The 2017 MLB Draft - perhaps marathon is a better title - kicks off Monday. Despite picks being spread over 40 total rounds, like any other shorter draft, the top of the ticket still takes nearly all the attention, and for good reason. The first round of the MLB draft is where the Phillies found Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Brett Myers, and Pat Burrell on their way to their last World Series title. Jimmy Rollins was a second-round pick and Ryan Howard arrived in the fifth round.
While this run of superb drafting culminated in a World Series, it’s no coincidence that the latest hard times follow a decade of top picks not panning out. Since the club drafted Hamels first in 2002, three players drafted in the first round have played a major league game in a Phillies uniform: Greg Golson, Joe Savery, and current starter Aaron Nola. Their three straight selections from 2008-2010 are no longer in the Phils system and appear unlikely to reach the majors anywhere. The players who contributed most to the club, Kyle Drabek and Travis D’Arnaud, did so as trade bait for Roy Halladay.
Part of the reason for so many first round busts falls on the Phillies relying as heavily on high school players as any team in the majors. Following the pick of Utley in 2000, every first round pick the team made save Savery was a player from the high school ranks until the selection of Nola in 2014. When Nola was in the majors 12 months later, he lived up to the label of the most pro-ready pitcher in the draft.
With the organization under siege, two apparent successes: Nola and shortstop J.P. Crawford weren’t enough to save the scouting department, and a different regime has run things since Johnny Almaraz was hired in 2014. With two more high schoolers taken in the first round of the two drafts Almaraz has run, the jury is still out on whether an organizational shift from gambling on five-tool prospects to seeking out baseball players will prove legitimate.
Last year the Phillies had the first pick in the draft and used it on high schooler Mickey Moniak, currently hitting .266 in Single-A Lakewood. This year they draft eighth, inside the top ten for the third straight year. The talent projected to go off the board in the second half of the top ten hails mostly from the college ranks, and that could result in the Phils spending just their fourth first round pick this millennium on a collegian, though the Phillies should never be counted out when it comes to seeing a high school bat go off the board higher than expected.
Here’s a quick preview of three of the most likely candidates projected as the top pick for the Phils:
J.B. Bukauskas, RHP, University of North Carolina, Baseball America Ranking #6
At just 6-feet tall, he doesn’t have the intimidating build of many star pitchers, but he has all the right stuff. Bukauskas throws a mid-90s fastball with movement that scouts rave about and has spent the last season getting his slider into the same realm. Together they have let him record 227 strikeouts in 170.3 innings over the last two seasons in college. His best season is his most recent one as he went 9-1 with a 2.53 ERA and 116 strikeouts. Opposing batters hit just .188 off him in 2017.
A young junior at 20 years old, Bukauskas would be a nice middle ground between the young potential the Phillies love to stockpile and the experienced arms they need. He is probably the player on this list least likely to be available when the Phillies’ turn comes, but it’s definitely not out of the realm of possibilities.
Alex Faedo, RHP, University of Florida, B.A. #10
Faedo (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) could be viewed as a similar selection to Nola. A junior, he comes with one of the most pro-ready resumes in this draft class and thrives on control, posting just 30 walks to 106 strikeouts in 90.1 innings in 2017. In 2016 he was even better, with 133 K's and 21 walks in 104.2 innings. The 133 strikeouts were the most by a Florida pitcher since 1998. In his career, he’s 26-6 with a 3.09 era.
Faedo relies on a fastball in the low 90s, a great slider to get batters out and a rare changeup to fall back on. If the Phillies are looking for another arm to fly through their minor league system, he could be the guy.
Pavin Smith, 1B, University of Virginia, B.A. #15
Smith is a 6-foot-2, 210-pound left-handed hitting junior with some eye-popping contact numbers. A career .325 hitter, he had an average of .342 this season while upping his home run total from eight as a sophomore to 13 in the same number of at-bats. In fact, he had more home runs than strikeouts (12.) His 77 RBI in 2017 are a school record. He’s been compared to former Cub and Diamondback Mark Grace.
The knock on Smith is a lack of monster home run power expected at first base, and some will complain that the Phillies are okay at first with Tommy Joseph and Rhys Hoskins in the pipeline. The latter is a foolish argument. In no sport should a team be drafting less for need than in baseball, where entire lineups will have changed by the time a player sees the majors. They don’t have a 27-year old Ryan Howard holding down the position.
Other names to keep an eye on, including a pair of high schoolers:
Adam Haseley, OF, Virginia, B.A. #8
Austin Beck, OF, North Davidson HS, North Carolina, B.A. #9
Shane Baz, RHP, Concordia Lutheran HS, Texas, B.A. #11