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MLB Draft Preview: The draft starts tonight

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The MLB draft doesn’t get the attention of those of the NFL or NBA, but it’s just as important to the future of the sport.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-TCU vs Texas A&M
Might the Cubs take Texas A&M infielder Braden Shewmake?
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 MLB Draft starts tonight at 6 p.m. Central time. You can watch the draft on MLB Network or streaming for free at mlb.com. There will be a preview show that starts one hour earlier at 5 p.m. CT.

Rounds 1 and 2 will be held tonight. Rounds 3 through 10 will be made on Tuesday, starting at noon Central. The draft will finish on Wednesday with rounds 11 through 40 at 11 a.m. Central. Only the first round of the draft is televised, but you can follow along with the other rounds online at mlb.com. MLB has cleared the schedule so there should be no games going on at the same time as the draft.

The MLB Draft has come a long way from where it was 20 years ago. Fans now realize that the key to their team’s success lies in developing a steady stream of young talent and that the draft is the primary method of achieving that. The first draft I followed live was in 2002 and it was nothing more than an audio feed of a conference call, which is still how rounds 3 through 40 are conducted. (The online feed of Day 2 tomorrow will have some analysis and video highlights of some of the players picked.) But now, MLB has a big studio show with All-Star representatives getting on stage to announce the picks on camera. The Cubs pick is scheduled to be announced by Ryne Sandberg.

As much as the commissioner’s office would wish otherwise, the MLB Draft will never be as big of an event as the NFL or NBA Drafts. For one, college baseball simply isn’t as popular as college football or basketball, although it does have its fans, especially among SEC and Pac-12 schools. But baseball players are also taken from high schools and junior colleges and it’s impossible for anyone, even professional front offices, to keep up with every eligible player.

On top of that, instead of going straight to the big leagues like they do in football or basketball, every drafted baseball player is going to have to serve an apprenticeship in the minor leagues. No one has even played in the majors in the same year as they were drafted since Brandon Finnegan in 2014. The last MLB player to skip the minors entirely was Mike Leake in 2010. (Mostly entirely. Leake was drafted in 2009 and did pitch in the Arizona Fall League that year, although he signed too late to play in the regular-season minors. MLB has since changed the signing deadline so that can’t happen again.) Most of the best players from the 2016 draft are just reaching the majors now.

Another difference the MLB Draft has from their more-famous counterparts is that there is no trading of picks. (“Competitive Balance” picks can be traded, but not on draft day.) So if a team likes a player that won’t be around the next time they pick, they’d better take him even if the general consensus is that the player should have gone lower in the draft.

I should also mention who is eligible to be drafted. Any high school senior, junior college player and juniors and senior players at a four-year college is eligible. There are also some “sophomore-eligible” players who are eligible based on their age, but fans don’t really need to concern themselves with that. If a player is sophomore-eligible, they’ll tell you.

Additionally, the draft only covers players in the United States (including Puerto Rico) and Canada. Players from other countries have to be signed as free agents during the international signing period, which starts on July 1.

If you want more info, or just want to listen to me talk about the notes I had while I was writing this article, Sara Sanchez and Andi Cruz Vanecek were nice enough to have me on their podcast to preview the draft. That should be up today for you to listen to.

There are many sites to follow along on any of the three draft days. Probably the best for the novice fan in MLB’s own MLB Pipeline, run by two very good analysts in Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis. (If you’re watching on TV, pay attention when either of these two speak. Pay less attention to anyone else.) There’s also Fangraphs, ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, the Athletic and of course the granddaddy of them all, Baseball America. The latter four need subscriptions to read most of their draft coverage, however.

Of course, we’d like you to just follow along here on Bleed Cubbie Blue too. We’ll have an open thread on all three days of the draft to talk about it.

Just tell me about the Cubs

The Cubs have the 27th pick of the first round. They do not have any competitive balance or compensation picks, so they’ll have exactly 40 picks this year. After the first round, they have the 25th pick in every round following that. Not every pick will sign with the Cubs, but unless something goes horribly wrong, all of the top 10 picks will sign and most of the picks among the top 30 will as well. Most of the final 10 picks are fliers to see who might sign or they are honorary picks like the Cubs did last season.

Most major leaguers come from the first two or three rounds. Players taken later than that have a very small chance of making the majors. But when hundreds of them are taken every year, at least two or three are going to beat the odds. David Bote was taken in the 18th round. Kyle Hendricks went in the eighth round. Carl Edwards Jr. was famously taken in the 48th round, which doesn’t even exist anymore.

Who the Cubs will take in the first round and beyond is a bigger question. When you are picking at number 27, you really don’t have much clue who is going to be available. That unpredictability grows as the draft goes on into the second round and later on day 2. (Ironically, it becomes more predictable on day 3 because then teams are often taking players that maybe only three or four other teams have seriously scouted.)

Under Theo Epstein, the Cubs have prefered college players and especially college hitters in the draft. Since Epstein/Hoyer et. al took over in 2012, the Cubs have had seven first-round picks. They’ve taken five four-year college players and one junior college player. The only high school player they’ve selected was their very first pick back in 2012, Albert Almora Jr. Five of the seven picks were position players. Those players names are well-known to you. Other than Almora, it’s Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner. Other than Hoerner, however, all of those picks were top ten picks. The draft gets dicier with selections in the 20s.

With the caveat that I have no idea who the Cubs are going to pick and even the Cubs don’t know which of about five players they like are going to be on the board when they pick, here are some possibilities. Most people tend to think that the Cubs will stick with what’s worked for them and take a college bat, but Cubs VP Jason McLeod has warned against anyone assuming that is what they’ll do this year. He said that’s just the way it’s worked out in previous seasons.

Kody Hoese, 3B, Tulane

The front office may disagree with me, but Hoese is the best-case scenario for the Cubs. He checks all boxes that the Cubs look for in a player. The right-handed hitter hit .391 for Tulane this year along with 23 home runs. He walked more than he struck out. His defense at third base is somewhat fringy, but no one doubts that he could be a solid defensive corner outfielder if he can’t stick at third. On top of that, he’s from Griffith, Indiana, so he’s a Chicagoland native. I’ve read a report in Fangraphs that Epstein has personally gone to see him play.

The problem is that Hoese seems to be rising up draft boards and it looks unlikely, although not impossible, that he’ll be on the board at 27. The only reason he would be is that Hoese was actually not very good before this season. In fact, he was a draft-eligible sophomore last year and he went to the Royals in the 35th round and didn’t sign. In those wooden bat showcases before this year, Hoese struggled as well. So there’s some risk there that he could turn out to be a one-year wonder.

Greg Jones, SS, UNC-Wilmington

Jones is probably the fastest player in the draft this year, a switch-hitter who stole 42 bases in 52 attempts this year. He hit .341 although he only had five home runs. He might develop more power in the pros. He might not, too.

Jones walked 55 times in 62 games this year. so he’s a old-fashioned prototypical leadoff hitter. His hands at short are shaky, but he’s expected to make a successful transition to center field where his speed could make him a real asset like Billy Hamilton or Byron Buxton. A draft-eligible sophomore, Jones is also soaring up draft board lately (a lot of sites have him ranked in the 40s to the 60s — that’s old information) and he might not be on the board when the Cubs pick, although there’s a better chance he is than Hoese.

Will Wilson. SS, North Carolina State

Wilson has been one of the better hitters in college baseball over to past three seasons, hitting over .300 each year. This year, he hit .335 with 16 home runs. Despite his size (5’11”), few doubt his ability to hit for power as a pro. His downside is that he’s slow for a shortstop and will likely have to move to second base or third. He also strikes out more than recent Cubs draft picks have. But there’s clearly a lot of upside with Wilson’s bat.

Braden Shewmake, SS, Texas A&M

Shewmake is another player who’s hit over .300 in every year in college, this year hitting .315 with six home runs. He’s a lot quicker than Wilson and has stolen 11 bases. Although his power numbers have been disappointing this year, he is 6’4” and some scouts think he still has some filling out to do that could add to his power totals. That might cost him some speed, however, which would likely force him to move off of shortstop although he can probably handle the position for now. Shewmake also gets a lot of the “high baseball IQ” scouting reports that Nico Hoerner got last season.

Logan Davidson, SS, Clemson

The switch-hitting shortstop is easily the best defender of the four shortstops listed here and he provides a tantalizing offensive package after hitting .293/.415/.582 with 16 home runs and 17 steals for Clemson this year. He strikes out a little too much, but he also walks a lot and he has the size and the tools to be an impact player in the majors on both sides of the ball.

In fact, Davidson would probably be a top-10 pick in the draft except for one nasty issue. Over the past two seasons in the wooden-bat Cape Cod League, he’s been pretty terrible. It’s normal for players to hit less with wooden bats than with aluminum, but he’s got a huge dichotomy between the two. His combined OPS+ over two seasons in Cape Cod is 58, where 100 is average. But some team that believes that wooden bat performance is a fluke will take him in the first round.

Davidson is also the son of former Twins and Astros outfielder Mark Davidson, who won a World Series as a backup outfielder on the 1987 Twins. Teams generally like the sons of former major leaguers, assuming that they know about the work that goes into making the majors.

A high school pitcher

It would be totally out of character for the Cubs to take a high school pitcher, yet I think there’s a good chance they will anyway. Right now, few really promising arms are playing in the NCAA. Major league teams are drafting them out of high school and are enticing them to forego college with large bonuses and a warning about what happens to college pitchers who get hurt. So if the Cubs want an impact arm, they’ll probably have to go the high school route and several solid ones should still be available at 27.

Cary, Illinois native and lifelong Cubs fan Quinn Priester will very likely be gone by the time the Cubs pick, which is too bad because he’s met with the Cubs front office and has said it’s his dream to pitch for the Cubs. (The Athletic sub. req.) Maybe after free agency.

High-school pitchers who might be available and whom I’ve seen linked to the Cubs include Houston right-hander J.J. Goss, Atlanta right-hander Daniel Espino and Bradenton, FL (originally from North Carolina) right-hander Brennan Malone.

Espino throws the hardest with a 97 to 100 mph fastball with good movement along with a curve, slider and change that at least have potential. The issue is that he’s a short (listed at 6’1”) right-hander and the track record of short right-handed pitchers is not good. The track record of high school pitchers who can hit 100 mph is even worse. They almost all get hurt. But if he can beat the long odds, Espino is a top-of-the-rotation starter, or at least a terrific closer.

Malone throws hard too, but more in the 95 to 97 range. His slider is very good and pretty advanced for a high school pitcher. Malone’s curve is even more promising, if not as polished at the moment. All pitchers are risky and high school pitchers are especially risky, but Malone offers about as high a floor as you can get on a high school pitcher along with some reasonably-high upside.

Goss is a kid who really dedicated himself to conditioning and adding muscle over his senior in high school and has seen a big uptick in his performance. At 6’3” and 185, scouts think he could still add some more muscle and add velocity. Right now, Goss throws 90 to 92 mph (although he’s touched 96) with a strong slider and terrific change for a high school pitcher.

Who else will get drafted at the top of the draft?

The Orioles have the first pick in the draft and everyone expect them to take catcher Adley Rutschman out of Oregon State. Rutschman has been compared to Buster Posey, which would make him the ideal player to rebuild around. The Orioles have made noise about taking someone else, but you have to think they’re just trying to get Rutschman’s bonus demands down. He’s too good and makes too much sense for the Orioles to pass on him. Of course, it is the Orioles, so you never know, although they have a new front office there now.

Everyone knows that the Royals are going to take Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. with the second pick. Witt is a five-tool player who can play shortstop and provide an impact bat. The Royals are hoping he’s their newest superstar. (And yes, he’s the son of the pitcher of the same name.)

Things get interesting when the White Sox pick at number three. Cal Golden Bears first baseman Andrew Vaughn is easily the best hitter in college baseball. He hit .402 with a .531 OBP and 23 home runs as a sophomore to win the Golden Spikes Award, baseball’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. He’s slipped a little as a junior, but a .381 average with 15 home runs won’t scare off anyone. He’s also hit with wooden bats in the Cape Cod League. Scouts rave about his swing and his natural feel for hitting.

Teams may shy away from Vaughn, however, because he’s a short (6’1”) right-handed first baseman who really can’t play any other position. There’s pretty much no example of a guy like Vaughn succeeding in pro ball. On the other hand, there’s really no example of a guy like Vaughn at all. (Here’s a great article summarizing the issues around Vaughn.) Will the White Sox swing for the fences with Vaughn, or will they take a safer and more conventional approach? Who gambles on Vaughn may be the story of the night.

Other players expected to go early are Vanderbilt outfielder J.J. Bleday, Georgia HS shortstop C.J. Abrams and Florida HS outfielder Riley Greene. Texas HS third baseman Brett Baty is also getting a lot of late buzz and could go in the top five.