There's been a lot of debate over how the new collective bargaining affects the draft, both in terms of how teams approach their picks and in how players get paid, but the one aspect of the new rules that nobody is complaining about is how the new system, with somewhat continued costs and a quicker signing deadline, gets draft picks playing professional baseball much sooner. In previous years, a large number of first-round picks would not even make their pro debut until the following year. This year, many have gotten significant playing time, and here are ten early 2012 picks who have already increased their prospect stock during their pro debut.
Mike Zunino, C, Mariners (No. 3 overall pick)
While it's hard to up the stock when you are the third overall pick in the draft, one of the most attractive things about Zunino was the level of certainty he provided. He didn't look like a future sure-fire star, but he looked like nearly a lock to be an above-average everyday catcher which, in today's market, is an extremely valuable commodity. Zunino was flat out too good for the Northwest League, hitting .373/.474/.736 for Everett, and while it's the smallest of sample sizes, he went 6-for-16 with a pair of home runs in his first five games at Double-A Jackson. Not only is he on pace to spend a majority of the 2013 season in the big leagues, solving Seattle's long-standing catching issues, but his power is translating to the pro level so far at a rate that was unexpected.
David Dahl, OF, Rockies (No. 10 overall pick)
Dahl was drafted as a toolsy outfielder, but those tools have translated into skills surprisingly quickly. The Pioneer League is a great place to put up big numbers, but Dahl's .366/.407/.590 line would look great in any league. With a quick swing from the left side, Dahl combines contact ability with plus speed and gap power, already resulting in 10 triples to go with five home runs and 11 stolen bases in 54 games. He has work to do both on his defense in center field and in tightening up his approach, but in terms of pure hitting ability, he's hit the ground running and could be in line for a big full-season debut next year in the South Atlantic League.
Addison Russell, SS, Athletics (No. 11 overall pick)
Russell was a late bloomer this spring, much of it revolving around his much-improved physical conditioning. His new frame not only helped his tools, it also said something to teams about his makeup, as did the work he put in defensively; not only does he look like a shortstop physically, but now he does in his actions. Expected to spend his debut year in the complex league, Russell forced Oakland's hand by hitting .415/.488/.717 in 26 games, and he impressed enough during two weeks in the college-heavy New York-Penn League to earn a late-year promotion to Low-A Burlington, the level where he'll likely begin the 2013 season. With hitting ability and power, Russell offers rare upside for a middle infielder, but his immediate impact as a pro has been a pleasant surprise.
Courtney Hawkins, OF, White Sox (No. 13 overall pick)
Hawkins slipped a few picks further than expected on draft day, and he already has pro scouts wondering why. With a prototypical right fielder's build and toolset, Hawkins proved enough in a five-week Appalachian League stint to finish the season playing full-season ball as an 18-year-old, where he's hit .314/.385/.543 in his first nine games. At six-foot-three and 220 pounds, Hawkins certainly looks the part, but he has baseball skills as well, with the potential for plus power to go with an outstanding arm and at least average speed that has already led to ten stolen bases. It's not saying a lot in a weak system, but Hawkins is already the top position prospect in the White Sox system.
Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers (No. 18 overall pick)
The younger brother of Mariners infielder Kyle Seager, Corey was seen as a tough sign, but the suddenly free-spending Dodgers nabbed him and signed him quickly to an above-slot bonus of $2.35 million. He's a bigger, more physical player than his sibling, but shares his short, simple swing from the left side, and has impressed with his power potential while hitting .309/.375/.503 for Ogden in the Pioneer League. Currently at shortstop, he profiles as a third baseman down the road, albeit a good one. While he might take some time to fully development, his path to Los Angeles is wide open.
Michael Wacha, RHP, Cardinals (No. 19 overall pick)
After the big three college arms of Mark Appel, Kevin Gausman and Kyle Zimmer, all of whom were in the mix for the first five picks, there was a murky group of college pitchers lined up to go in the middle of the first round. Wacha was one of the more surprising drops from the group, falling all the way to 19, and while it's been very short stints, his numbers are out of this world. After warming up in the Gulf Coast League, the Texas A&M product whiffed 16 over eight one-hit innings in four Florida State League appearances, and then struck out six more over three hitless innings in his Texas League debut on Sunday. It remains to be seen how his stuff will play once he gets stretched out next year, but so far, his fastball has been firmly parked at 92-94 mph while touching 96-97, with both his curveball and changeup being plus pitches, with the curve already looking better than the college version. Also showing great command and mound presence, he's suddenly on the fast track and has the potential to be one of the first starting pitchers drafted to reach the big leagues.
Lewis Brinson, OF, Rangers (No. 29 overall pick)
Nobody questioned Brinson's upside heading into the draft, as he's a monster athlete with the potential for power, plus speed and impact defense in center field. He was also seen as an extremely raw player, with some scouts even categorizing him as a project too risky for first-round consideration. Instead, he's shown surprising—almost shocking—baseball ability in the Arizona League, hitting .299/.362/.540 in 48 complex leagues games with 12 stolen bases. With 34 of his 63 hits going for extra bases, he's already begun to unlock his power in game situations, and while he's struck out 65 times in 211 at-bats, that's actually a lower rate than what was expected. He's clicking much faster than expected, and few, if any draft prospects have seen their stock increase more than Brinson.
J.O. Berrios, RHP, Twins (No. 32 overall pick)
The best player in Puerto Rico this spring, Berrios impressed scouts all along with his stuff, especially his fastball which sits in the low-to-mid 90s and has touched 98. The fact that he's throwing hard as a pro doesn't shock anyone, but he's also been mixing in a plus slider as a pro while also showing outstanding location. In his first ten games, split between the Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues, Berrios has put up PlayStation numbers, including a 0.70 ERA and 43 strikeouts against just four hits in 25 2/3 innings. For a system that focuses far more on command and control than overpowering stuff, Berrios has the potential to give the Twins system both.
Joey Gallo, 3B, Rangers (No. 39 overall pick)
Gallo had as much raw power as any player in the 2012 draft, and he's certainly showed it off so far as a professional. He needed just 43 games to set a new Arizona League record with 18 home runs, and then he hit two more while driving in seven in his fourth Northwest League game. His 20 home runs already ranks among the top 50 in the minor leagues, and those have come in just 169 at-bats. Gallo's power is a pure 80 on the scouting scale, and it might even go beyond that, as it's a special brand rarely seen at any level, especially in 18-year-olds. That said, it does come at a cost, as he's a strikeout machine, including 12 in his 19 at-bats for Spokane, and his defense at third base has been ugly. He's a rare talent, and sometimes these players turn into Mike Stanton offensively, and sometimes they turn into Dallas McPherson.
Sam Selman, LHP, Royals (No. 66 overall pick)
Selman took a long time to establish his draft stock at Vanderbilt, as he didn't have a consistent role on the mound until this spring. By the end of the college season, he was the team's best starter, and he's continued to blossom as a pro. While he's a bit advanced for the Pioneer League, he's also dominated the hitter-friendly circuit with a 2.06 ERA and 80 strikeouts over 52 1/3 innings. Long-armed and possessing a long arm action that naturally hides the ball from hitters, Selman's already plus velocity plays up due to the inability of hitters to pick up the ball, and his slider shows some promise. He still needs to be tested at the higher levels, but there's a lot to like here.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
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