Pirates' tough choice, cost of picks among draft stories to watch
Pittsburgh has the first overall pick but there is no consensus No. 1 player
Small-market teams have shied away from drafting players who cost a lot to sign
The Tampa Bay Rays can make a big mark, with 10 of the first 60 picks
Five things to watch for as the MLB Draft gets underway Monday night in Secaucus, N.J.:
You are the Pittsburgh Pirates. You have the first overall pick in the draft. And you have a dilemma. There is no clear cut choice for the first selection the way there was each of the past two years for the Washington Nationals when they drafted pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper.
What to do?
"This year, it is a more clouded issue at the top of the draft," Pirates GM Neal Huntington told mlb.com. "Maybe it was a lot clearer to some coming into the year, and it's clouded because some guys have faded back and other guys have elevated. It's not unanimous. I can tell you that."
The depth of this draft is in pitching, especially at the top of the first round. Virginia lefthander Danny Hultzen, UCLA righthanders Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, Vanderbilt righthander Sonny Gray and Texas righthander Taylor Jungmann are among the pitchers on everyone's radar. Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and Kansas prep outfielder Bubba Starling are the only position players mentioned in the same breath as the others.
The Pirates have no problem taking a pitcher with their first pick. They're done it 11 of the past 15 years. They have had a problem with how those pitchers panned out, however. Take Ball State righthander Bryan Bullington, for instance. He was Pittsburgh's pick in 2002, which just happens to be the last time the Pirates held the first overall selection. Injuries sidetracked Bullington for years and he didn't win his first game in the majors until 2010. For Kansas City. It remains the only career big league win for Bullington, who is now pitching with the Hiroshima Tokyo Carp in Japan.
Pittsburgh has also used first-round picks on pitchers like Vanderbilt's Clint Johnston (1998), Kent State's John Van Benschoten (2001) and Houston's Brad Lincoln (2004). All three players also were derailed by injuries. The best of the pitcher picks was lefthander Paul Maholm (2003), who has won 49 games for Pittsburgh since being drafted out of Mississippi State. The Pirates' position picks have worked out much better, most notably with Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez (2008) and Florida prep outfielder Andrew McCutchen (2005).
So what will they do?
The Pirates aren't saying, most likely because they're having trouble deciding.
TCU lefthander Matt Purke may have more on the line than any other player in the NCAA Regionals, pitching to convince scouts he's healthy enough for one of the teams to use a first-round pick on him. Purke was all set to sign two years ago out of high school after being the 14th overall pick by the then-financially troubled Texas Rangers. Purke had reportedly agreed to a $4 million signing bonus but that was over slot, and MLB (then overseeing the franchise's expenditures) would not approve the deal. So Purke went to TCU, led the Horned Frogs to their first College World Series appearance and finished the season with a 16-0 record. A draft-eligible sophomore this year, Purke was expected to go even higher -- one publication had him rated No. 3 overall -- coming into the season. But shoulder soreness forced him to miss a month and questions remained even after he returned. Purke is 5-1 with a 1.51 ERA in 10 starts, so his numbers are still good. But his velocity is down (though still in the low 90s), and his stock is, too. A strong start could go a long way in stopping his slide. What would slipping from the first to the second round mean in the wallet? The first-round bonus last year averaged $2.22 million. Second-round bonuses averaged $745,000.
The draft began in 1965 with two main goals -- to contain signing bonuses and give less talented teams a chance to improve themselves. It worked for awhile. In 1964, the Los Angeles Angels signed Wisconsin outfielder Rick Reichardt for a record $205,000. With the draft in place, it was 15 years before anyone received more. Bonuses have exploded since then, totaling $65 million in the first round alone last year. This has worked to defeat the other purpose of the draft -- helping the have-nots -- as small market teams have in some cases shied away from top talent to save money. So the rich get richer, or enrich some fuzzy-faced kids, anyway. The average first-round bonus has actually decreased each of the past two years, a trend that bears watching again this year amid an ongoing economic downturn.
Tampa Bay went from struggling expansion franchise to World Series participant in just 10 yearsr thanks in large measure to astute selections at the top of the draft. Among the players the Rays hit on in the first round were high school shortstop B.J. Upton (2002) and outfielder Delmon Young (2003), Rice righthander Jeff Niemann (2004), Long Beach State third baseman Evan Longoria (2006) and Vanderbilt lefthander David Price (2007). Tampa Bay was even right about outfielder Josh Hamilton (1999), although it took several years and new surroundings to prove it.
Tampa Bay bears watching in this draft because the Rays have 10 of the first 60 picks, including three in the first round. Compensation (for losing free agents Carl Crawford and Rafael Soriano) provided two of the first-round picks as well as seven others before the second round. That should go a long way in restocking a cupboard that wasn't exactly bare to begin with. It has been estimated that Tampa Bay will need in excess of $10 million to sign all of its picks, an amount Rays executives appear willing to commit to make the most of this opportunity.
There are some familiar names in this year's draft, including four players who answer to the name "Junior" around the house. Following in their fathers' footsteps are Dwight Smith Jr., an outfielder for McIntosh (Ga.) HS; Shawon Dunston Jr., an outfielder for Valley Christian (Calif.) HS; Dante Bichette Jr., an outfielder for Orangewood Christian (Fla.) HS; and Jack Armstrong Jr., a righthander for Vanderbilt. Smith, who is expected to be taken within the first five rounds, is the highest rated player among the group.
Among other players with ties to the big leagues are Miami Dade JC outfielder Ozney Guillen (son of White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen); Monsignor Pace (Fla.) HS outfielder Dereck Rodriguez (son of Future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez); and USC infielder Shane Boras (son of superagent Scott Boras).
Another player with a famous name doesn't actually have a baseball connection, although his father was good with the stick. Oaks Christian (Calif.) first baseman Trevor Gretzky is the son of NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky. Trevor likely will be selected low enough that he will make use of the scholarship he has been offered from San Diego State.