Though it may not offer the same instant gratification as the drafts of other professional leagues, the MLB draft remains the most vital component of building a championship roster in the sport of baseball. As recent World Series winners like the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants have shown, nurturing home-grown talent is the best avenue to take toward establishing a viable foundation.
Heading into this year's draft, it appears as though the early portion of the round could be heavy on pitchers. While teams are increasingly tight-lipped about their plans, it would not be a shock to see as many as seven or eight of the top-10 picks allocated to pitching.
So which prospects are the best fits for each team? Going through the first round, let's use a "best fit" criteria to determine each selection while also highlighting some of the more noteworthy picks that could happen.
1. Houston Astros: Brady Aiken, LHP, Cathedral Catholic HS (Calif.)
2. Miami Marlins: Alex Jackson, C/OF, Rancho Bernardo HS (Calif.)
3. Chicago White Sox: Carlos Rodon, LHP, North Carolina State
4. Chicago Cubs: Tyler Kolek, RHP, Shepherd HS (Texas)
At the moment, the top four looks like a clear division between the "Big Three" pitching prospects and top position player Alex Jackson. Though the pitchers may end up occupying the first three slots, Jackson figures to intrude somewhere within the top three.
Picking first for the third consecutive season, the Houston Astros could actually be on their way out of the top slot in the near future. Though last year's top pick Mark Appel remains one of the highest ceiling prospects in the game, Houston could stand to add to their pitching depth in the minors.
As a prep school pitcher, Aiken comes with plenty of preconceived notions. However, Aiken is far from the typical prep pitcher. As relayed by ESPN's Christopher Crawford and Keith Law (subscription required), one NL scout suggested that the California native may actually be among the safest picks in this year's class:
It's really hard to imagine that Aiken won't be a quality starter. His ability to throw everything for strikes is unparalleled by any pitcher in this class at the high school level, and I haven't seen many college pitchers who have better command of their stuff. I think he's going to become an ace, but even if there was only the bare minimum in terms of development, I still think he's a quality backend guy. There's not too many high school kids you can say that about.
If there's one position player capable of cracking the "Big Three" pitching prospects, it's Jackson. The catcher/outfielder from California's Rancho Bernardo High School stands at a mature 6'1" and 215 pounds, with an uppercut swing that should project for power as he fills out his frame. While the Marlins currently employ the game's best young power hitter in Giancarlo Stanton, a Jackson-Stanton-Christian Yelich outfield would be hard to resist.
On the South Side of Chicago, the White Sox are thin on pitching apart from top lefty prospect Erik Johnson. Rodon could go as high as No. 2 to Miami, but if the Marlins pass on him the N.C. State product should not fall far. As the sole college pitcher among the Big Three, he figures to provide the most projectability.
Though the Cubs certainly would not mind Jackson as a consolation prize, having one of the Big Three pitchers slide to No. 4 would surely leave Theo Epstein and Co. extremely pleased. Nineteen years after drafting a Texas high-schooler named Kerry Wood with the fourth overall pick, the Cubs could experience flashbacks when looking at righty Tyler Kolek, the draft's top power pitcher. The 6'5", 270-pound prospect is apparently on Chicago's radar along with the other two top pitching picks, per Sahardev Sharma of ESPN Chicago:
Thought Nola had been an option with Cubs at 4, but it appears only pitchers they're considering their anymore are Rodon, Aiken & Kolek.— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) June 2, 2014
The Cubs are loaded with top position-player prospects, but they desperately need more promising young arms in their system. A potential trade of Jeff Samardzija this summer could reload the farm system, but the Cubs would be wise to utilize this premium pick on a pitcher as well.
5. Minnesota Twins: Nick Gordon, SS, Olympia HS (Fla.)
6. Seattle Mariners: Michael Conforto, OF, Oregon State
7. Philadelphia Phillies: Aaron Nola, RHP, LSU
8. Colorado Rockies: Sean Newcomb, LHP, Hartford
The Twins have a pair of promising young middle infielders coming up in Eddie Rosario and Jorge Polanco, but Gordon, the younger brother of Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon, possesses the arm and power to exceed his sibling's accomplishments. As Steve Lein of TwinsDaily.com argues, Minnesota's middle infield need and propensity for high school prospects could make Gordon a perfect fit:
In their recent history, if the Twins have targeted a high school position player early in the draft, it’s been for players who have had potential with their bat (Travis Harrison) or great athleticism (Niko Goodrum) for their position and it can be said that Gordon possesses both these qualities. Add the fact that the Twins have been devoid of a long-term solution at shortstop for ten years now, and it’s hard to miss why the Twins might be in on him.
Michael Conforto is the other position prospect likely to crack the top 10 along with Jackson and Gordon. Despite defensive limitations, his above-average power is a trait that the offensively challenged Mariners have craved for years. Though Conforto's bat his truly his only plus weapon, Seattle cannot argue with someone who could goose a perpetually struggling lineup.
LSU's Nola is one of the draft's most polished prospects, and while he may not seem as tantalizing as some of the prep school pitchers, he presents a reliably high floor. Nola was absolutely dominant throughout his time at Baton Rouge, as evidenced by this astounding statistic, per Luke Johnson of TigerRag.com:
My favorite Aaron Nola statistic, in its final, pure form. Nola struck out 24 more batters in his career than he allowed to reach base.— Luke Johnson (@ByLukeJohnson) June 3, 2014
The Phillies will need a new anchor for their rotation with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels aging. Whenever general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. accepts that rebuilding is overdue, Nola would represent a nice foundation to build the next Phillies contender upon.
Conversely, the southpaw Newcomb has burst upon the scene with a strong junior season. His fastball has increased nearly 10 miles per hour, up into the high-90s. Control is still an issue for him, but with a repeatable delivery he's a prospect the Rockies could develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter.
9. Toronto Blue Jays: Kyle Freeland, LHP, Evansville
10. New York Mets: Trea Turner, SS, North Carolina State
11. Toronto Blue Jays: Jeff Hoffman, RHP, East Carolina
12. Milwaukee Brewers: Max Pentecost, C, Kennesaw State
The college players should begin to come off the board in this group. Though prep school prospects will continue to dominate the middle to latter portions of the first round, there are some enticing collegiate players who could turn into important cornerstones for their new teams.
Lefty Kyle Freeland excelled at Evansville, and he arrives with a trio of above-average pitches and solid command. With an unusual delivery, Freeland has been compared to one of the majors' best young southpaws by Jon Heyman of CBS Sports:
kyle freeland, evansville lhp, is rising on draft boards. funky lefty. chris sale II?— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) May 30, 2014
Freeland should play well in Toronto, where the Blue Jays are already loaded with pitching prospects. Still, given the Jays' troubles keeping their young pitchers healthy, quantity should continue to remain the focus for the surprise AL East leaders.
Rodon's roommate Trea Turner could also end up in the top 10, as the Mets are in need of a middle infield prospect apart from Amed Rosario. Turner has been one of college baseball's top players over the past two seasons, and his true 80-grade speed could make him a game-changer on the base paths.
Hoffman had Tommy John surgery last month, so his rookie season will be a wash for whoever selects him. However, the Blue Jays' surplus of pitching should allow them to stash away a prospect who could have challenged the Big Three for the top billing. With an excellent curveball and plus fastball, Hoffman should find himself fast-tracked to the big leagues assuming all goes well with his recovery.
While the likes of Jackson and Kyle Schwarber have garnered attention among catchers, Kennesaw State's Pentecost looks like the best pure catcher. As MLB.com's Jim Callis relays, one scout in particular is very impressed with his natural athleticism at a difficult position:
The best true catcher is probably Pentecost. He's going in the first round for sure. He doesn't have a lot of power, it's more alley and extra-base hits than pure power, but he's a good hitter, a good athlete and he can run. He can throw and he will get better as a receiver. I think it's a solid overall player at a tough position to find.
The Brewers can't be picky about restocking their barren farm system, as none of their top prospects really has a high ceiling. Pentecost appears to be a well-rounded and projectable selection, making him a nice piece to help rebuild Milwaukee's minor league depth.
13. San Diego Padres: Touki Toussaint, RHP, Coral Springs Christian Academy (Fla.)
14. San Francisco Giants: Derek Hill, OF, Elk Grove HS (Calif.)
15. Los Angeles Angels: Nick Burdi, RHP, Louisville
16. Arizona Diamondbacks: Kyle Schwarber, C/OF/1B, Indiana
17. Kansas City Royals: Erick Fedde, RHP, UNLV
Despite mediocre recent showings, Touki Toussaint remains one of the highest upside prospects in this draft. Though he struggles with his mechanics, Toussaint boasts a mid- to high-90s fastball and a curveball with eye-popping downward break. If he can harness his command, the prep school star could be an absolute steal for the Padres.
The Giants have a pair of exciting outfield prospects in Gary Brown and Mac Williamson, but Hill comes with a pro-ready swing. Though he would be unlikely to hit for much power playing his home games at AT&T Park, Hill sprays line drives to all areas of the field, which is something that should play well in San Francisco's huge outfield.
Louisville right-hander Nick Burdi is arguably the draft's hardest thrower, with a fastball that touches triple digits and a nasty slider that sits between 88-91 miles per hour. Viewing Burdi throwing in person is a breathtaking sight, and even if his high-stress delivery forces a move to the bullpen, it's not hard to imagine him evolving into a shutdown closer.
The uber-versatile Kyle Schwarber could go as high as No. 8 to Colorado, but he shouldn't fall much further behind that if he slips. Schwarber's plus-plus raw power could allow him to form a "Bash Brothers" pairing with Paul Goldschmidt in the future, though he would be blocked at first base by that very same player. To stay at catcher, the ex-Hoosier must quicken his release in order to hold up defensively.
Tommy John has been the epidemic of the year, and one of the draft's brightest young prospects went down to the debilitating injury, as noted by Law:
Speaking of pitcher health, multiple sources telling me today UNLV pitcher Erick Fedde will need TJ surgery too— keithlaw (@keithlaw) May 10, 2014
Fedde likely would have landed in the top 10 if healthy, so the Royals would be delighted with having him slip to No. 17, even if they need to stash him for a season. Kansas City has had difficulty with recent pitching prospects, so even with the likes of Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer constituting the next promising wave, the Royals can never be too careful, especially with James Shields likely to depart in free agency this winter.
18. Washington Nationals: Grant Holmes, RHP, Conway HS (S.C.)
19. Cincinnati Reds: Bradley Zimmer, OF, San Francisco
20. Tampa Bay Rays: Brandon Finnegan, LHP, TCU
21. Cleveland Indians: Casey Gillaspie, 1B, Wichita State
22. Los Angeles Dodgers: Michael Chavis, 3B, Sprayberry HS (Ga.)
Though many mocks have Holmes going two picks earlier to the Giants, the Nationals could also use a young righty to replenish their suddenly not-so-young core. South Carolina pitcher Grant Holmes enters the draft as one of the top second-level prep school prospects, as evidenced by his distinguished high school career:
Holmes' quality secondary stuff belies his advanced feel. With the ability to throw strikes with all of his pitches, Holmes is the rare 18-year-old who is already maxed out physically and comes with reasonable projectability. For the Nats, that should make him an easy pick if he falls to the middle of the first round.
Outfielder Bradley Zimmer, the younger brother of aforementioned Royals prospect Kyle, possesses plus bat speed and the patience to work the count. Even at 6'5", he could stick in center field, though his above-average speed and strong arm could make him a candidate to move to a corner outfield position at some point.
Though Tampa Bay is well-known for its slow advancement of pitching prospects, Brandon Finnegan could push his way through the minors rather quickly. Despite his small frame (5'11", 190 lbs), Finnegan can throw in the upper-90s, and his slurvy curveball could be a plus pitch with more development. Though the Rays will likely be searching for an ace if they trade David Price, Finnegan could add to the trove of mid-rotation types they currently employ.
Elsewhere, another younger sibling could break through into the first round. Casey Gaillaspie, the younger brother of White Sox third baseman Conor, possesses outstanding patience, having drawn the third-most walks in the NCAA last season. Cleveland is thin on corner infield prospects, so Gillaspie's switch-hitting prowess would complement their current strength up the middle.
Casey Gillaspie homers from both sides of the plate in the same game for the second time this season— Wichita St. Baseball (@ShockerBaseball) May 3, 2014
Though the Dodgers boast a seemingly endless money pit, Los Angeles still has a hole at third base. With Hanley Ramirez back to his customary shortstop position this year, the Dodgers have gotten by with the veteran triumvirate of Juan Uribe, Justin Turner and Chone Figgins. But L.A. will need a long-term solution soon, and Chavis' well-rounded set of above-average tools should make him a reliable, if unspectacular, long-term starter.
23. Detroit Tigers: Nick Howard, RHP, Virginia
24. Pittsburgh Pirates: Sean Reid-Foley, RHP, Sandalwood HS (Fla.)
25. Oakland Athletics: Ti'Quan Forbes, SS, Columbia HS (Miss.)
26. Boston Red Sox: Luis Ortiz, RHP, Sanger HS (Cal.)
27. St. Louis Cardinals: Alex Blandino, 3B, Stanford
The Tigers have looked like the majors' best team at times this season. But Detroit's perpetual search for bullpen help never seems to end, and Virginia closer Nick Howard could be their next target, per Denny Knapp of Detroit Sports 105.1:
Howard could emerge as a sleeper rotation candidate given his improved command, but staying in the bullpen would represent his quickest track to the majors. Howard possesses a fastball that touches 98 mph as well as a wipeout slider in the high-80s, making him an ideal candidate to stabilize the back end of Detroit's pen.
Reid-Foley is yet another high-ceiling prep prospect, though timing issues on his delivery could have him slide toward the back end of the first round or even into the early second round. Still, with ideal athleticism and three projectable pitches, Pittsburgh would likely be thrilled to add him to their already impressive trio of right-handed pitching prospects in Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham.
Meanwhile, the Oakland A's have been strongly linked to one of the draft's top shortstop prospects by Stan Caldwell of the Hattiesburg American:
Watching Ti'Quan Forbes play SS for Columbia is something to see. Plus he can hit & he can run. Going to be very rich very soon. #hapreps— Stan Caldwell (@StanMan1717) April 16, 2014
Forbes could break the trend of failed Mississippi hitters, as his excellent bat speed and soft fielding hands should make him a well-rounded middle infielder. A potential loss of foot speed could force him to move to third base, where the A's employ MVP candidate Josh Donaldson, but Oakland will find room for such a talented all-around contributor.
The defending world champs have had a tough run this season, but the Red Sox can fall back on one of the game's deeper farm systems. Boston has plenty of mid-rotation starting prospects in its system, and California high-schooler Luis Ortiz would add to that list. Ortiz's plus feel and three-pitch arsenal should bode well for his advancement through the minors, so long as he keeps his weight at a manageable level.
St. Louis' player development is the envy of the league, so adding Blandino is effectively a borderline unfair scenario. The Cards actually do not have much in the way of corner infield prospects unless they convert catcher Carson Kelly, but Blandino's well-rounded batting skill set could make him a quick study. Blandino may eventually need to move to second base, where his bat would play better, but he should at least develop into a utility infielder who remains a major league fixture.