Drafting college relievers is definitely back in vogue.
Back in the late '90s, teams weren't hesitant to use a top selection on a bullpen arm, with Billy Koch, Matt Anderson, and Braden Looper all going with top-five picks in successive years from 1996 to 1998.
Then we had a lull in the trend until the White Sox used a first-round pick on Royce Ring in 2002. Three college closers were taken in 2003 and it has culminated with no fewer than five college relievers being selected this year, as teams seek more immediate returns from their draft haul. We'll get to that in a little bit.
The first-year player draft has usually not even been a blip on the fantasy radar screen, but that has changed in recent years as some of the players chosen not only get to the big leagues quicker, but also make an impact quicker.
Although no player from the 2007 draft has reached the big leagues yet, eight of the top 11 picks from the 2006 draft are currently in the big leagues, and that's not even counting Joba Chamberlain (pick No. 41) and Justin Masterson (pick No. 71).
Ryan Zimmerman was taken in the first round in 2005, and actually made it to the big leagues that same year. Other players from that draft like Ryan Braun, Alex Gordon, Troy Tulowitzki, Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Garza were already making an impact by 2007. The wait for returns from top picks is seemingly getting shorter for teams, and that gives the draft increasing importance for fantasy players.
Let's take a moment to acknowledge all the work Keith Law did this week in his phenomenal draft coverage. It was a fantastic, thorough job. My job is to look at the draft from more of a fantasy bend. I've seen more than a few of the top selections in this draft live -- one of the advantages of being out West -- and more on video (which is helpful, but not the same), and I've combined that with some information from trusted sources.
We're going to take a look at two lists: my top fantasy prospects, and the players that may not have the biggest upside, but may get to the big leagues the fastest.
Top fantasy prospects
1. Pedro Alvarez (taken No. 2), 3B, Pirates: The current third-base options for the Pirates are ludicrous. Neil Walker is not hitting at Triple-A. It's wide open for Alvarez to claim this job in short order, and I think Alvarez is the best pure hitter in this draft. He has a short, line-drive stroke that generates a lot of power and he has an advanced approach at the plate. He's going to hit for average and power in the big leagues now that he has recovered from a broken hamate bone.
Potential: All-Star third baseman ETA: 2009
2. Buster Posey (taken No. 5), C, Giants: Unlike some other top college catchers that were recently drafted, like Walker or Jeff Clement, Posey is going to be a plus backstop defensively, and he's in a system that is pretty barren of catching prospects. He fell a few spots because his upside isn't as great as that of some of the other players in this draft, but he's a potential .300 hitter with 20-homer pop at a position where that kind of production draws the sharp notice of fantasy owners.
Potential: Top offensive catcher ETA: 2010
3. Tim Beckham (taken No. 1), SS, Rays: He's the most talented player in the draft, but he's going to take a while to develop, so he got bumped down the fantasy list a tiny bit. I couldn't justify him sliding any further. He's drawn comparisons to B.J. Upton, but you could also draw them to Hanley Ramirez. Both of them took at least four years after signing with a professional club before they got a taste of the big leagues.
Potential: All-Star shortstop ETA: 2012
4. Eric Hosmer (taken No. 3), 1B, Royals: In the long run, Billy Butler is still a DH, leaving first base open for Hosmer. He was the best high school bat in the draft, with tremendous bat speed and raw power potential to all fields, and should also be able to hit for average. He's going to be worth the wait.
Potential: All-Star first baseman ETA: 2011
5. Yonder Alonso (taken No. 7), 1B, Reds: His great plate discipline, combined with the ability to hit for average and 30-homer potential, make Alonso a pretty sure bet to make the big leagues.
Potential: Four-category fantasy producer at first base ETA: 2011
6. Justin Smoak (taken No. 11), 1B, Rangers: The switch-hitter has drawn the standard comparisons to both Mark Teixeira and Chipper Jones, and could get to the big leagues a bit quicker than Alonso, given his team situation. His smooth swing generates more power than Alonso's, but he may not hit for as high an average.
Potential: Power option at first base ETA: 2010
7. Brett Wallace (taken No. 13), 3B, Cardinals: Defensive concerns pushed him down in the draft a bit, but all fantasy owners care about is that he can hit. He knows the strike zone like his life depends on it, gets great coverage through the hitting areas and will post good on-base percentages with 25 homers. The Cards will have an opening at third base.
Potential: Quietly productive third baseman ETA: 2010
8. Kyle Skipworth (taken No. 6), C, Marlins: One of the safer picks in the draft, Skipworth has drawn comparisons to Joe Mauer, and the Marlins' system is largely bereft of catching. He's likely going to be passable enough to stay behind the plate, and unlike Mauer, he'll have a power-over-average emphasis offensively.
Potential: Power-hitting catcher ETA: 2012
9. Gordon Beckham (taken No. 8), SS, White Sox: Beckham may switch to second base as the White Sox eventually move Alexei Ramirez over to shortstop. I don't think they will be shy about promoting him quickly. He consistently gets good wood on the ball with his line-drive swing, and his strong wrists give him surprising power for his size.
Potential: Michael Young-type offensive player ETA: 2010
10. Brian Matusz (taken No. 4), P, Orioles: The best pitcher in the draft went to a team that needs as much pitching help as it can get. He pitches backwards, using his good secondary stuff to set up his fastball, instead of the other way around, but he's not a soft-tosser and his changeup is a legitimate out pitch. Think "lefty version of Clay Buchholz." He won't spend long in the low minors.
Potential: No. 2 starter ETA: 2009
Kyle Lobstein (taken No. 47), P, Rays: The high school lefty's stock fell this spring because his velocity was down a tick, and his stuff wasn't as crisp as it had been last year, but he has a clean delivery with three potential plus pitches. His change is a potential knockout offering. There are some Andy Pettitte/Tom Glavine qualities here.
Conor Gillaspie (taken No. 37), 3B, Giants: He's a doubles hitter that could eventually contend for a batting title, and the team needs a third baseman.
Kiel Roling (taken No. 197), C, Rockies: If he can stay behind the plate, his raw power could do major damage in Coors.
Roger Kieschnick (taken No. 82), OF, Giants: Is he another in a long line of failed Giants power prospects? Perhaps, but he could be a five-category fantasy player if he can tighten up what he swings at and make enough contact.
Colby Shreve (taken No. 196), P, Phillies: He already has a mid-90s fastball, with a potential above-average changeup. A few mechanical tweaks may give him more consistent control, and some added depth in his curveball, which could allow him to take off.
Potentially quickest to the big leagues
As I mentioned before, this list isn't necessarily about who has the biggest upside, but who could get to the majors the quickest. As you would expect, polished college players, especially relievers, dominate the list.
Drafting college closers is by no means a sure method of getting a quick return, or a reliable bet for fantasy owners chasing saves.
Huston Street was drafted as a supplemental first-round pick in 2004, and was closing in the majors by 2005, but Bill Bray, who was drafted ahead of him, is still trying to establish himself in the big leagues.
Craig Hansen and Joey Devine were both drafted in 2005 and made the big leagues that same year, with Devine even pitching in the postseason, but it wasn't until this season when both have shown signs they are ready to stick with the big club.
Brandon Morrow was drafted in 2006 as a starter, but he and Mets third-rounder Joseph Smith both made Opening Day rosters in 2007.
Last season, the Rockies used a high first-rounder on Casey Weathers, and the Mets took Eddie Kunz as a supplemental first-round pick. Both are showing dominance at Double-A, with Kunz closing, and appear to be on the fast track.
The bottom line is that the results have been decidedly mixed for teams that have tried that route. However, it didn't stop the college closers from coming off the board quickly in this draft, with five taken in the first round, and a few more in the second and third rounds.
1. Ryan Perry, RP, Tigers: The Tigers are trying to win right now, and are desperate for bullpen help. He's probably behind Joel Zumaya in the future closer pecking order. As Law has pointed out, the Tigers took college relievers with their next two picks as well, and both Cody Satterwhite and Scott Green could also jump to the big league level quickly. Those two players might not do well making the jump so quickly. Perry can.
2. Daniel Schlereth, RP, D-backs: With Doug Slaten the team's only lefty option in the bullpen, they will look for Schlereth's power arm to move quickly through the system as the team makes a playoff run.
3. Josh Fields, RP, Mariners: He will be the M's future closer and will give them more flexibility to move Brandon Morrow to the rotation. He might be the best bet for saves in this draft class.
4. Pedro Alvarez
5. Andrew Cashner, RP, Cubs: He's another college closer that could find himself in a set-up role in the big leagues fairly quickly with his fastball/slider combo.
6. Brian Matusz
7. Aaron Weatherford, RP, Rockies: He'll be following right behind Casey Weathers on the fast track to a Rockies bullpen that is likely to get a big overhaul by next season.
8. Brett Wallace
9. Christian Friedrich, SP, Rockies: The Rockies pushed Greg Reynolds quickly, and they could do the same with this polished first-rounder.
10. Ike Davis, 1B, Mets: The heir apparent to Carlos Delgado may not hit for much average, but he can bring the homers.
11. Conor Gillaspie
12. Gordon Beckham
13. Johnny Giavotella, 2B, Royals: There are some comparisons to Marcus Giles, and his strike zone judgment could help him move quickly.
14. Zack Stewart, RP, Reds: Drafted in the third round, he's another college closer who could accelerate to the big leagues quickly in a middle relief/set-up role.
15. Daniel Espinosa, SS, Nationals: Long Beach State shortstops (Bobby Crosby, Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria) have had a good track record, and the ability to move quickly to the big leagues. Espinosa isn't as polished as the others when they went pro, but he could improve quickly.
Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title and numerous other national "experts" competitions.