SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Five compelling storylines from baseball's annual First-Year player draft, and just the second to run in primetime.
The past year for Bryce Harper has been rather eventful -- his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated, his leaving high school two years early to make himself eligible for the draft, his dominant season at the College of Southern Nevada -- but all of it was merely a prelude to this night, when the Nationals made him their second consecutive No. 1 overall selection. The massive hype surrounding Harper has reached Strasburgian levels, and he did nothing to dispel those comparisons with a college season that was every bit as impressive as StephenStrasburg's was before the Nats took him at No. 1 last year, albeit against different levels of competitions. Yet despite Harper's gaudy stats -- a .443 average, 31 home runs and 98 RBIs -- he remains a 17-year-old whom not everyone is convinced will be the superstar he's being projected as. Dave Perkin, a former major league scout now with Baseball America, said Harper will now be exposed to much more difficult scouting and pitching than he ever has. "He has a major hole -- outside corner at the knees," Perkin says. "Unless he proves he can hit that stuff, he's going to be a bust."
Once Washington dispensed with the formality of making Harper the No. 1 pick, the draft began revealing itself as the call to arms it often is at No. 2, when the Pirates took high school pitcher Jameson Taillon. In all, five of the top nine picks were pitchers, as were 11 of the top 19 and a full half of the 32 first-round picks. "Everybody wants pitching," said Jack McKeon, a fomer big league manager and general manager who is now a Marlins scout and attended the draft as one of Florida's representatives.
McKeon was right, to a point. What everybody really wants is pitching that can help them win, the sooner the better, and to that end the players taken remain a question mark. Taillon has drawn almost universal praise in the days leading up to the draft, but he is still in high school and will need his share of seasoning in the minors. The next three pitchers taken -- lefty Drew Pomeranz from Ole Miss and righties Barrett Loux of Texas A&M and Matt Harvey of North Carolina -- were all college pitchers who have had the exposure of pitching against tougher competition, but by the end of the first round that trend had long since ended. The final four pitchers selected in Round 1 were all prepsters and some of them came with question marks that had nothing to do with their age.
Jesse Biddle? Mike Foltynewicz? Cito Culver? All three of those mostly anonymous pitchers snuck into the first round (as did Loux, who was chosen No. 6 overall despite not even being among the more than 200 players listed among potential draftees in the official draft media guide) despite being on few, if any, first round draft boards. One scout said that there were at least 10 right-handed pitchers better than Foltynewicz when he came off the board at No. 19 to the Astros. Biddle, whom the Phillies took at No. 27, and Culver, the Yankees' pick at No. 32, are both local products who may be easier for their clubs to sign, which may be a telling sign that even big-market clubs like those in Philadelphia and New York are worried about signability.
Beyond Harper -- and, to a lesser extent, Taillon and prep shortstop Manny Machado, who went to the Orioles with the No. 3 pick -- this draft had a much-discussed lack of likely future stars. The one player, according to Perkin, who could wind up being the best player taken Monday night was Cal-State Fullerton outfielder Gary Brown, who was chosen by the Giants at No. 24. "They usually go for a quick-to-the-majors pitcher, like a Tim Lincecum, but I think Brown is a great pick," says Perkin. "He has electric talent, he's very fast, he's an impact player and he projects to be a much better hitter than people think. I think he'll be the one people will look at 10 years from now and ask why there were 23 players picked in front of him."
If there was a falling star Monday night, it may have been Louisiana State pitcher Anthony Ranaudo, who began the year as a popular top-five projection but his struggles, as well as elbow concerns and the dreaded "signability" issues, caused him to drop all the way to the sandwich round, where he was finally grabbed by the Red Sox at No. 39.
For much of Monday night, the scene inside MLB Network Studios seemed less about the stars of the future than it did the stars of the past. While the corridors were littered with familiar faces -- over here a pair of former NL MVPs in Jeff Bagwell and Barry Larkin, over there World Series-winning managers like McKeon and Tommy Lasorda, and over there Hall of Famers and future members like Billy Williams and Roberto Alomar -- Studio 42 was noticeably absent of any of the players whose names were being read every five minutes by commissioner Bud Selig. The continuing college baseball season, the potentially prohibitive cost of traveling to the draft, the advice of their agents all conspired to keep the first-year player draft devoid of any, you know, first year players.
On a night when both the NBA and NHL finals were not around to distract television viewers from tuning in to MLB's proceedings, such absences counted as both a missed opportunity and a disappointing reality for those who have tried, with much success, to help turn the MLB draft from a mid-day afterthought followed only by the men whose jobs revolve around it into something resembling the media events enjoyed by the NBA and NFL. But while those sports are able to parade a series of players already famous to the American sports fan across their stages on draft night, baseball has neither the familiar faces to hype going into the draft (Harper was surely the only player drafted who would resonate with a casual sports fan) nor any whom they can introduce to the world via photo op with the commish. Nor, for that matter, a proper stage, as the proceedings are still taking place inside the relatively cramped TV studio. Like much else about the draft, it is an improvement over just a few years ago, but still far short of being the must-see TV of its competitors' versions.