Pipeline Perspectives: Aiken deserves to be No. 1 pick
Prep lefty from California ahead of NC State southpaw Rodon as top talent in Draft
There's a good amount of subjectivity regarding baseball prospects. With the evaluation of talent being in the eye of the beholder, finding consensus is often difficult. Even Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo of MLBPipeline.com don't always see eye to eye. They discuss their viewpoints regularly in a feature called Pipeline Perspectives. Submit a topic for them to debate.
Carlos Rodon established himself as a contender to be the first pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft two years ago when he was a freshman at North Carolina State. He enhanced his credentials in 2013 by topping NCAA Division I in strikeouts, leading the Wolfpack to the College World Series for the first time in 45 years and enjoying a banner summer with Team USA.
Scouts considered Rodon the best college left-hander since David Price in 2007 and the most prohibitive favorite to go No. 1 overall since Stephen Strasburg in 2009. But with five weeks to go before the Draft, Rodon isn't having the best season among college southpaws and he isn't the best lefty available.
Evansville's Kyle Freeland has claimed the first distinction and Brady Aiken of Cathedral Catholic High in San Diego has earned the second. If I were in charge of the Astros, who own the top selection for an unprecedented third straight year, I'd use it on Aiken.
Aiken came into the year with a lofty reputation, ranking as the top high school left-hander in the nation and the No. 9 overall on MLBPipeline.com's initial Top 50 Draft Prospects list. He helped Team USA win its second straight 18-and-under world championship last September, beating Japan in the gold-medal game while striking out 10 and allowing just one run in seven innings.
The scouting report on Aiken before his senior season was that his athleticism and feel for pitching stood out as much as his pure stuff. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder usually pitched a lively fastball around 90 mph and backed it up with a low-70s curveball and changeup. He showed he could possibly have three above-average pitches in the future.
That future has become now. Aiken's heater now operates at 92-94 mph and reaches 97, and he has maintained the life on the pitch and his ability to command it. His curve has added more power and depth as well, and his circle changeup has become more deceptive.
"I'd probably take Aiken No. 1, and I think if you asked 30 teams, 15-20 would say Aiken," a senior scouting official with a National League club said. "He has taken a real step up. He's more consistent, he has a good body, good arm action, three plus pitches at times."
Aiken has dominated this spring, going 6-0 with a 0.80 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings in his first seven starts. Opponents have managed to hit just .122 and draw seven walks against him. Even in his worst outing, on April 16 when he gave up four of the seven runs he has permitted this season, scouts left impressed by his pitches and poise as he worked around four errors made by his defense.
Jonathan Mayo lays out his case for why he'd stick with Rodon with the top pick, and Rodon might be getting back on track after striking out 15 against Georgia Tech last Friday. The other two viable No. 1 candidates are Shepherd (Texas) High right-hander Tyler Kolek, a 6-foot-5 hulk who's the hardest thrower in this Draft, and East Carolina righty Jeff Hoffman, who, like Aiken, can show three above-average offerings.
But Aiken has been much more consistent than Rodon or Hoffman, albeit against lesser competition, and he's significantly more polished than Kolek. The only one of those three who can match the depth of Aiken's repertoire is Hoffman, but he missed his start last weekend with minor arm soreness that continues to sideline him indefinitely.
"I know he's high school and he's 17," a scouting director with an American League team said, "but put [Aiken] in a college uniform and how much different would he be than these college guys?"
Only two prep left-handers ever have gone No. 1 overall in the Draft, and neither of those stories had a happy ending. The Rangers took David Clyde in 1973, then worried more about their box office than his development and brought him immediately to the big leagues. He won just 18 games in five seasons in the Majors.
Brien Taylor nearly tripled the previous Draft bonus record when he got $1.55 million from the Yankees in 1991. He reached Double-A by the end of his second pro season, but he wrecked his shoulder in an offseason fight and was never the same, becoming one of three No. 1 overall choices -- Steve Chilcott (Mets) in 1966 and Matt Bush (Padres) in 2004 being the others -- to conclude his career without reaching the big leagues.
There's no reason to believe, however, that Houston would rush Aiken to Minute Maid Park or that he'll be brawling off the field. Rather than being condemned to repeat the past because they cannot remember it, the Astros would add another cornerstone to their rebuilding process if they take Aiken with the first selection on June 5.