When the 2014 Draft begins on June 5, the Astros will make the first selection for an unprecedented third straight year. In 2012, they chose shortstop Carlos Correa over right-hander Mark Appel and outfielder Byron Buxton. Last June, Houston opted for Appel over third baseman Kris Bryant and right-hander Jonathan Gray.
Though the Astros still have seven months to determine whom they'll take at No. 1, North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon has established himself as the front-runner. Owner of a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider, Rodon topped NCAA Division I with 184 strikeouts last spring and led the Wolfpack to their first College World Series appearance in 45 years.
"He's the guy right now," an NL club official said. "Rodon is the best college left-hander since David Price."
Pitchers stand out in the 2014 Draft class, especially the right-handers. If anyone is going to knock Rodon out of the top spot, it likely will be East Carolina righty Jeff Hoffman, who devastated Cape Cod League hitters with his mid-90s fastball and his curveball the past two summers. Other college right-handers of note include Vanderbilt's Tyler Beede (a Blue Jays unsigned first-round pick out of high school in 2011), Louisiana State's Aaron Nola, Nevada-Las Vegas' Erick Fedde, Florida State's Luke Weaver and San Diego State's Michael Cederoth.
A half-dozen or more high school right-handers could factor into the first round, starting with Tyler Kolek of Shepherd High School in Texas and Touki Toussaint of Christian Academy in Coral Springs, Fla. Both need polish, but Kolek already hits 99 mph and Toussaint has the best fastball/curveball combination among prepsters. Luis Ortiz (Sanger High, Calif.), Grant Holmes (Conway High, S.C.) and Dylan Cease (Milton, Ga.) all can reach 97 mph with their heaters, while Cobi Johnson (Mitchell High in Trinity, Fla.) is more advanced than most high schoolers.
Teams seeking left-handers will have plenty to choose from beyond Rodon. Brady Aiken of Cathedral High in San Diego is as polished as just about any pitcher available, including the collegians. Hartford's Sean Newcomb, Texas Christian's Brandon Finnegan and Evansville's Kyle Freeland all boosted their stock with strong Cape Cod League performances. Kodi Medeiros of Waiakea High in Hilo, Hawaii, is six feet tall and throws from a low arm slot, but all of his pitches dance.
"If you look at the high school pitchers," an American League scouting director said, "you've got 10 or 15 who could be in the top 35-40 picks."
While pitchers claim 18 of the first 30 slots on MLB.com's Top 50 Draft Prospects list, scouts also are pleased with the quality of everyday players available. The first position player to go off the board could be Rodon's teammate Trea Turner, a speedster with offensive potential plus the quickness and arm to remain at shortstop.
If it's not Turner, the first position player drafted could be Rancho Bernardo (Calif.) High catcher Alex Jackson or Clovis (Calif.) High shortstop Jacob Gatewood. Jackson offers plus right-handed power along with hitting ability and arm strength. Gatewood has the best raw power in the Draft, though there are questions about his bat and his size likely will dictate a move to third base.
In addition to Jackson and Gatewood, several other power hitters could slug their way into the first round. Roberson High (Asheville, N.C.) outfielder Braxton Davidson hit a 500-foot homer at the Tournament of Stars this summer. Indiana catcher Kyle Schwarber, Virginia outfielder Derek Fisher, Oregon State outfielder Michael Conforto and Cal State-Fullerton third baseman Matt Chapman have established themselves as bona fides at top college programs.
Want athletes? There will be plenty of those available, too.
Gainesville (Ga.) High outfielder Michael Gettys has the best all-around tools in this Draft, and Olympia High's (Orlando, Fla.) Nick Gordon is a pure shortstop with speed and a nice left-handed swing -- and they both throw in the low 90s off the mound. San Francisco's Bradley Zimmer and Lee's Summit (Mo.) West High's Monte Harrison are two more outfielders with all-around tools.
The one area where the 2014 Draft pales in comparison to 2013 is catcher. Most scouts believe Schwarber will wind up at first base or left field, and Jackson could shift to right field in order to expedite his bat, a la Bryce Harper and Wil Myers. There is one obvious standout behind the plate, however: Kennesaw State's Max Pentecost, who has average or better tools across the board and won Cape Cod League MVP honors this summer.
"This Draft is pretty good," the AL scouting director said. "I'm excited. I think the pitching is a little ahead of the hitting, but it's actually a really athletic Draft with the high school kids and there's a pretty strong crop of power bats from college. I can't remember a time when there was this much power available."