Crucial first-round pick looms for Phillies

Aaron Nola vs Washington
Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola throws a second-inning pitch against the Washington Nationals on Saturday, April 8, 2017 in Philadelphia.

PITTSBURGH - When Aaron Nola rejoins the Phillies rotation Sunday here at PNC Park, the Phillies will double the amount of first-round picks on the current roster.

Nola, in 2014, went seventh overall. Zach Eflin, who came to the Phillies in a trade, was the 33rd overall pick in 2012 by the San Diego Padres.

The major-league draft is a crapshoot. A good 40-round draft, baseball people will say, is one that produces two or three players who reach the majors. The small odds decrease with every subsequent round. In a game where production has dramatically shifted to players younger than 30, first-round picks are the most valuable currency.

They provide the best chance at a young, everyday contributor.

In three weeks (June 12), the Phillies will pick eighth. It will be one of their most important decisions in what is another rebuilding season where the sum is not as critical as the development of a few pieces. Just examine how the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, two teams with elongated rebuilding processes, have finally generated winning results: They have hit on their position players drafted in the first round.

The Cubs, since 2011, have drafted shortstop Javier Baez, outfielder Albert Almora Jr., third baseman Kris Bryant, and outfielder Kyle Schwarber with first-round picks. Their average draft position was 5.3. Even Ian Happ, their 2015 pick at ninth overall, has already graduated with a strong first impression.

The Astros drafted outfielder George Springer with the 11th pick in 2011. They tabbed shortstop Carlos Correa with the No. 1 pick in 2012. Alex Bregman, their third baseman, came with the second overall pick in 2015.

That is not to suggest the Cubs and Astros have been right on every draftee. Chicago's 16th overall pick in 2010, a righthander named Hayden Simpson, is out of baseball. The Astros passed on Bryant in 2013 to draft current Phillies farmhand Mark Appel with the No. 1 pick, a decision they will forever regret. The Astros picked Delino DeShields with the 11th pick in 2010, and DeShields did not gain traction until Texas snatched him in the Rule 5 draft.

But the successes have outweighed the mistakes.

Consider the two World Series champions before Chicago. In 2015, Kansas City boasted three first-round picks - Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas - in its lineup. The 2014 San Francisco Giants had first-round picks Buster Posey and Joe Panik in the lineup with Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, and Tim Lincecum in the rotation.

The Phillies can find a player at No. 8. Todd Helton, Jay Bell, and Jim Abbott are the best players to have gone eighth in the draft. Francisco Lindor, Cleveland's star shortstop, was the eighth pick in 2011. Righthander Mike Leake went eighth to Cincinnati in 2009.

But their recent track record with drafting position players in the first round (if that is the ultimate route) is not strong. The Phillies have drafted nine position players in the first round since Chase Utley in 2000. Two - Greg Golson and Adrian Cardenas - had brief big-league careers. Three - Zach Collier, Anthony Hewitt, and Larry Greene - never made it. Only one, Travis d'Arnaud, has held a starting job in the majors.

Three of them - J.P. Crawford, Cornelius Randolph, and Mickey Moniak - are in the system. They are touted. Crawford, despite his prolonged slump at triple-A Lehigh Valley, is viewed as the franchise's future shortstop and a two-hole hitter. Moniak, the first-overall pick last summer, is 19 and in his first full professional season. Randolph is still young; he will not turn 20 until June. The Phillies were aggressive in promoting him to high-A Clearwater this season. The leftfielder, selected 10th overall in 2015, has not yet adapted.

It will be years before the Phillies know whether those picks were the right ones.

Baseball America, in its most recent mock draft, has the Phillies connected to Pavin Smith, an on-base machine who plays first base for the University of Virginia. MLB.com has the Phillies picking Shane Baz, a prep righthander from Texas. Those projections will change often in the next three weeks.

Whatever the case, the player the Phillies pick will not reach the majors for years. That does not diminish his importance.

mgelb@philly.com

@mattgelb