The question is simple: If you were starting a franchise and could pick any player in baseball, who would you pick? Ignore contracts, current or future. Ignore current team. Think only of ability, position and age. Who do you build around?
On Thursday, we'll unveil the second annual ESPN Franchise Player Draft. We've enlisted 30 of ESPN's writers and TV analysts to conduct the draft -- 30 picks, 30 players. But first: A look back at last year's draft, conducted on June 1. The calendar date is important because as I reviewed the selections it became clear that what had happened the first two months greatly influenced the choices.
The most conspicuous absence from last year's first round: Matt Kemp. So why did 30 participants pass on him? Let's back up one year. Remember, Kemp was coming off a lackluster 2010 in which he'd hit just .249 with a .310 on-base percentage and 28 home runs. Still, he was just 26 years old and was hitting .312/.389/.556 through the end of May. Kemp had a hot April, batting .368, but hit .253 in May and I think everyone assumed he was just reverting back to his 2010 form. We were wrong, of course, and now I suspect Kemp will be one of the first players selected. He's not young -- at least, not in the sense of Bryce Harper or Mike Trout -- but at 27 he's clearly in the peak of his career, plays an up-the-middle position and should still have eight to 10 seasons of solid-to-excellent performance ahead of him, although he'll probably have to move to right field in a few years.
So here's a look. Draftees have not been listed to protect the guilty.
1. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies
Considering the lack of top two-way talents at shortstop in the majors right now, this pick made perfect sense. The concerns with Tulo are essentially the same as last year: Durability and the question of how he'd hit away from Coors Field. He played 143 games in 2011 and has missed just three games this season. He did get off to a bit of a slow start this year and had a weird slump with the glove in the season's opening weeks (he already has more errors than all of last season), but he's played much better of late. The Coors question is fair: He has a career .922 OPS at home, .814 on the road, although it wasn't as pronounced in 2011. He's 27, and while personally I can't quite say he's the best player in baseball, I see no reason why he wouldn't go in the top five selections.
2. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays
Off to a terrific start until his injury, which will drop him to a lower spot this year. That's two significant injuries in two seasons; time to start worrying about his durability?
3. Felix Hernandez, P, Mariners
This was actually my selection in the draft. Normally, I wouldn't advocate taking a pitcher this high -- as you'll see, they come with enormous risk -- but Felix was as safe as pitchers come at the time, a guy with proven success and proven durability. Also, I didn't see an obvious young, up-the-middle player worthy of taking with the No. 3 pick.
4. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
Nothing wrong with this pick. Votto was coming off his MVP season and while he didn't quite match those numbers in 2011, he's having another monster season in 2012, hitting .321/.460/.595 and on pace for a record 73 doubles.
5. Tim Lincecum, P, Giants
6. Josh Johnson, P, Marlins
This is why pitchers are risky.
7. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves
Heyward went this high even though he was hitting just .214 through the end of May. He had, however, hit seven home runs in April. It will be interesting to see if he even gets selected this year; he's not tearing it up but he's still just 22.
8. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals
This was probably a little high at the time considering Pujols was already on the wrong side of 30. Will he even get drafted now? Considering his slow start and age (32), would you want to bet he still has seven or eight great seasons in him?
9. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals
10. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers
An 18-year-old kid playing in Class A ball over the guy who would eventually win the NL MVP Award? Amazingly, a year later, it doesn't even seem like an outrageous pick but a brilliant one. Wait, did I just kiss Eric Karabell's behind? Yes, I did.
11. Jon Lester, P, Red Sox
Lester was one of 11 pitchers taken. Too many? I'm sure we'll see a similar number this year, but it's a telling point that three of the first four pitchers taken last year probably won't get selected this year. A lot can change in 12 months.
12. Mike Trout, CF, Angels
13. David Price, P, Rays
14. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees
Three solid picks. Trout undoubtedly goes higher this year (maybe even No. 1 overall?), Cano maybe slides a bit due to his age (29).
15. Joe Mauer, C, Twins
Not this year, Mauer.
16. Justin Verlander, P, Tigers
OK, this one needs a little explanation and it's actually a pretty easy one: Through May, Verlander's ERA was 3.12. Yes, he'd thrown a no-hitter earlier in the May, but he hadn't quite turned into Justin Verlander. From May 29 through the end of the season, he went 20-3 with a 1.94 ERA and became the best pitcher in baseball. He's now 29. Is that too old to make him the first pitcher to go off the board?
17. Carlos Santana, C, Indians
18. Buster Posey, C, Giants
Catchers are nearly as risky as pitchers and these are two guys who have had major surgeries already in their careers. But considering their ages and skills with the bat, I suspect both once again go in the top 30.
19. Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs
20. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins
Ramirez was a good gamble last year but never did get untracked. Now he's playing third base, he's 28 and not quite the hitter he was back in 2009 when he won the NL batting title with a .342 average. Borderline top-30 guy for me. Castro is likewise a mixed bag. He's hitting .313 and he's still just 22, but he has just four walks so his OBP is hardly elite level. According to Defensive Runs Saved, his defense has been terrific so far -- plus nine runs compared to minus-10 a year ago. Has a really improved that much? Would you rather have Castro or Elvis Andrus? Or for that matter ... Jurickson Profar? (My sleeper top-30 guy.)
21. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins
I have no idea how this happened. A 21-year-old right fielder who had already proven he could mash home runs on the big league level fell to the 21st pick? It won't happen this year, that's for sure, and if I had the first pick, my short list would include Stanton, Harper, Trout, Kemp ... and, well, maybe just those four.
22. Stephen Strasburg, P, Nationals
23. Neftali Feliz, P, Rangers
Feliz was an odd pick a year ago, considering he was still a reliever. The Strasburg gamble (by Kevin Goldstein) looks astute a year later.
24. Carlos Gonzalez, LF, Rockies
He's still just 26 and putting up better offensive numbers than a year ago, so I suspect he goes in a similar place. But he comes with a big warning: His defensive metrics this season are horrible. And I mean worst-in-the-game horrible. His Defense Runs Saved total is minus-12, second-worst in baseball behind Braves shortstop Tyler Pastornicky. Has he really become that bad of an outfielder? Small sample size fluke? Too bulked up? Lost a step? Hard to know exactly what's going on there.
25. Clayton Kershaw, P, Dodgers
Umm ... OK, can we have a do-over? To be fair, he did take a big leap forward in 2011, lowering his ERA, cutting his walks, improving his durability. Considering he's five years younger than Verlander, don't you have to make him the first pitcher selected?
26. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays
Only fell due to his age, but why Bautista over the two-years-younger Miguel Cabrera?
27. Michael Pineda, P, Mariners
28. Roy Halladay, P, Phillies
Have I mentioned that pitchers are risky?
29. Justin Upton, RF, Diamondbacks
This one is nearly as difficult to understand as Stanton falling. Upton was hitting .266/.343/.502 through the end of May and was just 23. Now he's 24 ... and considering his slow start I wouldn't be surprised if he falls again.
30. Wilson Ramos, C, Nationals
A bit of a wild card a year ago, but his torn ACL takes him off the board.
I mentioned Kemp and Cabrera not going a year ago. Josh Hamilton wasn't selected due to his age (30) and early season injury. Does he go this year, now that he's a year older but killing the ball? Prince Fielder wasn't drafted, I suppose due to position and doubts about his long-term value. Does Adam Jones' monster start earn him a place in the top 30? What about emerging young players like Brett Lawrie, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas or Jesus Montero? What about pitchers Matt Moore, Yu Darvish and Chris Sale? Harper and Trout were the only minor leaguers taken last year; would you take a risk on Profar or Dylan Bundy or another prospect in the top 30?
Come back Thursday at noon ET and discuss the Franchise Player Draft with several of the individuals making the selection during a Cover It Live session.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.