As Cubs Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita points out, "I think everybody will tell you that most (first-round) players are considered a tough sign."
That was true of last year's first-round Cubs draft pick, third baseman Josh Vitters – a top prep hitter with a full-paid scholarship to Arizona State.
The previous year, many fans and pundits believed the Cubs were taking a risk by drafting Jeff Samardzija, a two-sport athlete with possible top-round NFL talent. But Chicago had the right sales pitch – and the right dollars – to convince Samardzija to forego a career in the NFL and concentrate solely on professional baseball.
This year, the Cubs will have the 19th overall pick in the draft when Day 1 begins Thursday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. They will also have a supplemental first-round selection (41st overall) as compensation for losing Jason Kendall via free agency. Day 1 of the draft will be televised by ESPN2 beginning at 1 p.m. (CDT).
So who do the Cubs take?
One player Chicago appears fond of is Brett Lawrie, an 18-year-old Canadian high school catcher and third baseman. Hailed as one of Canada's top prospects, Lawrie was recently spotted at a workout session put on by the club's coaches in Extended Spring Training at Fitch Park in Mesa, Ariz. – a tidbit first reported by the blogger "Arizona Phil" on TheCubReporter.com, an independent Cubs website.
"It seems a bit risky to me, but they love him," offers Scout.com draft analyst Frankie Piliere, who scouted Lawrie in the Cape Cod League. "Mainly, Lawrie is used to just rolling through his competition in Canada. I watched him in a big showcase in Cape Cod when he was playing against all top guys and he reacted well, but didn't excel.
"Apparently he's made improvements at the plate, but his pure hitting ability is definitely raw," Piliere added. "He'll wow you in BP, but it's just hard to say how consistent he'll hit against top competition. The raw ability is in place, though."
Keeping with prep talent, others that could still be on the draft board by the time the Cubs select are outfielder Zach Collier (Chino Hills HS, Calif.) and RHPs Gerrit Cole (Orange Lutheran HS, Calif.) and Tim Melville (Holt HS, Mo.). They are ranked as the 16th, 17th, and 21st best prospects, respectively, on the Scout.com 2008 Top 100 MLB Draft Prospects, as compiled by Piliere.
"The hit tool is what comes to a scout's mind when asked about Collier," Piliere writes of Collier in his top 100 draft rankings, adding that the outfielder has already drawn comparisons to the Cincinnati Reds' top prospect, Jay Bruce.
Cole is a 6-foot-3, 200-pound pitcher with an upper-90s fastball and an average to above-average slider, Piliere notes. Alleged attitude problems have knocked Cole down the draft board, Piliere said.
For his part, Melville is a 6-foot-5, 210-pound pitcher that went 10-1 with a 0.89 ERA and 117 strikeouts in his junior prep season, according to the 2008 MLB Draft Guide. Melville has signed a letter of intent to play at North Carolina.
Another possibility the Cubs might have is two-sport prep athlete Casey Kelly from Sarasota (Fla.) High School, who recently committed to the University of Tennessee (just a hop and a skip from the Cubs' Double-A affiliate, incidentally). Not only has Kelly signed a letter of intent with Tennessee to play both baseball and football, he can play two different positions on the diamond – shortstop and pitcher.
"He definitely has the potential to become an effective D-I quarterback, but he has star power in baseball and I believe that's the sport closest to his heart," opines Jeffery Stewart of RockyTopNews.com, the Tennessee Vols' Scout.com publication.
Listed as 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Stewart says Kelly's future is at shortstop.
"There aren't many 6-3, 190-pound shortstops with his range (4.7 speed) and arm strength," offers Stewart. "He throws a 90-plus (mph) fastball and dominates high school competition, but his future is at shortstop."
If the Cubs decide to go with a college arm in the first round, a solid choice would be Tulane right-hander Shooter Hunt, who was the team's best pitcher this past season, leading the team with nine wins, a 2.60 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 97 innings.
But most mock drafts have Hunt slated as a top-10 selection, so a more ideal choice might then be Georgia's Josh Fields, a hard-throwing right-handed reliever that breezed through SEC competition this year by leading the team with a 2.27 ERA in 30 appearances. Opponents batted just .112 against Fields.
"He has a nasty, plus curveball, a true hammer," Piliere said of Fields, whose fastball was clocked in the mid-90s in games this past season.
"The only issues he has run into are command-related," Piliere said, noting Fields' 18 walks, three wild pitches and three hit batsman in 31 2/3 innings.
Who the Cubs will actually decide on is anyone's guess because unlike picking third overall a year ago, they will have many a name on their draft boards at 19th this year.
Also unlike last year, opinions on the overall strength of this year's class differ greatly.
"From what I understand, this is going to be a pretty good draft," said Cubs Assistant to the General Manager Paul Weaver. "It's got some depth to it. The guys I've spoken to (say) it's solid. There may not be a lot of top-end guys, but it's pretty good."
Piliere says this year's class is weak, particularly in terms of high school talent.
"The lack of prep pitching really stands out," he says. "There are really no knockout guys there."
He said the major strength in this year's class is college bats. That could bode well for the Cubs, who stockpiled college hitters in the first 10 rounds of last year's draft.
"The pitching is weaker so teams will probably scramble to get all of the good ones early," Piliere explained. "They know there are bats to go around."
"This is as wide open a draft as I can remember," Piliere concluded. "We might see names in the first round that no one expected."