Wednesday June 3rd, 2015

One of the only things that is rarer than a truly elite prospect is one who immediately performs to his potential upon reaching the major leagues. Those players are baseball’s unicorns. Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ 23-year-old third baseman, might have a stubby horn concealed beneath the ‘C’ on his cap.

Two years after Chicago picked the 6’5”, 215-pound Bryant second overall out of the University of San Diego, and one year after he batted .325 with 43 home runs and 110 RBIs in the minors, he has arrived in the Windy City and been the run-producing masher everyone anticipated he might. Through his first 42 games, Bryant is batting .273 with seven home runs and 33 RBIs and ranks eighth in the National League with 27 walks. That's despite the fact that everyone else had a head start on him thanks to the Cubs’ controversial and perfectly reasonable decision to delay his debut until April 17, thereby ensuring themselves an extra year of contractual control over him.

A few other top prospects have recently distinguished themselves, but, with apologies to players like the DodgersJoc Pederson and Corey Seager and the TwinsByron Buxton, among others, one has stood out: Carlos Correa, the five-tool Puerto Rican shortstop who the Astros picked No. 1 overall in 2012.

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The 6’4”, 210-pound Correa is batting .325 with 10 home runs, 40 RBIs and 18 steals in the minors this season, and he has advanced to Triple A, perhaps only a few weeks away from Houston. He has also displayed what is said to be a Derek Jeter-like knack for leadership. Correa’s fast rise and Bryant’s splashy arrival prompted me to conduct a simple, one-question text message poll of 16 high-ranking club officials, all of them general managers or assistant GMs and none of them staffers with the Astros or Cubs. I asked: “If you had the choice of Carlos Correa or Kris Bryant now, which would you pick, based on talent/potential alone?”

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I assumed that Bryant would prove the landslide, and potentially unanimous, winner. That was not exactly how it turned out.

The respondents heaped praise on both players. None had a negative thing to say about either (“I think both are studs and very unique players,” went a typical response), and one simply couldn’t bring himself to make a selection. “I would be happy with either one,” one said. “Both are great choices and will be terrific major league players. There is not a bad pick.”

The other 15? They were nearly split down the middle. Seven picked Bryant, and eight, surprisingly, picked Correa.

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Those who went for Bryant tended to be laconic in their responses, perhaps because he is the obvious choice. Some replied with just his last name. The execs who explained their pick focused on his extreme power from the right side (“Power [is] so tough to find,” said one) and on the fact that he has already proven himself on the big league level. “Probably Bryant, just because he’s already in the [majors] doing it,” said one. Said another: “He is already a star!”

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The executives who chose Correa tended to be more expansive in their explanations. Most honed in on the fact that while Bryant plays third base, Correa is an excellent defensive shortstop who can hit, too—an increasingly valuable commodity. This year, none of the 21 shortstops who currently qualify for the batting title has more than eight home runs, just 12 are batting higher than .250, and 14 have a fWAR of less than 1.0. A sampling of those responses:

  • “Both are great offensive talents, but Correa probably has the edge with more defensive value at SS.”
  • “Correa. Premium position.”
  • “I would swallow hard and take Correa. Shortstop with similar offensive upside. Both are stars. Think Correa ultimately more valuable.”
  • “The shortstop. I value power, middle infield more than the corner infield.”
  • “Would love to have both. If I had to choose, I would go with Correa. Had to go premium position.”

A few pointed to another factor in Correa’s favor: his age. “He’s three years younger, eh?” said one. Indeed, while Bryant turned 23 on Jan. 4, Correa—who was just 17 when the Astros plucked him from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy—won’t turn 21 until Sept. 22.

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That the poll ended in a virtual dead heat, even after some of the game’s top executives have had several years to observe both Bryant and Correa, seems to underscore a few things. One is that even in an age of advanced scouting and analytical techniques, predicting the potential of baseball players remains both a science and an art. There is a reason why no No. 1 overall pick has yet reached the Hall of Fame, although that streak will certainly end soon, when Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones become eligible.

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Another is that the Astros—who, suddenly, seem to be doing everything right—appear to have pulled off a real coup by selecting Correa first overall back in 2012. At the time, the pick was a shock, as most experts ranked him slightly behind prospects including Buxton, University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino and pitchers Mark Appel (Stanford) and Kevin Gausman (LSU). By taking Correa, though, the Astros brought aboard not only the player who now seems to be a genuine future superstar, but also one whose below-slot contractual demands (he received a bonus of $4.8 million to Bryant’s $6.7 million the following summer) allowed them enough room in their draft pool to also sign a pair of high-priced high schoolers in sandwich pick Lance McCullers and fourth rounder Rio Ruiz. McCullers, who reached the majors last month, is currently 1–0 with a 2.40 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 15 innings. Ruiz, a third baseman in Double A, was a key component of the trade that brought slugger Evan Gattis to Houston in January.

Of course, as several executives couldn’t help but note in their responses to my poll question, Houston could have done even better. “I’m just glad they don’t have both,” said one, which was a real possibility. After taking Correa first overall in '12, the Astros again owned the top pick in '13, with Bryant on the board. They selected Appel, who had re-entered the draft after declining to sign with the Pirates the year before. Appel was a far more conventional choice than Correa had been—had the Cubs picked first, they might easily have taken him—but one who has yet to find his footing as a professional. In nine starts with Double A Corpus Christi this year, the 6’5” Appel has an ERA of 5.85.

Even so, while Appel might yet become a big-league ace, the Astros did exceedingly well to land and develop Correa—a player who, according to their front office rivals, now looks like precisely as much of a unicorn as Bryant. The debate about which of them is superior might not be settled for 15 years or more, if ever. It has only just begun.

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