There’s no way that the draft class of 2012 will even come close to meeting the standard set forth by the two classes that preceeded it.
There’s no Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole or Bubba Starling. No Jameson Taillon or Manny Machado. And definitely no Bryce Harper.
Still, the class does offer many talented players, and according to the experts, potentially more depth than either 2010 or 2011. The strength of the class is still yet to be determined, but if one had to pick, it would be the Pac-10 conference, where Stanford’s Mark Appel and Kenny Diekroeger, and Arizona State’s Deven Marrero and Jake Barrett all play. Those four are considered definitive first-round talents.
The high school class is also considered above average, featuring several names that should sound familiar to baseball fans. Right-hander Lance McCullers, Jr. and Gavin Cecchini both come from baseball families with McCullers’ father pitching for seven years in the majors and Cecchini’s brother getting tabbed as a fourth rounder in last year’s draft.
With the draft order nearly set (it won’t be finalized until the end of free agency), it’s time to start trying to identify players that might interest the teams picking in the first round.
1) Houston Astros: Mark Appel, RHP, Stanford
Unlike the past three seasons, where there have been consensus top picks (Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon), the 2012 draft holds very little certainty. As of right now, there are very few “experts” who could even pinpoint a No. 1 overall player.
Still, somebody has to go first, and with that being said, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Astros went with Stanford right-hander Mark Appel. Appel doesn’t have the frontline stuff that last year’s No. 1, Gerrit Cole, has, but he’s got as much potential as any arm in this draft class.
The only thing preventing Appel from being declared the consensus No. 1 pick right now is results. If he produces in 2012, he’s going to be a virtual shoe-in for a team (Houston) in dire need of elite talent.
2) Minnesota Twins: Michael Wacha, RHP, Texas A&M
The 2012 draft will mark the first time that the Twins will be picking inside the top 10 since 2001. That was the year that they famously passed over Mark Prior in favor of hometown kid Joe Mauer. I’d say that deal worked out OK for them, although it looks like their most recent deal for him might not.
With all the injury concerns surrounding Mauer and without Wilson Ramos, who they dealt to Washington back when Mauer was still healthy, the Twins could really use a catcher, but right now, there isn’t one worthy of a No. 2 overall pick.
Taking that into consideration, as well as the Twins lack of depth in starting pitching (see Kyle Gibson), my guess is they’d be happy scooping up Michael Wacha, arguably the No. 2 overall college pitcher.
Taking Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero would have been a no-brainer had they not pulled the trigger on Levi Michael this past draft, a player they feel comfortable can handle shortstop.
3) Seattle Mariners: Deven Marrero, SS, Arizona State
The Mariners have somehow gotten worse every season since Jack Zduriencik took over as GM in October of 2008, and honestly, the future doesn’t appear to be too bright.
Yes, they still have one of the top pitchers in baseball in Felix Hernandez and they have an burgeoning ace in Michael Pineda, but their offense has taken dramatic steps backward. Ichiro is half the player he used to be, and aside from Dustin Ackley, their lineup has very little excitement.
It should be noted that 10 players who played in more than 50 games hit under the .250 mark. Justin Smoak (.234), Brendan Ryan (.248), Chone Figgins (.188) and Franklin Gutierrez (.224) all looked especially terrible at the plate.
Defensively, the Mariners weren’t much better, posting a middle-of-the-pack fielding percentage.
The M’s could kill two birds with one stone with the selection of Deven Marrero, a solid all-around player capable of hitting .300 at the big-league level while providing Gold Glove caliber defense. Marrero is hands down the top shortstop available regardless of draft class (high school or college).
The Mariners flirted with the idea of taking Francisco Lindor last year, and in Marrero, they would be getting a more seasoned version.
4) Baltimore Orioles: Steve Nyisztor, 2B, Rutgers
Out with the old (Andy MacPhail) and in with the new (Dan Duquette). The O’s are hoping that the former Expos and Red Sox GM has what it takes to finally lead the Orioles back onto the road to respectability. If he could even make Baltimore a consistent .500 team, that would be a success.
Duquette stated during his first press conference that it was his intention to rebuild the farm system from the ground up, and I can think of few better players to start that process with than the O’s last two first round picks: shortstop Manny Machado and right-hander Dylan Bundy.
In Machado, the O’s have a lineup cornerstone, an offensive player capable of playing an elite position, and in Bundy, they have a future ace.
Now it’s time to start building around those two. Rutgers product Steve Nyisztor would be a perfect heir apparent to Brian Roberts at second base. The O’s have been at a loss for a replacement, as Roberts has missed huge chunks of the past two seasons with numerous injuries. They have plugged several players in, and some, including Robert Andino and Ryan Adams, have even looked promising, but neither offers the offensive upside that Roberts did.
There’s no denying that Nyisztor has one of the better pure bats in the draft class, but whether or not he can bounce back from a sophomore campaign in which he only played in 12 games will be the true measure of how high he’ll go.
5) Kansas City Royals: Lance McCullers, RHP, Tampa Jesuit Prep (FL)
McCullers has all the tools of a potential top-overall selection.
His fastball is one of the best in the class, his command looked better than ever this past season and he’s made impressive strides with his secondary pitchers. The reason he ranks ninth overall on Baseball America’s high school top 100, and the same reason he’ll likely slide on draft day is due to the uncertainty surrounding how long he’s going to remain a starter.
Few teams feel comfortable taking chances on risky players like that, but the Royals aren’t one of them. They have consistently thrown caution to the wind and ended up reaping the benefits of the blossoming of some guys who were considered “risky.”
6) Chicago Cubs: Lucas Giolito, RHP, Harvard-Westlake HS (CA)
It was refreshing to see the Cubs stop trying to outsmart everyone in the 2011 draft. Instead of pulling a “Hayden Simpson,” the club simply went with the best available hitter, Javier Baez, a player of such great talent that will hopefully rid the organization of the taste of failure that was Josh Vitters.
And while the Cubs picked up one of the top players in the draft, they did nothing to combat the lack of quality starting pitching in their farm system. Their top pitching prospect, Trey McNutt, had a terrible campaign in 2011, and there were few, if any, pitchers who had breakout seasons for Chicago.
They did add a few arms in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft, but they currently lack a true elite talent on the mound.
Lucas Giolito is just that. He’s been on team’s radar since the beginning of his junior season, during which he showed not only improved velocity (he’s up to 93-97 mph), but also greatly improved command of all of his pitches.
If Theo Epstein could start off his first draft as the head honcho in Chicago with Giolito, you would have to call it a success.
7) San Diego Padres: Gavin Cecchini, SS, Barbe HS (LA)
The Padres haven’t done too well in the draft over the past few seasons. First, there was the Donovan Tate debacle. Then, they missed a huge opportunity to add Karsten Whitson to a declining cache of pitching talent.
This year, they went the safe route, tabbing Cory Spangenberg with their first pick and going after a projectable arm in Joe Ross later in the first-round. They also added some high-ceiling guys later in the draft, including catcher Austin Hedges (second), Michael Kelly (supplemental first) and Kyle Gaedele (sixth).
That’s all fine and dandy, but that group of players does nothing to change the fact that the Padres have Jason Bartlett and his 31 career home runs occupying shortstop. Beyond Bartlett, there is no true heir to the shortstop position, making Gavin Cecchini an excellent choice.
For starters, he has the footwoork and size to stick at shortstop long-term, an increasingly invaluable trait these days. He also has a special bat, with potential to hit for average and for power.
8) Pittsburgh Pirates: Kenny Diekroeger, SS, Stanford
The Pirates farm system is loaded, no doubt, but the one thing they truly lack is a superstar shortstop prospect. Chase d’Arnaud is all fine and dandy, but he’s no Kenny Diekroeger.
If Diekroeger can have a bounce-back season, he could jump up draft boards as we near closer to draft day, and with an impressive squad behind him, he’ll likely be playing well into June, giving teams an even better look.
Once upon a time, scouts had doubts about his ability to stick at shortstop, but he looked strong there last year, even as he continued to struggle at the plate. He’s a big-bodied guy, but he’s also one of the most impressive athletes in this draft class, so don’t count him out.
After all, this is the same guy who bested all of the numbers put up by Mike Trout at a scouting combine at the Area Code Games prior to the 2009 draft.
9) Miami Marlins: Mike Zunino, C, Florida
Last year’s draft broke the streak of having a catcher taken in the top 15 picks, but with Mike Zunino and several other talented catchers (Stryker Trahan, Clint Coulter, etc) on the board, it’s likely we’ll see a return to that trend.
The 2012 draft would be the perfect time for a team like Miami, who has whiffed on every catching prospect since Charles Johnson, to finally fill the void that has been unsuccessfully filled for the better part of two decades.
Doing it with a player from the state of Florida, and one who is deftly talented behind the plate and a force at it would be a perfect move.
10) Colorado Rockies: Victor Roache, OF, Georgia Southern
The Rockies have long been searching for a replacement for Todd Helton at first base. For a while, they thought that one of their top prospects, Nolan Arenado, would be that guy, but his play at third base has improved so much that he might stick there long term, leaving first base open.
Victor Roache played some first base during high school and his first year at Georgia Southern, and would probably do well in a return to the position.
He already has the bat that the Rockies love, one capable of leading all NCAA hitters in home runs in 2011.
11) Oakland Athletics: Byron Buxton, OF, Appling County HS (GA)
Baseball America’s top-ranked high school prospect heading into the 2012 season, Byron Buxton has already drawn comparisons to Justin Upton. That, and the track record of elite George prospects, including Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur and Jason Heyward, should be enough to get him popped inside the top ten.
Still, the 2012 draft is a long ways away, and there’s plenty of time for Buxton to either slide or for some other talented players to leapfrog him. The A’s would be incredibly pleased to get a player of his potential when their pick rolls around at No. 11. They would have loved to have had a shot at George Springer last year, so getting Buxton could easily be the next best thing. Or even better.
Buxton is a veritable tool shed, possessing impressive hit and power tools, as well as having great speed and outstanding defensive range.
It would be a shock if Buxton dropped out of the first round, and there’s even the chance that he could garner support for the No. 1 overall spot.
12) New York Mets: Matt Smoral, LHP, Solon HS (OH)
The Mets took a giant step forward in the way that they draft when they selected talented but raw outfielder Brandon Nimmo from East HS in Wyoming. For years, they had been content to simply take the most polished college pitcher, and that approach has netted them Brad Holt, Eddie Kunz, Kevin Mulvey and, most recently, Matt Harvey.
With a new GM on board and a new drafting philosophy installed, the Mets are prepared to take the next step, one in which they go after a high-ceiling pitching prospect. Lefty Matt Smoral would be just that. As one of the top pitchers from the high school crop and arguably the top left-hander, Smoral would be a welcomed addition to the Mets organization, one that is particularly lacking in high-ceiling starting pitching depth.
Smoral is committed to UNC, where the Mets just so happened to find their most recent first-round pitcher, Harvey.
13) Chicago White Sox: Kevin Gausman, RHP, LSU
The White Sox have some of the worst starting pitching depth in baseball, arguably the worst. As such, it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see them go after a premium arm in the upcoming 2012 draft.
LSU right-hander Kevin Gausman has the potential to be a top 10 pick in 2012, thanks not only to his velocity and developing secondary pitches, but also to his very prototypical pitcher’s body. At 6’4″ and 185 pounds, he still has plenty of room to add some more weight (increasing his durability and stamina).
Another season of pitching in college baseball’s toughest conference should give him all the seasoning he needs to make the jump to pro ball.
14) Cincinnati Reds: Jake Barrett, RHP, Arizona State
The Reds have a large cache of position talent, but are severely lacking in the pitching department. Arizona State right-hander Jake Barrett can help shore that up, as well as reach the majors rather quickly. The Reds last dip into the Arizona State well with Mike Leake worked out pretty well.
The Blue Jays selected Barrett back in 2009 in the third-round. Toronto was so high on him back in 2009 because he had a big-league body (6’3″, 225 lbs), a good fastball (90-94 mph) and two pitches (curveball and splitter) with above-average potential.
15) Cleveland Indians: David Dahl, OF, Oak Mountain HS (AL)
With Grady Sizemore on the outs, the Indians will be looking for a player capable of filling the very large space left in centerfield by the veteran outfielder.
David Dahl isn’t going to get to Cleveland in two or three years, but he’s as talented an outfield prospect as there is next to Byron Buxton. Perfect Game calls his bat “of the highest level,” and even Baseball Americaconcedes that his bat right now is better than Buxton’s.
The only reason Dahl isn’t considered the top overall high school position player isn’t because he’s lacking something; it’s because scouts are that in love with Buxton. Still, he would be an excellent pick up down here at pick 15.