Allan Simpson is the Direct of PG Crosschecker and can be reached via email at AllanSimpson@nc.rr.com
The 2011 draft class has been universally hailed as one of the strongest and deepest ever and, coincidentally, it began taking shape when the curtain closed on the 2008 and 2009 drafts.
In both those years, two of the headliners were unsigned first-round picks: UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole (Yankees, 2008) and Texas Christian lefthander Matthew Purke (Rangers, 2009). The two pitchers have resurfaced this year as the most-recognizable names in the strongest demographic of the 2011 draft, college pitching.
Should Cole and Purke be re-drafted in the first round, as expected, it would represent only the second time in draft history that two ex-first-rounders have been re-drafted in the first round of the same draft. The only previous such occurrence was in 1992, when Florida righthander John Burke (Rockies), Miami catcher Charles Johnson (Marlins) and Texas outfielder Calvin Murray (Giants), all two-time first-rounders, spiced up that year’s draft.
The Pittsburgh Pirates own the No. 1 pick overall this year, and Cole and Purke were both on the club’s short list of prospects when the 2011 season began. Neither has enjoyed the degree of success this spring that they enjoyed a year ago (eight wins between Cole and Purke in late April vs. 29 combined in 2010), but Cole, at least, has maintained his grip as one of the premier talents in the draft.
Purke’s status is somewhat cloudy as he has been hampered by a shoulder injury much of the spring and no longer is considered a candidate to go first overall—and perhaps not even in the first 10-15 picks. He has made just eight starts and scouts are feverishly attempting to determine the severity of his shoulder issues as they contemplate whether he’ll even remain in the first-round mix.
If Purke’s departure from the top of the draft board has been perceived as a negative development overall (or possibly even made Pittsburgh’s situation a little clearer as it has eliminated one name from its mix), his absence has been more than offset by a wave of other college arms that have become high-end candidates for the Pirates to consider.
The list includes the likes of lefthanders Jed Bradley of Georgia Tech and Danny Hultzen of Virginia, and righthanders Trevor Bauer of UCLA, Sonny Gray of Vanderbilt and Taylor Jungmann of Texas. All are expected to be drafted in the first 6-10 picks overall, if the Pirates ultimately elect to pass on them.
By most accounts, the consensus top two candidates in this draft still remain Cole and Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, though Rendon has been plagued by a nagging shoulder injury of his own this spring that has relegated him mostly to a DH role for the Owls. It’s unclear whether the injury may compromise Rendon’s chances of going first overall, though like Purke, he will be closely scrutinized in the weeks leading up to the draft.
Even without Purke and Rendon at full speed, this draft has no shortage of front-line talent, both at the college and high-school levels, and among position players and pitchers. It also might be one of the deepest drafts ever.
If anything, the 2011 draft is missing the clear-cut No. 1 talent that symbolized the last two drafts when the Washington Nationals, picking first both years, had no-brainer decisions with the availability of San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg in 2009 and College of Southern Nevada catcher Bryce Harper in 2010. Both rank among the most clearly-defined No. 1 picks ever.
And just as there is no clear consensus on the best college player in this draft, there also is no candidate that has separated himself at the high-school level, though Oklahoma righthander Dylan Bundy, Florida shortstop Francisco Lindor and Kansas two-way talent Bubba Starling should all go off the board quickly, likely in the first 8-10 picks.
With the 2011 draft just around the corner, here are 10 overriding issues that figure to impact developments overall.
1. Pirates First Pick
It has been routinely documented that the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992 (a record 18 straight losing years, and counting), but the club reached new depths last year with a 105-loss season. That easily insured Pittsburgh will pick first in the 2011 draft for the third such time since their losing ways began. On both prior occasions, the Pirates picked college righthanders: Clemson’s Kris Benson in 1996 and Ball State’s Brian Bullington in 2002.
In the past five drafts, the Pirates have picked no lower than fourth—second in 2008 and 2010, and fourth in 2006, 2007 and 2009—and they outdid themselves in 2010 by posting the worst record in the big leagues, assuring themselves the No. 1 pick.
Not since the San Diego Padres picked no worse than fourth for six consecutive drafts from 1970-75 (including the No. 1 overall pick three times) has a big-league team had such a favorable drafting position for as long a stretch as the Pirates, though the Tampa Bay Rays went 10 straight years (1999-2008) picking no worse than eighth (including No. 1 overall four times).
2. Rendon Bitten by Injury Bug
Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon established himself as the front runner to go No. 1 overall entering the 2011 season, based on his superior all-around tool set and enviable track record in two years at the college level. As a freshman for the Owls, he hit .388-20-72; as a sophomore, he posted a .394-26-85 line with a 65-22 walk-to-strikeout ratio while committing just five errors at the hot corner.
But the injury bug has again bitten Rendon. He has been hampered both at the plate and in the field by a lingering shoulder injury that has robbed him of bat speed while also relegating him to a DH role most of the spring.
Rendon has been down this path before as he incurred severe ankle injuries the last two summers that led to surgery on both occasions. That effectively killed his chances of performing with USA Baseball’s college national team, and cost scouts an opportunity to see him swing with wood over an extended stretch.
His latest ankle injury was not viewed as a deterrent in assessing Rendon’s lofty draft standing at the start of the season, even as he missed most of fall practice. But the longer he is reduced to a part-time player this spring, the more scouts will become leery about the possibility of the injury impacting his career. Scouts have always been impressed with his short, quick, fluid swing throughout his college career at Rice, along with his discerning eye and plate discipline. He should have no trouble transitioning to professional baseball—if he’s healthy.
Rendon broke his ankle on a rundown play last July while with Team USA, and subsequently underwent ankle surgery 12 days later. He tore ligaments in the same ankle a year earlier, leading to surgery, but was not impacted at all by that injury as a sophomore. His latest injury, though, may jeopardize his shot at going No. 1 overall if the severity of the injury is not determined.
3. Bradley in Vogue
Only twice previously in the 45-year history of the baseball draft has a player with the surname Bradley been a first-round pick (Mark, Dodgers/1974; Bobby, Pirates/1999). That occurrence could happen three times in 2011.
Among the draft’s top prospects are Oklahoma prep righthander Archie Bradley, who was in the mix to be the first high-school player drafted at one point this spring; South Carolina outfielder Jackie Bradley, MVP of the College World Series; and Georgia Tech lefthander Jed Bradley, the most impressive arm in last summer’s Cape Cod League all-star game.
Jed Bradley has been solid all season and is projected to go in the first five picks, Archie Bradley should go in the middle of the first round and Jackie Bradley somewhere in the last half of the first round. The latter’s stock is somewhat up in the air after it was determined this week that he will undergo surgery on his left wrist, which had been bothering him for several weeks. In all likelihood, Bradley won’t play again this season. It’s unclear yet how his setback will impact his draft status.
4. Rays Will Be Active Participants
For the first time in draft history, there will be 33 picks in the first round—one more than in 2010, when 32 was the previous high. The increase stems from the failure of three teams to sign their first-round picks a year ago.
The current Collective Bargaining Agreement provides that a team which is unable to sign its first-round pick be compensated with a corresponding pick (plus one) in the following year’s draft. In 2010, the Arizona Diamondbacks failed to sign Texas A&M righthander Barret Loux with the sixth overall pick, while the San Diego Padres didn’t agree to terms with Florida prep righthander Karsten Whitson (ninth), now a freshman at the University of Florida, and the Milwaukee Brewers failed to sign California prep righty Dylan Covey (14th), now a freshman at the University of San Diego.
Loux was determined to have a pre-existing injury when the Diamondbacks drafted him, prompting that club to pass up trying to sign him. He subsequently agreed to a deal as a free agent with the home-state Texas Rangers, with a substantially smaller bonus than he anticipated receiving.
The Diamondbacks will be compensated with the seventh pick in the first round, while the Padres get the 10th pick and the Brewers the 15th selection.
There will also be a record 27 supplemental first-round picks this year, stemming from compensation awarded to major-league clubs that didn’t sign Type A (9) and Type B (18) free agents during the off-season.
With the record number of 30 compensation picks, the second round won’t start until 60 players have been drafted.
No team will have a greater chance to profit from this year’s number of surplus draft picks more than Tampa Bay. The Rays will have 10 selections before the second round even begins. Their windfall stems from the loss of Type A free agents Carl Crawford (Red Sox), Rafael Soriano (Yankees) and Grant Balfour (Athletics), and Type B free agents Joaquin Benoit (Tigers), Randy Choate (Marlins), Brad Hawpe (Padres) and Chad Qualls (Padres).
That represents the biggest single haul a team has had in one draft since 1990, when the Montreal Expos were awarded 10 of the first 53 selections.
5. Vanderbilt's Time at Hand
Despite producing a steady stream of elite draft picks over the last decade, including Tampa Bay Rays lefthander David Price (No. 1 overall in 2007), and averaging 40 wins in Tim Corbin’s eight years as the school’s head coach, Vanderbilt has still not appeared in the College World Series.
If draftable talent counts for anything, the No. 3-ranked Commodores should be a slam dunk to reach Omaha for the first time this June. The team boasts a certain first-rounder in hard-throwing righthander Sonny Gray, and there’s an outside shot that third baseman Jason Esposito, lefthander Grayson Garvin and righthanders Jack Armstrong and Navery Moore could slip into the end of the first round, or sandwich round.
In addition, Vandy first baseman Aaron Westlake, a fourth-year junior; and senior righthanders Mark Lamm and Taylor Hill could vault into the top five rounds. In all, the Commodores have six draft-eligible pitchers whose fastballs have been clocked in the mid-90s this spring, led by Gray at 98 mph.
Only five times in draft history has one college team produced three first-round picks in the same draft. The last such occurrence was 2008, when Miami had a trio of first-rounders.
Other colleges that could impact the 2011 draft with multiple first-round selections are UCLA (righthanders Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer) and Connecticut (outfielder George Springer, righthander Matt Barnes). Cole, whose fastball has been clocked in triple digits, and Bauer, who led the nation in strikeouts as a sophomore and is on pace to repeat that feat, led UCLA to a second-place finish at the 2010 College World Series.
6. All Eyes on Texas
Texas has been a popular destination for scouts this spring, even as Rendon and Purke have been slowed somewhat by their shoulder injuries. Those two, along with Texas righthander Taylor Jungmann and Texas A&M righthander John Stilson, could provide the state’s college ranks with four high-end first-rounders, and as many as 6-8 selections by the start of the second round.
Texas righthander Cole Green, an unsigned fourth-rounder in last year’s draft who unexpectedly elected to return to the Longhorns for his senior year, won’t factor into the elite group of college arms but still has a legitimate shot of becoming the first college senior drafted. He has teamed with Jungmann this spring to give the Longhorns two quality starting pitchers.
While scouts are enamored with the 6-foot-6, 195-pound Jungmann and his violent mid-90s fastball, they are less enthralled with the stockily-built Green and his more-modest stuff, though few pitchers in the country possess Green’s exceptional command of three pitches.
Angelina JC righthander Ian Gardeck was the top-ranked junior-college pitching prospect entering 2011, and has maintained that designation despite being demoted to the bullpen when he struggled with his control as a starter. In short bursts as Angelina’s closer, Gardeck’s fastball has reached 98 mph. He projects as a second- or third-round pick.
The Texas prep ranks are also stacked with talent and could produce twin first-rounders in Dallas Jesuit High outfielder Josh Bell and Irving High shortstop Trevor Story.
7. No Harper to Pump Up JC Ranks
The 2010 draft was a showpiece for the nation’s often-underappreciated junior-college ranks and put them in the spotlight like no draft before. Not only was Southern Nevada’s Bryce Harper the top pick overall, but five juco players were among the top 100 selections.
There were no players who came close to matching Harper’s stature when the current crop of junior-college talent assembled in the fall. But the JC crop slowly started to evolve and could be a significant factor again in this year’s draft, mainly because of the assortment of players who transferred to junior college from four-year schools.
The biggest name to hit the juco ranks is former North Carolina outfielder Brian Goodwin, a five-tool talent who projected to be a first-round pick in 2012 had he remained at UNC. But that was before Goodwin was suspended for the 2011 season in November for violating school policy, and subsequently elected to enroll at Miami-Dade JC in early January. By attending a junior college, Goodwin automatically became eligible for this year’s draft and is currently projected to go in the latter half of the first round.
Former Virginia Military infielder Cory Spangenberg, now at Florida’s Indian River State JC, ranks right behind Goodwin. He is one of the nation’s foremost hitting prospects and is primed to be selected with one of the compensation selections between the first and second rounds.
At the outset of the 2011 season, Texas appeared to have a stranglehold on the elite talent in the junior-college ranks. Gardeck, a University of Dayton transfer, has maintained his grip as the top-rated JC pitching prospect, followed closely by crafty San Jacinto lefthander Miguel Pena. Meanwhile, Howard JC righthanders Derrick Bleeker and Damien Magnifico, and Navarro righthander Drew Verhagen, all highly-rated in the fall, have not lived up to expectations this spring and their draft stock has slipped accordingly.
Pena and Magnifico were both unsigned fifth-rounders in the 2009 draft out of Texas high schools, while Bleeker spent the 2010 season at Arkansas and Verhagen at Oklahoma before subsequently electing to transfer.
8. Talent in Usual Places
California, Florida and Texas have traditionally been the nation’s top talent producers, and little is expected to change on that count in 2011. All three states have an abundance of high-end talent in every demographic—college, junior college and high school.
This year, though, several states or regions that have historically not been at the forefront of producing meaningful draft talent will add a new twist to the proceedings.
Northeast scouts have been saying since last summer that this year’s edition of the University of Connecticut will be the most-talented squad ever to come out of New England, and the school’s impact alone will make the state a hotbed for talent this spring. Outfielder George Springer, one of the premium athletes in the draft, and righthander Matt Barnes, whose fastball has been clocked at 97 mph, are both solid candidates to go in the top 10-15 picks overall. Of note, both are Connecticut prep products who elected to stay close to home after largely being overlooked by scouts out of high school.
UConn is so deep and talented that the school could have as many as 10-11 players drafted.
Oregon State’s unlikely run to consecutive College World Series titles in 2006 and 2007, and the reinstatement of the baseball program at Oregon, in the wake of OSU’s success, has made Oregon another must-see state for scouts this spring. Between them, the Ducks and Beavers could produce 20-25 draft picks.
Oregon State sophomore-eligible catcher Andrew Susac is the state’s top prospect, but two lefthanders, Oregon’s Tyler Anderson and Oregon State’s Josh Osich, could also work their way into the first round. The Pacific Northwest, generally, is unusually deep in college lefthanders as Gonzaga’s Ryan Carpenter and Washington State’s Adam Conley are also potential first-rounders.
Meanwhile, the sparsely-populated Rocky Mountain states of Montana and Wyoming have been a baseball wasteland through the years, in large part because neither state has a formal high-school baseball program or even a college team of note. But both states have legitimate prospects this year that could factor into the early rounds.
Sweet-swinging outfielder Brandon Nimmo has a strong chance to become the highest draft pick ever produced from Wyoming, and could go as early as late in the first round. The earliest draft pick on record from that state is University of Wyoming outfielder Bill Ewing, a fourth-round pick of the California Angels in 1976 and the NCAA home-run leader that season. Shortly after Ewing’s departure, the Cowboys abandoned their baseball program.
Outfielder Ben Roberts is less-established than Nimmo, but has an excellent chance to become the highest pick in years from Montana. Roberts is a three-sport star at a Missoula high school, broke numerous state records in football in the fall and may be the best athlete ever produced in that state. As fast as he has been moving up draft boards, though, it is highly unlikely that he will come close to challenging the record for the highest draft pick ever to come from Montana.
That mark is still held by lefthander Les Rohr, who was the second overall pick (behind Rick Monday) in the very first baseball draft in 1965.
Idaho and Utah are two other Rocky Mountain states that are normally marginal contributors to the draft, and it is expected to remain that way. Both might have factored strongly into the 2011 draft, though, had two players that were supposed to be the top prospects in each state not graduated from high school a semester early. They elected to enroll in college for the 2011 season.
Idaho lefthander/first baseman Porter Clayton projected as a second- or third-round pick in the fall, but left early for the University of Oregon. Utah shortstop Kavin Keyes, a possible third-fifth round prospect, has ended up at Oregon State.
Utah high schools have produced just two first-round picks through the years, and Idaho only one (righthander Mike Garman, the third overall pick in 1967).
9. Zach Lee Reincarnated
One of the more startling developments of the 2010 draft was the $5.25 million bonus the Los Angeles Dodgers forked over to Texas two-sport star Zach Lee, the 28th selection overall. His bonus was the third highest handed out last year, trailing only the $6.25 million given to Bryce Harper (as part of a major-league contract) and $6.5 million awarded to Texas prep righthander Jameson Taillon, the top two selections.
Lee, a righthander, had significant leverage because he was also a standout quarterback, and had already participated in pre-season workouts at Louisiana State before the Dodgers swooped in and signed him at the Aug. 16 deadline.
Among the first-round candidates in the 2011 draft class who might be in position to leverage a similar deal, the best candidate is Kansas outfielder/quaterback Bubba Starling, who has committed to play baseball and football at Nebraska. Oklahoma righthander/quarterback Archie Bradley is another quarterback recruit of some note.
The No. 1-ranked quarterback prospect in last fall’s prep class was Florida Jeff Driskel, who effectively took himself out of the running for this year’s baseball draft by enrolling early at Florida. Driskel initially had projected as a possible second- to third-round pick.
10. Draft Changes Coming
The 2011 draft will be the last under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between Major League Baseball and the Player’s Association.
Significant changes to the draft are reportedly in the works, including the likely legislation of a hard bonus cap, which may end up driving a significant number of the top high-school prospects not taken in the first round to the college ranks in the future. No longer would such players be in position to demand larger bonuses than what their draft slot dictated.
The distinct possibility exists that there will be more changes to the draft in 2012 than in any year since the draft was implemented in 1965. In addition to an enforceable hard cap on signing bonus, a change in the signing deadline, probably to July 15 (vs. the current Aug. 15 deadline), is also in the works.
Other changes being contemplated include a single universal draft that would incorporate both domestic and foreign players, fewer rounds than the current 50, a possible change in the date of the draft (possibly to coincide with the All-Star Game in July), and the trading of draft picks.
But all that’s down the road. The focus for now is on 2011.