With less than two months before the 2009 draft, confusion is the best word to describe what’s been going on. We have an obvious #1 talent in San Diego State’s right-hander, Stephen Strasburg, but after that, things become more than a bit muddled. “The gap is as big as it’s ever been between number one and the rest,” said one veteran scouting director. “Your number-two or -three guys might be the same on a talent level as number 15, while the guys at the end of the first round might not be much better than who is on someone else’s board at 70.” That kind of flattening of talent is leading to significant unpredictability as well. “Drafts are always unpredictable, but usually, while we don’t know exactly where they will go, we at least know who the first 20 or so guys will be,” said one front office official. “Most drafts, you have maybe one surprise in the first round, where a name comes up that really surprises everyone,” he added. “This year there could be four or five of those guys.”

As far as who the second-best talent might be, the two current favorites are college position players; University of Southern California shortstop Grant Green, who has recovered from a slow start, and North Carolina’s Dustin Ackley, who most see as the top pure hitter available. Despite Green’s rebound, three sources I spoke with in the last 48 hours all agreed on the same thing-comparisons to other college shortstops from the area, such as Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki, are based more on size and geography than on actual baseball skills. “I like him plenty, but he’s just nowhere near in their league,” said one scouting director. Another added that his slow start shouldn’t have too much of an effect on his draft status. “Look, come June 9th, everyone will realize the outstanding track record we have on this kid, and he’ll do just fine,” he said. “I’m not convinced that he’s down much at all.”

As for Ackley, who has above-average power, an outstanding approach, and an excellent feel for contact, everyone is convinced that he can hit and that he has the tools to play the outfield-only he’s yet to play there this year. “They’re not exactly making it easy on us,” bemoaned one scout. “Do I think he can play there? Yes. But it still requires some dreaming.

Sticking with Catching?

In drafts like this, positional scarcity can help move players up significantly, and no position is benefitting more from that than catcher. The two top college players at the position are Boston College’s Tony Sanchez and Indiana’s Josh Phegley, though scouts tend to favor Sanchez, mostly because of the major questions surrounding Phegley’s ability to stay behind the play long term, with one assessor calling him an “Eric Munson/Ryan Garko kind of college catcher.” Despite his advantage, Sanchez’ reviews are wide-ranging; an inconsistent season has led to some scouts loving his bat, and in particular his power, while other’s grade him out as no more than average offensively. “From what I can tell,” said one scout. “It really depends on the day you see him. He can blow you away or bore you depending on the day.” On the high school side, one riser of late has been Luke Bailey of Troup County High School in Georgia, who has power and a very good arm, but there are some concerns about his body, as he’s already packing well over 200 pounds on his 6’1″ frame.

NorCal Goes Big-Time

Despite the relative lack of impact talent this year, the Northern California area has been drawing scouts in droves to see one of the better concentrations of talent in the country. “It’s not often I can say this, but NorCal has way more talent than SoCal right now.”

On the high-school side, catching once again reigns supreme, as Max Stassi of Yuba City High is still showing the best all-around set of tools from the position despite being hampered at times by injury. While his frame is a little small for a catcher, he has outstanding athleticism, gap power with a bit of projection, and solid defense. Not far behind Stassi on the board is Andrew Susac of Jesuit High, the same school that produced top Red Sox prospect Lars Anderson. He’s bigger than Stassi and has more pop, but lacks Stassi’s all-around tools. On the pitching side, Scott Griggs at San Ramon Valley saw his stock plummet after some early season struggles with both his command and velocity, but he’s bounced back of late thanks to a recent start against top competition in front of a throng of scouts when the big, projectable right-hander touched 95 mph with his fastball.

On the college side, a pair of relievers from traditional rivals are both getting attention as possible first-round picks, despite the fact that only one of them has put up numbers; Stanford right-hander Drew Storen has a 1.31 ERA in 20 2/3 innings, with an eye-popping strikeout-to-walk ratio of 34 to 1. While those look like the numbers of a finesse pitcher, he’s anything but, with a fastball that has run up to 96 mph this spring. Blake Smith is more of a risk, but might offer more upside. A two-way player at California, he’s a big, burly athlete who has been up to 97 mph this year out of the bullpen, but while he’s struck out 26 in 20 innings, he’s also walked 20 batters. “I know the numbers aren’t there, but if you can get him to throw strikes, he kind of reminds me of Casey Weathers,” said one scouting director, referring to Colorado’s top pick in 2007. “In a draft like this, you could definitely see a run on college closers from teams simply looking for some kind of guaranteed return.”

Coming tomorrow:
Sleepers, including one with interesting bloodlines, as well as a lightning round of quotes and reports on some of the top-rated prospects in the upcoming draft.

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Any sense on whether Ackley has been stuck at 1B because that is where he fits best for his current team, or whether his college coach is concerned about his arm in the OF? Not to compare them as hitters, but is Berkman's last season at Rice comparable at all (he was a 1B that was moved to OF after he was drafted)?
Kevin, do you get the impression that, as much as the Padres would like Strasburg to somehow fall to them, Grant Green is all but a lock for the #3 pick? With Moorad in place, and the previous disaster with Bush/Drew, I just think it's inevitable that Green ends up in SD (if he isn't taken at #2).
hey kev, any feel on where james paxton is going to land?
I am fairly close with the UNC program and Ackley had elbow surgery last year, along with the fact that for this team, he is best used at 1B right now. I honestly think the team will be better off by using him in the OF come the end of the season but I just don't think it will happen. Trust the scouting statements Kevin posted here - the kid is so quiet at the plate and is just an amazing hitter. Rarely gets fooled and rarely looks off balance. Left handed sweet swing and this year he is adding pop too. The team lost a lot of bats from last year so he is certainly stepping up in the power department this year. He can just rake.