Draft : : Story
Thursday, December 04, 2008


Anup Sinha        
There is no safer first-round draft pick than a pure hitter. The bat is what usually determines whether a prospect gets to the major leagues or becomes a career minor leaguer. He could be a horrible fielder who clogs the bases, but if he can hit .300 with 30 home runs, someone’s going to give him a job. That offense is so valuable that teams will be patient for the rest of his game to develop.

For that reason, I believe that this past draft will have more fast-track big leaguers than any of the others during the decade. It may not have had much pitching or speed or middle-infielder depth at the top, but it was absolutely loaded with pure hitters who can move quickly.

First, let me define “pure hitter” for the sake of the draft and this column. I’m referring to a player who presently possesses not only the physical attributes to hit big-league pitching but also the approach. It’s just a matter of learning professional pitchers before he can move to the big leagues.

There are plenty of hitters in high school and college who have the “tools” to become good hitters. But whether they need to get stronger or stop pulling off outside pitches, they’re not polished. Some of these players will turn out; it just takes longer.

The elite bats that impressed me from 2008? In order of where they were selected, I’d put Pedro Alvarez (2nd overall, Pirates), Eric Hosmer (3rd, Royals), Yonder Alonso (7th, Reds), Justin Smoak (11th, Rangers), and Brett Wallace (13th, Cardinals) as the most advanced hitters. (See list below for Top-10 pure hitters from the 2008 draft.)

Of the five, Hosmer is the only high-school draftee, which is no coincidence. All five hit lefthanded with Smoak being a switch-hitter. There’s a chance that all will end up playing first base, but the good thing is that they could very well have the middle-of-the-order bats to more than fulfill that position. I would not be shocked if any one of them hit third in a big-league lineup one day. That’s what their new teams had in mind when they were selected.

While I’d caution strongly against evaluating hitters on their first year of pro ball, it is notable that the four who made their debut all hit .300-plus in varying numbers of at-bats. The Cardinals’ Wallace signed the earliest and got 202 at-bats between low Class A Quad Cities and Double-A Springfield, hitting .337-8-36. In 56 at-bats for low Class A Clinton, Smoak hit .304-3-6 in his first season as a Rangers farmhand. The Reds’ Yonder Alonso (.316-0-2 in 19 at-bats in high Class A), and the Royals’ Hosmer (.364-0-2 in 11 at-bats, Rookie-level advanced) played very briefly, while Alvarez was a holdout.

It is very unusual—and even unprecedented—to have this many premium bats in a single draft. By comparison, the 2007 draft featured the University of Florida’s Matt LaPorta, whom I believed was the most advanced hitter available. There was such a drop after him to Lewis-Clark State first baseman Beau Mills, California high-school products Josh Vitters and Mike Moustakas, and Old Dominion outfielder Kellen Kulbacki, that I’d put only LaPorta at the level of the five elite hitters in 2008.

And the list really doesn’t stop with those five as there were many others whom I believe are just below that level, including Buster Posey (5th overall, Giants), Gordon Beckham (8th, White Sox), Brett Lawrie (16th, Brewers), David Cooper (17th, Blue Jays), and Allan Dykstra (23rd, Padres). This second tier of bats would usually be the equivalent to first tier in many drafts.

How does the upcoming 2009 draft look for premium college and high school bats?

It’s early, of course, but I expect a big drop. The strength for 2009 appears to be pitching, both high school and college. The top position prospects are players like University of Southern California shortstop Grant Green and Cartersville (Ga.) High outfielder Donavan Tate; both not necessarily pure hitters as much as they are all-around players who have a chance to become good bats down the road.

The best pure hitter I’ve seen for 2009 is Dustin Ackley, a first baseman/outfielder for the University of North Carolina. Ackley has an excellent approach at the plate; he’s a patient hitter who seems to guess right along with the pitcher. He uses his hands particularly well, is able to wait on a curveball and uses the whole field.

I would put him with our elite five from 2008 as far as approach is concerned, but he doesn’t have quite the same physical tools. Ackley generates his power through leverage, not so much through bat speed or raw strength. He’s not a hitter who particularly impressed me in batting practice because his swing is not that pretty. But when he gets into a game, he’s a tough out.

Among the high school class of 2009, there isn’t a hitter whose bat has separated him the way Hosmer did last spring. But there is one young player from the Gulf Coast of Florida whom I’ve seen a lot and personally would put at the top of the list among pure hitters for 2009; Sarasota High shortstop Scooter Gennett.

Gennett can hit a curveball very well for this stage of his development. And despite measuring just 5-foot-9 and 164 pounds at the East Coast Professional Showcase in Lakeland, Fla., in August, Gennett already generates major league average bat-speed and will flash average raw power with wood in batting practice. He’s shown the ability to hit both the fastball and curve, and can handle balls on both sides of the plate. That mature approach, combined with big league bat speed, gives him a chance to move quickly with the requisite hard work.

Tate, one of the top pure athletes in the high school class, and third baseman Bobby Borchering of Bishop Verot High in Fort Myers, Fla., will also be among the best high school bats for 2009.

But what we saw in 2008 was rare. So I expect that we’ll look back at 2008 and call it the year of the big bats. When you are that deep in advanced hitters, you’re sure to come up with some big-time run producers.

(Based both on fastest to big leagues and projected impact)
1. Justin Smoak, 1b, Texas Rangers (1st round, 11th overall)
2. Brett Wallace, 1b/3b, St. Louis Cardinals (1st round, 13th overall)
3. Pedro Alvarez, 3b, Pittsburgh Pirates (1st round, 2nd overall)
4. Eric Hosmer, 1b, Kansas City Royals (1st round, 3rd overall)
5. Yonder Alonso, 1b, Cincinnati Reds (1st round, 7th overall)
6. David Cooper, of/1b, Toronto Blue Jays (1st round, 17th overall)
7. Buster Posey, c, San Francisco Giants (1st round, 5th overall)
8. Allan Dykstra, 1b, San Diego Padres (1st round, 23rd overall)
9. Gordon Beckham, ss, Chicago White Sox (1st round, 8th overall)
10. Brett Lawrie, c/3b, Milwaukee Brewers (1st round, 26th overall)

(Non-first-round hitters who are not as advanced but have the upside to become middle-of-the-order run producers)
1. Kyle Russell, of, Los Angeles Dodgers (3rd round, 93rd overall)
2. Dennis Raben, of/1b, Seattle Mariners (2nd round, 66th overall)
3. James Darnell, 3b, San Diego Padres (2nd round, 69th overall)
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