Guardians’ draft pick could alter team’s future


By Tom Withers

AP Sports Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) — Top of the AL Central. Top of the MLB draft.

It’s been a season of firsts for Cleveland.

Along with opening a surprising lead in their division with a strong three-plus months under rookie manager Stephen Vogt, the Guardians have the No. 1 overall pick in next week’s draft. It’s a selection that has the potential to alter the franchise’s trajectory for years to come.

As long as they make the correct one.

No pressure.

“We look at this as an extraordinary and exciting opportunity for us,” said Chris Antonetti, the team’s president of baseball operations. “Often times when you’re thinking about your first pick, you’re trying to guess who’s going to be off the board before you get an opportunity to select.

“This year we don’t have to guess.”

This year’s draft will begin on July 14 in Arlington, Texas with the event serving as a leadoff into All-Star festivities.

Cleveland has never picked first (the team has chosen second five times) and the chance to acquire a talented player who could quicken the team’s pursuit of its first World Series title since 1948 is both exhilarating and terrifying.

Antonetti, though, isn’t sweating it.

With only a 2% chance of landing the top pick, the Guardians had it fall in their lap when they won the draft lottery at the winter meetings in December. That moment of good fortune was followed by the club’s unexpected surge in 2024.

It’s a good time to be in Cleveland.

Along with his usual duties of managing the roster, scouring the transaction wire and weighing the team’s options before the trade deadline, Antonetti has been immersed in the draft process as he and the club’s personnel and scouting departments brainstorm.

They’ve had meeting after meeting after meeting. A plan has been hatched.

“First and foremost, the thing we are trying to solve for organizationally is use the resources and draft capital we have available to us to bring in the most talented group possible,” Antonetti said. “That’s really what we’re solving for and we think when we look up at the end of the draft, we’ll feel good about the group of players we bring into the organization.”

While there’s no consensus top pick, there are some great choices.

The Guardians have narrowed the talent pool to just a few possibilities at No. 1 with Oregon State second baseman Travis Bazzana, Georgia outfielder/third baseman Charlie Condon and West Virginia middle infielder JJ Wetherholt believed to be the frontrunners.

The Australian-born Bazzana has all the tools. He hits with power to all fields, possesses speed on the bases and makes every defensive play.

The 21-year-old may be the most major-league ready, and from Cleveland’s standpoint, it helps that he’s coming from the same program that produced Guardians All-Star outfielder Steven Kwan (MLB’s current leading hitter) and Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 pick in 2019.

The 6-foot-6 Condon fits the profile of what the Guardians have been seeking for years: an athletic power hitter they could plug in at first or a corner outfield spot. Condon won the Golden Spikes Award this season after leading the nation in average (.433), homers (37), slugging (1.009) and OPS (1.565).

Wetherholt led the country in hitting a year ago with a .449 average. He was slowed by a hamstring injury to start this season and missed 24 games. But the 21-year-old still put up solid numbers to keep his name in the mix.

An argument could be made for any of the three — even a few others.

As is almost always the case, money will shape the Guardians’ decision.

Cleveland will have a record $18.3 million bonus pool to spend on 21 picks, with $10.5 million as the assigned slot value for the first pick. The team can use the money as it wishes but can’t exceed the bonus pool or face penalties.

It’s a much more complicated system than used by the NFL or NBA and will require some financial strategy, something Antonetti, general manager Mike Chernoff and their staffs usually excel at.

Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a $9.7 million slot value on the top pick and selected LSU’s Paul Skenes, who got a $9.2 million signing bonus, a record that could be eclipsed by the Guardians’ pick.

It would be hard to imagine Cleveland’s selection having the same impact as Skenes, who Sunday was named an All-Star just eight weeks after his debut.

Vogt, who joked that he was taken No. 1 — “in the 12th round’ — knows there will be massive expectations on the top pick. It comes with the territory.

“The outside pressure can get to you at the end of the day,” he said. “The way I look at it is you earned yourself to be the best player in the country. The No. 1 overall pick, you did that. Now it’s just go play baseball. So much of that pressure comes from the media, comes from the outside, but in the baseball world it’s no, dude, you earned that money.

“You earned that right to be the No. 1 pick. Just go be yourself and play and continue to develop and get better just like the rest of the people going to go to the minor leagues. And it’s easier said than done, but that’s the way I view it.”

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