Tonight is the first MLB draft lottery! Here are some of the potential No. 1 picks teams are vying to land

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The first-ever MLB draft lottery is set to take place at the winter meetings tonight, so we’ll know the top order of the 2023 MLB draft, to be held in July at the All-Star festivities in Seattle.

Tuesday night’s lottery will determine the top six picks in the draft, and the Washington Nationals, Oakland Athletics and Pittsburgh Pirates, who all lost 100 or more games, have the best odds — 16.5% — of getting the top pick.

With that in mind, it’s a perfect time to look at the draft prospects whom teams could be eyeing at the top.

This early in the draft process, there’s a challenge in trying to nail down the top of the draft — a widely held favorite who will look silly in retrospect, or a player who has an unforeseen jump in ability or an injury-marred season.

That’s why I’m looking at the field in tiers: Most conversations I’ve had pinpointed a consensus top group, then a handful of likely challengers if things break right for them this spring. (You’ll be able to watch almost all of the top college players all spring on ESPN+ since they’re concentrated in the SEC!)

Since there isn’t a clear, slam-dunk No. 1 prospect, which team wins the first pick and the exact order of the draft will have a significant impact on who goes early. In recent years, we’ve seen that model-focused teams — or those looking to soak every ounce of value out of the system — will take a nonconsensus talent first to set up the rest of their draft. This year, though, there isn’t a team in the top 10 of the lottery odds that leans heavily on its draft model (Pirates and Detroit Tigers probably do the most) and there are a number of teams more inclined to a traditional approach (Nationals, Kansas City Royals, Colorado Rockies), so signing the top pick for below-slot value is a little less likely this year than in previous years.

The consensus group

Dylan Crews, OF, LSU
Wyatt Langford, OF, Florida

I’ll group the SEC outfielders together since they’re similar and might be the top two candidates to go 1-1 at this point.

Like many top picks, Crews has a long history of performance; he was seen as one of the best in his class by his sophomore year of high school. He looked ticketed to go in the late-first to compensation rounds in the pandemic-shortened 2020 MLB draft and had a big signing bonus ask, higher than where he was projected. Given his outsized expectations and likely outcome in the draft, he pulled his name out early, so he never has been subject to the full process.

Crews’ headline ability is plus-plus raw power that comes from big bat speed. He also has strong production in the best league in amateur baseball. The concerns about him are similar to those that existed out of high school, but they’re obviously much smaller now: He’s probably a corner outfielder rather than a center fielder, and it’s unclear if he’ll be a good or merely OK hitter for average, with a good but not great approach. To be clear, this is a real nitpick.

Langford, on the other end of the spectrum, was anonymous his freshman year at Florida as a lightly regarded backup catcher with four at-bats all season. He then jumped to Crews’ level with a scorching-hot sophomore year in 2022. Langford is an above-average runner who will flash a plus run time and has above-average-to-plus raw power. He doesn’t have a 70-grade tool and the track record is just one season, but there’s a chance that by draft time he’s seen as a good outfielder (maybe even a center fielder?) with 25-homer upside and one of the best two-year college performance runs in recent memory.

To put all of this in context statistically, Langford was the regular left fielder for the Gators last year and hit .355/.447/.719 with 26 homers, 36 walks and 44 strikeouts in 256 at-bats; Crews hit .349/.463/.691 with 22 homers, 42 walks, and 56 strikeouts in 249 at-bats.

And for historical context, former Florida 3B Jonathan India‘s breakthrough draft year performance that took him from a third-rounder at the beginning of the 2018 season to the No. 5 pick at the end of the year was .350/.497/.717 with 21 homers, 60 walks and 56 strikeouts in 226 at-bats. One thing I noticed when bearing down on both of them at the SEC tournament last year is that Langford has one of the simplest swings you can imagine, reminiscent of former Gator Pete Alonso, while Crews is in a squat and moves around a lot more in the box, looking like a batter with a higher-maintenance swing subject to streakier performance.

So, if Crews and Langford merely hold serve and basically repeat what they did last year (almost every elite prospect in this situation improves their stat line in their draft year), they’re strong bets for the top three to five picks. As pedigreed SEC bats with some defensive value, they are exactly what teams want to take with high picks, so the odds are stacked in their favor.

That said, if either falls off a bit or just has a bad year, there’s one more SEC position player with the one variable in his favor that Crews and Langford don’t have.

Jacob Gonzalez, SS, Ole Miss

Finishing off the SEC flavor (it’s barbecue, if you were wondering) at the top, we have Gonzalez. Now, ideally, teams want that elite SEC hitter with pedigree and performance who can play up the middle, and Gonzalez has the best chance of this group to do all three. He grew into his power in his sophomore year — hitting .273/.405/.558 with 18 homers, 50 walks and 32 strikeouts in 242 at-bats — and he’s a lefty-hitting shortstop out of a Southern California high school who got early-round attention in the 2021 draft.

His swing is a little funky (he bails toward first base) and he isn’t a slam-dunk above-average defensive shortstop for every team, so the “bear” case is he’s just a good ballplayer with a bunch of above-average qualities who will play in the infield. For the “bull” case, the funk seems somewhere from unimportant to fixable. You might project him as a big leaguer with 20ish homers as an everyday shortstop — and there are only eight to 12 of those at any given time.

Chase Dollander, RHP, Tennessee

The other thing every team wants at the top of the draft is a high-probability ace. Dollander is not quite at that Stephen Strasburg/David Price area where ace is the expected outcome, but scouts will be tossing that word around all spring trying to figure out where he falls in this hierarchy. And then they also have to consider the harrowing chances of injury or regression, as recent top-of-the-draft potential ace from the SEC Jack Leiter has shown.

Physically and in his delivery, Dollander has a look similar to Jacob deGrom. He’ll sit 94-98 mph, mix in a slider and curveball that are both above-average to plus and an above-average changeup with control you can project at starter quality. He carved the SEC last year (79.0 IP with 14 GS, 50 H, 13 BB, 108 K for a 2.39 ERA, and 10-0 record) after transferring from Georgia Southern, where he flew under the radar. His breaking ball quality and command are two variables to keep an eye on all spring as Dollander can also get into the “more hittable than you’d think” area for stretches against top competition with a good game plan. Again, this is also very nitpicky, but these are the conversations scouts are having right now.

Others in the mix

Max Clark, OF, Franklin HS (Ind.), Vanderbilt commit
Walker Jenkins, OF, South Brunswick HS (N.C.), North Carolina commit

For some, Clark and/or Jenkins belong in the top group. They’ve been grouped together for at least a year as the two top prep bats in this class. Clark is a plus-running center fielder with fast-twitch explosiveness, advanced feel for contact and solid raw power for that profile, along with a colorful personality. Jenkins has a potential plus hit/power combination as his selling point in a classic right-field profile and tons of history. They’ll need big springs to jump over all of the SEC types in the first group, but both are strong bets to land somewhere in the top 10 picks either way.

3B Aidan Miller, Mitchell HS (Fla.), Arkansas commit
SS Arjun Nimmala, Strawberry Crest HS (Fla.), Florida State commit

Miller has long been in the conversation at the top of this class and fits into the Josh Donaldson-type mold of a third baseman with huge bat speed and power. This summer he showed more bat control, while his main battle will be trying to win over model-heavy teams that hold his age (19.1 on draft day) against him. If you’d like to argue against the way some teams use age against players (Brett Baty is a notable miss for that group), check out Miller crushing a long home run at age 15.

Nimmala is on the other end of the age spectrum — 17.8 on draft day, while something like 18.3 is average for a drafted high schooler. That’s a huge empirical edge based on draft history, so he’ll be championed by model teams but also has plenty of scouting appeal with fast-twitch explosiveness and a classic shortstop profile. Many expect him to have a Keoni Cavaco-like rise (the 13th overall pick in 2019 who came out of nowhere) this spring, with a chance for even more.

With the pair playing in Florida after a strong summer, they’ll be priorities and both will be scouted hard in February and early March by those in town for spring training and/or waiting for the weather to thaw up north. This gives them plenty of time to start a spring-long charge up the board with waves of special assistants and GMs flying in to confirm or deny the early hunches of scouts.

Players up north often have only a month of games with nice enough weather for that process to occur and face notable competition only a few times per spring, so they have trouble creating that narrative and having enough runway to move up the board in the spring. This is why some draft model teams will boost those northern players to account for them being underdrafted at times; Mike Trout is a notable example.

Jacob Wilson, SS, Grand Canyon
Enrique Bradfield, CF, Vanderbilt
Brayden Taylor, SS, TCU
Kevin McGonigle, SS, Monsignor Bonner HS (Pa.), Auburn commit

These four are lower-upside types, due to a lack of game-changing power, who don’t have a great shot to get all the way up to the top pick but seem likely to go in the top dozen picks.

Wilson is the son of longtime big leaguer Jack Wilson and has the kind of lanky frame where you can imagine power coming eventually, but it isn’t there yet, whereas the bat and glove are. Bradfield is a throwback type as a top-of-the-scale 80-runner whom scouts have seen since his freshman year in high school in the same lineup as Mets 3B Mark Vientos and Red Sox 1B Triston Casas at American Heritage. Bradfield really knows how to use his speed in all phases, he has great feel for the game and he’s adding more power to his game, but he’s always going to be a speed/defense/contact-type first and foremost. Taylor is a plus hitter with a plus approach and will likely slide over to third base long-term; you’re hoping the power will play to average. McGonigle is also unlikely to be a shortstop long-term and isn’t that big, but he might have been the most consistent hitter in the prep class all summer, with a 15-20 homer upside if it all clicks.

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