It was supposed to be a no-brainer, one of those years when there was no doubt who the No. 1 pick in the Draft would be. The Astros, picking first for the third consecutive year, would have their decision sewn up early.
But it hasn't worked out that way.
The top of the Draft appears to be more muddled than anyone thought it would be coming into the spring season. The year started with most believing that North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon would be the slam-dunk choice, with perhaps East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman a close No. 2. But because of uneven performances, some injury concerns and outstanding showings by some high school pitchers, the top pick seems up in the air.
There is time for Rodon to regain his footing as the presumptive top pick. The big southpaw appears to have righted the ship over his past two starts, including his 15-strikeout performance in a 1-0 loss to Georgia Tech on Friday. Rodon's pitch counts have been a bit high, but recently he has looked more like the dominant future front-line starter than at any other point in the season.
Hoffman, meanwhile, is in a holding pattern. He also was up and down early, then had his best start of the season -- an eight-inning, 16-strikeout performance against Middle Tennessee. But Hoffman was shut down soon thereafter for at least two starts with arm soreness, leaving his status uncertain.
That's opened the door, and two high school pitchers -- lefty Brady Aiken from Southern California and right-hander Tyler Kolek from Texas -- have stormed through the opening. Aiken, a southpaw with very good stuff and even better mound intelligence, and Kolek, a flame-thrower who regularly hits 100 mph, are now being most often mentioned as contenders for the top pick. But keep in mind that a high school right-handed pitcher has never been selected No. 1 overall since the Draft began in 1965.
MLBPipeline.com ranks Aiken No. 1 on its new Draft Top 100 list. Kolek is No. 3, with Rodon sandwiched between the prep standouts. While the list was generated after consultations with scores of scouts, there wasn't much talk about what would actually happen at the top of the Draft come June 5.
Until now, that is.
MLB.com polled nine scouting directors and national scouts and asked two questions: Who do you think the Astros will take No. 1 overall? Who would you take if you had the top pick?
Rodon only received one vote among those who were polled when it came to selecting their top pick. Aiken and Kolek each received four. Kolek was the top high school arm coming in and has only improved his stock. Aiken at first seemed more like a bottom-of-the-top-10 selection until he separated himself this spring.
"I think it's Kolek, being a hometown guy," one national scout said. "Rodon has Scott Boras [as an advisor]; you're not going to get a discount there. If it comes down to Kolek and Aiken, it has to come to the guy in your backyard, especially if he's throwing 100 mph."
"Aiken's a strike-thrower with a big body, a good delivery and plus pitches. What else would you want?" one scouting director added. "He's an athlete on the mound, too, who just happens to be blessed with a big body."
The one thing Aiken's impressive spring might have done, the director posited, is no longer make him a bargain choice.
"He's the whole package, and he may be better than them all, anyway," the director said. "He might be too good to cut a deal now."
Guessing who the Astros would take was a different exercise than figuring out the choice if it was yours to make. One director asked if he was making the pick for Houston or his own club. In the end, those kinds of variables were left up to each scout who was polled, though the suggestion was made to act as if the selection were being made in a vacuum.
Again, the two high schoolers split the vote, with Aiken and Kolek each receiving four. Rodon again got one mention, based on his track record.
"I would stick with him," a national scout said of Rodon. "I know what I saw last year, and he was as good a left-handed pitcher as I've seen in my career. Assuming he's healthy, I'd stick with Rodon."
But that was obviously a minority opinion. One made a fairly strong case for Aiken, pointing out that because of his feel for pitching, he might not take as long to move up as the typical prep pitcher.
"Right now, I'm leaning toward Aiken," a scouting director said. "I think he's taken a jump a little bit, stuff-wise, and I loved him coming in. He's got command, he's got three pitches. I know he's in high school, and he's 17, but put him in a college uniform and how much different would he be than these college guys?"