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2020 Draft Preview No. 5: Talking the Top of the Draft

Looking at the top half of the first round, without committing to a full mock draft just yet.

Miami Marlins v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Morning, all.

I looked before at the ways in which this year’s truncated draft might affect players from a generic standpoint; today I want to try and get into some specific players, and what I think will happen at the top of the draft. I’ll go back to my usual scouting reports from now until the draft (which has been confirmed for just five rounds, unsurprisingly, seeing as how that’s the cheapest and shittiest thing the owners could do, and they never let us down), but first I want to zoom in on just the very top of the draft.

First off, let’s look at the draft order for the first fifteen picks:

  1. Detroit Tigers
  2. Baltimore Orioles
  3. Miami Marlins
  4. Kansas City Royals
  5. Toronto Blue Jays
  6. Seattle Mariners
  7. Pittsburgh Pirates
  8. San Diego Padres
  9. Colorado Rockies
  10. Los Angeles Angels
  11. Chicago White Sox
  12. Cincinnati Reds
  13. San Francisco Giants
  14. Texas Rangers
  15. Philadelphia Phillies

The Tigers have the first overall pick for the second time in three years, while the Orioles are coming off having the first pick last year, which they spent on Matt Wieters 2.0, aka Adley Rutschman. (And if ‘Matt Wieters 2.0’ sounds uninspiring, it’s worth remembering just how remarkable a prospect Wieters actually was.) The Marlins remain perpetual bottom-feeders, and the Royals seem to have returned to that status following their semi-inexplicable two-season Cinderella story. I have to admit, if at any point you had asked me, “Hey Aaron, how bad are the Toronto Blue Jays?” I would not have answered, “Top five draft pick bad,” but here we are.

Now let’s talk players. This year’s draft is an interesting one in terms of demographics, and it actually works out very well for this bizarre, no-baseball-played spring. The top of the draft is heavily weighted toward college players this year, with far fewer high school players hanging around the top ten than is usual. Now, to be fair, it’s possible that the reason there are fewer high-schoolers up at the top is because so little baseball was played this spring, limiting the breakout potential of younger players and leading the guys with the track records to just camp out up top, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. Some years you just get unbalanced classes, and this feels like one of those years.

Of the top ten players, depending on whose board you prefer to look at, you could have as many as three high school players, or as few as one. Personally, I think I would have two or three; I don’t particularly love either of the high school pitchers closest to the top of the draft (Mick Abel out of Oregon or Jared Kelly, a classic Texas smoke artist type), but I am high on Ed Howard, a high school shortstop who’s currently fluctuating in various mocks depending on the exact scouting opinion and a little bit of injury concern regarding his throwing shoulder.

That lack of high school arms at the very top is interesting, and does seem to point toward the lost spring as a prime cause for the thin crop of prep arms. Most springs, we would have had a guy like Kelly hitting 99 in spring events and showing an improving curveball, and suddenly he would be sitting number two on somebody’s board. This spring, we never really got to see who was going to take off that way.

The biggest debate at the very top of the draft is almost certainly going to come down to Spencer Torkelson versus Austin Martin for the first overall draft spot. Torkelson is a special hitter out of Arizona State, but he’s a first baseman who has tried to take some grounders at third and maybe play a little outfield. In other words, he’s a first baseman. To be fair, he’s a pretty good defender there, and looks like a decent Paul Goldschmidt starter kit out of the box, but you can find players with big time bat upside and very little else to recommend them later in the draft. Would a guy like that sitting around in the fourth round be as good as Torkelson? Probably not. Could that guy be 80-90% as good? Maybe. I called Torkelson a Paul Goldschmidt starter kit; Goldy himself was an eighth round pick out of Texas State in the 2009 draft.

Martin, on the other hand, is one of the more intriguing players in the draft because he’s an outstanding pure hitter and a potential up the middle player, but there is some question about his offensive ceiling. He’s a better hitter than the last shortstop to go number one overall out of Vanderbilt, Dansby Swanson, but it’s not a sure thing Martin can actually handle short, either. The truncated season actually probably hurt his chances of going first overall, because the two real questions about him coming into the spring were what kind of power potential he really had, and what his defensive ceiling looks like. He didn’t play shortstop early on, and then the season was cancelled.

My personal opinion is that Martin really fits best as an all over the field player cast from the Ben Zobrist mold, capable of handling short without embarrassing himself and playing second, third, and both corner outfield spots at a solid level while putting up great on-base numbers. The issue for me is this: if a player has a chance to be special, but is probably best playing multiple positions, can you start with a player like that? Or do you build the rest of the team first and then find your super utility swiss army knife guy later, after you’ve got the starting spots a bit more locked in? Maybe it doesn’t matter; if a player is good, you take him and then you figure it out. But I do wonder if you have a player you think should be good to play ~30 games at five different positions, can you lock that guy in first, or do you figure out the starters at those five positions first, then try to fill in with a guy who can do a little bit of everything.

In some other year, where the draft was 40 rounds long, I would actually go outside the box with the first pick and work out a deal with a guy like Nick Gonzales, whom I covered in my initial hitting favourites post, then turn around and take an expensive shot with my next pick, and at least one more pick somewhere in the top ten rounds. As things stand this year, though, I don’t know that five rounds is enough to be sure I’m going to reap the full benefit of a strategic approach. I might still personally go with Gonzales; he’s the Alex Bregman of this draft to my eye, but he’s definitely a riskier bet than either Torkelson or Martin, I think. If forced to pick, I think I would end up landing on Martin, but I’m not 100% sure of that.

It’s also possible I would reach a little bit and pull Emerson Hancock, the top college pitcher in the draft, at number one. Hancock came into the spring ranked first overall on most boards, but he wasn’t especially dominant out of the gate (his peripherals were crazy, but he did get hit around a little bit), and when you have less data, you tend to lean on the safer choice. Pitchers are always a little riskier, so the hitters have risen. Asa Lacy, a lefty out of Texas A&M I really like, has cemented himself as a top five pick, helped along by a crazy start to the season this spring that saw him strike out 46 hitters in 24 innings.

I expect Torkelson and Martin to go 1-2, in some order. I wish I were running the Orioles’ draft room; I really like their farm system right now, and love what they might be able to accomplish even in this sawed-off draft. One of either the Marlins or Royals will do something wacky, I think, though by wacky I mean like take a top twelve or thirteen kind of guy at three or four, not wacky like the Cubs taking Hayden Simpson in the first round wacky. Or one of those disastrous Pirates picks of the 2000s. I’ll say it’s the Marlins who do something a little surprising and take a player ten picks too early, then the Royals just take whichever of Hancock or Lacy they prefer, sensibly.

The Blue Jays and Mariners both look like smart drafters at this point; I’ll say the Jays take a college pitcher, either the remainder of Lacy/Hancock or a guy like Max Meyer out of Minnesota, who has the best pure velocity and a killer slider (but some real reliever downside risk). The Mariners select Nick Gonzales, and the premium college hitters at the top are now mostly gone. After Gonzales you start to drop into the class of hitter highlighted by a couple of real tweener types in Garrett Mitchell and Patrick Bailey. Mitchell is an athletic marvel with speed and power to burn, but who has yet to prove he can really hit. A Bubba Starling type, if you will. Bailey, meanwhile, has a really intriguing bat for a catcher, but it’s an open question if he stays behind the plate or not. If he does, he has star upside. If not, well... The ceiling for the bat is just not so high he’s a slam dunk if you’re unsure of the position.

From seven to ten I think maybe you see a little run on pitching. Reid Detmers, Cade Cavalli, maybe Garrett Crochet are all in play, I think. Detmers belongs this high, but the others maybe don’t. Still, I think this is where we see some teams going for quick turnarounds and near-term bets, and college pitchers tend to match those criteria.

I’m still unsure how much this draft’s bonus format will change clubs’ calculus regarding high school kids, and how much it will change the calculus the players’ sides will be performing as well. I am fairly certain, however, that the installment plan nature of bonuses this year will make draft-eligible college sophomores a near non-starter. Which is a shame, because this year’s draft had maybe the most impressive collection of college sophomores potentially on the block that I think I’ve ever seen. J.T. Ginn, one of my very favourite pitchers in this class, falls into that group, and I’m 90% certain Ginn will be back next year to look for a bonus he can actually get all at once instead of on a payment plan. Slade Cecconi, a power righthander out of Miami with some relief risk, is another of those guys. I’m not all that high on Cecconi, and definitely don’t think I would go over the top to bring him in this particular year.

As for who will be around when the Cardinals go on the clock at 21, they should have a very intriguing batch of players from which to choose. The safer bets will, of course, be gone by that time, but this year I tend to think you would do better with five or six picks in the top 100 than a top five pick, if that makes sense. It’s a depth draft rather than a superstar draft, is what I mean.

Probably one of the top three prep pitchers will fall to 21. The guy I’m hoping for on that front would be Nick Bitsko out of Pennsylvania. Really like that guy, and have him in the queue for a proper scouting report Sunday. Abel and Kelly I expect will both be gone, but it’s not out of the question one or both could fall a la Shelby Miller in 2009. Especially this year, the risky bets could be extra volatile in terms of draft position, I believe. The Cards were mocked to take Patrick Bailey earlier this spring somewhere, but I just don’t really see that. The Redbirds do not take catchers in the first round, full stop. Maybe if they were picking in the top five they would, but by the time the Cards go on the clock the catchers they have access to with their most premium picks are usually guys with more questions, and the Cardinals value certain tools extremely highly, and seem convinced they can find value other places than in the first round.

Given how the draft board looks to me, there will be at least one high-upside player who slips to the Cardinals. I don’t know who it will be; Ed Howard is a decent bet if teams are leery of the shoulder, or one of the Abel/Kelly/Bitsko trio if teams are a little gunshy about high school players in general. Pete Crow-Armstrong was off to a hot start this spring and I think would have ended up back in top ten consideration, but we’ll never get to see.

It’s going to be a strange draft this year. Then again, in the end, it will probably look not that much different from most others in the aggregate. Well, until it ends after three hours, that is.