Both sides of Chicago poised for exciting Draft
This year marks first time both White Sox and Cubs have a top-four pick
CHICAGO -- Wake up, baseball fans.
It's Christmas morning, or at least it will feel like it for you on Thursday. The First-Year Player Draft is always a highly anticipated event, but the 2014 edition will be really special in Chicago.
For arguably the first time, there's an abundance of terrific options for both the White Sox and Cubs in the Draft. It's the 49th time Major League teams have gathered to divvy up amateur talent, but it's the first time both Chicago teams have one of the top four picks.
Something fascinating, and perhaps something that lifts the fortunes of both franchises, is almost certain to happen. The best part is that, within 24 hours of the Draft, nobody is quite sure of what is going to happen at the top.
But you can bet it is going to be good, whatever it is.
The 2014 Draft will take place Thursday through Saturday, beginning with the Draft preview show on MLB.com and MLB Network on Thursday at 6 p.m. ET. Live Draft coverage from MLB Network's Studio 42 begins at 7 p.m., with the top 74 picks being streamed on MLB.com and broadcast on MLB Network. MLB.com's exclusive coverage of the second and third days will begin with a live Draft show at 12:30 p.m. ET on Friday.
MLB.com's coverage includes Draft Central, the Top 200 Draft Prospects list and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of Draft-eligible players. Every selection will be tweeted live from @MLBDraftTracker, and you can also keep up to date by following @MLBDraft. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.
Before the White Sox pick at No. 3 (their highest pick since they took Harold Baines first overall in 1977), the Astros and Marlins, respectively, will make their picks. The guys who follow the Draft for a living, including MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis, believe they're leaning toward California high school lefty Brady Aiken and North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon.
The Cubs hope that's not right. They have been coveting Rodon for a couple of years but figured he had gotten away from them when three teams lost more games than they did last season. But Rodon's junior year wasn't as strong as expected, prompting talk that he could fall. But it doesn't appear he's going to fall more than one spot, from the Astros to the Marlins.
Rodon would make a neat No. 2 behind Chris Sale in the White Sox rotation if the Marlins passed on him. But that assumes general manager Rick Hahn would go against the franchise's history over the last two decades and take on a potentially difficult negotiation with agent Scott Boras.
No one knows if the White Sox would do that if Rodon was available. My guess is they would, and it would be fun to find out. But let's assume Aiken and Rodon go 1-2. That's when it gets really interesting.
In that scenario, the White Sox would probably wind up with a potential Nolan Ryan clone in Tyler Kolek, a country boy from outside of Houston whose fastball was clocked at 102 mph this season. John Hart, the Braves' advisor who is an analyst for MLB Network, says Kolek has more potential to dominate than anyone in the Draft.
As a high school power pitcher, he'd bring potential for both career-changing injuries -- think Kerry Wood -- and stalled development. He's listed at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, but he's hardly a big lug. Kolek, like Ryan, was raised with a strong work ethic and has become a workout fanatic. And unlike a young Ryan, he's received high-level coaching that has given him a good idea where his pitches will go.
"This is just not some big, crude kid who is heaving the ball in there," Hart said. "This is a guy who has athleticism. Look, he throws 100 mph. He's going to pitch with a plus-fastball, [but] he's got a late, hard breaking ball. He's got a feel for a nice delivery, clean delivery, easy arm, quick arm. The sky is the limit when you're talking about Kolek."
One other thing to keep in mind about the White Sox. They believe in Don Cooper, Kirk Champion, Curt Hasler, J.R. Perdew and their other pitching coaches. They've historically kept pitchers healthy and aren't afraid to rush them. Kolek could contribute as soon as 2016.
With their stable of hitting prospects advancing on Wrigley, the Cubs know they need more entry-level pitching. Had East Carolina's Jeff Hoffman not needed surgery, they would have been guaranteed to land an elite arm. But his stock has fallen, so don't expect the Cubs to force it if Rodon, Aiken and Kolek are gone when they pick.
If that happens, they'll look to add yet another piece to their 2015-20 lineup. They seem the most interested in two hitters with nice on-base skills, Oregon State outfielder Mike Conforto and Kennesaw State catcher Max Pentecost.
As a guy who draws Craig Biggio comparisons, Pentecost is very intriguing. But he's a right-handed hitter, and when you put together those future lineups, the Cubs already tilt toward the right side. Conforto, a left-handed hitter, could become a 20-homer threat, but his best skill is controlling the strike zone -- a trait that Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein values highly.
Conforto doesn't have Jacoby Ellsbury's speed, but he's had the same kind of career at Oregon State as Ellsbury, who was a key guy for the Red Sox after then-Boston GM Epstein and his scouts nabbed the former Beaver with the 23rd-overall pick in 2005. Conforto's .504 on-base percentage this season (the result of 55 walks against 38 strikeouts) beats Ellsbury's .495 in his Draft year, and should be viewed even more favorably, as offensive totals have plummeted since the college game toned down its bats.
Like 2013 first-rounder Kris Bryant, Conforto could move quickly through the Cubs' farm system. He probably doesn't have the speed to be a leadoff man, and there are no obvious leadoff guys in the North Siders' Minor League stable (John Andreoli and Stephen Bruno most fit the mold), so that could shift the focus back to Pentecost.
What about drafting for need?
That's a bad idea. They could force the issue by taking LSU's Aaron Nola or Vanderbilt's Tyler Beede, but neither is seen as having fourth-pick upside. More likely, as they did in 2012 and '13, the Cubs will go pitching heavy after the first round, especially if Rodon doesn't slide to them.
They could have a lineup in 2016 that has only Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo earning more than $5 million, giving Epstein tremendous flexibility to build a staff through free-agent signings and trades while he waits for the improved pitching depth to pay dividends.
Or maybe Rodon will slide. There are more right answers than wrong ones when you're picking this high.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.