Every year’s draft coverage begins the same way. You start making the calls, and the nearly-universal reaction is, “Really, it’s already time for this?” The answer is yes, as while the major league season has only kind-of-sort-of begun and minor league Opening Day is still nearly a week away, the 2008 draft is creeping up on us, with many of the top college players only offering up 8-10 more looks for teams getting ready to spend millions on this year’s amateur talent pool.
Rays Sit At The Top Once Again
While the general consensus is that the draft is a deep one, the amount of truly elite talent is starting to come into question. “In my mind, some of the sexy is definitely gone from this year,” said one industry insider. Picking first overall once again, the Rays are still dealing with a large number of possibilities, but the consensus of scouting reports would seemingly cut it to three that are logical choices. Pedro Alvarez is still the top prospect in the eyes of many, but he will remain on the shelf for another two or three weeks recovering from a broken hand. Teams definitely want more looks at him to evaluate his ability to stay at third base in the future, as well as to see him hit against upper-level competition, as he had a tendency to struggle last year against Friday starters (generally each team’s ace). This has allowed the top college pitcher, Aaron Crow of Missouri, and the top high school position player, shortstop Tim Beckham, to enter the picture for the number one overall pick.
After a blistering showing in the Cape Cod League last summer, Crow has picked up this spring where he left off, with a 1.03 ERA in five starts and 51 strikeouts in 35 innings against just seven walks. That performance has allowed him to slide past University of San Diego lefty Brian Matusz as the top college arm in the draft, but even still, most don’t see him as ranking with the top college arms from previous drafts. “He’s not a huge guy, and there’s a little funk in his delivery,” said one scouting director, while another added that “There’s just not the dominant super college pitcher this year–Crow is the best, most well-rounded college arm, but for me, he’s a No. 2 at best. That said, if I found a No. 2 starter every year in the draft I’d be a very rich man.” So far this year, Crow’s fastball has generally sat in the 91-94 range while touching 96 with plenty of sink, and multiple scouts have noticed a slider that is even better than the one he threw last year, which most graded as a 65-70 (on the 20-80 scouting scale). Crow has taken a few ticks off of the pitch, and is now throwing his slider in the low 80s but with significant depth added. One scout who saw Crow spin his most recent shutout against a good Baylor team noted that by the end of the game, the Bears, ranked No. 14 in the nation at the time by Baseball America, had simply given up.
Beckham is without question the toolsiest player in the draft, and he’s lived up to expectations this year, if not exceeded them. A true shortstop with outstanding hitting skills, power potential, plus speed, and good fielding skills, most insiders agree that no position player comes close to his overall upside. “He looks like Justin Upton to me, only Upton had the throwing problem in high school and this kid doesn’t,” said one scouting director. “He’s also a lot stronger than I thought he was,” he continued. “I wasn’t sure of the power before, but I’m pretty convinced now.” Another scouting director agreed that he was one of the elite players in the draft. “He’s a guy who has proven it at every event and every showcase, he plays up the middle and he doesn’t have to move,” he said. “It’s hard to classify high school players as safe, but this one is about as safe as it gets.”
Slots Yet To Be Slotted
Major League Baseball has yet to communicate this year’s recommended slots to the teams, so it is undetermined in which direction things will go. Last year, slots were down 10 percent from the previous year, with no real reasoning given as to why, and the new August 15th deadline led to a number of hold-outs and last-minute deals for above-slot money, with many of the players simply wanting the 2006 bonuses instead of the reduced rate. Even still, most sources agree that fewer teams will tow the line this year, leaving fewer big names dropping. “I just don’t think there will be crazy slot guys dropping this year,” said one industry insider. “As far as where the slots will be, who knows? Let ’em put them back to 1999 levels if they want to. It doesn’t matter, they’re a total farce.”
The draft order itself could also play a role in keeping the best players at the top. There are many teams in the first half of the first round who find themselves there for the first time in years, including the White Sox at No. 8, the Astros at No. 10, and the Athletics at No. 12. The general perception is that these teams will take advantage of these positions and focus on bringing the type of talent into them that was rarely available in the past. In addition the first four picks should be the best four players. The Rays will certainly take their top-rated player at one, while the Pirates, ironically now working under team president Frank Coonelly (he was previously charged with “enforcing” the slot system), will look to make a splash with the second overall pick in order to get an elite talent in the system and separate themselves from the previous administration’s draft mistakes. The Royals have shown a commitment to talent at the top and certainly will do so again at three, while the Orioles, fresh off giving Matt Wieters the largest single-payment bonus in major league history, are not suddenly going to play it on the cheap.
Big Men, Big Bats Dominate Hitting Ranks
The hitting talent this year is filled with left-handed, big, hulking, un-athletic types who can mash. Due to questions about Alvarez’s ability to stay at third, even his name can be added to this group, and there’s plenty of players with this profile as is. The glut of talent also creates some difficult questions for teams picking in the upper part of the first round. Are they the best pure offensive players in college? Absolutely. But the risk is greater in a way, because there is no backup plan. These players have to project as middle-of-the-order sluggers in the big leagues, or they aren’t sound selections. “I’m glad I’m not picking up there,” said one scouting director. “You have to feel very strongly about the bat to consider a player like that with a single-digit pick, or I guess feel as uncertain about the other choices. Middle-of-the-diamond guys give you way more margin for error,” he continued. “First base, you have to be an animal in the big leagues, so you better be awfully sure about these guys.”
One team official had similar issues in a different light. “Of course picking one of these guys would worry me,” he said. “It’s not so much that you have to be right, it’s more that these kind of players just don’t project nearly as well as the more athletic guys. It’s hard for them to hit their ceiling, which is a productive major league first baseman.”
Here’s a quick profile of some future big leaguers who are much better off with a batting glove than a fielding model.
Yondor Alonso, University of Miami (L-R, 6-2, 215): After a slow start, Alonso has picked up steam of late and possibly become the best of the slugging bunch so far. In 21 games, the Cuban-born Alonso is hitting .397/.543/.721 with five home runs and 23 walks in 68 at-bats. Alonso’s approach, bat speed, and power are arguably unmatched in the college ranks, but like most of these players, his athleticism leaves much to be desired, and he’s a first baseman only, and not a very good one at that. Still, the bat will be too much to pass on for a team picking early. “Between what he’s done at Miami and then in the Cape Cod League, it’s hard to find a better track record,” noted one scouting director.
David Cooper, University of California (L-L, 6-1, 190): While he’s cooled off lately, Cooper’s batting line is a still-impressive .383/.490/.778 in 21 games this year, with nine home runs, including one off of Aaron Crow, the kind of achievement scouts will still remember in June. Like most players in this group, Cooper has plenty of plate discipline and power, and while he doesn’t have the size of other college first basemen, his athleticism matches up negatively with any of them, as one scout referred to him as “Playing a pretty good first base for a designated hitter.” Like most of the players listed here, he still has ten weeks to try to mash his way into the first round.
Allan Dysktra, Wake Forest (L-R, 6-5, 225): A good player on a bad team, Dykstra has not been seeing many good pitches as a junior, but nevertheless goes into the weekend with a .342/.560/.671 batting line with seven home runs in 73 at-bats and 27 walks. That’s a bit below expectations, and one scouting director had mixed feelings about Dykstra, seeing him as more of a second- or third-round pick. “He’s super strong, and physically he’s built a lot like Jim Thome,” said the evaluator. “We’ve liked him in the past but right now he looks uncomfortable mechanically–he’s really firing his back hip on every pitch–[which] leaves me not feeling great about him as a bat guy.”
Eric Hosmer, American Heritage HS, FL (L-L, 6-4, 210): No high school hitter can match Hosmer’s upside, as he offers power with excellent hitting skills. While a lack of speed limits him to first base, he’s a good defensive player with soft hands and smooth actions. As of right now, he’s a sure-fire Top 10 pick, although he’s been a bit off this year, and his selection of Scott Boras for representation could be a concern to some organizations. “I can see what everyone else has seen, but I’m a little light on him,” said one scouting director. “I’ve seen much more from him in the past, but right now he’s trying to jerk everything.” Another scouting director had little concern with Hosmer’s minor struggles. “You have to be careful with guys in their senior year, as sometimes the big stage can have an effect on a player at first,” he said. “You have to look at the whole body of work, and this guy has performed in the past; he’s not only performed in national events, he’s shined.”
Justin Smoak, South Carolina (B-L, 6-4, 215): After earning Cape Cod League MVP honors in 2006, Smoak struggled mightily last summer with Team USA, and he’s yet to really recover from it, batting .345/.486/.607 in 22 games–a good season, to be sure, but not that kind of breakout performance that many were expecting, and with just five home runs, one of the top power prospects in college ranks only third on his own team. Still, he’s a solid defender at first base with plus power from both sides of the plate, and while he’s dropped in the eyes of some, he’s hardly plummeting, still projecting to be picked in the 5-15 range.
Brett Wallace, Arizona State (L-R, 6-2, 245): Currently playing third base for the Sun Devils because of positional need more than anything else, Wallace is a true first baseman who has moved up some draft boards of late by showing exceptional power. Always a hitting and on-base machine, Wallace is currently batting .420/.532/.807 in 23 games with nine home runs in 88 at-bats, after hitting 16 bombs all of last season. That gives teams a little more confidence in his ability to produce at the big league level, though again, the bat is the only tool. “His body is going to turn some people off the second they step in the stadium,” said one scouting director. “But, at the same time, this is a guy who could hit .300 with 25 [home runs].”
Coming Next: College arms beyond Crow and Matusz; Up-the-middle prospects take advantage of positional scarcity; and some interesting bloodlines, including one player who just might be the most intriguing in this year’s draft.