For the first time in three years, the Washington Nationals do not have the No. 1 overall pick in MLB's Amateur Draft. That's a good thing, because unlike in 2009 and 2010, there's not one clear-cut consensus No. 1 talent. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were household names much before the draft even took place, and their selections were only clouded by how much money the Nationals were going to have to pony up to get them signed in the wake of failing to get 2008 first round pick Aaron Crow under contract.
The Nationals own the No. 6 overall pick, along with the No. 23 and No. 34 in compensation for losing Adam Dunn to free agency last off-season.
This year, the pre-draft thinking is that there are a half-dozen players that could go in just about any order in the first six picks of the draft, so the Nats envision one of those players being available to them when they make their selection.
As things stand several hours before the draft (tonight at 7:00 pm), most conventional wisdom has the Pittsburgh Pirates selecting UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole with the No. 1 overall pick. Cole is big and has a great pedigree, but has posted just mediocre numbers his junior year and just may be suffering from draft fatigue.
The Seattle Mariners at No. 2 have been linked to Rice 3B Anthony Rendon, but shoulder problems this season have teams wary of the best college bat (and plus-defender) in the draft.
After that, though, it's a total crapshoot.
Danny Hultzen, a left-handed pitcher from Univ. of Virginia (and St. Alban's), is one of the most polished pitchers in the draft, though he doesn't own the upside of some of the power arms in this draft. He will probably be the quickest to the majors though, with No. 2 starter potential.
Another college pitcher high on draft boards is UCLA RHP Trevor Bauer. Bauer had a ridiculous season and has moved up the draft boards accordingly. But the slight (6'2", 185) righty has a funky delivery and borderline bizarre pre-game routines, and often throws long-toss on days he pitches. He's also had a heavy workload this year, throwing 120 pitches at least five times and has thrown eight straight complete games.
There are three high schoolers in the top of this draft as well, two pitchers and a center fielder.
Dylan Bundy, right-handed pitcher from Oklahoma, has been called the best high school pitcher in this draft with good command of his 95-MPH fastball. The knock: he's only 6'0" and there's concern he could end up a reliever. Archie Bradley is another Oklahoma high school pitcher, and at 6'3", 215 he looks more the part. But he also has a commitment to play QB at Univ. of Oklahoma in the fall.
Perhaps the most intriguing player of the early picks is Kansas high school outfielder Derek (Bubba) Starling. Starling is 6'4", 180, and appears to be the only true five-star athlete in this draft. He's another two-sport star and is committed to playing QB and CF at Univ. of Nebraska next year, so his selection will probably come with a big price tag. Many scouts compare Starling to Josh Hamilton as a high schooler.
There are a few other college arms that round out the Top Ten in this draft, and if the Nats are looking for a signability pick, they could go in that direction. Alex Meyer (RHP U. of Kentucky), Taylor Jungmann (RHP, U. of Texas), Matt Barnes (RHP, U. of Connecticut), and Jed Bradley (LHP, Ga Tech) are some other options available.
The Nationals have been linked to several of the names above, most prominently Hultzen, Bauer, Starling and Meyer. Bauer's performance this season has elevated him into the top half-dozen picks and at one point, Hultzen was on Pittsburgh's radar with the No. 1 overall, so it would be surprising to see either fall to the Nats at No. 6 at this point. Even then, if the Nats have to choose between Hultzen and Starling, many draft pundits still see the Nats taking the five-tool Starling.
Prediction: GM Mike Rizzo has shown a preference in the last several drafts for selecting near MLB-ready college pitchers, so it would be no surprise if he followed suit in this draft, which is heavy with college pitchers early. But it's hard not to think about Starling lining up next to Bryce Harper in the outfield for the foreseeable future for the Nats.
I think given the option, Rizzo takes the five-tool Starling and gets his college pitchers with the Nos. 23 and 34 picks later in the first round. There are some mock drafts even having Meyer falling to the No. 23. There is no protection for the later picks, so whoever Rizzo selects he'll have to feel comfortable he can get them under contract.
What I don't anticipate the Nationals doing is selecting a high school pitcher at No. 6. If all of Hultzen, Bauer and Starling are gone at that point, I think Rizzo would opt for one of the other college pitchers, starting with the 6'9" Meyer.