Jonathan Mayo and I are toiling furiously on our initial 2019 Draft list, and MLB Pipeline will unveil its Top 50 Draft prospects and related content next week. One thing that's striking about the first impressions of next year's crop is the lack of pitching, especially on the college side.While
Jonathan Mayo and I are toiling furiously on our initial 2019 Draft list, and MLB Pipeline will unveil its Top 50 Draft prospects and related content next week. One thing that's striking about the first impressions of next year's crop is the lack of pitching, especially on the college side.
While the Top 50 is still a work in progress, our first take started with six straight position players atop the list. To put that in perspective, there has been only one Draft that began with as many as five consecutive hitters: 2005, which coincidentally happens to be the best Draft of this millennium. A lot will change between now and June, but for now, 2019 doesn't look like a good year to find arms early in the first round.
He's not a slam-dunk No. 1 overall pick like, say, Stephen Strasburg and Carlos Rodon were perceived to be at this stage, but Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman is a strong front-runner to go to the Orioles with the first choice in June.
Rutschman has proven himself at a higher level than Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., and as a switch-hitter with hitting ability, power and strong defensive skills at the toughest position to find, it's debatable as to whether he really has less upside. Though Witt was inconsistent with the bat at times on the showcase circuit, all of his other tools are plus, and his makeup is off the charts, so he's a viable option as well.
The Rays have developed McKay as a two-way player since they took him with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2017 Draft, and they will continue to do so in '19. But here's the complicating factor -- he's significantly more advanced as a pitcher than as a hitter, and he could be ready to help Tampa Bay's rotation much earlier than he'll be able to bolster its lineup.
In his first full year as a pro, which was shortened by an oblique injury, McKay logged a 2.41 ERA with a 103/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio while hitting .214/.368/.359, mostly in Class A Advanced. He might not be more than a year away from the big leagues as a potential mid-rotation starter, but he's going to have to show he can do more than draw walks to profile as a first baseman. It's more likely that he'll focus on pitching and get sporadic at-bats with the Rays than become a full-fledged American version of Shohei Ohtani.
How do you see right-handers Forrest Whitley, Josh James and J.B. Bukauskas figuring into the 2019 Astros? Bukauskas was the key piece to the Bryce Harper trade that fell through. Do you think Houston does something similar in a trade this winter?
-- Drew R., Rosenberg, Texas
Behind Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, the Astros' rotation is unsettled at the moment. They'll definitely add some veteran options this offseason -- re-signing Charlie Morton seems like an obvious move -- and as a club with legitimate World Series aspirations, they're not just going to hand starting jobs to rookies. Nevertheless, James and Whitley are so talented that they could seize them.
James led the Minors in strikeout rate (13.5 per nine innings) during a breakout 2018 season, then continued to show swing-and-miss stuff during his September callup and the American League Championship Series. His fastball and changeup can be above-average offerings at their best, and though his slider and control still lack consistency, he could win a job in Houston's Opening Day rotation.
Whitley has pitched only 137 1/3 innings in pro ball, but he's also MLB's top pitching prospect and the owner of four different offerings that can miss bats. He needs some time in Triple-A, but he could be starting games for the Astros by midseason.
Bukauskas has worked only 69 innings as a pro, yet he might not be far off from Houston either. He displayed a wipeout slider, as well as a quality fastball and changeup, in the Arizona Fall League, though scouts still debate whether he's better suited to be a starter or reliever. The Astros could take a number of routes with him: dealing him for immediate help, expediting him to the Majors as a bullpen weapon or taking more time to develop him as a rotation piece for 2020 and beyond.
Given that the Braves just signed Josh Donaldson for one year and $23 million, and they already had Johan Camargo coming off a strong season at third base, Riley seems blocked. But that doesn't mean he has no future in Atlanta.
Though Riley is one of baseball's top hot-corner prospects, he's also 21 and has played only a half-season in Triple-A. While he batted .282/.346/.464 at that level, he also struck out in 29 percent of his plate appearances. He could use some more development time, and the signing of Donaldson and emergence of Camargo mean that a team trying to win now won't have to rush Riley. It also makes him more expendable as a trade chip if the Braves decide to swing a blockbuster deal for someone like J.T. Realmuto.
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.