ANAHEIM, Calif. – The debate will continue inside their draft room because the Cubs don’t have an easy, obvious answer for the No. 2 overall pick on Thursday night.
The consequences will be far-reaching. Get it right and there will be a new franchise player at Wrigley Field. Get it wrong and who knows how long this rebuilding project will last.
Within the final 24 hours, the Cubs are said to be focusing on three college players at the top of their board: Power pitchers Mark Appel (Stanford) and Jonathan Gray (Oklahoma) and San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant.
Philosophically, team president Theo Epstein and scouting/player development chief Jason McLeod believe position players taken that high are a much better bet, given the inherent risk with arms, the attrition rate and the historical data that shows pitching comes from all over the draft.
To make that leap, the Cubs would have to be convinced that Appel or Gray is clearly a better choice than Bryant.
[More: Looking at recent No. 2 picks]
The front office wasn’t blindsided when Gray’s positive test for Adderall hit the media this week. It called a college kid’s judgment into question, but it didn’t eliminate him from consideration. Remember more than 100 players diagnosed with attention deficit disorder last year received therapeutic use exemptions under Major League Baseball’s joint drug program.
You also have to take into account how difficult it is now to acquire young frontline pitching. But if the final assessment is that Appel or Gray might only max out as a No. 3 starter, then it will be difficult to pass on a potential middle-of-the-order anchor like Bryant, who generated 31 homers and 62 RBIs in 62 games this season.
Cubs officials have also met extensively with North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran, who’s been rumored to be an option at No. 1 for the Houston Astros and their thinking-outside-the-box front office.
Another X-factor is super-agent Scott Boras, who’s advising Appel and Bryant. According to Baseball America, the No. 2 overall pick has been assigned a $6.7 million slot value and the Cubs will be working from a $10.6 million overall bonus pool.
Boras also represents Albert Almora, the South Florida high school outfielder who last year became the Epstein administration’s first draft pick. With the sixth overall choice, the Cubs went with the position player and passed on Appel, who fell to the Pittsburgh Pirates at No. 8 and decided to return to Stanford for a dominant senior season (10-4, 2.12 ERA, 130 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings).
McLeod said: “The Mark Appels, the Colin Morans, the Kris Bryants, some of those names that you’ve heard, our scouts all have a history with those guys, dating back to the high school showcase circuit. So there’s comfort there in that we’ve watched the majority of these guys for the last four years.”
Gray might offer more upside than Appel, but he doesn’t have quite the same track record. The Kansas City Royals took Gray in the 13th round of the 2010 draft out of Chandler High School in Oklahoma, and the New York Yankees grabbed him a year later in the 10th round, but his stock has soared since then.
As a junior, Gray has blown away hitters with his 100 mph velocity, going 10-2 with a 1.59 ERA and 138 strikeouts against only 22 walks in 119 innings.
“Reading Baseball America, we all know who all the publications say are the top guys,” McLeod said. “Jon Gray is someone who’s been somewhat of a name in Oklahoma circles, maybe not nationally like some of the other guys. But this is a guy that’s been drafted twice, (so) he’s been on the radar.
“And then this year he came out early firing bullets and had a start out at UCLA that kind of really stamped that he was going to be a guy that would be thought of at the top of the draft.
“He doesn’t have as much history on the national scene as some of the other guys, but he’s gone out week-in and week-out and put together a hell of a year.”
[More: Sveum doesn't think Cubs will be hit by Biogenesis scandal]
Pitching coach Chris Bosio has analyzed video on Appel and Gray and believes it won’t take long before both are fixtures in big-league rotations.
“All those decisions will be made based on their interviews with those players,” Bosio said. “Background stuff, going back all the way to Little League and high school and summer travel (teams) and family stuff and health history. That’s where a lot of these decisions are made, not necessarily with just the guy on the mound.”
Dale Sveum has also broken down the video and given his thoughts on how each prospect’s game might play on the next level. But the manager said he doesn’t have a preference – it just needs to be an impact player.
“(With) pitchers, you never know, but obviously Appel is pretty ahead of the game development-wise,” Sveum said. “(With) position players, sometimes you really don’t know until you get a wood bat in their hands and they play at a faster pace and play every day facing velocity.
“But the one thing about position players – top-five, top-10 picks – they’ve been pretty good lately with the (Ryan) Brauns and the (Ryan) Zimmermans and the (Troy) Tulowitzkis.”
Bryant? Appel? Gray? The Cubs are going to say they can’t go wrong with any of those players, while continuing the debate in the final hours leading up to the big decision.
“You got a position player that out-homered 200 Division I schools,” Sveum said. “You got a starting pitcher that maybe can step into a rotation right now. You have a guy with a dominating fastball that can throw a ball by anybody at any time.”