There's no way that the draft class of 2012 will even come close to meeting the standard set forth by the two classes that preceeded it.
There's no Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole or Bubba Starling. No Jameson Taillon or Manny Machado. And definitely no Bryce Harper.
Still, the class does offer many talented players, and according to the experts, potentially more depth than either 2010 or 2011. The strength of the class is still yet to be determined, but if one had to pick, it would be the Pac-10 conference, where Stanford's Mark Appel and Kenny Diekroeger, and Arizona State's Deven Marrero and Jake Barrett all play. Those four are considered definitive first-round talents.
The high school class is also considered above average, featuring several names that should sound familiar to baseball fans. Right-hander Lance McCullers, Jr. and Gavin Cecchini both come from baseball families with McCullers' father pitching for seven years in the majors and Cecchini's brother getting tabbed as a fourth rounder in last year's draft.
With the draft order nearly set (it won't be finalized until the end of free agency), it's time to start trying to identify players that might interest the teams picking in the first round.
Houston clinched the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft by finishing 56-106, which just so happened to be the worst record ever put together by an Astros squad.
Unlike the past three seasons, where there have been consensus top picks (Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon), the 2012 draft holds very little certainty. As of right now, there are very few "experts" who could even pinpoint a No. 1 overall player.
Still, somebody has to go first, and with that being said, it wouldn't surprise me if the Astros went with Stanford right-hander Mark Appel. Appel doesn't have the frontline stuff that last year's No. 1, Gerrit Cole, has, but he's got as much potential as any arm in this draft class.
Appel (6'5", 190) had a solid campaign for Stanford, but he didn't benefit much from playing on one of the most underperforming teams in the Pac-10. Even before the season began, the Cardinal were hit with numerous injuries, including a season-ending one to fellow ace Brett Mooneyham.
Once they got into the regular season, they struggled to find their footing. They finished the season on a high note, and Appel was a big part of their strong finish and their run to the Super Regionals.
He led the squad with 110.1 innings and also paced the team with 86 strikeouts, two complete games and 17 starts.
The best part is that Appel has yet to reach the part of his college career where his talent catches up with his experience. And believe me, he has plenty of talent. For starters, he throws a great fastball that sits in the 92-95 mph range and occasionally scraped 97. He complements that pitch with a strong slider, albeit one he still needs to gain better control of after tossing eight wild pitches and hitting eight batters last season.
He also has a cutter and a changeup in his arsenal.
The only thing preventing Appel from being declared the consensus No. 1 pick right now is results. If he produces in 2012, he's going to be a virtual shoe-in for a team (Houston) in dire need of elite talent.
The 2012 draft will mark the first time that the Twins will be picking inside the top 10 since 2001. That was the year that they famously passed over Mark Prior in favor of hometown kid Joe Mauer. I'd say that deal worked out OK for them, although it looks like their most recent deal for him might not.
With all the injury concerns surrounding Mauer and without Wilson Ramos, who they dealt to Washington back when Mauer was still healthy, the Twins could really use a catcher, but right now, there isn't one worthy of a No. 2 overall pick.
Taking that into consideration, as well as the Twins lack of depth in starting pitching (see Kyle Gibson), my guess is they'd be happy scooping up Michael Wacha, arguably the No. 2 overall college pitcher.
Wacha doesn't offer as much upside as some of the other top arms, specifically Lucas Giolito or Lance McCullers, Jr., but he does seem like he's a much safer bet. Like Appel, he deals in the low-to-mid 90s, and he also throws a mean slider. He also offers a changeup and curveball.
Wacha was especially impressive last season, more than picking up the slack left behind when John Stilson went down. He led the Aggies in innings pitches, strikeouts and starts and posted a stellar 2.29 ERA. He really shined in the College World Series, putting together back-to-back gutsy performances against Florida State and California.
Wacha has prototypical size (6'6", 200) and figures to be the staff ace with Stilson signing with the Blue Jays.
Taking Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero would have been a no-brainer had they not pulled the trigger on Levi Michael this past draft, a player they feel comfortable can handle shortstop.
The Mariners have somehow gotten worse every season since Jack Zduriencik took over as GM in October of 2008, and honestly, the future doesn't appear to be too bright.
Yes, they still have one of the top pitchers in baseball in Felix Hernandez and they have an burgeoning ace in Michael Pineda, but their offense has taken dramatic steps backward. Ichiro is half the player he used to be, and aside from Dustin Ackley, their lineup has very little excitement.
It should be noted that 10 players who played in more than 50 games hit under the .250 mark. Justin Smoak (.234), Brendan Ryan (.248), Chone Figgins (.188) and Franklin Gutierrez (.224) all looked especially terrible at the plate.
Defensively, the Mariners weren't much better, posting a middle-of-the-pack fielding percentage.
The M's could kill two birds with one stone with the selection of Deven Marrero, a solid all-around player capable of hitting .300 at the big-league level while providing Gold Glove caliber defense. Marrero is hands down the top shortstop available regardless of draft class (high school or college).
Don't let the regression with the bat in 2011 fool you. Yes, his offensive numbers dropped in just about every category, but I'm guessing that had more to do with the new bat that the NCAA forced upon the players last year. Playing this summer with Team USA and using wood bats, Marrero was the team's top hitter. He also had a great showing in the Cape Cod League, where he was named an All-Star.
On defense, Marrero is astounding. He was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 and should be the front-runner for the award again in 2012. He has a rocket for an arm, smooth footwork and has the perfect size (6'1", 194) to stick at shortstop long-term.
The same can't be said for the Mariners top shortstop prospect, Nick Franklin, who's likely bound for third base.
The Mariners flirted with the idea of taking Francisco Lindor last year, and in Marrero, they would be getting a more seasoned version.
Out with the old (Andy MacPhail) and in with the new (Dan Duquette). The O's are hoping that the former Expos and Red Sox GM has what it takes to finally lead the Orioles back onto the road to respectability. If he could even make Baltimore a consistent .500 team, that would be a success.
Duquette stated during his first press conference that it was his intention to rebuild the farm system from the ground up, and I can think of few better players to start that process with than the O's last two first round picks: shortstop Manny Machado and right-hander Dylan Bundy.
In Machado, the O's have a lineup cornerstone, an offensive player capable of playing an elite position, and in Bundy, they have a future ace.
Now it's time to start building around those two. Rutgers product Steve Nyisztor would be a perfect heir apparent to Brian Roberts at second base. The O's have been at a loss for a replacement, as Roberts has missed huge chunks of the past two seasons with numerous injuries. They have plugged several players in, and some, including Robert Andino and Ryan Adams, have even looked promising, but neither offers the offensive upside that Roberts did.
Nyisztor has that offensive upside...plus some. It's actually hard to believe that the same player who hit .410 as a true freshman wasn't drafted coming out of high school, especially after he led his school squad to back-to-back state championships in 2009 and 2010.
Now that Mike Trout, another Jersey native, has exploded onto the scene, making the state relevant again, Nyisztor is finally getting the attention he deserves.
Beyond his stellar freshman campaign, which also included four homers, 51 RBI, 11 steals and only three errors, Nyisztor has also been a sensation in the summer leagues. He was named MVP and the top prospect of the Northwood Summer League in 2010 and returned there this summer after having his sophomore season essentially wiped out by an injury. He also saw some time in the wood-bat Cape Cod League this summer as well.
There's no denying that Nyisztor has one of the better pure bats in the draft class, but whether or not he can bounce back from a sophomore campaign in which he only played in 12 games will be the true measure of how high he'll go.
McCullers has all the tools of a potential top-overall selection.
His fastball is one of the best in the class, his command looked better than ever this past season and he's made impressive strides with his secondary pitchers. The reason he ranks ninth overall on Baseball America's high school top 100, and the same reason he'll likely slide on draft day is due to the uncertainty surrounding how long he's going to remain a starter.
If a team believes he has what it takes, he could go as high as No. 1, but most teams right now seem to think he's destined to pitch out of the bullpen, meaning he could fall to the middle part of the first round.
McCullers does have genealogy on his side. His father, Lance Sr., pitched for seven seasons in the majors after being drafted in the second round by the Phillies in the 1982 draft. Interestingly enough, he too began his career in the minors as a starter, but had to transition into a relief role as he neared closer to the majors.
One aspect that could cause McCullers to fall is the near constant attention he's been receiving since he was a freshman in high school. His level of fame comes nowhere close to that of Bryce Harper, but seeing his name in the papers that often likely has him ready to accept nothing less than one of the larger payouts given to any member of the 2012 draft class.
Few teams feel comfortable taking chances on risky players like that, but the Royals aren't one of them. They have consistently thrown caution to the wind and ended up reaping the benefits of the blossoming of some guys who were considered "risky."
It was refreshing to see the Cubs stop trying to outsmart everyone in the 2011 draft. Instead of pulling a "Hayden Simpson," the club simply went with the best available hitter, Javier Baez, a player of such great talent that will hopefully rid the organization of the taste of failure that was Josh Vitters.
And while the Cubs picked up one of the top players in the draft, they did nothing to combat the lack of quality starting pitching in their farm system. Their top pitching prospect, Trey McNutt, had a terrible campaign in 2011, and there were few, if any, pitchers who had breakout seasons for Chicago.
They did add a few arms in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft, but they currently lack a true elite talent on the mound.
Lucas Giolito is just that. He's been on team's radar since the beginning of his junior season, during which he showed not only improved velocity (he's up to 93-97 mph), but also greatly improved command of all of his pitches.
Giolito made such great strides from his sophomore to senior seasons that he's now considered one of the top prospects regardless of class (high school or college), and he's starting to draw comparisons to another very talented former first-rounder, Jameson Taillon.
Baseball America high school guru Conor Glassey had this to say about the comparison:
"They're similar. Coming into the draft, Taillon had a heavy 93-97 mph fastball and a hammer CB in the mid-80s. Pretty similar to what Giolito was showing this summer, although I think Giolito's mechanics are a little smoother."
If Theo Epstein could start off his first draft as the head honcho in Chicago, you would have to call it a success.
If you recognize the name, it's because Gavin's older brother, Garin, was drafted in the fourth round by Boston last year. And while Garin is a very talented prospect, quite possibly one of the best position players in Boston's system, his younger brother puts him to shame and is one of the top 10 high schoolers available according to Baseball America's high school top 100.
For starters, he has the footwoork and size to stick at shortstop long-term, an increasingly invaluable trait these days. He also has a special bat, with potential to hit for average and for power.
According to Perfect Game, Cecchini has all the tools to be a top-notch shortstop:
"Slender athletic frame, lots of room to add strength. Very polished hitter with present bat speed, patient hitter, recognizes pitches, balanced hitting stance, short and compact to the ball, line drive swing plane, has the strength to drive the gaps now with more to come, consistent hard contact. 6.60 runner smooth defensive actions with range, soft hands, enough arm for shortstop, could play anywhere on the infield. Will keep improving over time, still projects."
The Padres haven't done too well in the draft over the past few seasons. First, there was the Donovan Tate debacle. Then, they missed a huge opportunity to add Karsten Whitson to a declining cache of pitching talent.
This year, they went the safe route, tabbing Cory Spangenberg with their first pick and going after a projectable arm in Joe Ross later in the first-round. They also added some high-ceiling guys later in the draft, including catcher Austin Hedges (second), Michael Kelly (supplemental first) and Kyle Gaedele (sixth).
That's all fine and dandy, but that group of players does nothing to change the fact that the Padres have Jason Bartlett and his 31 career home runs occupying shortstop. Beyond Bartlett, there is no true heir to the shortstop position, making Cecchini an excellent choice.
When the Rays tabbed high school shortstop Kenny Diekroeger with their second round pick back in 2009, it seemed like that was going to be as low as the rangy shortstop would ever be selected. Heading into the 2011 college season, with Diekroeger coming off of a sensational freshman campaign at Stanford, many considered him a likely top 10 selection.
And then he played the 2011 season...and underperformed. He clearly struggled with the new bats, witnessing declines in just about every offensive category from his breakout season in 2010. Furthermore, Stanford struggled to play at the level that was expected of them, putting even more pressure on Diekroeger to be perfect.
Coming into the 2012 season, the pressure should be lessened. Stanford returns the likely No. 1 pick in the draft, Mark Appel, as well as fourth-year starter Brett Mooneyham, who missed all of the 2011 season.
If Diekroeger can have a bounce-back season, he could jump up draft boards as we near closer to draft day, and with an impressive squad behind him, he'll likely be playing well into June, giving teams an even better look.
Once upon a time, scouts had doubts about his ability to stick at shortstop, but he looked strong there last year, even as he continued to struggle at the plate. He's a big-bodied guy, but he's also one of the most impressive athletes in this draft class, so don't count him out.
After all, this is the same guy who bested all of the numbers put up by Mike Trout at a scouting combine at the Area Code Games prior to the 2009 draft.
You could tell Zunino was going to be special by the way he tossed aside incumbent catcher Austin Maddox, locking down the starting job and flourishing both at the plate and behind it, en route to SEC Hitter of the Year honors.
The rising junior hit .383 with 19 doubles, 15 homers and 59 RBI. In conference play, he was in a class of his own, hitting .442 with eight homers and 33 RBI. The scary part is, as good as Zunino was at the plate, he was even more impressive behind it, showing natural leadership skills and showing above-average defensive ability.
He made only three errors all season long, allowed just seven passed balls and threw out 28 percent of attempted base-stealers. His arm was easily the best of any SEC backstop.
Last year's draft broke the streak of having a catcher taken in the top 15 picks, but with Zunino and several other talented catchers (Stryker Trahan, Clint Coulter, etc) on the board, it's likely we'll see a return to that trend..
The 2012 draft would be the perfect time for a team like Florida, who has whiffed on every catching prospect since Charles Johnson, to finally fill the void that has been unsuccessfully filled for the better part of two decades.
Without a doubt, Roache is the most powerful hitter in this draft class.
All you have to do for proof is check out his sophomore campaign for Georgia Southern. Not only did he lead the nation with 30 home runs, but he compiled that number in just 60 contests, an extraordinary rate for a guy who looked as lost as he did the year before.
Roache's power surge was even more impressive when you consider he did the damage with the new bats introduced by the NCAA. The bats were supposed to decrease power production, acting more like wooden bats used at the professional level. The idea was that hitters who weren't affected as much by the new hardware would be more likely to see their games translate to the pro level.
If that is indeed the case, whichever team gets Roache is going to be very pleased. He further justified his status as a first-round guy when he tore up the Cape Cod League, finishing second in both home runs and RBI, and ninth in batting average.
The Rockies have long been searching for a replacement for Todd Helton at first base. For a while, they thought that one of their top prospects, Nolan Arenado, would be that guy, but his play at third base has improved so much that he might stick there long term, leaving first base open.
Roache played some first base during high school and his first year at Georgia Southern.
Baseball America's top-ranked high school prospect heading into the 2012 season, Byron Buxton has already drawn comparisons to Justin Upton. That, and the track record of elite George prospects, including Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur and Jason Heyward, should be enough to get him popped inside the top ten.
Still, the 2012 draft is a long ways away, and there's plenty of time for Buxton to either slide or for some other talented players to leapfrog him. The A's would be incredibly pleased to get a player of his potential when their pick rolls around at No. 11. They would have loved to have had a shot at George Springer last year, so getting Buxton could easily be the next best thing. Or even better.
Buxton is a veritable tool shed, possessing impressive hit and power tools, as well as having great speed and outstanding defensive range.
It would be a shock if Buxton dropped out of the first round, and there's even the chance that he could garner support for the No. 1 overall spot.
The Mets took a giant step forward in the way that they draft when they selected talented but raw outfielder Brandon Nimmo from East HS in Wyoming. For years, they had been content to simply take the most polished college pitcher, and that approach has netted them Brad Holt, Eddie Kunz, Kevin Mulvey and, most recently, Matt Harvey.
With a new GM on board and a new drafting philosophy installed, the Mets are prepared to take the next step, one in which they go after a high-ceiling pitching prospect. Lefty Matt Smoral would be just that. As one of the top pitchers from the high school crop and arguably the top left-hander, Smoral would be a welcomed addition to the Mets organization, one that is particularly lacking in high-ceiling starting pitching depth.
Smoral has been clocked in the low 90s, reaching as high as 94 mph, and complements his fastball with a stellar slider, one of the best in the high school class. He also offers a two-seam fastball, a curve and a changeup.
Smoral is committed to UNC, where the Mets just so happened to find their most recent first-round pitcher, Harvey.
The White Sox have some of the worst starting pitching depth in baseball, arguably the worst. As such, it wouldn't be a total surprise to see them go after a premium arm in the upcoming 2012 draft.
Kevin Gausman was one of the most talented high school pitchers available in the 2010 draft, but due to concerns about his signability and his strong commitment to LSU, he dropped all the way to the sixth round, where the Dodgers took a flier on him. He didn't sign and instead honored his commitment to LSU, where he blossomed into one of the top pitchers in a very impressive SEC.
The right-hander made a team-high 14 starts, winning five. He posted a respectable 3.51 ERA and held a 86:23 K:BB ratio in a team-leading 89.2 innings.
Batters only hit .215 off of him, and he served up only five home runs all season. His finest performance came in an early season outing against Tennessee. He tossed a complete-game shutout, scattering four hits and striking out seven. He walked none.
Gausman has the potential to be a top 10 pick in 2012, thanks not only to his velocity and developing secondary pitches, but also to his very prototypical pitcher’s body. At 6’4″ and 185 pounds, he still has plenty of room to add some more weight (increasing his durability and stamina).
Another season of pitching in college baseball’s toughest conference should give him all the seasoning he needs to make the jump to pro ball.
Another guy who was a relatively high draft pick back in 2009, Jake Barrett should have no problem achieving higher than his third-round status from three years ago (when Toronto scooped him up, but failed to get a deal in place due to the right-hander’s strong commitment to ASU).
Barrett will undoubtedly be one of the top arms to watch for in the 2012 season, but unfortunately, the season will likely be a wash for the Sun Devils, who face the possibility of being suspended from postseason play for some off-the-field transgressions committed by the previous coaching staff.
That might make it hard for Barrett to channel all of his ability, but if he can string together some nice starts, he could be right in line for a top-five selection.
Toronto was so high on him back in 2009 because he had a big-league body (6’3″, 225 lbs), a good fastball (90-94 mph) and two pitches (curveball and splitter) with above-average potential.
He showed great poise stepping into a very talented bullpen during his freshman year, pitching to a 3.41 ERA in 28 outings and striking out 43 batters in 29.1 innings.
This year, Barrett made the jump to the rotation and found instant success. His first start of the season saw him toss six innings of shutout ball, giving up only three hits while striking out six. He finished the season with a 7-4 record, a 4.14 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 76 innings. He tossed one complete game shutout against Cal late in the season.
The Reds have a large cache of position talent, but are severely lacking in the pitching department. Barrett can help shore that up, as well as reach the majors rather quickly. Also, their last dip into the Arizona State well with Mike Leake worked out pretty well.
With Grady Sizemore on the outs, the Indians will be looking for a player capable of filling the very large space left in centerfield by the veteran outfielder.
David Dahl isn't going to get to Cleveland in two or three years, but he's as talented an outfield prospect as there is next to Byron Buxton. Perfect Game calls his bat "of the highest level," and even Baseball America concedes that his bat right now is better than Buxton's.
At 6'2" and 190 pounds, Dahl looks the part of top prospect. He is an incredible athlete and has not only fantastic speed, but also a rocket arm that make him a top-notch outfield prospect. Some have their doubts about his ability to stick in centerfield, but even if he's forced to a corner spot, he's still going to rack up OF assists with the best of them.
At the plate, he has excellent mechanics and has shown the ability to hit to anywhere in the ballpark. On the basepaths, he's a super-aggressive runner, which should lead to plenty of doubles and triples, but also plenty of pick-offs.
The only reason Dahl isn't considered the top overall high school position player isn't because he's lacking something; it's because scouts are that in love with Buxton. Still, he would be an excellent pick up down here at pick 15.