evan Longoria), as well as future stars such as Joba Chamberlain, Clayton Kershaw and Travis Snider.
This year's first round has 32 picks, thanks to the new system, installed in 2007, that gives teams a compensatory pick in the first three rounds if they failed to sign one of their picks in those rounds the previous year. The Nats (No. 10 overall, for Crow) and Yankees (No. 29 overall, for Gerrit Cole) get extra picks in the first round for this reason.
Last year's draft included just two prep first-round pitchers, and only one who signed. This year's draft class has five prep arms who are possible top 10 overall picks, with lefthanders Tyler Matzek and Matt Purke and righthanders Shelby Miller, Jacob Turner and Zach Wheeler.
Turner, a North Carolina recruit and Boras Corp. client, was skyrocketing up draft boards in mid-May after a string of outstanding performances, with his fastball peaking at 98 mph. Other prep pitchers, such as Kansas righthander Garrett Gould and Oklahoma lefthander Chad James, also had draft helium and were potential first-round selections.
The college pitcher crew is marked by a surprising number of small-college power arms, such as Kennesaw State's Kyle Heckathorn and Chad Jenkins, Lipscomb's Rex Brothers, Jacksonville State's Ben Tootle, Dallas Baptist's Victor Black, Oklahoma City's Ashur Tolliver, Princeton's David Hale and Monmouth's Ryan Buch. Brothers' matchup with Heckathorn in early April was one of the most heavily scouted games of the year, with about 15 scouting directors in attendance—an indication of how unpredictable the '09 class has been.
In Need Of A Bailout?
Getting all those players signed may not be easy. With the world economy sagging and major league attendance already taking a hit, clubs may not be as prepared to go above the commissioner's office bonus slot recommendations. Further, there were rumblings that MLB would try to lower the slots, as it did in 2007.
"I'm sure this economy will have some effect," one National League scouting director said. "I don't see how it couldn't."
Added a second NL director: "You have to think the economy will be a factor. The problem is the bonus expectations were raised by all the spending last year."
Strasburg leads a phalanx of Boras Corp. clients that also includes top college position players, Ackley and Green; Turner, who might be the top prep pitcher; Georgia outfielder Donavan Tate, the top-rated prep position player; and hard-throwing college lefties Andy Oliver (Oklahoma State) and James Paxton (Kentucky).
Strasburg may set a new bonus record, but his peers shouldn't count on it. In one more way, he stands apart.