Nothing gets the ol' pulse racing like relief pitchers and corner infielders. OK, five-tool shortstops do. And filthy left-handed starting pitchers. And athletic catchers with strong bats. And center fielders who throw out runners, hit home runs and steal bases.
Truth be told, relief pitchers and corner infielders rank near the bottom of the pizzazz meter.
But that's the strength of the 2008 draft, which begins Thursday with the first five rounds and concludes Friday with rounds six through 50. Deal with it. The top names are all here on the following list. Call it a first-round projection, a mock draft, a crapshoot or a guesstimate. Nobody can predict a baseball draft with any certainty. But most of these guys won't last long.
The first few picks could be one athletic catcher with a strong bat, one filthy left-handed starter and one five-tool shortstop. At least one fleet center fielder will go early.
Yet college relievers who could reach the major leagues soon enough to save a general manager's job are plentiful. So are power-hitting first basemen poised to fill the void created by stepped-up testing for performance-enhancing drugs.
As for intrigue, it should begin with the first overall pick by the Tampa Bay Rays, who appear to have whittled their choices to catcher Buster Posey of Florida State and high school shortstop Tim Beckham. Yet an unlikely last-minute change of heart could prompt them to take a Vanderbilt star for the second draft in a row – third baseman Pedro Alvarez coming a year after left-handed pitcher David Price.
So let's get on with the rest of the first-round projection-mock-crapshoot-guesstimate:
1. Tampa Bay Rays – Buster Posey, C (Florida State): All of a sudden the Rays are a team with aspirations of winning now, and Posey – a converted shortstop – is an advanced player who could take the job from middling incumbent catcher Dioner Navarro by 2010.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates – Pedro Alvarez, 3B (Vanderbilt): Although he could be a tough sign because he's a Scott Boras client, Alvarez is close to being a big league hitter right now. And best for the Bucs, he's not a pitcher who could go down with a disastrous arm injury like most of their recent top picks.
3. Kansas City Royals – Brian Matusz, LHP (San Diego): A cerebral starter with four accomplished pitches, Matusz represents outstanding value for a low-revenue team such as the Royals. He's only a year or two from the big leagues and could quickly develop into a rotation mainstay.
4. Baltimore Orioles– Tim Beckham, SS (Griffin, Ga., HS): Clearly the best high school prospect in the draft, Beckham is outstanding defensively, has a plus arm and displays surprising power for his size. Best of all, he exudes leadership and a passion for the game. The Rays could grab him instead of Posey.
5. San Francisco Giants – Justin Smoak, 1B (South Carolina): The Giants need pop in the worst way, and Smoak is perhaps the best pure hitter besides Alvarez in a draft class stocked with mature corner infielders. Smoak, a switch-hitter, is also an accomplished first baseman.
6. Florida Marlins – Kyle Skipworth, C (Riverside, Calif., Patriot HS): This is a tad early for Skipworth to go, but the Marlins sorely need catching and Posey is certain to be gone. Skipworth, who had 18 consecutive hits at one point this season, is farther along with the bat than with the glove, but scouts love his athleticism and high ceiling.
7. Cincinnati Reds – Aaron Crow, RHP (Missouri): Scouts are split on whether Crow is best suited for the starting rotation or the back of the bullpen, but the Reds would have room for him in either role. Crow throws a heavy mid-90s sinker and also possesses a slider that's ready for prime time right now. He might be the player closest to the big leagues in the entire draft.
8. Chicago White Sox – Gordon Beckham, SS (Georgia): Although he eventually could be moved to third base, Beckham hits well enough and with enough power to be an asset anywhere. He uses all fields and has developed sufficient plate discipline during his three years at Georgia. Beckham led the Cape Cod League in home runs last summer, so his power should translate with a wood bat.
9. Washington Nationals – Shooter Hunt, RHP (Tulane): This would be a counterintuitive pick for Nats general manager Jim Bowden, who usually gravitates toward the best available athlete. But his team needs pitching, and the hard-throwing Hunt has been all but unhittable this season. He also projects to improve because he only started pitching four years ago and still hasn't mastered a changeup.
10. Houston Astros – Brett Wallace 3B/1B (Arizona State): Wallace, Eric Hosmer, Yonder Alonso and David Cooper form a cluster of mature, power-hitting corner infielders that all should go in the first round. Wallace dropped about 30 pounds since beginning college and has improved enough at third base for many scouts to believe he could remain there.
11. Texas Rangers – Eric Hosmer, 1B/P (Plantation, Fla., American Heritage HS): Few players excite scouts like Hosmer, a pure power hitter who also can step on the mound and throw in the mid-90s. He might have the most potential of any hitter in the draft. However, Hosmer is represented by Boras and has a scholarship to Arizona State, so he could be a difficult player to sign.
12. Oakland A's – Jason Castro, C (Stanford): With Posey and Skipworth ahead of him, Castro is the last top-tier catcher available, so a team that wants one had better grab and go. The A's would forget the catching and take Wallace if he is available, but they like Castro's plate discipline and ability to hit to all fields. Castro has improved defensively and projects to remain behind the plate all the way to the big leagues.
13. St. Louis Cardinals – Yonder Alonso, 1B (Miami): Yes, the Cardinals have Albert Pujols, but if any player left on the board is a slam-dunk big leaguer, it's Alonso, a mature native of Cuba who produced prodigious offensive numbers at Miami. A left-handed hitter and right-handed fielder, Alonso's only drawbacks are an average glove and below-average speed.
14. Minnesota Twins – Aaron Hicks, CF/RHP (Long Beach, Calif., Wilson HS): The best athlete this side of Tim Beckham, the switch-hitting Hicks wants to play every day and has the speed, glove and arm to do it. Not all scouts are sold on his bat, however, and some teams feel he is better suited for taking the mound and unleashing his 95-mph fastball.
15. Los Angeles Dodgers – Christian Friedrich, LHP (Eastern Kentucky): The Dodgers love left-handed pitchers – witness Clayton Kershaw and Scott Elbert – and would be delighted if a polished starter such as Friedrich fell to them. Friedrich's curveball has been compared to that of Kershaw.
16. Milwaukee Brewers – Casey Kelly RHP/SS (Sarasota, Fla., HS): This pick is contingent on signability, because Kelly is also a quarterback who signed a letter-of-intent to play at Tennessee (where he also would play baseball). He's another high school player whose future could be either as an everyday player or as a pitcher. Kelly's father, Pat, is a former major leaguer and a longtime minor league manager.
17. Toronto Blue Jays – Josh Fields, RHP (Georgia): The Blue Jays want a player on the fast track to the big leagues, and Fields is a pitcher who could be in Toronto by 2009. Georgia's career saves leader, he could be a setup reliever as a rookie and a closer soon thereafter.
18. New York Mets – Ethan Martin, RHP/3B (Toccoa, Ga., Stephens County HS): Here we go again, another player whose future could be as a pitcher or as a position player. Martin's best asset is his power – as a pitcher who touches 95 mph and as a hitter who blasts tape-measure home runs. Scouts love his passion for the game, and he appears willing to go forward either as a pitcher or an everyday player.
19. Chicago Cubs – Zach Collier, OF (Chino Hills, Calif., HS): The Cubs probably would take Kelly or Martin here, but if both are gone, Collier presents an intriguing high school option with a high ceiling. A fluid hitter with an aggressive approach in all phases of the game, Collier's stock has accelerated this spring.
20. Seattle Mariners – Tim Melville, RHP (Wentzville, Mo., Holt HS): There has been talk that the Cardinals could pluck Melville at the No. 13 spot because he's a local talent, but that rarely tips the scales on draft day. It's more likely that he'll end up with a team willing to take a chance on the top right-handed high school pitcher in the draft.
21. Detroit Tigers – Gerrit Cole, RHP (Orange, Calif., Lutheran HS): On pure ability, Cole would be a top-10 pick. He's likely to fall, however, because he's represented by Boras and because he's displayed some immaturity on the mound at times. No one doubts Cole's ability and upside: He's tall, wiry and has touched 98 mph with his fastball.
22. New York Mets – Conor Gillaspie, 3B (Wichita State): The reigning most valuable player of the Cape Cod League, the left-handed hitting Gillaspie has tremendous makeup as well as a power stroke. There are questions about his defense, and although he might be ready to hit in the big leagues within a year or so, he might be better off with an American League team.
23. San Diego Padres – David Cooper, 1B (California): The Padres need to take the best hitter available who should have a short route to the big leagues, and that means Cooper. The caveat is similar to that of Gillaspie: Can Cooper field well enough to play in the National League?
24. Philadelphia Phillies – Andrew Cashner, RHP (Texas Christian): The Phillies need pitching and they need it now. Cashner, a 6-foot-6 reliever, conceivably could be in the big leagues by September. He throws consistently in the upper 90s, and has a dominant slider, solid command and a knack for shutting the door in the late innings.
25. Colorado Rockies – Jake Odorizzi, RHP (Highland, Ill., HS): Finally, a dual-position player who is clear on where his future lies. Yes, Odorizzi is a rangy shortstop, but he knows full well that his future is 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. The velocity on his fastball improved this spring from the low- to mid-90s and his slider already is a fine complementary pitch.
26. Arizona Diamondbacks – Ryan Perry, RHP (Arizona): This is the gas-saver pick, going with the local kid who can keep his apartment in Tucson all the way through spring training. His fastball approaches 100 mph and sits at the mid-90s, although some scouts aren't sold on its movement. Perry projects as a big league set-up reliever within two years and a potential closer.
27. Minnesota Twins – Jemile Weeks, 2B (Miami): The brother of Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks, Jemile is a switch-hitter with game-changing speed and the savvy to do the little things right. Like his brother, Jemile has surprising power even though he is 30 pounds lighter.
28. New York Yankees – Robbie Ross, LHP (Lexington, Ky., Christian Academy): The cash-flush Yankees seem to have their sights set on a high-ceiling high school arm. The most intriguing is Alex Meyer, a 6-7 right-hander from Greensburg, Ind., HS who has a scholarship to Kentucky and is represented by Boras. But if Meyer's signability becomes a serious issue, Ross – who also has a scholarship to Kentucky – could be the next name.
29. Cleveland Indians – Brett Lawrie, 2B/3B/DH (Brookswood School, Langley, British Columbia): Scouts in love with Lawrie's bat compare him to Dan Uggla, but he has a long way to go to become the all-around player the Marlins' second baseman is. Still, Lawrie has pull power, uses the gaps to all fields and has yet to be overmatched against top competition.
30. Boston Red Sox – Reese Havens, SS (South Carolina): The Red Sox have long coveted the cerebral, mistake-free Havens despite his relatively low ceiling. Havens is the type of player who makes his teammates better, a consistent performer and leader. If he doesn't make it on the field, he might join Theo Epstein in the front office before he's 30.