(Editor's Note: With the draft starting in just a few hours, we're bumping this preview back up to the front page. Thanks for reading!)
Only in the past few years has the MLB Draft become an event worthy of major attention from the public, something that even remotely emulates the popularity of drafts in other major sports. There are some very good reasons for this, the most obvious being that amateur baseball players simply aren't capable of immediately succeeding at the sport's highest level.
At the same time, though, it's impossible to argue that the draft isn't ultimately the key ingredient to any successful franchise. Just looking at a list of baseball's elite players, you'll quickly realize that nearly every single one of them was a highly-regarded draft pick.
While elite amateur players aren't capable of immediately contributing at the big league level, one can quickly recognize that very, very few elite MLB players didn't flash that kind of potential as amateurs. Even in a sport where successful players can basically come out of nowhere, those instances clearly qualify as exceptions to the rule.
And because of all this, the MLB Draft is one of the most exciting times of the year for me as a baseball fan. If you want to get in on the ground floor with nearly every single one of baseball's star players, you do it by following the draft.
Finding This Year's Future Stars
Let's make one thing clear: by nearly every standard, the 2012 draft class absolutely pales in comparison to the 2011 draft class. This isn't necessarily to say that this year's class is particularly weak; the bigger reality is that last year's class was uniquely talented, the kind of draft that can ultimately help to define a generation of ballplayers.
After last year's draft included now-elite minor league prospects such as Dylan Bundy, Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Danny Hultzen, Francisco Lindor, Archie Bradley, Jose Fernandez, Javier Baez, Bubba Starling, Joe Ross and George Springer, scouts aren't nearly as excited about the options in this year's draft.
To put things into perspective, White Sox scouting director Doug Laumann told the Chicago Tribune that, "It’s probably as thin as I've seen in a decade. We see that it's pretty thin right now in the college ranks."
The top tier of this year's class has the standard array of intriguing college pitchers (Stanford's Mark Appel, LSU's Kevin Gausman and San Francisco's Kyle Zimmer), toolsy prep hitters (Byron Buxton, Albert Almora, Carlos Correa, Courtney Hawkins), polished college hitters (Florida's Mike Zunino, Arizona State's Deven Marrero) and high-upside prep pitchers (Max Fried, Lucas Giolito).
But as Laumann noted, this year's college talent is clearly down, especially when it comes to position players. While Zunino and Marrero are quality prospects, they've both had lackluster performances in 2012 that have left scouts asking questions. There's simply no one that compares to say, Evan Longoria or Anthony Rendon, here.
At this point, it appears that Appel, Buxton, Correa and Gausman are the primary candidates to be selected with the first overall pick by the Houston Astros. All four are locks to be taken within the first ten picks, and it wouldn't be surprising if they comprised four of the first five selections.
If you're looking for future stars in this draft, these are the guys to follow.
Projecting The First Ten Picks
Disclaimer: Only in my dreams do I have the kinds of contacts that analysts like Kevin Goldstein, Jim Callis, Keith Law and Jonathan Mayo have. These projections are based primarily on my own personal evaluations and beliefs on who should be selected with each pick.
1. Astros should select... OF Byron Buxton, Appling County HS (Ga.)
With the first pick in the draft, the Astros absolutely must take the best player available. One could certainly argue that Correa, Appel, Gausman or even someone else is worthy of the first selection, but I believe that Buxton is the best prospect in this draft. An absolute monster in terms of athleticism and tools, he could ultimately emerge as the kind of cornerstone player that Houston desperately needs.
The Astros have a bunch of intriguing young players on their roster, but there's not a single guy in the entire organization that can match the potential that Buxton has. He's the kind of player that will take a while to develop, but I always prefer to go with upside over certainty this high in the draft.
Apparently, the Astros are planning on taking Appel with the first pick instead of Buxton, but I prefer the upside of the prep outfielder.
2. Twins should select... RHP Mark Appel, Stanford
There are some mixed opinions on Appel, but he has the best combination of present raw stuff and command within an impressive pitcher's frame. Standing at 6-foot-4, he has a good plane on his fastball, and the easy velocity helps to make up for a pitch that would ideally have much more movement. With three good pitches, high praise on character and a build that should handle a starter's workload, he's the kind of guy that Minnesota can use to rebuild a struggling pitching staff.
3. Mariners should select... SS Carlos Correa, Puerto Rico Baseball Academy
The 17-year-old Correa is the kind of prospect that can't really be acquired anywhere but the draft. An absolutely explosive athlete that's essentially a lock to stay in the infield even if he's not a shortstop, scouts love his combination of pure athleticism and raw power potential. To put things simply, this guy isn't the second coming of Carlos Triunfel.
4. Orioles should select... RHP Kevin Gausman, LSU
There are many scouts and analysts who consider Gausman to be the best pitcher in the draft, including ESPN's Keith Law. While Appel was essentially the consensus top pitcher before this season, Gausman has emerged after an exceptional season with the LSU Tigers. His raw stuff can't quite match Appel's, but his command was been more consistent this spring.
5. Royals should select... C Mike Zunino, Florida
He hasn't played well in the SEC despite being the top college bat in the class, leaving some to wonder what his ultimate upside is going to be against elite-level pitching. There's a track record of success here, though, and he gets a major boost from being able to stick at catcher. The Royals could have a pretty crazy lineup in a few years.
6. Cubs should select... LHP Max Fried, Harvard Westlake HS (Calif.)
At this point, the industry expectation is that the Cubs will select prep outfielder Albert Almora, but I think that Fried would be the better pick. Obviously I have more faith in the Cubs' front office than I do in my own eyes, but scouts love Fried's combination of stuff and build, plus the Cubs don't really have an elite young pitcher like him in their organization.
7. Padres should select... OF Albert Almora, Mater Academy Charter (Fla.)
If the Cubs don't end up selecting Almora, he still won't get very far. The outfielder is unusually polished for a high school bat, offering above-average defense in center field and a good swing that should eventually produce some above-average power production. Not every scout views Almora as a center fielder long-term given that he's not a great runner and he'll likely grow more, but he has a good arm so he could likely be plus if he's forced to right field.
8. Pirates should select... RHP Kyle Zimmer, San Francisco
At this point, the industry has Pittsburgh tied to Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero, but I don't believe that he's the best player available here. Taking Marrero wouldn't be a huge mistake, but I'd prefer to take Zimmer, who has the potential to be a good No. 2 starter in a few years. A converted position player, Zimmer's stuff wasn't consistent this spring, but he flashed two plus pitches in a fastball and curve in addition to a potentially solid change-up.
9. Marlins should select... OF Courtney Hawkins, Carroll HS (Texas)
The Marlins don't have a great farm system, especially once you get beyond top prospects Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich. Like Yelich, Hawkins ultimately won't be able to play center field, but he has a plus arm, excellent bat speed and big-time power potential.
10. Rockies should select... RHP Luc Giolito, Harvard-Westlake HS (Calif.)
Many scouts believe that Giolito would've been the top pick in the entire draft if he wasn't forced to miss the entire spring with elbow soreness. Now that his medicals have been checked out and the elbow shouldn't be a recurring long-term issue, it would behoove the Rockies to take a chance on the most high-risk/high-reward player in the draft. You have to wonder if Tyler Matzek's inconsistent development has spooked the organization a bit, but Giolito could be the best player in this draft.
Satchel Price is a newsdesk contributor for SB Nation Midwest and a feature columnist for SB Nation Chicago. His baseball writing also appears on MLB Daily Dish and Beyond the Box Score. For more of his splendid whimsy in display,