The first 38 picks of the 2014 MLB draft unfolded exactly as I had hoped. First baseman A.J. Reed, National Collegiate Player of the Year, remained undrafted, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, my favorite team since childhood, held the 39th overall selection, a competitive-balance pick acquired from the Miami Marlins only days earlier in exchange for reliever Bryan Morris. Having surprised many observers by choosing high-school shortstop Cole Tucker with their first selection at #25 overall, the Pirates appeared poised to take a more polished hitter at #39. Not only could Reed hit a baseball very hard and very far, but he also happened to hail from the University of Kentucky, where years ago I met my wife and did my graduate work. It was perfect, I thought. Reed and the Pirates were meant to be.
Then, with the 39th pick in the 2014 draft, the Pirates selected C/OF Connor Joe from the University of San Diego.
Three picks later, the Houston Astros took Reed.
In fairness, Reed never was considered a can't-miss prospect, so while the Pirates' choice of Joe over Reed left me disappointed at the time, it certainly did not seem like an epic mistake. Nonetheless, considering the organization's perennial and sometimes comical search for a productive, left-handed, power-hitting first baseman, Pittsburgh's decision to pass on Reed was mystifying when it happened, and that decision has not improved with time.
The Astros, meanwhile, have good reason to hope that in Reed, who will not turn 23 until May, they have found their first baseman and cleanup hitter of the very near future.
In 2015 Reed took minor-league baseball by storm. Across two levels, he slashed an eye-popping .340/.432/.612 with 34 HR, 127 RBI, 113 R, and 30 doubles on his way to winning milb.com's Top Offensive Player Award and finishing as the runner-up to Tampa Bay LHP Blake Snell for Baseball America's prestigious Minor League Player of the Year Award. As if Reed's enormous power and run production were not sufficient to impress, the young slugger also demonstrated an advanced approach at the plate, drawing 86 walks against 122 strikeouts.
Thanks to an outstanding 2015 season, Reed enters 2016 as one of baseball's hottest prospects. Baseball Prospectus ranks Reed #2 overall in the Astros' system behind only SS Alex Bregman, the second overall pick in the 2015 draft. The same is true of MLB.com. Baseball America, most bullish of all, views Reed as Houston's top prospect and, in its newly-published Prospect Handbook, assigns him the grade of a "perennial all-star." Here at faketeams.com, where we evaluate players based on fantasy potential, our prospect team (yours truly included) ranks Reed #2 overall in Houston's system, not far behind Bregman, who gets the nod from us due to his potential as an offense-oriented middle infielder.
During life's turbulent moments, Reed's dynasty-league owners (also yours truly) might soothe their anxieties and conjure pleasant sensations simply by imagining Reed batting cleanup behind Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa for the next 8-10 years, enjoying the cozy confines of Minute Maid Park 81 times per season, and carrying their fantasy team to multiple championships. No matter when he gets the call to the majors, Reed likely will slot somewhere into the middle of a potent Houston lineup before settling into the #4 spot as expected.
Owners in re-draft leagues, hoping to assess Reed's value for 2016, face a far more difficult challenge than their dreamy dynasty-league counterparts. Houston's decision not to tender a contract to incumbent first baseman Chris Carter, now with the Brewers, opened the door for a spring-training competition between Reed and another left-handed power hitter, Jon Singleton, whose major-league performance to-date has been underwhelming at best (.171/.290/.341 in 114 games), but who is still only 24 years old and a former top prospect in his own right. Singleton will not hit for average, and he lacks Reed's enormous ceiling, but Singleton does have 50 combined homers between the Astros and Triple-A over the last two seasons, whereas Reed has yet to receive an at-bat above Double-A.
As of early February, the smart money says that unless Singleton is an absolute disaster at the plate, he will open the season as the starting first baseman for the contending Astros. The even smarter money says that if Reed crushes Triple-A pitching while Singleton continues to struggle in the majors, then Houston will have a new first baseman by June. This makes Reed a worthwhile late-round flier in re-draft leagues if you have the space on your bench to stash him.
Happily, the smartest money of all says that Reed is well positioned, by performance and opportunity, to emerge as a fantasy superstar. This would be enough to please even a disappointed Pirates fan who knows--and still laments--what might have been.