The 2008 First-Year Player Draft is now exactly one-month away and it's time for the A's to really buckle down and start focusing on who they might take with the highest overall first-round pick they've had since getting Barry Zito at 9th overall in 1999. The A's will pick 12th this year, and depending on how much Wolff and Company plan on spending on signing bonuses, there is a real chance that the team could grab a very valuable player at that spot.
With the major league and minor league seasons well underway (giving the organization a framework for judgng needs and luxuries) and with amateur baseball seasons winding down (providing near-complete sample sizes to judge prospective draftees) let's take a look at where the A's stand now and see if we can get an idea about who they might draft in the 1st round.
With the Haren and Swisher trades already paying dividends for the big club, I would say that at this point the big league team and the high minors are pretty well stocked with starting pitchers and outfielders. In the fomer department, the A's can depend on one of Gio Gonzalez/Andrew Bailey/James Simmons breaking into the majors within the year to join an already young and up-and-coming staff on the big club, while in the latter department, both Carlos Gonzales and Aaron Cunningham (if totally recovered) will likely join Travis Buck as cornerstones of the A's outfield of the near future.
Further down the minors, it looks like the A's have some really nice starters in Cahill, Anderson, de los Santos, Henry Rodgriguez, Vince Mazzaro and some of the 2007 draftees like Scott Hodsdon and Travis Banwart, all of whom could be ready to step into the rotation by 2010. The organization also boasts a couple plus DH/corner type bats in Corey Brown, Sean Doolittle and Chris Carter.
It's no secret on AN that the A's organization is pretty thin on middle infielders, top to bottom. Both Ellis and Crosby are performing fairly well this season, but both players are likely to be gone by the end of 2009 at the latest. Murphy and Hannahan are capable back-ups but aren't likely to perform well as starters over a full-season. Kevin Melillo and Gregorio Petit have had measured success so far in their minor league careers, but both have their flaws, with Melillo too limited defensively and Petit too limited offensively to really make impacts as major league regulars.
Further down the chain, it's pretty clear, even with my eternal optimism, that Cliff Pennington and Justin Sellers were pretty high-round 2005 busts. Pennington can get on base and play good defense, but he can't hit worth a lick, while Sellers can't even really get on base all that well. 2008 draftee Josh Horton can also get on base, but can't hit for any power and isn't really built for shortstop. Fellow 2008 draftee Michard Richard is an intriguing speed prospect, but also a butcher defensively.
Furthermore, while the A's have some nice young bullpen arms in the system like Devine, Blevins, Kilby, Marshall and Carignan, they aren't really stacked with can't-miss impact relief arms. Also, besides Landon Powell, who's getting a little old to be considered a true prospect, the A's system is dangerously thin on catching prospects.
So, over-generalizing more than a little bit, I'd say that the A's are fairly-well suited with outfielders, corner/DH types and starting pitchers, but in need of a boost when it comes to middle infielders, bullpen arms and catchers.
Now, can the 2008 draft and specifically the 12th overall pick address some of those organizational needs? I'd say, yes, definitely....
Most recent mock drafts have the A's taking a typical Oakland-type draftee in the 1st round: polished, collegiate, limited-upside corner-position player. But this draft isn't really all that strong with collegiate outfielders, so the A's will probably look to either fill a position of need or grab the best available (and affordable) talent on the board, which might become a nice confluence, since this draft is fairly strong with collegiate arms (of both the starting and relieving variety) and has a nice mix of middle infield talent.
First off, here are some names that will probably not be available at Number 12 overall:
Pedro Alvarez - 3B - Vanderbilt: Although he missed a lot of time this season with various injuries, he's still a plus-plus talent that will definitely go with one of the top-5 picks.
Brian Matusz - LHP - San Diego: Matusz has struggled a bit so far this season, but he's a nice combination of upside and polish. Tall, strong lefty that can hit the mid-90's with his fastball with a full compliment of off-speed stuff. Probably will go somewhere in the 3-6 range of the draft.
Aaron Crow - RHP - Missouri: Tall, strong, big-bodied righty with upper-90's heat. Has the body and aggressive nature to become a bulldog type top of the rotation starter in the bigs. Isn't particularly polished and isn't a great athlete, but his arm is special enough for him to still be considered very high on most draft boards.
Tim Beckham - SS - High School: Beckham would be a perfect fit for the middle-infield-looking A's, but his draft stock has really risen in the past few months, and he's likely to go as high as even number one overall, since he's got a strong bat and the chops to stick at short long-term.
Justin Smoak - 1B - South Carolina: Former A's draftee has already hit 19 homers and is OPS-ing an insane 1.327. He also plays good first base defense and can switch hit pretty well. Yeah, he'll be a Top-10 pick for sure.
Ok, so let's take that one step further and review a few top guys who might be good enough for the 1st round but will still be around come number 12 overall. I'll lump them in groups of similar skillset for brevity:
1B/DH: Brett Wallace - ASU, Yonder Alonso - Miami, Allan Dykstra - Wake Forest
There is no shortage of these types of hitters in this draft. No doubt they are all pretty good hitters, can hit for power and get-on-base, but given the fact the A's have Barton for awhile, Sean Doolittle is looking primed to be a solid major leaguer and Chris Carter is getting reps at 1st, the A's will be setting themselves up for a logjam in the future, and since none of these guys are really premier defenders and will be limited to first in the bigs, their potential trade values will not be great either. Of course, there is the Beane-Lenny Dykstra long-time buddy-buddy roommate relationship that might lead Beane into taking Dykstra, which would be somewhat unfortunate.
Outfielders: Jordan Danks - Texas, Isaac Galloway - High School, Aaron Hicks - High School
Danks is probably the best all-around collegiate outfielder and that isn't saying all that much. He's a solid defensive outfielder that projects as a center fielder at the next level, but doesn't have a really impact bat. He's got good speed, but doesn't really possess the plate patience to be a top-of-the-order hitter or the power to be a middle of the order hitter. If the A's are going to go for a full-value outfield pick at #12 they will go to the high school ranks, which means either Galloway or Hicks. Galloway is someone I've seen with my own eyes, a physical specimen that could develop into an Adam Jones-like center fielder with a valuable power/speed combination. Hicks has been considered one of the top athletes in this entire draft, and there's plenty to like. He's a switch-hitting center fielder with loads of power potential and speed to spare. He's a two-way player, so his arm strength is tremendous. Hicks might go earlier in the draft, but if he's around at 12, Billy has got to take a long look at both him and Galloway, as the organization's struggles to develop legit center fielders is of major concern.
Starters: Christian Freidrich - Western Kentucky, Tanner Scheppers - Fresno State, Tyson Ross - Cal
Scheppers is just the type of hurler I expect Beane to consider here. He's a tall, polished righty with good stuff and nice stats (better than 3-1 K-BB ratio, barely a .200 Batting Average Against, with 109 K's in 70 innings pitched). He can probably be successful as either a mid-rotation starter or a late-inning reliever at the next level and his draft stock has been skyrocketing since his name has got out there. Freidrich is a decent talent, but a lefty without overpowering stuff while Ross, although an Oakland-native and very talented, has been described as kind of a "project", which is not what Beane is probably looking for at #12 overall.
Relievers: Ryan Perry - Arizona, Cole St Clair - Rice
Perry wowed scouts last summer at the Cape Cod League with mid-90's heat and a good slider. He hasn't blown anybody away so far this season but has done well enough (3.12 ERA, 9.0 K/9) to still be considered a potential late-inning reliever at the next level. St Clair was once considered a consensus top-10 pick, but the lefty got hurt at the beginning of last season and was never able to regain velocity and the dominance he once showed. But he's healthy now, and he's putting up solid stats for the Owls (3.30 ERA, with a better than 9 K/9 and a nearly 5 to 1 K-BB ratio). St Clair has a lively fastball and solid slider, but his changeup is really outstanding and due to the injury, his arm is still fresh so many observers believe that he could be successfully transitioned into a starting role.
Middle Infielders: Jemile Weeks - Miami, Gordon Beckham - Georgia, Brandon Crawford - UCLA
Weeks (brother of Milwaukee Brewer Rickie Weeks) is an exciting prototypical leadoff-hitting type of player who relies on a contact-hitting approach and speed to collect a lot of hits. He's got good range at second and decent hands. Crawford has long been considered one of the best all-around talents in the 2008 draft. He's also a Pleasanton-native and has the defensive chops to stick at short long-term. Unfortunately, Crawford's bat took a dive in the 2007 Cape Cod League, which makes obervers wary that he'll ever hit in the majors, since he hasn't really dominated collegiate pitching so far. The cream of the collegiate middle infield crop is probably the other Beckham. The 6-foot Gordon is a pure power hitter and decent defender who could probably be an average defender in the bigs. Just for reference, Beckham already has 22 homeruns, is slugging .874 and has walked 35 times as opposed to only 18 strikeouts so so far this season.
Catchers: Buster Posey - Florida State, Petey Paramore - ASU, Kyle Skipworth - High School
Posey is a nice all-around catcher with a short, compact swing designed for contact. He'll probably never be a star at the higher levels, but since he profiles as a solid big-league catcher, he'll get consideration in the first round. Paramore has more overall potential, as far as the stick goes. He kind of profiles similarly to former A's first-rounder Landon Powell (as he's a switch hitter with prodigious power and plate discipline) but without the outstanding defense. In fact, many have already questioned whether Paramore can stick at catcher long term. Skipworth gets consideration here because certain unnamed internet observers are already speculating that the A's have heavily scouted him and will likely draft him with their first pick. There's plenty to like about him, as he's an outstanding athlete, field general and swings a potent lefty stick. He's a ways off as a high school player, but he's got the most potential.
Considering that Beane has publicly acknowledged that the A's will continue to be built on pitching and defense, while acknowledging that the A's have had poor luck drafting position players in recent years, it's hard to bet against Beane and Company drafting anything but a starting pitcher, and if Tanner Scheppers is still around at number 12, I'm thinking he'll be the guy next month. But if Tanner is taken between picks 1-11 and there is no high-upside high school hurler piquing his interest, then I could see Beane angle for Beckham and then Skipworth, in that order, since grabbing a high-impact middle infield bat or a potential franchise-leading all-around catcher would be more than worthy back-up plans.