As a bit of a backdrop, I began writing this after Saturday night's loss to the Diamondbacks. You remember, right? The one where the starter was left in a few hitters too long. And the relievers auditioned for the role of "How to prevent an umpire from feeling compelled to ever call a strike". I'm fully expect a pitching-heavy draft the next three days.
A team should never make their first pick of the MLB draft based on need. That said, two of the three likely options for the second pick in the first round are pitchers. The Cubs' selection will probably be one of those two. This preview will go over the general rules of the MLB draft, highlight the three most likely to be selected by the Cubs, and whatever else I decide to include. Don't be surprised, though, if the Cubs select quite a few pitchers over the next three days.
The Major League Baseball draft began in 1965. Some teams had grown wary of an imbalance in player signings (in quantity and quality), and Rick Monday was the first pick in the inaugural draft. Over the next almost 50 years, the draft has changed with the times. Now, there are 40 rounds, with teams (generally) getting one selection per round. With one exception, trades are not permitted. (The exception is the newly created 'competitive balance' picks, created to give 'smaller markets' an edge over the bigger cities. Of the 12 competitive balance picks, three have been traded, one was lost in compensation, and eight more could theoretically be traded. It is doubtful they will be.)
The first two rounds take place tonight, beginning at 6 p.m. CT. Friday will take us through round 10, with the last 30 rounds being run through on Saturday. Of the 40 players the Cubs will draft, the team will probably sign a little over 25 of them, and add a few more undrafted free agents. Usually, the players signed will go directly to Arizona for a physical, to have a drug test, and start getting ingrained in the Cubs Way of doing things.
Many of them will never reach any level of full-season minor league ball. The round selected is a fairly decent assessment of potential, but by no means the assessment. All diamond positions will probably be drafted and signed, as part of the draft is about fielding teams in Arizona that will never be televised on WGN. Many of the soon-to-be chosen will be based on baseball skills and ability to be good teammates, as for many, being a good teammate will be their chief contribution. While some will eventually become 'prospects', most will be young men chasing the dream of playing pro baseball with no delusions of ever being a big-leaguer.
As players get drafted, the next fascination here at BCB will be about getting them signed. This task has become more arduous in the last few years with the 'salary slotting' system getting refined. There are limits on how much can be spent on the first ten rounds of selectees. Few like the system as is, but it is what we have.
Houston will select first. No one has any remote idea what the Astros will do. While the three players I will highlight below are probably the three best in the draft, Houston may opt to draft someone else. With the slotting guidelines, the Astros took a player first last season who would sign for less than 'slotted value' in Carlos Correa. With the saved money, they could afford to get two players with their next two picks (Lance McCullers and Rio Ruiz) that they couldn't have gotten without using that strategy. If they follow the same tack this year, they will probably select University of North Carolina 3B Colin Moran. If that is the case, the Cubs will get their pick of the three top players in the draft. Here are a few words about those three.
Mark Appel, RHP, Stanford University
Appel was in this spot last June. The Astros offered him a signing bonus below slotted value. When he refused the offer, he slipped to ninth in the first round, and returned to Stanford instead of signing. After improving as a senior, he belongs here again. Appel's 95 mile per hour fastball is his third best pitch. It tends to have a little less movement on it now that you might prefer. His slider is a put-away swing-and-miss style offering, and his change-up provides a consistent option against lefties, especially. His delivery doesn't need much attention, and it doesn't appear to be a red-flag for injury. He resembles Mark Prior from in-the-day a bit too much for some (laid-back RHP from California named Mark), minus the surgeon-needing arm action. Appel wouldn't need much tuning in the minors, and might be ready for the majors by late 2014 (Yes, that would be very fast). He would be a safe pick, potentially being a No. 2 starter in the big leagues as early as 2015.
Kris Bryant, 3B-OF, University of San Diego
The NCAA started requiring new bats three years ago to cut down on the scoring. Despite that, Bryant still hit 31 homers this year, the most since the switch. Bryant has dangerous power. That is not up for question. He will also strike out quite a bit. That will be a given. He has become a patient hitter, after years of being pitched around. Hence, walks and taking pitches aren't the question. There are two concerns. Where will he play, and how well will he hit for average? If Bryant will be a quality third baseman (think Aramis Ramirez from 2003-07) who can hit on the high side of .270 most of the time, he provides value at 1.2. However, if he struggles to hit .250 while being shuttled off to the outfield, you take one of the pitchers. I've watched him play recently in tournament action on my computer, and don't fear his defense. He shows range both to the foul line and in to the plate tracking bunts. His arm is strong, if not flashy. He oughtn't put Anthony Rizzo in a bind very often. If the braintrust goes this way, they are confident his bat and glove will supplement his power, and he will hit a souvenir or two onto Kenmore.
Jonathan Gray, RHP, University of Oklahoma
Early on, this spot was supposed to be for Ryne Stanek or Sean Manaea. Dillon Overton was supposed to be the Sooners' ace. However, once Gray started hitting 100 miles per hour multiple times every outing, and repeating high-90's stuff in the eighth inning, he joined this club. He has a potent slider, which might be better than his fastball as far as getting outs. That was the case in a recent college outing against a Coastal Carolina team that was timing up his fastball. They were guessing high-90's gas, and flailing feebly at sliders off the plate. Gray's question is his change-up. He has one, and it is a decent pitch now. He needs to use it more, and much of his tuning up in the minors will be getting a better feel for his third offering. If it develops into an out pitch against lefties, you draft Gray. If it won't develop, you opt Appel or Bryant. If Gray's change becomes a weapon, he could be a Justin Verlander-type ace. Even if it isn't that good, he still figures to be a solid #2 starter, with higher upside than Appel. Gray's delivery doesn't scream Tommy John surgery, and he is a the Sooners' team captain, so that isn't a problem. I saw him rush a bunt attempt, and throw a strike to third on a non-force play. Despite the 3B dropping the ball, the mistake wasn't Gray's. His pick-off move in college (that picked a guy off and once led to an error) is considered a balk at the pro levels. That will be changed, so that isn't a worry. His delivery tends to be a bit slow, so teams might choose to try to run on Gray.
This week, it was announced that Gray tested positive for Adderall in the pre-draft drug testing program. Adderall isn't banned, but the league will now be permitted to test Gray more often. If Gray had a prescription, it would have been permitted. While it won't necessarily drop him in the draft, it won't bump him up, or aid him in a tie-breaker set-up. Gray will pitch on Friday night in super-regional play for the Sooners.
The Second Round
Last year, Theo Epstein and crew drafted pitching-heavy beyond the first round. That seems to be a safe guess this draft as well. If a starting pitcher gets the call Thursday in the second round by the Cubs, it will likely be a pitcher with a three or four pitch mix, with a fastball speed in the 92-93 mile per hour range. When looking at mock drafts, there are quite a few like that. Aaron Blair of Marshall, Jonathan Crawford of Florida, Ryan Eades of LSU, Andrew Mitchell of TCU, Bobby Wahl of Mississippi, and Trevor Williams of Arizona State are all in the range, There are a few high school arms with potentially higher upside, but also the inherent higher-risk factor. The draft is strong in potential catchers, and Chris Okey or Nick Ciuffo might get selected with the Cubs' pick, the 41st overall, as well.
There is no guarantee of a battery participant, as the goal in the MLB draft is to add talent wherever available early. That said, the middle-infielder types in the range of 41 usually include a 'positional weakness' bonus for most teams, and the Cubs don't have a pressing need there. Whoever the team opts for will be a good worker/solid citizen/good athlete type. The recent history of taking upstanding quality players won't be deviated from this draft season.
After Thursday night's session is completed, I will put together a thumbnail on the players the Cubs selected on Thursday, along with some potential options for Saturday's third round. Whether you subscribe to numerous draft site services, are entirely reliant upon me for your draft info (yikes, scary), or somewhere in-between, this is a weekend for optimism. Your input is welcomed. As well as Team Theo did on drafting Albert Almora and Pierce Johnson last time around, and in 'guessing' right on pitchers Paul Maholm, Travis Wood, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva the last two off-seasons, I'm comfortable with them restocking the system this weekend.