11:13 PM CDT, May 28, 2013
Having emerged from his senior season of high school with a reputation as a Nolan Ryan/Tom Seaver hybrid, Todd Van Poppel was a can't-miss kid in the spring of 1990. The Braves had the first draft pick and were set to stake their future on him.
Then Hank Van Poppel, Todd's father, stopped taking the 5 a.m. phone calls from Red Murph, the scout who had discovered Ryan. The Van Poppels had decided they could do better than sign with the Braves, who had lost 106 games in 1988 and 97 in '89.
Turned out to be the best pick the Braves never made, as they moved on to high school shortstop Larry Wayne "Chipper'' Jones.
The Twins made a similar decision in 2001, taking a pass on USC ace Mark Prior to take the hometown hero, quarterback/catcher Joe Mauer, with the first pick. That decision turned out pretty well too.
The Cubs have the second pick in next week's draft, as you've probably heard. College pitchers Mark Appel and Jonathan Gray have been in the Prior/Van Poppel role all spring, electrifying scouts and headline writers alike. The easy thing for the Cubs to do is take whichever one the Astros don't, but that doesn't mean it's the smart thing to do.
University of San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant could be their Chipper/Mauer. He's the guy they should take, not pitchers who come with far greater risks.
Chris Sale, who worked three innings before Tuesday's game against the Cubs was postponed because of a sustained downpour, and Addison Reed are exceptions. The White Sox were smart enough to land both of them in the 2010 draft, with the 13th and 95th overall picks, respectively.
Appel and Gray could slide into the big leagues as easily as that duo, who needed only a combined 1182/3 minor league innings before being deemed ready. But the more common stories are ones like Ryan McNeil and Josh Conway.
The two power pitchers were the Cubs' third- and fourth-round picks last year, and neither made it out of extended spring training.
Conway, considered a possible first-rounder from Coastal Carolina University before needing Tommy John surgery last year, suffered a stress fracture in that surgically repaired elbow while pitching off a sloppy mound in Arizona. McNeil had a clean bill of health until his ulnar collateral ligament popped in a low-pressure game this spring, forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery.
Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod and scouting director Jaron Madison will weigh these risks as they prepare to make baseball's apples-versus-oranges choice — drafting a pitcher or a hitter.
Their choice will be made shortly after both Epstein and Hoyer pointed to the lack of patient, intelligent hitting as the Cubs' primary failing. It seems to me they were calling out 23-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro, whose baseball IQ is open to question as his on-base percentage slides for a third consecutive season.
While not mentioning Castro by name, Epstein put him on notice last weekend while scouting Bryant and Appel in California.
"To be blunt, we haven't made much progress improving the on-base skills of some of the players here,'' he said. "If we can't make improvements with the existing group, we will have to be even more aggressive acquiring players with on-base skills.''
While Bryant leads the nation with 31 home runs in 58 games — eye-popping totals given the dialed-down college bat — he comes seriously equipped with on-base skills. San Diego will bat him leadoff when it plays Cal Poly on Friday in the NCAA regionals. He was first in the order last weekend, when he reached base 10 times in 18 plate appearances to help win a conference championship.
Power with discipline, and a short path to the big leagues.
That's an attractive package, even if pitching is a huge area of need for the Cubs organization. Jeff Samardzija continues to look more like a No. 1 starter with staying power, and down the road the Cubs could trade some hitting for pitching. They also might be able to unearth a gem or two in the draft or through an international signing, and if all else fails, they can sign a free agent or two when the time comes.
Nothing says they have to take Appel or Gray just because they need pitching. They have other needs too, as Epstein and Hoyer recently pointed out.
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