The NFL Draft is now a made-for-TV-extravaganza, often considered the biggest non-event in sports. The selection process in the NBA Draft is so big now, that a collection of ping-pong balls is worthy of live, prime-time television. Then, there's the MLB Draft, which lasts an excruciating 50 rounds over a two-day span; the final rounds are defined more by baseball players who are relatives of team employees, rather than a study of the best available talent.
Those taken in the Major League First-Year Player draft usually spend years in the minor leagues before they can make a big league impact, unlike football and basketball rookies. After the first round airs on ESPN2, once the television lights turn off, the draft will resume as it has for years, as a conference call between scouting directors from each of the 30 Major League Baseball teams. But the level of importance of this phone conversation could not be more paramount, as these selections will affect the teams for years to come.
Baseball players are controlled by the team who drafts them for up to six years in the minor leagues and another six seasons in the big leagues. They cannot hawk their services on the open market to the highest bidder. In this purgatory, players can make as little as 1/30th of what they would earn as free agents. In these unrestricted seasons, which roughly occur when a player is in his twenties, can be the most productive in his entire career. Every team, including the free-spending Red Sox and Yankees, has star players who are imprisoned in this way. The National League West division champion Arizona Diamondbacks have built virtually their entire nucleus through draft picks. Because teams draft in reverse order of their record in the previous season, the draft is also an important way for bad teams to improve.
This year’s draft is defined by a pair of Beckhams and a surplus of college first basemen. Georgians Tim Beckham (Griffin High School) and Gordon Beckham (University of Georgia) are both shortstops, and should both be selected within the first 10 picks. They are not related to each other, nor to Posh's David. Tim, 18, is the best high school prospect in the country, and should be the No. 1 pick. Scouts expect him to be an above-average hitter in the major leagues, and posses the speed and athleticism to be at least a solid runner. In the field, he shows good awareness and a strong arm. Gordon, 21, ranked fifth in this year's draft pool, has seen his stock rise more than anyone else. Playing in the baseball-strong SEC, Gordon hit .392/.504/.793 with 24 home runs and 61 RBI through the end of May, giving him the best career stats of any position player in this year’s draft, despite playing his home games at a spacious Foley Field. While some teams feel that he doesn’t have the defensive aptitude to remain a shortstop as a professional, others are more confident, meaning Gordon will have every opportunity to prove himself in the middle of the diamond.
The other storyline this year is the glut of college first basemen. As many as five first basemen (including one high schooler) could be among the first 30 picks on Thursday. The best are South Carolina junior Justin Smoak (No. 6) and American Heritage high schooler Eric Hosmer (No. 13). Smoak’s numbers rival Gordon Beckham’s: the Gamecock hit .386/.509/.746 with 21 home runs and 69 RBI through May 31. He combines his hitting ability with the soft hands and range that could make him a Gold Glove award winner in the majors. Hosmer has more power than Smoak, with the ability to put on a show by launching balls to all fields. The Floridian has less defensive skills, but he’s 18 and athletic and teams believe he can become an above-average defensive first baseman with practice.
The three other college first basemen who could earn first round selections are Allan Dykstra (Wake Forest, No. 16), David Cooper (California, No. 17) and Yonder Alonso (Miami, No. 27). Each is an elite hitter with a long college track record who has shown enough defensive promise for teams to feel confident that he can play the field.
There’s a lot of pressure on teams to make the right decision. The Rays are on the clock with the first overall pick, and could risk as much as $7 million to pay their selection. The correct pick and a team could have a superstar for the next decade. A bust means more money wasted and more disappointing seasons. The clock is ticking …