LSU outfielder Dylan Crews is, according to Tigers coach Jay Johnson, “the perfectly built baseball player.”
Power. Speed. Defense. Smarts. There is little Johnson believes Crews can’t do.
“He’s the best college hitter I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said.
Such are the riches Johnson and LSU enjoyed this year on the way to the national title that for all of Crews’ singular talent, depending on who you ask Crews might not even be the best major league prospect on his team.
Crews is remarkable
Having a pitcher who hits triple digits with alarming regularity and remarkable ease will do that.
Paul Skenes spent the last six months lighting radar guns with impressive fastballs, making a compelling case that he’s the most major-league-ready college pitcher since Stephen Strasburg more than a decade ago.
Crews and Skenes have been the consensus top two picks for months.
Yet the consensus won’t matter when the Pittsburgh Pirates are on the clock Sunday night in Seattle with the first overall selection in the MLB Draft for the second time in three years.
While Pirates general manager Ben Cherington has a healthy respect for Crews and Skenes, he doesn’t sound like someone in a hurry to send MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to the podium to change the arc of a player’s life and — Pittsburgh hopes — the trajectory of the franchise.
Maybe it’s simple gamesmanship. Maybe it’s Cherington’s inherent pragmatism. Maybe it’s sincerity. Whatever it is, Cherington has made it a point in recent weeks to stress who is going at the very top end of the draft isn’t a given. At least not in Pittsburgh.
“We think it’s a strong group,” Cherington said. “By group, I really do mean that it goes much deeper than two players.”
Florida outfielder Wyatt Langford put together a season nearly as impressive as Crews’. High schoolers Max Clark and Walker Jenkins are short on experience but long on potential.
The Pirates went a little off-script in 2021 when they chose catcher Henry Davis at “1-1.” Davis, who made his major league debut last month, signed for under slot value, giving Cherington more money to spend later in the draft.
The pick came with Pittsburgh still in the early stages of a top-to-bottom overhaul Cherington began when he took over in the fall of 2019, an overhaul predicated on accumulating as many quality prospects as possible. The Pirates are in a slightly different position now, with the window to contention far closer now than it was two years ago.
Not that Cherington thinks his team’s modest step forward in 2023 after consecutive 100-loss seasons will lead him into taking a player that could be in the majors sooner rather than later.
“Even if you’re talking about a college player that might be a little closer (to the majors) than a high school player, a lot can happen in this game, even between this year and 12 months from now, a lot can happen to our team and what the needs might be and what the fit might be. So I think we have to stick with the best player available.”
Cherington vowed the Pirates will spend their full draft allotment but sidestepped when asked if Pittsburgh would go over slot value to lock down the first pick, saying “we’re just focused on getting the board set up and getting the order right or, at least in our opinion right. I believe that needs to come first.”
Minnesota, who has been near the top of an underwhelming AL Central all season, is picking fifth. Vice President of amateur scouting Sean Johnson expects there to be upward of 10 players in the mix when their turn comes up. He’s been around long enough to know there’s no use in speculating on if Crews or Skenes might somehow be available.
“There are rumors that get spread and you’re not sure where they came from,” Johnson said. “The more we look at past drafts, they never really go like you think they’re going to go. There’s always a surprise or two in there.”
The Rangers, who pick fourth, pulled one last July when they took Kumar Rocker third overall, a year after the New York Mets drafted but failed to sign the hard-throwing right-hander. Rocker did sign with Texas but his 2023 season ended in May when he underwent Tommy John surgery while pitching for Class-A Hickory.
Rocker’s injury is one of the few setbacks the Rangers have endured this season. Texas has spent the first half of the year leading the competitive AL West and while general manager Chris Young called the draft “a great opportunity” he’s hopeful it’s the last time for the foreseeable future that the Rangers will have a top-five pick.
“Our goal is to pick 30th moving forward,” Young said. “I think we’ve taken steps in that direction this year.”
Whomever lands in Texas — particularly if it’s a college player — could be joining an organization on the cusp of a breakthrough. It may take longer in places like Pittsburgh, Washington (second) or Detroit (third).
Crews and Skenes insist they are up for whatever no matter when they hear their name called on Sunday. They can control their preparation and their effort. The rest — particularly the constantly-shifting dynamics that shape the top of the draft and all the noise that comes with it — is out of their control.
If anything, as much as they’ll make an effort to drink in a moment a lifetime in the making, they’ll also be eager to move to the next chapter with the guys they plan to win with down the road.
“Whatever level I go to (after) I get drafted, I’m going to go there and I’m going to be playing with these kids I’m going to see for years, you know?” Skenes said. “As we go up through the system and start to develop that relationship to help them get better, they help me get better. It’s kind of that synergy that leads to really good teams winning at the big league level.”