When MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced the top pick of the 2017 amateur draft on Monday night, he said "Royce Lewis," not "None of the above." But to those following the run-up to the first round, the Twins' choice nonetheless came as a surprise, because up until Monday, the San Juan Capistrano, Calif. shortstop/outfielder wasn't one of the three names most frequently mentioned for number one. More on that topic below, as well as four other thoughts about the first round as it played out.
The surprise at the top
In the final weeks before the draft, the industry consensus as to which player would be the No.1 pick centered around a pair of two-way players: Sherman Oaks, Calif. shortstop/righthander Hunter Greene (a recent SI cover subject) and Louisville first baseman/lefthander Brendan McKay; Vanderbilt righty Kyle Wright was also in the discussion. Over the last three weeks or so, the Twins’ choice appeared to have narrowed to McKay and Wright, with the latter topping the mock drafts of Baseball America, ESPN, FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline by the end of last week. Over the weekend, several of the experts behind those drafts suggested that the pendulum had swung back towards McKay. But by lunchtime on Monday, Lewis had entered the conversation.
Talent evaluators generally considered Lewis—a plus-plus runner who could wind up at either shortstop or centerfield—a top-five talent in this year's draft, not the single most talented player, though in the view of MLB Pipeline's Jim Callis, he possesses "the best combination of tools of anyone in the Draft." Scouts love his athleticism but some question his hitting ability (or at least his power) and others whether he has the arm strength to remain at shortstop. The consensus in last week's mock drafts had him gong fifth, to the Braves. So why take him at No. 1?
Aside from concerns about the risk involved in picking one of the two-way players and dealing with an extra set of headaches as to how to manage that, it comes down to money. Each pick in the first 10 rounds has an assigned slot value, and each team's total bonus pool is the sum of those values; teams are penalized for exceeding that total. The Twins, who also have the 35th and 37th pick of this year's draft (the former a supplemental pick and the latter their second round pick), have the largest bonus pool, $14,156,800. Instead of signing Lewis for a bonus around slot value ($7,770,700), they can try to sign him for a lesser bonus and put the savings towards signing the other two picks, Mississippi State outfielder Brent Rooker (their supplemental first-round pick, No. 35 overall) and Canadian prep righty Landon Leach (their second-round pick, 37th overall).
Before picking Lewis, the Twins negotiated with McKay, who said, "They had offered a number that we felt we could get a better offer from another team or what not." Minnesota's strategy echoes what the Astros did in 2012. Rather than draft Stanford righty Mark Appel, the presumptive top pick, and sign him for something approaching the $7.2 million slot value, the team chose 17-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa, whom they signed to a $4.8 million bonus. With the money it saved, Houston also signed righty Lance McCullers, a supplemental first-round pick, and third baseman Rio Ruiz, a fourth-round pick. That didn't work out too badly.
Crashing the top 10
Aside from Lewis going first, the rest of the top 10 picks offered relatively few surprises. Picks two, three, four and six—Greene (Reds), North Carolina prep lefty Mackenzie Gore (Padres), McKay (Rays) and North Carolina prep outfielder Austin Beck—went to the teams predicted in our mock draft, a reflection of the industry consensus, and in turn those teams' solid connections to those players. Wright, instead of bumping any of those other top four down, fell to the Braves at number five, but as expected, he was still the first college pitcher taken. Picks seven and eight, Virginia first baseman Pavin Smith and his teammate, outfielder Adam Haseley, were flip-flopped relative to our mock; the former ended up with the Diamondbacks and the latter went to the Phillies. Kentucky high school outfielder Jordan Adell merely slipped from ninth in our mock (Brewers) to 10th (Angels).
Crashing the top 10 at number nine was Keston Hiura, an outfielder/second baseman from UC Irvine whose spot on the board was difficult to place for two reasons: first, he lacks a true defensive home due to a below-average arm and footwork, and second, he might need Tommy John surgery due to a UCL sprain suffered in April 2016. He's played through it, receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection in January, but he didn't play a single defensive inning this season. Fortunately, Hiura is considered to be one of the top collegiate hitters—"the player most national guys told me had the best pure hit tool in the class," according to ESPN's Keith Law—with a short stroke, plus bat speed, and average-to-plus power. Recent mock drafts within the industry connected him to the Astros (who had the 15th pick), Dodgers (23rd) and Red Sox (24th), so for him to be taken ninth rates as an eye-opener.
If at first…
Speaking of McKay and Smith, this year's first round featured four first basemen, with Huntington Beach, Calif. high schooler Nick Pratto (14th to the Royals) and Kentucky's Evan White (17th to the Mariners) rounding out the group. That's the most since 2008, when there were seven, and in fact just six have been taken among the top 31 picks in any year since, with 2010 23rd pick Christian Yelich (who moved to the outfield) and 2011 17th pick C.J. Cron the only ones even to reach the majors.
A quick look at the identities of that 2008 group—Eric Hosmer, Yonder Alonso, Justin Smoak, Brett Wallace, David Cooper, Ike Davis and Allan Dykstra—should hint at why. Of that group, only Hosmer (11.2 Wins Above Replacement) and Alonso (7.9) have been worth more than 5.0 WAR in their careers, and it’s taken the latter until his age-30 season to reach 2.0 WAR in a year. As The Ringer's Michael Baumann put it, "If the best bet at the top of the draft is the college position player in general, the worst bet is the amateur first baseman… the offensive expectations for a first baseman are immense, and even players who can hit like Paul Goldschmidt or Anthony Rizzo will never be as valuable as equivalent hitters at more difficult positions." Major league first basemen generally migrate there from other positions once they proved they could hit to that level; among current regulars, Joey Votto and Wil Myers were originally catchers, for example.
So why so many first basemen this year? Perhaps it's because they have other options. McKay's two-way skills make him a unique talent—he may wind up a pitcher first and foremost. Both Pratto (who has drawn Votto comparisons) and White are strong enough defenders that they could wind up in the outfield, not unlike current Dodger rookie sensation Cody Bellinger.
Only two other picks from among the top 26 weren't included in our most recent mock draft, namely South Carolina righty Clarke Schmidt (16th to the Yankees) and Puerto Rico high school outfielder Heliot Ramos (19th to the Giants). Both were generally ranked among the top 40 or 50 talents in the draft but not the top 20, and rarely did they land on a recent mock draft board. As with the Twins and Lewis, rather than making the choices based on talent alone, those picks may fit into larger draft strategies for their respective teams.
Schmidt, a 6'1" 200-lb righty, underwent Tommy John surgery in late April, but before that, his stock had been on the rise this spring; via Baseball America, he was on track to be a first-team All American. When healthy, he works with a low-90s four-seam fastball that can touch 95-96, a sinker, a plus slider, an above-average curve and a changeup that flashes above average; he gets high marks for makeup as well. Ramos, who won't turn 18 until September, is a plus-plus runner whose raw power and arm also draw plus grades, but there's concern about his hit tool, his limited track record with wooden bats, and his ability to stay in centerfield.
The big falls
Outside of Greene at No. 2, nowhere in the upper reaches of the draft was there such unanimity among recent mocks as there was at number 11, where the White Sox were expected to take Vanderbilt outfielder Jeren Kendall, a compact 5'10" 180-pounder said to have the best collection of tools of any 2017 draft-eligible collegiate player, headlined by plus-plus speed, the ability and instincts to play centerfield. Instead, the Sox took Missouri State third baseman Jake Burger, and Kendall remained on the board until the 23rd pick, when the Dodgers (who had been similarly heavily connected to Alabama high school outfielder Bubba Thompson) tabbed him. Perhaps it was concern about Kendall's pitch recognition-related contact woes that kept him from going so high, or perhaps the Dodgers got a steal.
Meanwhile, among those top 26 picks in our mock, the only one who didn’t get chosen in the first round is UCLA righty Griffin Canning, who’s viewed as more of a mid-rotation talent than recent UCLA alums Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer (though the latter has yet to live up to that billing). The good news for him is that he’s staying in California, as the Angels took him with the 47th pick in the middle of the second round.