After weeks of waiting, planning and speculating, Matt Ellis and the Missoula Osprey are finally about to get some specifics. Sort of.
The 2013 MLB first-year player draft begins Thursday with rounds one and two, extending through Saturday with the 40th round. More than half of the draft picks made by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the parent club of the Osprey, will likely land in Missoula within the next two weeks.
Which players exactly? Well that’s still a long way off.
“It’s an exciting time. The hard part about minor league baseball is that you don’t know your team until right before the season starts,” said Ellis, executive vice president of the defending Pioneer League champion Osprey. “We do know there’s a good chance a lot of the players in the draft are going to be playing for us.”
The Diamondbacks are selecting 15th overall in the first round, which begins at 5 p.m. MST Thursday and airs on MLB Network and MLB.com. For the first time, the draft will be split over three days and carry through the weekend. The Houston Astros will get things going with the first pick overall Thursday, a day that will also feature two competitive balance rounds as well as the usual second round before rounds three through 10 are held on Friday – starting at 11 a.m. (MST) – and the final 30 rounds Saturday.
Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers spent much of the last few weeks crisscrossing the country to lay eyes on about 20 amateur players in preparation for the draft this week. With the 15th overall pick in the first round, as well as the 36th overall pick coming in the Competitive Balance Round A, Arizona has some waiting to do before knowing which of its highlighted prospects are still unclaimed.
“We’re going to take the best player available,” Towers told MLB.com this week. “I think our focus is still on the middle – catching, middle infield and center-field athletes (or) if there are starters that you can project to be top-end-of-the-rotation starters or a late-inning power arm that we think is close. That’s not to say we shy away from corner guys, but probably more focused on up-the-middle guys and starting pitching. You can’t have enough of that.”
The D-Backs have been linked to potential first rounders like shortstop J.P. Crawford, a junior at Lakewood (Calif.) High School, and outfielder Hunter Renfroe, a junior at Mississippi State who chose college instead of signing with the Boston Red Sox when the team picked him in the 31st round in 2010. Crawford batted .459 with a .554 on-base percentage this past season and is ranked near the top of all middle infielders in a draft light on talent there. Renfroe led his team with a .352 average this spring and topped the Southeastern Conference with 15 home runs.
In terms of pitchers, Oral Roberts’ Alex Gonzalez has caught Arizona’s eye. The right-hander tossed 113.1 innings for the Golden Eagles in 15 starts, striking out 126 and leading his team with a 1.83 ERA.
Whether those players will still be available come the 15th pick Thursday is still in question.
Once the final name is called on Saturday, the new pool of Diamondback prospects will join those within the organization that have not already been assigned to clubs to start the season. A three-day mini-camp at Salt River Fields – the spring training home of the Diamondbacks in Phoenix – will help sort the players from extended spring training.
But that’s still a large group of players, Ellis said, one that includes recent top picks like Diamondbacks’ 2012 first-rounder, catcher Stryker Trahan, and that year’s second-round selection, infielder Jose Munoz. The players will be divided between advanced-rookie level clubs Missoula and a second, hometown Arizona Diamondbacks team, as well as the short-season Class A affiliate Hillsboro (Ore.) Hops of the Northwest League.
“We have an idea to who’s still in extended spring but there’s still some doubt to who’s coming to us, staying in Arizona or going to Hillsboro,” Ellis said.
“I can tell you this. It’s one of the more talented groups in extended spring that I can remember,” he added.
The Diamondbacks’ recent addition of the Phoenix-based rookie-league squad – now in its third season – has made predicting Missoula’s rosters almost impossible. The organization now has the ability to delay the movement of its drafted players up the ladder with an extra roster to fill at the lowest rung.
That comes in handy when drafted high schoolers sign to contracts, opting for the minor league track over college. And since the Diamondbacks have chosen a wider net those year, focusing on college and prep players alike, Ellis is expecting quite a few young players to be reporting to camp.
“They can go slower with some of the younger talent that’s not ready for Missoula and the Pioneer League when in the past they might have been forced to send them to us right away,” Ellis said. “There’s guys that can take another year longer to get to us now.”
Neither the players nor Ellis will truly know for sure who will be spending the summer in Missoula until as late as June 17. That’s when the bulk of the season’s players will arrive in their respective locations.
That leaves just a pair of days of practice before the June 20 opener at home at Ogren Allegiance Park against Helena.