By Chris Crawford
Baseball's player draft generally doesn't get the notoriety that those of the other sports do, and for easily understandable reasons. The amateur version of the sport pales in comparison to the popularity of college football and basketball, and the immediate payoff that the NBA and NFL -- and to a lesser extent, the NHL -- drafts have isn't there in baseball, with prospects needing years of development before they can make a contribution to a major league roster.
With that being said, the draft has seen an uptick in popularity over the past few years, with prospect lists becoming more and more popular as fans have access to far more information on high school and college players than they ever have had before. For those looking for that glimmer of hope in an otherwise disaster of a season(s), it provides an opportunity to look ahead at what might be.
While this year's draft class isn't one of the better ones on paper, there are several intriguing storylines that make this one of the more interesting drafts of the past five years. Here are three in particular to keep an eye on this Thursday.
Houston, we have a problem. Kind of.
For the third time in as many years, the Astros will have the first pick in the draft, and just as it was in 2012 and 2013, there is no obvious top choice.
That wasn't necessarily the case to begin the year, when North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon looked like the most prohibitive favorite to be the first pick since Bryce Harper in 2010. Unfortunately, inconsistent results, shaky fastball command and concerns over overuse have seen Rodon fall down a peg, though he still likely doesn't get past the Cubs with the fourth pick. The new favorite is left-hander Brady Aiken out of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, but Houston has been linked to several names, including Rodon, Shepherd (Texas) High School right-hander Tyler Kolek, Olympia High School (Orlando) shortstop Nick Gordon and Rancho Bernardo (San Diego) High School catcher Alex Jackson.
"We've had several guys at the top spot of our board this year," an NL crosschecker said. "It's just one of those years that has a few more ebbs and flows than your typical draft season. I think Houston has a good problem on their hands, though. As nice as it is to have that obvious [first pick], it's just as nice to have a plethora of good options. I would take Aiken, but I wouldn't blame them at all if they went with Rodon or another direction."
The Cub conundrum.
Those of you who follow prospects are well aware of this, but for everyone else, it's important to know that the Cubs have as much or more offensive firepower in their system as anyone else in baseball, with prospects like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora all having the potential to be impact bats in the next few years.
What the Cubs don't have in their system, however, is pitching depth. C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson are Chicago's best pitching prospects, and they both project as third or fourth starters than guys who are going to pitch at the top of the rotation. Chicago would love to add a potential ace through the draft this year, but if the draft goes the way many think it will, with Rodon, Aiken and Kolek in the first three picks, the Cubs may not have a realistic option with the fourth pick.
"I don't think you can take a pitcher that high if those three are off the table," an AL West scout said. "The next name would be [LSU right-hander] Aaron Nola, and I just don't think he's got enough upside to justify going that high. The same can be said for [Hartford left-hander Sean] Newcomb and [Evansville left-hander Kyle] Freeland. I know they want to get the pitching to the same level they have the offense, but I think you have to take a hitter there."
There are rampant rumors that the Cubs are going to take someone at four who will sign for well under-slot so they can go high upside with their other selections. Whatever direction they go in will be one of the most interesting subplots of the 2014 draft.
Can anyone hit?
Thanks in large part to the fact that more and more of the elite prep talents are choosing to sign out of high school rather than attend college, this is considered by most talent evaluators to be one of the worst classes of collegiate hitters in quite some time. It's particularly bad in terms of right-handed hitters, with only NC State shortstop Trea Turner and Kennesaw State catcher Max Pentecost likely to go in the first round.
"It's pretty disappointing," an AL East crosschecker said. "You can never have enough good pitching, but you can't win games without offense, and of course you're relying on position players a lot more in a season then you are on a singular pitcher. Unfortunately, I don't see more than a handful of guys that are going to be impact bats at the college level, and you're going to see a ton of guys who really are second, third round talents that go in the first day. That's less than ideal."
In addition to Pentecost and Turner, we'll likely see Oregon State outfielder Michael Conforto, Indiana catcher Kyle Schwarber and Virginia outfielder Derek Fisher go before the start of the second round. Those expecting their favorite team to get a bat that has a chance to help them in the next two seasons, however, are likely going to come away disappointed.
Two weeks ago, Jonathan Bernhardt took a look at some of the prospects who have a chance to go in the top 10 this year, so here's a look at some of the under-the-radar prospects who may not go early, but have a chance to be impact players at the big league level.
Derek Hill, OF, Elk Grove (Calif.) High School. Hill is one of the best athletes in the draft, a player with 70 speed (on the 20-80 scouting scale) who can make spectacular plays in the outfield thanks to his athleticism and getting good jumps on the baseball. The right-hander is no slouch with the bat, either -- he has quality hand-eye coordination and can hit line drives to all parts of the ballpark. Power is never going to be a huge part of his game, but teams looking for a prototypical leadoff hitter who can provide quality defense in center field could take him early on Thursday.
Foster Griffin, LHP, First Academy High School (Orlando). Griffin has seen his stock rise significantly over the past few months, going from a potential third-to-fifth round pick to a guy who will likely go before the start of the second round thanks to his projectable size (6-foot-5, 190 pounds) and advanced feel for pitching. His fastball sits in the low 90-mph range with some movement, and he has a change that flashes plus with deception from his arm speed. He'll need to improve his breaking ball's consistency, but assuming he can, he has a chance to be a solid No. 3 starter for whatever club is lucky enough to acquire him.
Nick Burdi, RHP, Louisville. There are several relief pitchers that have a chance to go early on day one, and Burdi is the best of them; with a fastball that sits 95-97 mph and routinely touches triple digits, along with a wipeout slider that keeps hitters from sitting on it. There are some who believe that the Louisville right-hander has a chance to be a starter, but with no third pitch, it's difficult to see him making that transition. Whatever team takes Burdi is likely getting their closer in waiting, and it wouldn't be stunning if he was pitching in the majors in late 2014.
Mike Papi, OF, Virginia. Yes, this is a very poor collegiate hitting class, but there are a few silver linings, and one of them is Papi. Few hitters eligible this year have as good an idea how to work counts into their favor as he does, and there's sneaky power in his left-handed bat. He's not a defensive wiz, but he can handle a corner, and has a strong enough arm to be a quality right fielder. The upside isn't huge, but as a guy who can get on base and give you 15 to 20 homers, he should go sometime before the end of the compensation picks.
Scott Blewett, RHP, C.W. Baker High School (Baldwinsville, N.Y.). Upstate New York hasn't exactly been a baseball hotbed over the past twenty years, but Blewett has impressed scouts this spring with a fastball that touches 96 and a tight high 70s curveball with quality spin that can cause swings and misses from both left and right-handed hitters alike. There's not much physical projection left (he's already 6-foot-6, 240 pounds), but assuming he shows more consistency with a third offering, Blewett could become a durable mid-rotation starter who can miss bats and give you quality innings.
Milton Ramos, SS, American Heritage High School (Miami). In terms of defensive ability, Ramos is the best shortstop in the class; a quality athlete with plus speed who gets good reads off the bat, plus soft hands and an above-average throwing arm to boot. The only question about Ramos is with the bat, where he projects to have well below-average power and doesn't make much hard contact. Still, the defensive value is good enough that Ramos will go in the first few rounds, and if he can show even a lick of offensive ability he can be an everyday player.
Michael Chavis, 3B, Sprayberry (Ga.) High School. After Jackson, Chavis might be the best pure hitter of any prep eligible in 2014, with a smooth right-handed stroke that seems to hit everything hard, and while his swing doesn't have a ton of natural loft, he's strong enough to provide above-average power at the hot corner. Some think he has a chance to play shortstop at the next level, but he's more likely headed to third base, where he should be a quality defender with a strong arm and quality hands. What you see is what you get in terms of projection, but Chavis could move relatively quickly through a system for a prep, and is a borderline lock for the first round.
Monte Harrison, OF, Lee's Summit (Mo.) High School. There aren't a ton of two-sport stars in this year's draft, but Harrison is an exception, as a talented outfielder who is also committed to play wide receiver at the University of Nebraska. As you can guess, the Cornhusker commit has plus speed, but he's also got the potential for plus power from the right-side, and a cannon for a right arm that would play in either right or center field. The commitment to play football could see him drop, but Harrison's future is on the diamond, and if he can work out some mechanical issues with the swing, he could be a quality regular who can give you 20-homer, 20-stolen base seasons.
* * *
Christopher Crawford is a frequent contributor to ESPN, and is the founder and executive editor of MLB Draft Insider. You can follow him on twitter @CrawfordChrisV, and his new website Draft To The Show launches next week.