Royals look to make top-five pick count
For the second consecutive year, the Kansas City Royals will pick in the top five of baseball's amateur draft. Last year, with the No. 2 overall pick, they selected the nation's top high school player: Bobby Witt Jr.
This year, they hold the No. 4 overall pick and have a chance to secure another one of the top young players in the nation. They'll select after picks are made by the division-rival Detroit Tigers (No. 1), the Baltimore Orioles (No. 2) and the Miami Marlins (No. 3).
For some time now Detroit has been expected to select Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson with the first pick. The two-time unanimous All-American went into his junior year needing 25 home runs to climb into the NCAA's all-time Top-10 in career homers.
While the Royals' selection will depend largely on which three players come off the board ahead of their time on the clock, they will still have a multitude of options.
Here's a breakdown of some of this draft class' top talent, with insight from ESPN analyst Kiley McDaniel, a former front-office executive and/or cross-checker with the Orioles, Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Austin Martin, Vanderbilt 3B/OF
Viewed by some as the top college player in the draft, the 6-foot tall, 170-pound right-handed-hitting Austin Martin of Vandy earned SEC preseason Player of the Year honors and garnered preseason All-American accolades from several organizations. As a sophomore, he batted .392 with a .486 OBP and walked more times than he struck out.
"I don't think he's an option for Detroit, but the reason he'd be up there is because of the track record of hitting and having elite pitch selection in the SEC," McDaniel said. "He's a multi-positional guy. He gives you all types of margin for error, which a lot of teams -- especially those running on statistical modeling -- are looking for. The tool that matters is the hit tool, and he's the best in the draft."
Long-term, McDaniel said Martin has potential to turn into a Ben Zobrist- or Justin Turner-type of player.
Zac Veen, high school OF
A 6-foot-5, 200-pound left-handed hitting high school standout from Florida's Dayton Beach region, Veen is a very projectable prospect considering his body frame and the fact that he's just 18. He's also considered athletic for his size. He's committed to the University of Florida.
"I think his upside is huge," McDaniel said. "The sort of easy comps around him are Cody Bellinger because the swing looks similar. He's obviously not projected to be Cody Bellinger. There's also some similarities to Christian Yelich, who I do think they did look somewhat similar at the same stage. Veen has a much more projectable body, where Yelich hasn't completely filled out to the levels that some people thought.
"Veen, some scouts have him maybe moving to first base eventually. While he was a plus summer and center fielder over the summer, he already looks like a right fielder right now. Some scouts think he'll move to first base eventually, but right field, at least. The difference is the upside you have is above-average to plus hit, above-average to plus pitch selection and plus-plus power which is at least as good as Torkelson -- maybe better -- but we just don't have the sort of certainty at all in his college performance, which Torkelson had."
Emerson Hancock, Georgia RHP
Regarded as the top pitching prospect in the 2020 college class before this year, he slipped behind Texas A&M lefty Asa Lacy in many rankings and projections. A 6-foot-4, 213-pounder with a fastball between 94-97 mph and a changeup as his best secondary pitch, Hancock led the SEC and ranked third nationally in WHIP (0.84) last year.
But he made just four starts this spring before COVID-19 ended the season. He gave up four runs or more in two of those starts.
"The issue with him is similar to one I've talked about with Trea Turner in the past, which is Trea Turner was fantastic at N.C. State as a freshman and sophomore, but he wasn't eligible so scouts weren't watching him. Maybe they were watching a game he was in, but they weren't paying attention to him. They knew his stats. They knew the reputation, but they hadn't sort of formed an answer. ... Hancock is similar to that."
McDaniel pointed to Hancock's past arm soreness as another factor teams will want to vet thoroughly. Hancock also doesn't feature the four-seam "rising" fastball or the high-spin curveball many teams prefer.
Nick Gonzales, New Mexico State IF
The top-rated prospect in the wooden-bat Cape Cod League last summer, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound middle infielder Gonzales led the NCAA in batting average in 2019 (.432). The fact that he played in the WAC raises some questions, but he performed very well against some of the top college players in the nation in the Cape Cod League, where he slashed .351/.451/.630 with seven home runs and earned league MVP honors.
"The profile is not super different than Austin Martin," McDaniel said. "The difference is Martin is a better runner and a little more experienced and (has) defensive value at different positions and has a long track record of hitting in the SEC. The raw tools are about the same for Gonzales, maybe not quite as good defensively. The problem is he's been playing at New Mexico State, and so you've got to kind of throw those numbers out at some level because it's poor competition, it's at elevation, it's in small parks, it's obviously not wood bats.
"But he had a really good performance on the Cape. So that sort of month, essentially, is what scouts are hanging their hat on. You can see a team squinting and saying, 'Hey, we didn't like Martin this spring. We think he's not maybe as good as the hype coming into this year. We think Gonzales is a little better than people think because we're really focusing on the Cape.'"