Inbox: Could Wake Forest make history with 5 first rounders?

February 16th, 2024

What a week! Pitchers and catchers have reported to camp, signaling the official start of Spring Training, and the NCAA Division I season begins today. Let's get to some related questions ...

I've been covering college baseball and the MLB Draft since 1987 and I've never seen a team with five potential first-rounders. First baseman Nick Kurtz is the best all-around offensive player available, center fielder Seaver King has the best combination of hitting ability and athleticism, left-hander Josh Hartle is our top-rated pitcher and Chase Burns is our top-rated right-hander. Righty Michael Massey struck out 48 percent of the hitters he faced a year ago and is the fifth Wake Forest player in the first 31 spots on MLB Pipeline's Draft Top 100.

The record for first-rounders from one school in one year is three, which has happened seven times since the Draft began in 1965. Michigan was the first to accomplish the feat with Rick Leach (also an All-America quarterback who finished third in Heisman Trophy balloting), Steve Howe and Steve Perry in 1979, while Florida was the most recent with Jonathan India, Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar in 2018. I listed all the other colleges to pull this off in my Pipeline Newsletter from last week.

Vanderbilt's 2014 national championship club has the most talented roster that I've seen personally. They weren't all part of the same Draft, but those Commodores included a No. 1 overall pick (Dansby Swanson, who was also the Most Outstanding Player at the 2014 College World Series), three other first-rounders (Carson Fulmer, Tyler Beede, Walker Buehler), a supplemental first-rounder (Jordan Sheffield), two second-rounders (Ben Bowden, Bryan Reynolds) and eight other Draft selections. All of those players mentioned in the last sentence reached the Majors, as did Jason Delay and Penn Murfree (who didn't play as a redshirt freshman infielder, eventually became a pitcher and was drafted after transferring to Santa Clara).

Louisiana State's 2023 College World Series champions became the first team ever to produce the first two picks in a single draft (CWS MOP Paul Skenes, Dylan Crews) and also had a supplemental first-rounder (Ty Floyd) and a second-rounder (Grant Taylor) among 13 total draftees. Tommy White and Thatcher Hurd could be first-rounders in 2024, with Paxton Kling, Gavin Guidry and Jared Jones also early-round possibilities. Those Tigers also had several players who were highly-touted recruits and could factor prominently in the 2025 Draft, including Brady Neal, Chase Shores and Aiden Moffett.

Don't sleep on last year's Wake Forest team, which placed third in Omaha after losing an 11-inning thriller to LSU in the semifinals. King and Burns are transfers, but those Demon Deacons could have five first-rounders with Rhett Lowder and Brock Wilken from last July and Kurtz, Hartle and Massey this year. Wake had 10 players drafted in 2023, including second-rounder Sean Sullivan and third-rounders Seth Keener and Teddy McGraw.

The most talented team ever was probably Arizona State's third-place finishers at the 1976 College World Series. Those Sun Devils are the only squad ever to produce two No. 1 overall picks (Floyd Bannister, Bob Horner) and also had another first-rounder (Ken Landreaux) and two second-rounders (Mike Colbern, Chris Bando). Twenty-six of the 27 players on the roster were drafted and 13 played in the big leagues: the five previously mentioned plus Ken Phelps, Ricky Peters, Darrell Jackson, Gary Allenson, Dave Hudgens, Chris Nyman, Bob Pate and Gary Rajsich.

I wouldn't read too much into Horton not getting invited to big league camp. That seems more like a commitment to get MLB Pipeline's fourth-highest-rated pitching prospect extra seasoning at the start of the year because he has just 88 1/3 innings in pro ball (27 above High-A) following 53 2/3 in two years of college at Oklahoma.

If new manager Craig Counsell and his staff saw Horton's wipeout slider and lively mid-90s fastball up close in Cactus League games, they'd probably advocate for putting him on the Opening Day roster. Keeping him in Minor League camp buys him a little more development time, but he still should make his Major League debut in the second half of the season, perhaps earlier if a leak springs in the Cubs' rotation.

We didn't go full 80 on Johnson in high school, though we did give his bat a 70. My Draft report on him was ebullient: "He might be the best pure prep hitter in decades ... Some evaluators give his bat top-of-the-scale 80 grades. One scout gave him a double Hall of Famer comparison by calling him a combination of Wade Boggs' plate discipline and Vladimir Guerrero Sr.'s bat-to-ball skills."

So after the Pirates signed him for $7,219,000 as the fourth overall pick in 2022, it was somewhat shocking to see Johnson bat .244 with a 26 percent strikeout rate between two Class A stops in his first full pro season, even if he did homer 18 times and draw 101 walks. He's still the best second-base prospect in baseball but that's not the statistical profile of a player who seemed destined to win big league batting titles.

This does speak to the volatility of high school prospects, who require projecting what they will be like 5-10 years in the future. But I don't think everyone miscalculated Johnson's hitting ability as an amateur so much as he was a different type of hitter in 2023. He still has tremendous hand-eye coordination and a quick, compact left-handed stroke, but his approach and swing decisions weren't what everyone saw as an amateur.

It's hard for me to pick just one but I'll go with Marlins left-hander Thomas White, a supplemental first-rounder out of a Massachusetts high school. He could have three plus pitches once he's fully developed and some scouts think he has a higher ceiling than prep right-hander Noble Meyer, whom Miami took at No. 10 overall. White could rank as the best lefty pitching prospect in baseball by the end of the year.

MLB Pipeline rated White as a first-round talent and he got first-round money ($4.1 million, a record for a New England draftee), so he's almost too obvious an answer. If you want some true sleepers, here are four arms who didn't crack our Draft Top 250 but could break out in their first full pro seasons: Winthrop right-hander Brody Hopkins (Mariners, sixth round), Butler County (Kan.) CC righty Izack Tiger (Rangers, seventh), Marshall righty Patrick Copen (Dodgers, seventh) and Missouri State righty Jake Eddington (Phillies, seventh)

Both Taylor (White Sox) and McGraw (Mariners), mentioned in the answer to the first question, were potential first-round picks before having Tommy John surgery and missing the college season. They both could prove to be steals.

I told you it was difficult to pick just one! I didn't even delve into several intriguing arms who slid because of signability but got paid, and I'll stop here before this gets out of hand.