2012 Draft Class Is Muddled At The Top

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Front office officials always say picking first overall in Major League Baseball's draft is a bad thing, because it means their team is coming off a disastrous season.

But Nationals fans—having seen Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper play together in the big leagues three years after Strasburg went first overall followed by Harper in 2010—probably feel like it was worth it.

Astros fans may have a different view. Twenty years ago, the franchise picked first overall and passed on toolsy high school shortstop Derek Jeter to draft college All-American Phil Nevin instead. Nevin reached the majors and had a productive career (after wearing out his welcome in Houston), but Jeter is Jeter.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who spent the past seven years as the director of scouting for the Cardinals, said his team's goal is to find another Jeter, another Strasburg, another Harper. But he acknowledged that the way the 2012 draft class has developed, it's not easy to figure out who that player might be.

"I think it's fair to say nobody in this class has separated themselves as an obvious choice," Luhnow said. "It's like the saying goes, different strokes for different folks. We may like one player more than another, but there is a group of four or six or eight players that you're talking about as being in consideration."

Five Possible Targets?

Luhnow and Houston's scouting director, Bobby Heck, politely declined to specify which players were in that group. Others in the industry believe they are focusing on Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton, Florida catcher Mike Zunino, and a trio of college righthanders: Stanford's Mark Appel, Louisiana State's Kevin Gausman and San Francisco's Kyle Zimmer.

Those five were among the top eight players in Baseball America's predraft rankings, and while Luhnow did not want to tip the Astros' hand, he did acknowledge that all eight of those players are near locks to go in the first 10 selections.

Buxton has emerged as the consensus No. 1 prospect. The 6-foot-2, 175-pound righthanded hitter has earned comparisons to many of the major leagues' top five-tool outfielders, from the Upton brothers to Matt Kemp. Another high school position player, Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa, also has put himself among the top eight.

The top high school pitchers both attend Los Angeles' Harvard-Westlake High. Lucas Giolito began the year with a chance to become the first high school righthander ever drafted first overall, before he went down in the first week of March with a sprained elbow ligament. He didn't have surgery and started throwing off flat ground as May began. While Giolito is the ultimate wild card and no longer ranks among the top eight, lefthander Max Fried carried the load for Harvard-Westlake and cemented himself as the draft's top southpaw.

Zunino is the top college position player in most scouts' eyes, and Appel, Gausman and Zimmer are the top college arms, with Texas A&M's Michael Wacha rounding out that group.

Luhnow has history with all of those players and many more, having served as scouting director for St. Louis before the Astros hired him last fall. He said he would be on the road seeing No. 1 selection candidates in May to complement scouting director Bobby Heck and national crosschecker David Post.

Industry insiders recall Luhnow's first drafts with the Cardinals, which emphasized college players, and believe the Astros will seek to minimize risk and focus on older players. They also point to a different philosophical approach employed the previous four years by Heck, who was hired by Luhnow's predecessor, Ed Wade. However, in seven seasons, Luhnow took three high schoolers in the first round and four college players.

"As a scouting staff I don't think we've changed as much as we've adjusted to some new processes and new applications of information we were already gathering," Heck said. "We have blended almost seamlessly with what Jeff was doing successfully in St. Louis to what we have done the past four drafts here in Houston. I think public perception or industry perception assumed we were very different, but I can tell you we spent many days in the same parks the past few years with Cardinals scouts.

"Our ownership group led by Jim Crane is committed to scouting and player development, with the vision of competing long-term at the major leagues by building our major league roster primarily from within. Jim, his ownership group and (team president) George Postolos have fully funded us for this draft to take advantage of this opportunity, but we will also practice fiscal responsibility."

Luhnow said the club was considering players from "every group—high school hitters and pitchers and college hitters and pitchers. I don't lean towards or away from a player solely because of position or age. Our only goal is to get an impact player who plays for the Houston Astros for a long time."

Mixed Up At The Top

With a new set of draft rules in place and what Luhnow called a murky class at the top, it's shaping up as a volatile first round, especially after the top eight, starting with Giolito as a wild card and continuing due to the draft's young demographics. Teams looking for hitters are bearing down on high school talent, because the college class is sorely lacking in impact bats.

The high school hitting class of 2009 was weak to start with, and with the cream of the crop like Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado and Wil Myers gone to pro ball, few of the other high school hitters from that class have asserted themselves as college prospects.

Many of the players who didn't sign and went to college have failed to live up to expectations. Stanford infielder Kenny Diekroeger, a second-rounder, has been a solid player but has blended in rather than standing out. Injuries have claimed several players, from lefthanders Christian (Oregon) and Justin (California) Jones to former Rutgers shortstop Steve Nyisztor to former North Carolina State righthander Dane Williams. Others, such as Stanford outfielder Jake Stewart or Miami's Stephen Perez and Sam Selman, simply haven't developed as scouts hoped.

Southern California, usually a hotbed of college talent thanks to USC, UCLA and Cal State Fullerton (among others), is expected to produce just a few players in the first five rounds and no one in the first round. SoCal colleges produced two of the last three No. 1 overall picks (Strasburg and 2011 top selection Gerrit Cole of UCLA), but this year will look like 2006, when UC Riverside's James Simmons (Athletics) was the lone first-rounder.

"The college class is one of the weakest of the last decade," said a national crosschecker with a National League team. "Especially the hitters, there just aren't any. But it's not just the college guys. Even Buxton is not a typical 1/1 high school bat. He didn't play for USA Baseball. Even (2008 No. 1 pick) Tim Beckham, another high schooler out of Georgia, had proved himself more nationally compared to Buxton."

Clubs also spent more and more on buying high school players out of college in the last few years, anticipating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Commissioner Bud Selig had signaled for years that he wanted to slow down draft spending, and while he didn't get the hard slotting he had desired, he came close.

Teams still have plenty of money to spend, as the sum of all the bonus limits for the first 10 rounds is nearly $190 million, a small reduction from the $191.87 million clubs spent in the first 10 rounds in 2011. The new system, however, calls for harsh penalties for teams that go over budget.

Many scouts believe the combination of a thin college class and significant penalties for over-budget signings will push high schoolers up draft boards, because it will be hard for teams to sign players looking for huge bonuses outside of the top two or three rounds. The signing deadline also has moved up to July 13, a full month earlier.

As a result, ascertaining signability—the seemingly simple question of how much it will take to sign a player—will be more important than ever. Clubs can't just throw money to pry preps away from campus anymore.

"The top guys are still good," a National League front-office executive said. "What happened is, we had all these clubs that have known what we were going to be facing this year, with a hard slotting system. So clubs bought out the high school kids that would be coming out right now. In the next couple of years you'll see college baseball get a lot better. More and more guys will go to school."

The strength of the class geographically is in the Southeast, with hitters from Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana through to Florida and up to North Carolina.

"It's a really deep year in Florida," an American League area scout said. "It's been hard to go see them all, quite frankly. I don't know what the rest of the country looks like, but I know I keep seeing scouts from other parts of the country come down here."

And even if a draft class is considered weak, someone has to be picked first overall; 31 first-round picks will still be made. And those players will expect to be paid like first-round picks. With the new rules and the muddled class, however, 30 teams are likely to go into June 4 with 30 very different draft boards. It may not be fun for them, but it should be fun to watch.