MLB Draft 2014: What to watch for in the 1st round

LSU's Aaron Nola is one of the many pitchers to watch in the upcoming amateur draft. - USA TODAY Sports

An overview of the first round of the upcoming draft, including prospects and teams to keep an eye on

We're just over two weeks away from the 2014 MLB Draft, which means it's time to start taking a serious look at the top prospects and where they'll likely fall on June 5, when the draft kicks off.

What's most important to understand about this year's draft is how incredibly pitcher-friendly it will be, especially in the first round. Last season, 11 of the first 17 picks were position players, while this year could see exactly the opposite happen.

Of course, teams are always looking for starting pitching, but the influx of young pitching talent bodes especially well for teams with high picks this year. The top 10 teams in this year's draft rank an average of 21st in ERA this season, including the Astros (28th), White Sox (29th) and Twins (27th). Clearly, pitching is a concern for these team right now, and while the effects of this draft won't be seen for the next couple of years (at least), it's a good place for pitching-challenged teams to start.

Let's take a look at what's going on in the first round of the upcoming draft:

There's a consensus top four...

...Kind of. While there's a good chance the following four players will be taken in the first four picks, there's quite a bit of variability when it comes to the exact order in which they'll be selected. The lack of a unanimous No. 1 choice has created some uncertainty within the top four, even though none of these players will likely fall beyond the fourth pick.

With that being said, there are a few other players who could sneak into the top four, which I'll address later. But for now, these three pitchers and one catcher look to be the best talent available in the draft. (In case you wanted to know, the Astros, Marlins, White Sox and Cubs have the top four picks, respectively.)

Brady Aiken (LHP, 6'4"/210)

Aiken is a tall left-hander whose fastball sits in the mid-to-low 90s, making him similar in many respects to fellow left-hander Carlos Rodon. The two differ in the sense that Aiken is coming out of high school, while Rodon has college experience under his belt, but that shouldn't fool you into thinking the former is any less polished. In fact, as ESPN's Keith Law reported after watching Aiken pitch a few months ago, the left-hander's repertoire is already very impressive:

You could argue that Aiken showed three grade-60 pitches in the fastball, curve and changeup, maybe a little less than that on the change but a little more on the curveball; no matter what, however, he projects to have three plus pitches and it's reasonable, based on his build and delivery, to project him to end up with a fastball that's closer to a 70, averaging 93-94 and touching 97 as a starter.

Aiken is coming out of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, Ca., the same high school that Barry Zito and Mark Prior attended. As is the case with all top high school pitching prospects, Aiken has posted some ridiculous numbers, including a 0.86 ERA with 86 strikeouts in 48.2 innings, according to his MaxPreps page. That's a 15.9 K/9 rate, which is ridiculous even for high school standards.

Clearly impressed by his performance this season, MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo wrote about Aiken at the beginning of the month:

Now, Aiken is atop the board, ahead of N.C. State's Carlos Rodon as the best pitcher in the class, and ahead of Tyler Kolek in a comparison of prep arms. Some of that has to do with Aiken's increased velocity, to go along with the plus pitchability that he has always been known for. His maturity has enabled him to dominate all spring and make him look much more like a front-line starter in the future than he did even last fall.

Carlos Rodon (LHP, 6'3"/234)

Rodon was considered the top pick in the draft by a long shot just a few months ago, but he's lost his stranglehold on that spot in recent times with his solid but unspectacular showing at N.C. State this season.

Even so, though Rodon hasn't exactly been lights out, that won't scare teams away. The left-hander features one of the best breaking balls—if not the best—in the entire draft with his filthy mid-80s slider, and while his velocity hasn't exactly been on point this season (he's sitting at 92-94, according to Baseball America's John Manuel) he's still getting results while also improving his control a bit from last season.

20140423_jla_bd3_130.jpg.0_mediumJeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Kolek (RHP, 6'5"/230)

When it comes to major league projectability, there's not much to be gained by looking at high school stats, but it's still fun—especially in Kolek's case. While pitching for Shepherd High School in Shepherd, Texas, Kolek has allowed just three earned runs in 46.1 innings and limited opponents to a .095 batting average.

In all seriousness, Kolek has a seriously filthy arsenal of pitches. His best weapon is his fastball, which sits in the mid-90s and has been clocked in triple digits. He also has a few pitches that could use some refinement but could also develop into plus pitches in the majors with a little bit of fine tuning. He might be the least polished among the top three pitchers, but when it comes to upside, you're not going to get much better than Kolek, who depicts the prototypical country hard-baller that every draft seems to have.

As with any hard-throwing pitcher, the injury risk is heightened significantly, especially in light of the alarming rate of long-term problems among pitchers across all levels this year. Even so, in a Baseball America chat (via South Side Sox), John Manuel gave his thoughts on Kolek's injury prospects, which looked promising:

He’s coordinated; nothing in his delivery screams out red flag according to the scouts I have talked to. He’s certainly got his man strength, and he goes to a personal trainer three times a week and has really improved his body over the course of the past year. If you think he just throws too hard (and I frankly sympathize with that opinion) then yeah, he’s going to get hurt. But he certainly has a body and arm action that scouts believe to be up to the task of throwing this hard for a long time. He’s a big boy.

Alex Jackson (C/OF, 6'2"/215)

If any position player were to infiltrate the top three, Jackson would be the one. Generally considered to be the top hitter in the draft, Jackson can play catcher and outfield, and he has tons of raw power.

A four-year varsity player at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, Calif., Jackson has terrorized opposing pitchers this season to the tune of a .400 batting average, 11 home runs (in 75 at-bats) and an outrageous 1.558 OPS. He's also thrown out over half the runners who have attempted steals against him throughout his career, showing his impressive arm behind the plate.

With this raw ability comes the chance to become even better as he further improves what looks like already impressive plate discipline. The real question for teams will be what they want to do with Jackson, as a move to the outfield would give him a better chance to succeed offensively, while his ability behind the dish also makes him that much more valuable.

The rest of the best

Jeff Hoffman, RHP

Hoffman's Tommy John surgery has caused him to slide down the draft boards, but that shouldn't stop him from going somewhere in the first round. He has a fastball that can touch the high-90s, along with a nice 12-to-6 curveball, though he sometimes struggles with his command in the strike zone, according to an ESPN scouting report (subscription required):

Hoffman right now is the prime example of a pitcher having good control and not great command. He generally keeps the ball in the strike zone, but he sometimes struggles with location within it. He does have a clean delivery, though, and repeats his delivery fairly well, too.

Aaron Nola, RHP

Nola is a 6'1" right-hander coming out of LSU, and like other top pitching prospects, he has excellent stuff, control and command. However, because he pitches from such a low angle—and thus puts a good deal of stress on his arm—he might be more suited for a bullpen role. Even so, an ESPN scouting report called him a safe prospect:

Right now Nola gets labeled as the "safe" pitching prospect in this draft by some, a starter without huge upside but minimal flaws. He gets downward movement on his 91-93 fastball, giving right-handed hitters fits and gets plenty of ground balls. His curveball is a potential swing-and-miss pitch in the mid 70's with good depth and spin, and he has good feel for the pitch as well. Right now Nola's change is just average, offering some fade but inconsistent arm speed hurts the deception on the pitch.

Nick Gordon, SS

Gordon's value comes primarily in his defense, though he can also handle the stick. His quick wrists allow him to produce good bat speed that helps him generate more power than you'd think for a 170-pound shortstop, though he sometimes struggles to hit breaking balls due to an oddly high leg kick that messes with his timing.

Even so, Gordon is an exceptional defender, as this ESPN scouting report affirms:

While Gordon has shown some offensive upside, his calling card his is his defense, and with good reason. He has very good range and can make plays to his left and right, with soft hands and plus arm strength, though his ball will often tail from his three-quarter arm slot.

Other Things to Know

The Blue Jays have two first-round picks

The Toronto Blue Jays have two top-11 picks in the draft thanks to the compensatory pick they'll receive for failing to sign high school pitcher Phil Bickford last season, which means general manager Alex Anthopoulos can load up on pitching prospects for a team that could use some help in that regard. Based on recent draft history, the Jays love going after high school pitchers, and there's no reason to believe they'll deviate from that formula unless a top position player is around unusually late by the time Toronto's first draft pick rolls around.

MLB.com's Jim Callis thinks the Jays will go with right-hander Touki Toussaint out of Coral Springs Christian Academy in Florida, which could be a high-risk, high-reward type of move. Minor League Ball's Matt Garrioch breaks down Toussaint in a player profile:

Toussaint is 6'2", 195 LBS, lean and athletic. He is one of the more projectable arms at the top of the draft. As a native of Haiti, he has only been playing baseball for four or five years and was more of a soccer player growing up. He burst on to [sic] the prospect seen [sic] in the fall of 2012 at the WWBA World Championship striking out 18 hitters in 6 innings.

His fastball sits 92-95 MPH but can run up to 98. He kicks his front leg high, pushes off the rubber lunging forward causing variation in release points and causing command issues. On the good side, it creates incredible torque, velocity and movement on his fastball. It's something that should improve with repetition or maybe some minor tweaking. The delivery may not even need work, just reps to get his timing down.

20140423_jla_bd3_130.jpg.0_mediumReid Compton-USA TODAY Sports

The book on Toussaint is that he has plenty of raw ability, but with that comes the need for some polishing, particularly when it comes to the right-hander's command. It's one thing to throw in the high 90s, but that can only get one so far in professional baseball if he can't control it, as is the case right now at times with Toussaint.

The Kansas City Royals have four picks in the top 57

That's more than any other team, including the Blue Jays, and it gives general manager Dayton Moore a good chance to solidify a farm system that's already one of the best in the majors.

For the purposes of the first round, the Royals are likely to go after a position player given their offensive struggles. Additionally, as Scout's Kiley McDaniel noted, they have a history of taking raw bats in the first round, which means they could be interested in high-ceiling guys like Monte Harrison or Michael Gettys. Even beyond the first round, it's worth noting just how many picks the Royals have, which could give them a huge leg up if they can effectively use this opportunity to their advantage.

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