At Major League Baseball's draft Monday will be five players: Carlos Correa, Andrew Heaney, Gavin Cecchini, Courtney Hawkins and Clint Coulter. Unless you are a nerd, you have not heard of any of them.
You have not heard of any of them because baseball is not like football or basketball. Its best amateurs don't feed directly into their professional equivalent. The best baseball players spend at least a year in the minor leagues. Most take three, four, five years of seasoning, sometimes more. Baseball treats its prospects like wine while basketball and football are tequila and Jager.
Baseball, of course, wants to have its alcohol and drink it, too, by televising a draft that is hours of soul-numbing viewing. The entertainment quotient is restricted to prospect hounds and those who tune in to see Bud Selig pronounce the Dodgers' hometown as Los Angeleeze.
(Count me among the latter. It's awesome.)
When MLB first decided to televise the draft, it seemed like a decent enough idea. Personalize it, build slowly and within a few years players would want to attend it in New York. Only it hasn't worked that way because baseball hasn't done the requisite work to make those players interesting.
MLB owns a television network. This is a very powerful medium. This gives the league the opportunity to broadcast a game or two of the best high school players in the country. This allows the sport a chance to scope out college players and promote them so they're not just a first name and a last name come draft day. There is no intrigue if there is no emotion, and there is no emotion if there's no connection, and there's no connection if there's no conduit – and with no intrigue, emotion or connection, it's like a TV series with characters nobody cares about – the sort that gets canceled.
The exception comes when baseball happens upon a grassroots superstar. For the draft's first two televised years, it had one: Stephen Strasburg in 2009 and Bryce Harper in 2010. Last year, when Gerrit Cole went No. 1 and everyone after him was nothing more than a local story, nobody cared. Same for this year.
Correa is a dark horse to go No. 1 overall to the Houston Astros. He is a household name – in his own house. Hawkins and Heaney might be top 10 picks. The others are first-round talents. Not there: Mark Appel, Byron Buxton, Kyle Zimmer, Kevin Gausman, Mike Zunino, who could comprise the first five picks in some order.
The sport treats the draft with an if-you-build-it-they-will-come mentality. That's backward. Baseball needs first to build the idea of its amateur product as something more than a D-list sport. This will take years and patience and money – all of which will pay off with more fans following the sport. The NFL and NBA drafts are only as good as their college programs that earn billions of dollars a year in television money. High school and college baseball earn billions of pennies a decade.
[Steve Henson: Astros would be wise to play it safe with No. 1 pick]
Until baseball changes that, they might as well go back to the old format – a conference call – because they shouldn't have to rely on those like …
1. Bryce Harper to single-handedly carry the interest. Though, come to think of it, he is quite well-equipped to do so, something he affirms more every day he spends in the major leagues.
It is easy to forget Harper is 19 because he is so good. His OPS now sits at .922 after his fifth homer Sunday, one of 16 extra-base hits in 118 at-bats. Among those with at least 125 plate appearances, only 26 players have a better slugging percentage than his .542. Just 30 contemporaries beat his .380 on-base percentage.
And while the small-sample-size police ticketed me on Twitter for leaping onto my jump-to-conclusions mat, I did so – and do so – with no shame. Harper is a star already, a bona fide prodigy who is doing things we haven't seen since, what, Mel Ott, who only put up the greatest teenage season ever in 1928. The closest in modern history is Ken Griffey Jr., who at 19 went .287/.356/.434 in his first 136 plate appearances.
Maybe Harper keeps this up. Maybe he doesn't. Either way, any time a player so transfixes the sport with his talent, it's a blessing for fans. And to have two of them at once, with …
2. Mike Trout doing his best Junior impersonation. No, they're not all that similar. Griffey had more raw power. Trout's blessed with great speed. But Trout is getting on base at a .374 clip and slugging .538. Junior's lifetime OBP and SLG numbers: .370 and .538.
Trout and Harper simultaneously generate excitement in different leagues, on different coasts, from different sides of the plate – and with similar styles of play. In short: aggressive. Harper stealing home was impressive. Trout beating a Nelson Cruz rocket throw from right field on a tag-up Saturday night was almost equally so. They're both fun. They're both exciting.
Still, when someone on Twitter asked who I'd rather see in the All-Star game, I didn't hesitate: Harper. The allure of his power, the doesn't-give-a-damn vibe he gives off, the feeling that this is someone with a chance to make a historic impact. – it's intoxicating. And while I'd take Trout over pretty much anyone else in baseball, with a few exceptions, he's still not Harper. Whether …
3. Jorge Soler can butt his way into that conversation depends on whether he's more Yoenis Cespedes than Gerardo Concepcion. The hype around Cespedes seems warranted, at least for four years and $36 million. Concepcion is a 20-year-old pitcher whom the Chicago Cubs gave $7 million and has been somewhere between dreadful and LOL at Class-A.
Soler is the latest Cuban defector to hit free agency, and while perhaps it's unfair to compare him to Cespedes and Concepcion only because of their shared homeland, Cubans are indeed in a different category because of the exorbitance of their bonuses. That soon will end with the new free agent rules – they allow Cubans 23 and older to hit free agency, but teams are far likelier to shell out dough to younger players, the 26-year-old Cespedes being the exception.
Just how high the bidding will go in the next week is of great intrigue to those around baseball who expect the Cubs and others to push the 20-year-old Soler's asking price well into the $20 millions and perhaps beyond because he may be baseball's true final bonus baby. Plenty will complain the money is excessive, as they did when …
4. Yadier Molina signed a five-year, $75 million contract to stay in St. Louis. Now he's hitting .335, slugging the same as Trout and, while not the defensive lock-and-key he once was, still intimidating with his defense.
Molina is about to play in his 1,000th game, a boatload for a catcher who isn't yet 30. By the end of the season, only 10 players will have caught more games than Molina in the pre-30 age group.
Maybe he'll regress and that $75 million will look silly, though Molina is doing all he can to remind the game that Puerto Rico – where Correa is from – still can produce great baseball talent. It's easy to forget what an epicenter for prospects Puerto Rico was before it joined the draft.
In 1991 alone, Pudge Rodriguez, Bernie Williams, Roberto Hernadez, Rey Sanchez and Jose Hernandez debuted – and combined to play more than 7,500 games. The Alomar brothers, Carloses Delgado, Beltran and Baerga, Jorge Posada, Juan Gonzalez, Ruben Sierra, Benitgo Santiago – Puerto Rico was every bit as rich as the Dominican Republic in talent, and Molina is doing his best to keep it going, outshining even …
5. Joe Mauer as he's back to form as the on-base machine of yesteryear. Already he has walked more than he did last year (and in 108 fewer at-bats). His 33-to-21 walk-to-strikeout ratio is as beautiful as his hair (and without the need for Head and Shoulders).
No, Mauer is not the .587-slugging, $184 million-contract-getting monster of 2009 anymore, and chances are he won't ever be. His body is too beat up and his new stadium not in any way conducive to power. That said, if Mauer can catch about half the time (he's played the position 25 times in 52 games this season), take a ton of pitches (his 4.37 per plate appearance is fifth in baseball) and sell tickets (which the hometown boy should do, barring Minnesota going completely against style and turning on him), he'll ensure the deal, with six years remaining, isn't a total albatross.
The lack of power does look odd during his other half of the time at DH and first base, though …
6. Adrian Gonzalez – the No. 1 overall pick in 2000, the year before Mauer was taken first – might be the best personification that hitting and first base no longer are the great marriage they once were.
Among all of the down seasons for first basemen – Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, Eric Hosmer – Gonzalez's might be the oddest. Pujols is adjusting to a new league and massive contract. Teixeira showed signs of decline last year. Hosmer is still just 22. Gonzalez looked like the perfect fit for Boston, which committed $154 million to seven years of bliss. And what have they gotten? A .322 on-base percentage, 50 points below his career average. A .417 slugging percentage, 92 points lower than usual.
Weird part is, it's like that across the game. First base is the position of production. Take a look at the OPSs and adjusted OPSs (with 100 being average and each number above it representing a percentage point better than league average) for first basemen over the last decade, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
The last time any other position challenged first base for hitting supremacy was in 2004, when left fielders tied first basemen's OPS+. Beating first basemen was next to impossible. DHs did it in 1991. The last position to out-OPS+ first base was right field, in 1984. This year, left field, right field and DH are ahead.
The production doesn't match the talent, something that has been said about …
7. Mark Appel throughout his career at Stanford. The likely first pick – conventional wisdom says the Astros should take him – throws in the high 90s but has been hittable, similar to Cole, whom Pittsburgh took first last year.
While Cole is a fine prospect, in hindsight the Pirates would have gone with prep starter Dylan Bundy, who's as scary to hitters as Ted and as successful on the field as Al. He has a 53-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has allowed 14 hits in 40 innings. Privately, Baltimore officials admit Bundy could pitch – and succeed – in the major leagues today. They simply don't want to foist that on him, even if he is only a month younger than Harper.
The evolution of pitchers is often slower than hitters – Cole, who spent three years at UCLA, still is in Class-A – because they take time to figure out how they'll succeed. There's no way …
8. David Price
would've thought as a rookie that he wouldn't throw a slider five years later. More than 30 percent of his pitches that season were. And yet here he is, fastball faster than ever at more than 95 mph, changeup improved from a show-me pitch to his second best, curveball a nice complement and slider changed over to a cutter, which remains a work in progress.
All of it amalgamates to one of the American League's nastiest array of pitches, and Price's 2.44 ERA stands second behind only Chris Sale. Price is generating more groundballs than ever, his 7 1/3 scoreless in his last start helped kick the Rays into first place and only Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia and Edinson Volquez have thrown more than his 1,211 pitches.
Price is an ace and a workhorse, the sort of thing teams dream of when they choose a pitcher with the No. 1 selection, and the decision whether to let …
9. Stephen Strasburg fulfill that destiny this season will drive the Washington Nationals to a decision bound to be scrutinized either way.
Here are the pertinent facts: The Nats are in a three-way tie for first place in the NL East on June 4. Strasburg is 21 months separated from Tommy John surgery. Following seven shutout innings Saturday, he has thrown 65. The Nats want to limit him to 160.
And so the conundrum: go for it now or save Strasburg for future years – even if the arm could survive this year just fine or blow out the next even after being shut down. If Strasburg weren't so damn good, this would be an easy decision. But his 2.35 ERA is the fourth best in the National League, and he's got the second-best strikeout rate behind teammate Gio Gonzalez, and his raw stuff is even better than his numbers indicate.
Even after the surgery, he's the pitcher we thought he'd be in the 2009 draft, when the Nats chose him a year before …
10. Bryce Harper fell into their laps. Neither Harper nor Strasburg showed up to New York for their drafts. In fact, at the inaugural in-person draft, only one player made an appearance.
His name? Mike Trout.
He fell to the 25th pick for a number of reasons – chief among them baseball's reticence to value East Coast players similarly to those from out West – and stewed with his family until the Angels salvaged him from an Aaron Rodgers-like stew in the green room.
It worked out well for him and well for the Nationals, even if the draft coverage isn't going so well for MLB. Someday perhaps it'll be a marquee event, worthy of pomp and pageantry. For now, it's a bunch of names you don't know, a bunch of faces you won't see for years and a bunch of picks – 17 in all – before Bud Selig says Los Angeleeze.
And not even that is worth the time.
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