If pitchers are gone, Conforto could be pick

CHICAGO -- Michael Conforto is a popular pick for the Cubs in Thursday's draft with two mock drafts -- ESPN.com and MLB.com -- predicting the Oregon State outfielder will be selected by Chicago with the fourth overall pick.

"His work ethic is off the charts," Oregon State coach Pat Casey told ESPNChicago.com in a phone interview. "He's matured as a hitter and simply gotten better. Early in his career he got fooled on balls out of the zone and off-speed, but he just kept getting better and better. The numbers show that."

Conforto played three seasons at Oregon State and each year his strikeout-to-walk ratio improved while hitting 31 home runs in 659 at-bats. He batted .345 with seven home runs and 55 RBIs with a .504 on-base percentage in 2014. Casey's praise of Conforto's makeup is similar to the description of Kris Bryant before the Cubs took him last year with the No. 2 pick. But would the Cubs take arguably the best hitter in the draft in the first round instead of a much-needed pitcher a second straight year?

Unfortunately for the Cubs, the consensus top three players in the draft -- Brady Aiken, Carlos Rodon or Tyler Kolek -- are pitchers and likely will go 1-2-3 to the Houston Astros, Miami Marlins and Chicago White Sox. That will leave the Cubs with a major decision. An injury to East Carolina's Jeff Hoffman, who will need Tommy John surgery, has taken away a potential pitching option at No. 4 if the big three are gone. If one of the three top pitchers fall to the Cubs, a source says they would take one of them. If not, the Cubs could turn to Conforto.

Conforto actually fits a need as a left-handed-hitting outfielder, which the Cubs lack in their system.

"His power will be a plus for him at Wrigley Field," Casey said. "He has as much power to left center as he does to right ... He has home runs to left center this year, big home runs in big situations."

Left-handers at Wrigley Field need opposite-field power as the wind blows in or across from right field more often than not. Along with baseball ability the Cubs must like a prospect's character. It's no secret they are trying to build a winner in Chicago with high-end guys in both departments.

"For a guy that knew he was going to be a first-rounder and tempted to put up huge numbers, he did everything he could to help us win," Casey said of Conforto's junior season. "If that meant taking a walk, he took a walk."

Conforto walked 51 times in 2014 while striking out just 35 times. The scouting report on Conforto by Scouts Inc. describes him as "a bit of a mess" defensively with a poor throwing arm, but Casey said Conforto has impressed him in his time at Oregon State.

"What's overlooked is how good a defender he is," Casey said. "He's probably thrown out more guys than anyone I've ever coached in baseball ... I'm telling you he's a plus defender."

The Cubs have often said they will take the best player available, but what happens when it's too close to call? All things being equal a pitcher is the bigger need but that could come later.

"We probably will take a lot of pitching over the course of the draft," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "What we do at No. 4 is still a mystery."

It might not be much of a mystery if one of the top pitchers falls to them, but if not keep an eye on Conforto. He could be joining the core four (prospects) soon enough. Fab Five anyone?