Assessing MLB's first-year player draft is almost impossibly difficult. So difficult that, if graded on the same curve as the NBA or NFL, all 30 teams would fail pretty miserably.
Major league teams select players rounds and rounds past their expected usefulness. The famous story goes that the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Mike Piazza as a favor to Piazza's father, who was a family friend of manager Tommy Lasorda. Piazza went on to a Hall of Fame-worthy career, but that Lasorda was willing to do such a thing highlights the weirdness of the whole thing.
Players are typically at least two or three years away from even arriving at the big league level when drafted. Over time, we've seen the biggest borderline locks for early ascents in history flame out in spectacular fashion. And, on the flip side, how many elite players drafted after Round 20 can there be before the flaws in the process are cracked?
Apparently, very many.
Overall, teams still typically do the best in the first round. A study from Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated last year showed that, over the last couple decades, a majority of prospects taken in the first round do at least wind up in the bigs. Whether that's because teams have invested so heavily that they force the issue is another question entirely.
From 1990-2010, 11 of the 21 players taken No. 1 overall made at least one All-Star team. Given the high variance and ever-increasing propensity for injury, give credit where credit is due. With that in mind, let's take a look at how this year's first round should shake out and highlight some of the year's biggest storylines.
|1||Houston Astros||Brady Aiken (LHP, Cathedral Catholic HS)|
|2||Miami Marlins||Carlos Rodon (LHP, North Carolina State)|
|3||Chicago White Sox||Alex Jackson (C/OF, Rancho Bernardo HS)|
|4||Chicago Cubs||Tyler Kolek (RHP, Shepherd HS)|
|5||Minnesota Twins||Nick Gordon (SS, Olympia HS)|
|6||Seattle Mariners||Aaron Nola (RHP, LSU)|
|7||Philadelphia Phillies||Sean Newcomb (LHP, Hartford)|
|8||Colorado Rockies||Kyle Freeland (LHP, Evansville)|
|9||Toronto Blue Jays||Trea Turner (SS, North Carolina State)|
|10||New York Mets||Michael Conforto (OF, Oregon State)|
|11||Toronto Blue Jays||Touki Toussaint (RHP, Coral Springs Christian Academy)|
|12||Milwaukee Brewers||Grant Holmes (RHP, Conway HS)|
|13||San Diego Padres||Kyle Schwarber (C/OF, Indiana)|
|14||San Francisco Giants||Tyler Beede (RHP, Vanderbilt)|
|15||Los Angeles Angels||Bradley Zimmer (OF, San Francisco)|
|16||Arizona Diamondbacks||Brandon Finnegan (LHP, TCU)|
|17||Kansas City Royals||Max Pentecost (C, Kennesaw State)|
|18||Washington Nationals||Jeff Hoffman (RHP, East Carolina)|
|19||Cincinnati Reds||Sean Reid-Foley (RHP, Sandalwood HS)|
|20||Tampa Bay Rays||Monte Harrison (OF, Lee's Summit West HS)|
|21||Cleveland Indians||Casey Gillaspie (1B, Wichita State)|
|22||Los Angeles Dodgers||Derek Hill (OF, Elk Grove HS)|
|23||Detroit Tigers||Nick Burdi (RHP, Louisville)|
|24||Pittsburgh Pirates||A.J. Reed (1B, Kentucky)|
|25||Oakland Athletics||Ti'quan Forbes (SS, Columbia HS)|
|26||Boston Red Sox||Erick Fedde (RHP, UNLV)|
|27||St. Louis Cardinals||Derek Fisher (OF, Virginia)|
The Rise of the Lefty
Left-handed pitching is overrated. It has been since the dawn of time. Starting in Little League all the way to the top of Major League Baseball, lesser-talented lefties get preferential treatment and more opportunities.
Not because we're some leftist, southpaw-fearing society. In fact, it's the opposite. Left-handed pitching is so valued because finding competence in that area is so rare. It's much easier to find a replacement-level righty to replace your struggling pitcher than it is to replace your left-handed specialist. Rarities are good in sports—especially in something so deception-dependent like pitching.
In that way, it's almost scary how good the left-handed crop of pitchers is in 2014. Cathedral Catholic's Brady Aiken and North Carolina State's Carlos Rodon are top-five locks and to many the top two players in the draft overall. ESPN's Keith Law (subscription required) has ranked Aiken atop his big board all season, and Rodon has nipped at his heels with an excellent season in Raleigh.
Differentiating the two becomes a matter of preference. Aiken has almost unlimited upside. A high school product out of San Diego, teams can mold his progress and better manage his innings. He has a good fastball and two solid off-speed pitches (curveball and changeup) that will only get better with age.
Rodon has been on radars since the Brewers drafted him in the 16th round three years ago. His time at North Carolina State only served to boost his stock, though his junior campaign was at points his most frustrating. Teams probably expect more polish than Rodon currently has, though, so Aiken will be the top pick.
The two aren't the only elite lefties, though. Hartford's Sean Newcomb and Evansville's Kyle Freeland are each potential top-10 picks, and TCU's Brandon Finnegan should be taken in the first round. Each present their plusses and minuses, but none is being artificially boosted because of their handedness.
These guys are for real.
Who Is the First Bat Off the Board?
While left-handed pitching is seeing a renaissance in 2014, hitting is nowhere to be found. The number of elite bats in this class are few—especially if you're looking for instant-impact talent. Bradley Zimmer, Michael Conforto and Kyle Schwarber all have some claim to being the best college bat in this draft, but each have their issues.
Zimmer is more projectable than polished at this point. He's isn't quite a high schooler, but will need some significant development time before he's ready for the majors. Conforto is a near guarantee to be a big leaguer someday, equipped with potential for a yearly .300 average. He just doesn't have the upside you'd typically want out of a top-10 pick. Schwarber smacks the cover off the ball—when he's making contact.
When it comes to bats, teams will likely go all-in on high-risk, high-reward prep stars this season.
Nick Gordon, the son of former MLB reliever Tom Gordon, is a fast-riser up draft boards and will compete to be the first everyday player off the board. Gordon is less of an elite bat than you'd typically want in a top-five pick—he projects long term as "good"—but he's a brilliant defender who will only get better with professional coaching. His quickness could make him a solid base stealer as well.
Gordon's biggest competition in the top five is Alex Jackson, whose real value depends on how teams view him going forward. If they keep him at catcher, he has "best offensive catcher in the game" upside. He also has "worst defensive catcher in the game" downside. With so many teams emphasizing elite defense and pitch framing behind the plate, Jackson more realistically projects as an outfielder.
Jackson wouldn't be as much of a defensive liability over the long term, and his body won't take nearly the wear and tear. The Rancho Bernardo (San Diego) product should be the first everyday player off the board.