While everyone is trying to figure out the nuances of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, especially as it pertains to the First-Year Player Draft, one thing remains constant, regardless of any rules changes: To have a good Draft, teams must identify and evaluate the available talent.
Who are the prospects projected to be the best in 2012? For the first time, MLB.com has unveiled a Top 50 Draft Prospects list in the year prior to the Draft. This is by no means a prognostication of who will go when next June, but rather a list ranked by talent. Several scouts were asked for their thoughts on how this coming year's class stacks up, using performances in summer leagues and showcases whenever possible.
Perhaps evaluating the talent will seem even more accurate now, with each team carefully watching its aggregate bonus-money pool, though in many cases, teams will have more dollars to play with than they've spent in the past (stay tuned for a series on the new CBA and the amateur landscape in the coming days). In the end, it won't really be known what impact the new rules will have until everyone has a new Draft under their belts.
At the very least, however things work out, teams will have players signed earlier than ever, with a new signing deadline to be set for mid-July. Now even the top picks, who usually hold out until the very last moment, will be able to spend at least six weeks playing pro ball in the year they are drafted.
"I hope the Major League Baseball Players Association educates the agents and consequently the families and players on this system," said one scouting executive. "The marketplace has changed, no doubt."
There's no question the list of what the marketplace has to offer will change considerably once the spring season gets under way, with many names on this Top 50 list sliding down and new ones rising up. But it's also likely that many of the names on the current list will hear their names called in the very early going on the first day of the Draft.
2012 Draft order
Below is a look at the 2012 First-Year Player Draft order, as it stands on Nov. 29. The order is based on 2011's final regular season standings and may change based on future free-agent signings.
Team (2011 record)
White Sox (79-83)
Blue Jays (81-81)
Blue Jays (*)
Red Sox (90-72)
Red Sox (**)
* Compensation for unsigned 2011 first-rounder Tyler Beede
** Compensation from Phillies for signing of Jonathan Papelbon
At the top is a college pitcher at a school that might know a little something about top picks. Stanford's Mark Appel finished his sophomore season as the top college arm in the class. Then he pitched well for Team USA and in the Cape Cod League, and early reports of his fall workouts were extremely good, making him the clear-cut No. 1 player at this time. It gives Stanford the chance to have the No. 1 overall pick in baseball and in football (Andrew Luck) in 2012.
The Houston Astros, with the No. 1 overall pick, will have the first crack at taking Appel. They will be followed by the Twins, Mariners, Orioles, Royals, Cubs, Padres, Pirates, Marlins and Rockies to round out the top 10 selections. As per the new rules in the CBA, any picks after the 10th selection in the first round are subject to change due to free-agent signings.
After Appel, the class takes on a much younger feel.
"This Draft is overwhelmingly strong on the high school side," the scouting executive said. "Three years of over-slot spending has decimated the college talent."
The Top 50 list reflects that analysis. Thirty of the 50 players, including 19 of the first 30, come from the prep ranks. And there's no question that in this youth movement, the strength is on the mound and in the outfield. There are 15 high school pitchers on the list. There are six prep outfielders, five in the top 30. Two of the top-five players are power-throwing high school right-handers, with Lucas Giolito threatening to become the first prep righty to go No. 1 overall and Lance McCullers and his plus-plus fastball not far behind. Georgia outfielder Byron Buxton leads the group of young, toolsy outfielders, coming in at No. 9.
"High school pitching and outfielders are the strength," the scouting executive said. "It's good, but not great, at the top and good, but not great in terms of depth."
Just because the depth lies in the high school ranks -- scouts will be spending a lot of time looking at prep players in California (7), Florida (7) and Georgia (4) -- that doesn't mean the college ranks should be ignored. Georgia Southern alone will be worth multiple stops, with two players in the Top 10 -- right-hander Chris Beck at No. 8 and outfielder Victor Roache at No. 10. But it goes beyond the top names on this Top 50 list.
"Despite the dearth of college talent, teams will spend a great deal of time scouting colleges as this system will require lots of discounts, bargains and rack-rate shopping, with both college juniors and seniors being the ones who get squeezed in this system," the executive said. "Value scouting will be important."