Aside from a fairly major shake-up with the ninth overall selection, there wasn’t a ton of drama during the first night of the 2018 MLB Draft. The top three picks played out just as most of the experts said they would, and pretty much everyone taken in the first round was widely considered to be at least a borderline first-round talent by draft publications. Baseball is a game of cycles and trends, though, and we definitely saw a few trends at work on Monday night. Here are some observations from the initial night of this year’s draft, which saw the first round, competitive-balance round, and second round take place:
High-floor college guys are trendy again
While college players are always going to be sufficiently represented throughout the MLB Draft, the momentum in the early part of the first round had swung a bit toward prep players over the past couple years. Between 2014 and 2015, three college players were selected among the top three picks, four within the top five, and 11 within the top 10 — with an incredible seven of those 11 guys reaching the majors by August of the year after they were drafted — but in 2016 and 2017, there was only one college player selected within the top three, two among the top five, and 10 within the top 10 (and one of those top-five picks was Brendan McKay, a two-way player who is effectively assuming the developmental track of a high-school draftee as he attempts to reach the majors as both a first baseman and a pitcher). This year, the entire top five was comprised of college players — ones that figure to skyrocket through the minor leagues — and seven collegiate athletes were selected within the top 10, the most since 2008. Aside from the collegiate talent pool obviously being stronger than it’s been in a while, teams may be missing the (relative) instant gratification they got from those 2014 and 2015 drafts, as only one player from the last two first rounds (Padres lefty Eric Lauer, selected 25th overall out of Kent State in 2016) has reached the major leagues so far. With such a talented, well-developed top five comprised entirely of college players this year, we’ll probably see several first-rounders reach the big leagues by the end of next season. Especially with a starter like Mize who is close to physically maxed out and has polished stuff, and a position player like Madrigal who is an extremely advanced hitter and presumably isn’t going to get much better in the minor leagues, it’ll be fun to see how quickly they advance to the majors and start impacting their new teams.
This year’s catching crop is very intriguing
Last year marked the first time since 2002 that no catchers were selected within the draft’s 30 picks, and just one player who began his pro career as a backstop (the White Sox’s Zack Collins) was taken among the top 30 in 2016. While it’s possible that Canadian high schooler Noah Naylor will end up as a corner infielder, the catching position definitely bounced back during this year’s first round, with three — Georgia Tech’s Joey Bart, Naylor, and Georgia high schooler Anthony Seigler — being taken within the top 30. Bart seems likely to force the issue soon in San Francisco (which could be awkward with Buster Posey still looking sharp behind the plate), and Naylor and Seigler both have great tools. With only three of the majors’ 30 current starting catchers being former first-rounders, it’ll be interesting to see if Bart, Naylor, and Seigler can help change the stigma that affects first-round backstops — one that leads quite a few of them to be moved from behind the plate before they reach the majors.
The A’s shocked the world by making Kyler Murray a top-10 pick
While it was widely known that University of Oklahoma quarterback (or center fielder, as we should probably start referring to him now) Kyler Murray was a talented baseball player heading into Monday night’s draft, virtually every draft expert believed that — at most — a team might try to take him in the second round and make a hail mary attempt at getting him to sign and give up football. The Athletics obviously did their homework, however, and figured out that Murray was very open to signing and beginning his pro baseball career — under the condition that he be allowed to play one final season of football at OU, that is. That should lead to a semi-awkward next few months for Murray and the A’s; he’ll presumably get some work at the Athletics’ minor-league complex, then possibly play some short-season ball before heading back to Norman and making a run at the Heisman Trophy, while missing out on instructional league (not that big of a deal) and possibly risking a long-term injury in the process (a much bigger deal). It’s not the most ideal of scenarios, but Murray is a talented center fielder with elite speed and defensive ability, significant power potential, and the ability to improve as a contact hitter once he fully devotes himself to baseball — and it’s very possible that he would’ve gone earlier if other teams had recognized his willingness to sign and been willing to comply with his request to play football for one more year.
Teams evaluated pitchers differently than we thought they would
Yes, Auburn’s Casey Mize was almost unanimously regarded as the top pitching talent in this draft, and he went first overall. But beyond him, pitchers didn’t come off the board in the order that most experts thought they would. Prep left-hander Ryan Weathers, widely regarded as a mid-first-rounder, went to the Padres with the No. 7 overall pick, passing up guys like Florida right-hander Brady Singer and Arizona high-school lefty Matt Liberatore who were often considered to be superior prospects. Florida high-schooler Carter Stewart was the first prep righty to come off the board, going to the Braves with the eighth pick, right around where most people thought he’d go. But in a very interesting twist, three high-school right-handers followed Stewart: Grayson Rodriguez (Orioles at No. 11), Logan Gilbert (Mariners at No. 14), and Cole Winn (Rangers at No. 15). That left Liberatore and Singer, who some regarded as the second and third-best pitching prospects in this draft class, on the board until the middle of the first round. Liberatore finally came off the board when the Rays selected at No. 16, while Singer went to the Royals at No. 18. While their signing bonuses will be a bit smaller, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the two highly-regarded arms, as both will be prominent parts of their respective organizations’ rebuilds. A pair of Florida college arms — South Florida’s Shane McClanahan and Florida’s Jackson Kowar, both of whom were mocked as mid-first-round selections over the past week — went unselected through the first 30 picks, though both ended up as compensatory first-rounders. Guys like Georgia high-schoolers Ethan Hankins and Kumar Rocker, both of whom were considered to be potential top-10 picks at points over the last year, weren’t selected among the top 30 picks, and with both being committed to Vanderbilt, it’s possible that they could have signability issues (particularly Rocker, who remains on the board heading into Day 2). It’s difficult to tell why teams approached pitching differently than evaluators in the media did — for instance, guys like Hankins and Rocker have elite fastball velocity, while Liberatore doesn’t — but it’s clear that something different was at work as pitchers such as Weathers and Florida high-schooler Mason Denaburg came off the board sooner than expected and others fell.
The Royals loaded up on college pitching
As much as the Royals tried to fight off a full rebuild by signing guys like Lucas Duda, Jon Jay, and Mike Moustakas just prior to this season, it’s now clear that they’re going to have to start from the bottom again before they build back up. They’re in a bit of an awkward spot as they try to do that, though, as they’ve got some really good position players in the mid-to-late primes of their respective careers in Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez, and possibly even Moustakas if he’s signed to a long-term deal rather than traded. They also have a couple more talented, young middle-of-the-lineup hitters in Jorge Soler and Jorge Bonifacio. In a possible attempt to get some useful value out of those players before it’s too late — or, at bare minimum, add some much-needed pitching depth to the organization — Kansas City drafted an incredible five college pitchers on Monday night. The group is headlined by Singer, the right-hander out of Florida, who many were speculating could go as high as No. 2 overall, but all five of Singer, fellow Gator Jackson Kowar, Virginia’s Daniel Lynch, Stanford’s Kris Bubic, and Memphis’ Jonathan Bowlan are legitimately capable of being big-league starters at some point. While one or more of those pitchers may ultimately end up shifting to the bullpen — or just not living up to their early-round billing — the Royals’ hope is that they can they can quickly add some youthful depth to a rotation that has been far too inconsistent since 2016. Danny Duffy is capable of being elite but is 29, has been inconsistent for the last season-and-a-half, and may be a trade piece at some point, and the only pitcher 25 or under in the organization prior to Monday who was particularly intriguing was Jakob Junis. With that in mind, their minor-league system is in much better shape now than it was prior to the draft, even before any of those guys have thrown a professional pitch. And while rushing all those pitchers could obviously have major adverse effects, it’s very possible that the Royals could get at least a couple of them to the majors within the next two years if they’ve indeed selected the right guys and now have the proper programs in place to move them through the minors quickly, much like teams such as the Braves and Cardinals have done in recent years.