The Rays will be the belles of the ball at the MLB draft, which begins on Monday. Having lost a ton of talent to free agency last winter, Tampa Bay has 11 of the first 75 picks in the draft, an unprecedented bounty. The Rays have a terrific opportunity to set themselves up for long-term success.
And yet, they may not be the team best positioned to win the draft. A 2005 study by analyst Rany Jazayerli showed that the value of picks in the MLB draft declines steadily after the top selection. Even though the path from amateur to All-Star is more complicated than in the other major sports, there's a strong correlation between where you're drafted and your career value. So while the Rays, who make their first pick at No. 24, are in good shape, the real beneficiaries this year could be the Diamondbacks. Arizona has the third pick. And because it didn't sign its 2010 first-round choice, righthander Barret Loux, it also gets a compensation pick—No. 7.
Having two of the top seven picks is unheard of, made possible by a 2009 rule change that gives teams a compensation pick for an unsigned selection in the first three rounds. The only other time a team has had two top 10 picks was 2009, when the Nationals took Stephen Strasburg at No. 1 and Drew Storen, now their closer, with a comp pick at No. 10. Per Jazayerli's study, the Diamondbacks can be expected to get players who produce more career value with their two picks than the Rays will with all 11 of theirs.
While the last two drafts have been weak save for a stud at the top—Strasburg in '09 and Bryce Harper last year—this one features tremendous depth throughout the top 20. The Diamondbacks have gone pitching-heavy in recent seasons under VP of scouting and player development Jerry DiPoto, taking four pitchers to start the '08 draft and eight straight a year ago. They can easily continue the trend: Most of the top names on the draft board are pitchers, led by UCLA righthanders Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen and Oklahoma high school righty Dylan Bundy. The top position player, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, is expected to be taken first or second, leaving Arizona to grab Cole, Bauer or Hultzen at No. 3. At No. 7, the Diamondbacks may have to take signability into play, as they can't roll over the comp pick if they fail to come to terms with this year's choice. Kansas high schooler Bubba Starling, a pitcher and outfielder who is the best athlete in the draft, may be a risk because he has a scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska.
The Diamondbacks haven't had a night this big for their franchise since Luis Gonzalez flared a single over Derek Jeter's head in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Making the right choices—it says here they should take Starling at No. 3 and the best available starting pitcher at No. 7—with a historic draft bonanza could set them up for another championship moment.
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While Arizona's scouting department works on the future, its major league personnel are making hay in the present. The Diamondbacks are baseball's hottest team, having reeled off a 14--2 stretch through Sunday to move into first place in the NL West. The run coincides with the May 14 insertion of rookie righty Josh Collmenter (3--1, 1.49 ERA) into the rotation and the exiles of Barry Enright (6.49 ERA) and Armando Galarraga (5.91). And the revamped bullpen—new G.M. Kevin Towers's off-season focus—has played a big part. Led by new closer J.J. Putz, Arizona's bullpen ERA is 3.33, much better than last year's 5.74, the worst in NL history. The D-Backs could stick around thanks to a very soft June schedule featuring the AL Central, the Nationals and the Pirates.
DAMEN JACKSON/ICON SMI (STARLING)
QUALITY AND QUANTITY Starling is the draft's top athlete; Hultzen (inset) is one of many prized college arms.
BRIAN WESTERHOLT/FOUR SEAM IMAGES (HULTZEN)
[See caption above]
CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES (PUTZ)