The past two drafts saw very little drama at the top, with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper both obvious No. 1 selections before playing the first games of their draft-eligible seasons. We are back to normal this year with no consensus top pick, but the abnormal part is the flood of candidates to take that spot, with one leading name but several others fighting to wrest the crown from his head and hear the Pittsburgh Pirates call their name instead.
Anthony Rendon, 3B, Rice (No. 1 on Future 50)
If you want a college performer who projects to hit, hit for power and play plus defense at a skill position, Rendon is your man, and most teams drafting first would prefer to have a star college position player there for the taking. He's extremely patient with the type of pitch recognition that should put him on the fast track through the minors, and has now ability in hitting and power. He's a third baseman with good hands, actions, and arm strength. Teams picking first want ceiling but also want some certainty that they won't get a zero return on their investment, and Rendon has the best mix of both in this draft.
He's not without his flaws as a potential No. 1 pick, however.
For one thing, Rendon suffered a major ankle injury this past summer and missed all of fall ball, the second major injury he has had to an ankle (one to each), leading to some concerns about whether he's going to be injury-prone. He's under 6 feet tall and doesn't project to add much muscle, so you're betting on what he can do now at the plate rather than what he might grow into. And he did struggle in the critical Team USA trials this past summer, mistiming in some unfortunate at-bats against the likes of Sonny Gray and Matt Barnes. He is the best candidate to go No. 1, but his overall profile and the depth of the draft mean he has some competition.
Sonny Gray, RHP, Vanderbilt (No. 5 on Future 50)
Gray is a former high school quarterback who brings that mentality to the mound along with two plus pitches and a price tag perceived to be less than that of other names on this list. He's a likely quick mover through the minors whom coaches will love for his makeup, but the selection of a sub-6-foot right-handed pitcher with the first overall pick would be a first by a wide margin -- the shortest right-handed pitcher to go No. 1, at least based on listed heights on Baseball-Reference.com, was Tim Belcher at 6-2.
Bubba Starling, CF/RHP, Gardner-Edgerton H.S. (Kan.) (No. 4 on Future 50)
Sorry, Nebraska, we want Starling playing pro baseball, not helming your football team and delaying his march to major league stardom. If Starling came out tomorrow and said he was giving up football, he wouldn't get out of the top five picks and would give Rendon a real run for his money at No. 1.
But Starling won't say that because it would destroy his leverage with whoever drafts him (and he might actually like playing football), setting us up for a season-long drama over whether he's signable. Starling has upside to spare, a five-tool center fielder who's low-90s off the bump with plenty of athleticism for a pitching coach to work with. He's too talented for MLB to let him get away.
George Springer, OF, Connecticut (No. 2 on Future 50)
If Rendon happens to stumble, Springer leads the race to No. 1 among college bats, generally thought to be the safer demographic when it comes to young talent. Springer brings plus power and athleticism to the table, and if he makes the proper two-strike adjustments without sacrificing his ability to work counts and get on base via the walk, he could put up numbers that rival those of Rendon and anyone else in the country. Rendon's perceived asking price could help Springer become the top pick, depending on how much the Pirates are willing to spend.
Gerrit Cole, RHP, UCLA (No. 3 on Future 50)
Cole fits the profile of a power arm with No. 1 upside, something the Pirates lack throughout their organization, other than Jameson Taillon, last June's No. 2 overall pick, who could be three-plus years from the big leagues. The UCLA ace, however, could price himself out of contention, something the industry views as a possibility, based on Cole's history. He turned down a significant offer from the New York Yankees -- perhaps as much as $4 million-- in 2008 to attend college and is generally expected to command a rather significant over-slot bonus.
Matt Purke, LHP, TCU (No. 7 on Future 50)
If Purke has a big enough season and appears to be a less expensive sign than anyone graded above him, the lefty could squeeze into the No. 1 spot. As unlikely as it is, it all depends on the asking price of prospects ahead of him on the Pirates' draft board. The club has shown, however, that it is willing to spend in the draft, pouring nearly $9 million into its top two picks a year ago.
The potential impact of hard slotting in future drafts could influence the organization to splurge again, which doesn't bode well for Purke, who would need several dominoes to fall his way to become the top pick and won't be helped by his high bonus demands out of high school in 2009.
It's unlikely a dark horse will emerge to enter the race for the top overall spot, even in a year when there's not a clear consensus on the top guy. High school right-hander Archie Bradley has the size and athleticism but probably takes a back seat to all the college arms. Kentucky right-hander Alex Meyer has hit 100 with great life but has an ERA well north of 6.00 over two years in school. Vanderbilt third baseman Jason Esposito could play himself at least into the top 10 with another step forward this spring, perhaps into the top few picks with his mix of power, speed and strong fielding; he's also fairly young for a junior, turning 21 six weeks after the draft.