If you like high-ceiling prospects, teenage players whom you can project for big-league stardom before they ever set foot in a college classroom, this is the draft for you.
After several years of college-heavy first rounds -- due in no small part to "Moneyball," the worst book ever written about scouting, as well as a lot of excessively conservative draft strategies -- the pendulum has shifted back in the other direction, at least for this one year. Every draft has its strengths and weaknesses, and the strength this year is high school players, particularly pitchers.
This year's first round is likely to include 17 to 19 high school players, which would be the most since the 2000 first round, which included 18 high schoolers, only six of whom are currently in the majors. More impressive is the depth of the top-shelf high school arms; we could see as many as 10 go in the first round depending on the signability of guys like Matt Harvey and Jack McGeary. That would represent the first time the first round tally of high school pitchers reached double digits since 1996, when a crop of 10 prep arms selected included current major league starters Adam Eaton, Gil Meche, Jake Westbrook and John Patterson -- and four guys who never reached the big leagues.
This draft class also has a good pool of college closers, many of whom project as good closers or setup men in the big leagues. One recent trend in college baseball has been to mimic the inefficient bullpen usage patterns of big league clubs, where the best relief arm is consigned to a role where he only appears if Jerome Holtzman gives his imprimatur. The result this year is a deep pool of relievers, led by possible first-round picks Josh Fields (Georgia), Brett Cecil (Maryland), Casey Weathers (Vanderbilt), and Daniel Moskos (Clemson), who was moved to the rotation just a few weeks ago. The draft is also relatively deep in catching and shortstops, and it includes a fair number of high school power bats.
Of course, there's always a weak point in every draft, and this year's crop of players has a few. The college starting pitching crop is awful, and this draft likely will produce fewer than 10 starting pitchers who are anything more than fifth starters in the majors. Within that group of 10 sit a surprising number of quality left-handers, led by probable No. 1 overall pick David Price (Vanderbilt), Ross Detwiler (Missouri State), Aaron Poreda (San Francisco), and potentially Moskos. If Andrew Brackman (NC State) struggles again in the ACC tournament, or if his bonus demands scare away enough teams, we could have a first round without a right-handed college starter taken. (2003's first round had just three right-handed starters -- the lowest number in the last 10 years -- and all three blew out their arms within a year or so of signing: Tim Stauffer, Kyle Sleeth and Brad Sullivan.)
The college hitters aren't much better, with a major lack of outfielders and, not coincidentally, power bats. All of the top college power hitters come with question marks. Beau Mills (Lewis-Clark State) has bloodlines and big raw power, but doesn't have a position and has fattened up against NAIA pitchers. Mark Mangini (Oklahoma State) also has defensive issues, swings and misses too often, and has struggled against left-handed pitchers. Matt LaPorta (Florida) has moved to first base from the outfield, increasing the need for him to produce on offense, and he's got a bad 2006 to overcome as well as questions about his bonus demands. And Matt Spencer (Arizona State), who made a huge splash early with two home runs in the Houston College Classic tournament at Minute Maid Park, has hit just five home runs since while ranking second on his own club in strikeouts.
The structure of the draft itself has changed in several significant ways. The most obvious one to fans will be the bloated sandwich round, which includes 34 picks this year (35 if Arizona fails to sign its 2006 first-rounder, Max Scherzer), making it the longest single round of the draft. That means that a typical high second-round pick will go in the middle of the sandwich round. But its bigger impact is in skewing the draft's top 100 picks towards a small number of teams who ended up with an unexpected windfall of picks.
The free-agent compensation rules changed in the most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA) so that signing a Type B free agent (referring to the second-best tier of free agents, according to an esoteric formula with only a fourth-cousin-twice-removed relationship to actual baseball value) no longer costs a team its first-round pick. So while there's no disincentive for teams to sign Type B free agents, a team that loses a Type B free agent now gains a sandwich pick as compensation. San Diego had a slew of Type B free agents this winter and worked out agreements with some of those players so that the players wouldn't accept arbitration if offered, meaning that San Diego could get sandwich picks if they signed elsewhere. Of those 34 or 35 picks in the supplemental round, San Diego has five. Other teams with multiple picks include San Francisco, Toronto and Texas, with Arizona joining them if they don't sign Scherzer, which would put half of the round's picks in the hands of just five teams.
Of course, with some teams getting extra picks in the first round for Type A free agents, others are a bit short in the picks department. The Mets, Red Sox, and Angels each lack a first-round pick, with their first overall selections at 42, 55, and 58, respectively. The Angels, Brewers, Orioles, and Indians each have just one pick in the top 100, compared to eight for the Padres, seven for the Blue Jays and six apiece for the Rangers and Giants.
There are other rule changes that will have an impact on the draft in less noticeable ways, however. One is the elimination of the "draft-and-follow" process that allowed a team to draft a player who was at or headed to a junior college, follow him the subsequent spring, and then get an exclusive window in which to sign him before the next year's draft. The impact here probably will be to shorten the draft, which can run 50 rounds but will probably end sooner as teams drop out.
The new CBA also imposed a hard signing deadline of Aug. 15, as opposed to the prior deadline of either the player's first day of class at a four-year institution or the start of the closed period one week prior to the next draft. The old system produced yearlong holdouts like Scherzers and Luke Hochevars (drafted by the Dodgers in 2005 but never signed with them). But now, as soon as Aug. 16, teams will know who they did and didn't sign. In addition, if a team does not sign its pick in the first two rounds (including the supplemental round between the two), it will receive a compensatory selection in the following year's Rule 4 Draft that is one pick after the slot of the pick they failed to sign. This combination of changes should give teams more leverage to negotiate with players looking for high bonuses or for major league contracts.
The Scott Boras Effect
When draft time rolls around, one agent gets the bulk of the press -- Scott Boras, baseball's Moriarty, and the one man who might have the most say in how the first round unfolds. Boras's firm will represent 8-10 first-round talents, including high schoolers Rick Porcello, Matt Harvey, Mike Moustakas and Kentrail Davis; and college prospects Josh Fields, Mark Mangini, Matt LaPorta, Matt Wieters, Andrew Brackman and Jake Arrietta. It's an unusually long list for Boras, who has been increasingly active in signing up amateurs below that elite tier in which he has long specialized, and while some of these players will sign fairly quickly, there are teams that will not select a Boras player for fear of a higher cost, protracted negotiations, or a failure to sign the player.
Last but not least, the draft's top guys
Here's a quick rundown of the top names in this year's draft. More detailed scouting reports will come soon:
David Price, left-handed pitcher, Vanderbilt: Tall, athletic lefty with a plus fastball and flashes of a plus slider. He has put up big performances against great competition, but high workloads are a bit of a concern.
Rick Porcello, right-handed pitcher, Seton Hall Prep (West Orange, N.J.): Big-framed, projectable righty with a 92-94 mph fastball that touches 97, a plus curve, and some feel for pitching.
Josh Vitters, third baseman, Cypress (Calif.) High School: He's an offensive third baseman in the David Wright mold, with above-average power and above-average hitting ability. Will need some instruction to stay at third, but has the natural ability.
Matt Wieters, catcher, Georgia Tech: My pick for the best player in this draft, Wieters is 92-94 mph off the mound, but he's a prospect as a catcher: a switch-hitter who sprays the field with line drives and shows home run power from the left side, and a capable catcher with a laser arm.
Ross Detwiler, left-handed pitcher, Missouri State: Would be the top lefty in most drafts -- 90-94 mph, touching 96, with a potential outpitch slider and a very good changeup. Broad shoulders bode well for his durability.
Jarrod Parker, right-handed pitcher, Norwell High School (Ossian, Ind.). Only in sports could a guy who's 6-foot or 6-foot-1 be considered "short," but Parker is a short righty with power stuff: a 93-97 mph fastball, a wicked 83-86 mph slider, and the easiest starter's delivery I saw this spring.
Phillippe Aumont, right-handed pitcher, Team Canada/École secondaire du Versant (Gatineau, Quebec): A 6-6 righty who throws 96 from a low 3/4 slot that puts great sink on his fastball, Aumont is also something of a project, an unpolished talent without a solid second pitch and with an inconsistent delivery. He's a great pickup for a team that likes to mold its young pitching prospects.
Jason Heyward, center fielder/first baseman, Henry County High School (McDonough, Ga.): The best non-California prep bat in the country. Heyward probably will outgrow center field and end up in right, but he's a powerful left-handed hitter with a plus arm and average running speed.
Michael Main, right-handed pitcher/outfielder, Deland (Fla.) High School. The draft's best two-way talent, Main could go in the first round as a hitter, but is more likely to go high as a pitcher. He's 93-95 mph with a plus curveball, has some room to fill out and is a tremendous athlete.
Andrew Brackman, right-handed pitcher, North Carolina State: My top prospect coming out of last summer, Brackman has scuffled badly this spring, altering his delivery to a cross-body motion that has robbed him of his command and that seems like an injury waiting to happen. He missed his last start due to "fatigue." When right, Brackman is an easy 91-97 with a good downhill plane and a very clean delivery, but for a team to pay him the bonus for which he'll likely ask (especially as a former two-sport guy, which gives him some special privileges come contract time), they'll have to remember what he was in 2006 on Cape Cod, not what he was in the spring of 2007 at school.
Matt Dominguez, third baseman, Chatsworth (Calif.) High School: Dominguez is a bit raw for a California high school hitter, but has a quick bat and the strength to be a 30-35 homer guy in the big leagues, as well as an above-average arm that can keep him at third with some instruction.
Mike Moustakas, shortstop, Chatsworth (Calif.) High School: Dominguez's teammate has overshadowed him at times, showing explosive potential at the plate and a mid-90s arm on the mound. He's got a quick bat and should hit for high averages as a pro, with linedrive power. He's not expected to stay at short, and while he has the arm to play third base or right field, many teams believe he can go behind the plate, where he'd be a potential All-Star.
Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, is the senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc.