With the MLB Rule 4 Draft fast-approaching, I figured I'd put up a final jumbling of notes and predictions from the world's various experts as to what the D-backs are expected to do with their top picks, #3 and #7 overall. Once I manage to sort through the random jumbles of confusion amongst the premier sources available (with the prerequisite subscriptions, of course), I'll try to make some sense of what we can expect Arizona to do on Monday.
Disclaimer: As short as this main page introduction snippet may be, I'll warn you now, this post is nearly 4000 words long.
First, allow me to start by laying down the way things seem to be headed with the top two picks. Before the weekend started, it seemed that nobody had a firm grasp of what the Pirates were going to do with the first overall selection of the draft. It seemed that each source had a different pick - one would say that they believed it would be University of Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen, the next would say that it was likely to be UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole, and a third was confident that the Pirates were giving Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon a long look. However, Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is hearing that Pittsburgh will be taking Cole, and the rest of the draft-following word seems to have been agreeing with him ever since that tweet. With that in mind, it also appears that Seattle, with its focus on nabbing a top bat, will go for Rendon, the mostly-unquestioned top bat in this draft crop. Thus, I'll be operating under the assumption that Cole and Rendon go 1-2.
From there, it's easy to figure out the top three players on Arizona's board for the #3 pick - if you haven't been following the pre-draft process much, those players are the aforementioned Hultzen, UCLA right-hander Trevor Bauer, and Owasso HS (Oklahoma) right-hander Dylan Bundy. For ESPN INsiders, scouting reports from Keith Law on those three players can be found here (Hultzen), here (Bauer), and here (Bundy). For those who aren't INsiders, here's the understanding I have gathered from scouring mock drafts, the Twitterverse, and various scouting reports (such as the reports found in those INsider posts) of each guy:
Danny Hultzen: The safest pick in the draft, and that's not a way of saying that whoever takes him is chickening out. His upside isn't as high as any of the other premier arms available at the top of the draft, but by looking deeper at the flaws of the other options for the D-backs with their top pick, it's easy to see what makes Hultzen an attractive option. Hultzen hasn't been subjected to the out-of-this-world workloads that Bauer has faced at UCLA. Hultzen is 6'3", a much more suitable height for a starting pitcher than Bundy's listed height of 6'1". Hultzen even already has above-average command, something that Gerrit Cole has had serious issues with throughout the college season.
Really, there isn't any major flaw in Hultzen's pitching game right now - earlier today, I heard Keith Law say on the radio that Hultzen (and Trevor Bauer) could hold his own in a big-league rotation tomorrow, and I can't find any reason to argue with that assessment. He sits in the low-90's with his fastball, nowhere near the mid-to-upper-90's found in the two UCLA arms and Bundy, but certainly above-average velocity, particularly from a left-handed pitcher. Hultzen's velocity slipped a little bit in a recent outing, but nobody seems overly concerned about him not being able to stay in the 91-93 range long-term, so I'm not going to worry about it either. His feel for a change-up is advanced, and I've heard reports on his slider that range from average to fringe-average, but there is little concern that the slider won't eventually be a big-league-caliber offering if it isn't already. Even the bearish on Hultzen see a #3 starter, and the D-backs have been amongst his biggest fans since high school, so we certainly see something more in Hultzen.
Trevor Bauer: As mentioned above, it's easy to be scared off by Bauer's college workload. Bauer just threw his ninth-straight complete game in an NCAA elimination game on Saturday, and all year long he has faced absurd pitch counts that have exceeded 120 multiple times and on occasion been scarily close to 150. Not to mention the fact that Bauer has proudly stated that he throws every pitch as hard as he can - including pre-game and between-inning warm-up tosses. Within those max-effort warm-up tosses, Bauer has a habit in which his first toss before each inning starts on the grass behind the mound, resulting in a sprint up the mound and off the rubber providing Bauer with as much torque as possible before throwing for max velocity, often well above 100 miles per hour. Bauer's muscles and bones might be trained to handle that sort of workload, but is it possible to train ligaments to handle that much stress, or will Bauer wind up needing a few replacement ligaments in his right elbow?
The typical response in Bauer's defense has been "well, his body is conditioned for it," and it's true that Bauer has an incredible workout regiment. He long-tosses from distances as high as 350 feet (even on days he pitches), and I've also read of him working with exercise equipment such as a javelin or various resistance bands to build up the requisite durability to handle the workload he's faced this Spring. And those who believe that his body will hold up tend to be infatuated with Bauer's stuff, with good reason. He sits in the mid-90's with his fastball, with an excellent curveball, a solid change-up, and other show offerings like a slider, a splitter, and, to quote Bauer, a "reverse slider," which translates to "screwball" in English. Unlike his UCLA teammate Cole, Bauer has had little issue with command, and has been generating absolutely incredible results this Spring, recently setting a new single-season PAC-10 strikeout record. Few doubt that Bauer will breeze through the minors and into the big-leagues in short order, but the bigger question is whether or not his body will allow him to remain there.
Dylan Bundy: It's rare to find a high school arm like Dylan Bundy. Bundy isn't that projectable, rail-thin kid you see throwing 91-93 showing flashes of a plus breaking ball and minimal feel for a change-up, hoping that it will someday result in a fully-grown top-of-the-rotation starter throwing 94-97 with a plus breaking ball/change-up combo. Bundy, in spite of his youth, already has that kind of stuff. His fastball velocity sits in the mid-90's, which he carries deep into his outings, a feat in itself for a high school arm. He has a big, slow, yet effective curveball that is a nice pitch, but his bread-and-butter offering is his cutter, which Keith Law called "vicious." Just look at some of the rave reviews of Bundy's work from this Nick Piecoro piece on him. One scout: "[T]he best-pitched high school game I've seen in my 20 years of scouting." Another scout: "[I]t was the best I've seen a high school pitcher." Needless to say, the upside here is a legitimate #1 starting pitcher.
Of course, there's that issue, the one that's going to nag at each front-office guy whose team has a pick in the first four of this year's draft - Bundy's height. Bundy, as mentioned above, is 6'1", which makes him something that some teams utterly refuse to draft in the first round, not to mention third overall - a short, right-handed, high-school pitcher. It certainly brings up the question of Bundy's long-term durability - here's an 18-year-old, 6'1" kid reaching 100 mph on the radar gun... and his body is going to remain intact for the next seven or eight years (a year or two in the minor leagues, then six years of team control)? Sure, Bundy is a fitness freak (read the Piecoro piece for details on that), and his lower body looks like it could support Mount Rushmore (again, direct yourself to the Piecoro piece and take a look at the picture). But if you aren't sure if Bundy can hold up, and there's reason to be unsure, it begs the question: is the risk worth the #3 overall pick in a loaded draft?
The Money Factor: Whenever the financial implications of a draft pick are brought up, the quick-twitch fan reaction is to scream bloody murder about how much of a bunch of cheap-asses your team's ownership is, blah blah blah. In some cases, it's completely warranted - see: Bullington, Bryan. However, there are good reasons to consider financial implications when it comes to making a draft selection, particularly one in as deep of a draft as we're supposed to see in 2011. The D-backs supposedly have some money to throw around in the draft, but using it all to sign the top pick or two and having to go cheap on subsequent picks does not seem to be the smart way to go with the depth that can be found in the Sandwich round and beyond.
So, it'll be important for the D-backs - and any team - to decide if Bundy's $30MM demand is a total facade and Bundy will sign for $6MM or so, or if he truly is going to stick to getting a bank-breaking bonus, even if it's more in the $10-11MM vicinity, and even in light of the possibility of hard slotting in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Similarly, will Hultzen's supposed quick-path to the majors be inhibited by a long contract holdout in which he tries to negotiate his bonus to as close to his supposed $13MM demand as possible, or will he sign quickly if presented a $5-6MM check? As much leverage as the D-backs have with these players due to the looming CBA, the atrocities of NCAA workloads, and the ever-present chance that injury could strike (particularly with Bauer or Bundy) and make all of the money go away, the players also have leverage with the D-backs - if Arizona doesn't cough up the money needed to sign these kids, they're going to get a dramatically inferior talent a year from now with the unprotected fourth pick in the 2012 draft.
My Opinion at #3: For those who've made it this far into this post without getting bored, HI MOM!!!! ... *Ahem* ... Anyways, it's about time for me to throw in my own two cents as to how I'm hoping the D-backs use the third pick in this draft. Allow me to begin by making the following disclaimer: I've been really bad at making up my mind as to what I want to happen. Since my "In Defense of Bubba Starling" piece (which didn't quite turn into the series I'd hoped it would, as time was rather non-permitting) hit the 'Pit, I've quickly realized that the D-backs are simply not targeting Starling third overall, and are instead almost undoubtedly going to select one of the three pitchers profiled above. Since then I've flip-flopped between Hultzen, Bauer, and Bundy more than John Kerry did during his campaign for the 2004 presidential election.
After all of the deliberating, report-scouring, and rumor-digesting, I finally have come up with a personal Plan A: Danny Hultzen. For one, I think Hultzen is a guaranteed-sign. He should cost no more than $8MM, probably more in the $6MM range, and is the safest bet in the draft at winding up with a major league starting pitcher. Here's my thinking: even if Hultzen's median WAR expectation should he reach and stay healthy in the big-leagues is somewhere around 3.5-4 per year, while Bauer is more of a 4-4.5 WAR guy if he sticks around in the big leagues and Bundy is anywhere from 4-5, I'd take Hultzen because I'm not 80% confident that Bauer or Bundy will be able to reach and sustain those levels of production for six years of major league control.
Sure, anything can happen and Hulzen could feasibly fall apart as well, but I'd say that I'm 90% confident that he'll end up at least contributing 3.5 WAR on a regular basis to whoever picks him on Monday. If there's one thing Finance classes have taught me, it's that investors should in general be risk-averse, choosing the conservative option when expected values are equal. Hultzen simply seems like the best investment.
Plan B for me would be Bundy. As intriguing as Bauer is, it's not the pitch counts I'm worried about. It's Bauer's insistence on throwing as hard as he can with every pitch. For one, part of the art of pitching is being able to change speeds, and not just by throwing a different pitch. If Bauer's throwing his hardest all game long, how can he reach back for extra velocity to blow away a hitter in a key moment? Josh Collmenter's reach-back fastball at 89 miles per hour can still leave a batter standing in a pile of dust because it's a good three mph faster than his usual fastball. I don't see Bauer being able to have that extra three mph when he needs it.
Then, for two, there's the obvious concern with this max-effort approach in that I think he's a much more likely candidate than Bundy to fall apart over the long-haul. This isn't about getting the best starting pitcher for the 2012 season, this is about getting the best starting pitcher for the 2012-2016 window that appears to be opening up with our current wave of prospects adding on to the current core of Upton, CY, IPK, Hudson, Hernandez, etc. Over the long haul, I'll take the odds of the traditional work ethic and more conventional mechanics of Bundy holding up rather than the quirky, uncharted territory of Bauer's excessive workout regiment.
Of course, the D-backs have another top-10 pick to worry about, and the decisions of another three teams to consider when looking at who to target with their #7 selection. The way things look from what I've gathered, Baltimore, picking fourth overall, is going to take whoever is left over from the D-backs' trio of college arms, with Hultzen first on their wish list, followed by Bundy and Bauer. Kansas City, who picks fifth, also wants a quick-to-the-majors arm, and will take whoever remains from Hultzen, Bundy, and Bauer. If none of those arms are available for Kansas City, it likely means that Gerrit Cole, who is actually at the top of their wish list, slipped out of the top-4, so they would simply take him. Essentially, this means that although it's extremely difficult to know who exactly each team in the top-5 is going to take, it's become clear, at least to me, that Cole, Rendon, Hultzen, Bundy, and Bauer will taken 1-5 in some order.
This means, of course, that the D-backs are unlikely to get two of the three arms that are at the top of their wish list. However, it also means that the D-backs can have a pretty solid idea of who will be on the board when they pick. Particularly with recent hubbub that Washington is hot on Bubba Starling's trail - resulting in the Nats securing each of the most highly-hyped and highly-touted prospects available in the last three drafts - it seems that the available players who are going to be available at #7 are shockingly simple to identify, at least until the actual day of the draft comes along and screws this all up.
While less clear to identify than the three main targets for the third overall pick, I see three prospects being strongly considered by Arizona at seventh overall - Monteverde Academy (Florida) shortstop Francisco Lindor, Vanderbilt right-hander Sonny Gray, and Broken Arrow HS (Oklahoma) right-hander Archie Bradley. That isn't to say that these are the only names being connected to Arizona at #7. I've heard Matt Barnes of UConn and Javier Baez of Arlington Country Day School in Florida connected to the D-backs at various points of the draft process, though I would be surprised if Arizona took either. Arizona has always seemed to favor Gray to Barnes, and although Baez projects to have a better bat than Lindor, he also projects to move off of shortstop to third base, where he becomes far less valuable and where Arizona already has a glut of top prospects.
For ESPN INsiders, links to reports on the three hi-lighted players above can be found here (Lindor), here (Gray), and here (Bradley). And, again, for non-INsiders, here's what I've gathered about the three arms:
Francisco Lindor: Lindor is the premier shortstop prospect in the draft, and that's always a sought-after commodity. Lindor is a rare high school shortstop in that there are relatively few concerns about his ability to remain at the position long-term. He is near-unanimously seen as an average or better defender at the position in the big leagues, which gives him a pretty high likelihood of reaching The Show for a high school bat, which is a little strange because he's also rather young for a high school senior at just 17 years old. The offense, on the other hand, is a bit more of a concern with Lindor, in spite of what Lindor's high school coach believes. I don't see Lindor being the type of guy who consistently will hit double-digit home runs in a season, though I do see a good number of doubles and 8-10 home runs per year at least. The biggest thing I'll want to see from Lindor is walks - if you think he can develop a sound major-league hitting approach with good patience, you're willing to risk a .250-.270 batting average and .100-.130 ISO to get the glove at shortstop on the field everyday. If Lindor's swing (technically swings, as he's a switch-hitter) is able to consistently generate line drives, the benefits will simply be icing on the cake.
Sonny Gray: Few players divide scouts as much as Sonny Gray has. First, let's get the good stuff that everyone agrees about out of the way. Gray has a spectacular curveball that is without a doubt his out-pitch, and he shows no hesitation in using it often. He is a fearless competitor on the mound, as demonstrated by the title of Nick Piecoro's draft profile of Gray. He's been an effective starter for the Commodores this season, with a 2.01 ERA and 115:39 K:BB ratio in 13 starts. Then, finally, Sonny Gray has an awesome name. Beyond that, there is little consensus as to what Gray will eventually become. Believers in Gray see a consistently low-90's fastball and glimpses of a solid change-up, which Gray hasn't had to use much to get college hitters out, that, combined with his curveball, profile Gray as a #2 starter that any team would want pitching for them in a pressure situation. Non-believers, on the other hand, see a 5'10" right-hander with almost no downward plan on his fastball, violence in his delivery, and an unproven change-up, who won't hold up to the 30-start workload needed from a major-league rotation fixture to get to those high-pressure situations that Gray thrives in (in other words, they see a closer, which isn't worthy of a top-10 draft pick).
Archie Bradley: While Bradley's good friend and fellow Oklahoma high school pitcher Dylan Bundy breaks the traditional mold of a high school pitcher, Bradley fits it quite well. His current fastball velocity sits in the low-to-mid-90's, but there's some projection to dream on with his sturdy 6'3" frame. Bradley's knuckle curveball is already a plus offering, coming in hard in the mid-80's with a sharp 12-6 break, earning comparisons to San Francisco starter and royal pain in the D-backs' side Matt Cain from one scout quoted within Nick Piecoro's piece profiling Bradley. Bradley's change-up needs work, as he has limited feel for the pitch since he has rarely need to make use of it in high school. However, unlike Gray, who is supposed to be a polished college product, Bradley has plenty of time to add feel and polish to his change-up before he is expected to reach the major league level. One notable concern with Bradley is that he's a two-sport star with a commitment to Oklahoma to play quarterback for the Sooners. Although most of what I've heard suggests that he'll sign, it's something that Arizona will need to consider when taking him with an unprotected pick.
The Money Factor: Gray will sign quickly, and for around slot. It's also believed that Lindor will sign, and won't make an excruciating process out of getting too much over slot to do so. Bradley, on the other hand, could require some extra change, which means that the D-backs probably wouldn't take him if they selected his good friend Bundy third overall - granted, they probably wouldn't want to take high school arms at #3 and #7, anyway.
My Opinion at #7: I don't think it's absolutely necessary here to take another polished college starter who can get to the big leagues quickly. With the high odds of us getting a fast-riser at #3, a 2013 rotation consisting of five of Hudson, Kennedy, Parker, #3, Skaggs, Collmenter, Brewer, Corbin, and/or Holmberg in some order/composition is plenty to salivate over. This is why I would love to see Lindor taken seventh overall. Shortstops are excruciatingly difficult to find, and the D-backs may be on the verge of losing a great one in Stephen Drew to free agency not too far in the future. In that event that that were to happen, I wouldn't our only internal back-up plan one year before Drew's contract expires to be a prospect who might have to repeat Hi-A. As good as Chris Owings could be, the attrition rate of prospects makes me naturally want more depth at the elite position.
If we are devoted to taking a pitcher seventh, I would much rather see us go for Bradley over Gray. As a matter of fact, the choice isn't particularly close for me. Which would you rather have: a high school pitcher with a plus curveball but who doesn't have polish and feel for a change-up, or a college pitcher with a plus curveball but who still doesn't have polish and feel for a change-up? Bradley's frame is less worrisome, his velocity projects to be better, and his curveball might actually be a tick better than Gray's. Since I see little reason why we need another starter in the big leagues ASAP, I would much rather go for the upside and safer rotation bet with Bradley.
Farm System Implications: Regardless of whom amongst those three arms the D-backs take, this much is clear: the #3 pick will immediately become the team's best or second-best prospect, depending on how bullish you are about Jarrod Parker (me: quite bullish). Any of those three arms is a better prospect than Tyler Skaggs (believe it or not), since Hultzen and Bauer provide similar upside to Skaggs with more polish, while Bundy provides similar polish to Skaggs with more upside. Additionally, whoever is taken with the seventh pick - provided it isn't a cheap signability pick - will immediately become the team's fifth-best prospect, just behind Paul Goldschmidt and just ahead of Matt Davidson. At the end of the day, I would imagine that prospects 1-4 in the D-backs system will probably end the season in the top-50 range of prospect lists, while at least four more will garner consideration to be top-100 prospects. Any way you slice it, that's a helluva minor league system.