“Paul was the first player on our board — I can say that. I can also say the top of the board was hard to separate,” noted Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington, who said he avoided watching LSU or any other team in person because he doesn’t trust himself but that “up to 15” other Pirates officials saw Skenes at some point.
What they saw was a 98-mph fastball, a devastating slider and unteachable competitiveness that left most evaluators thinking he could start in the big leagues in 2024, if not sooner. Skenes was named the most outstanding player at the College World Series, joining elite prospects Adley Rutschman and Dansby Swanson in winning that honor and then going No. 1 overall. Crews won the Golden Spikes Award, which goes to the best amateur player in the country.
“No, honestly, we really didn’t,” Crews said when asked whether he and Skenes had talked about who would go first.
“That kid is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen in my life,” Crews added. “So, yeah, there was no really butting heads about who could go 1 or 2, but I’m just happy I’m in a great organization like Washington.”
Even in the hours before the draft, uncertainty reigned. The Pirates had made their intentions unclear in the weeks leading up to the draft, meaning the teams choosing soon after them had little certainty about who would be available. So when Seattle Mariners legend Ken Griffey Jr. announced the Pirates had chosen Skenes, everyone behind them had to make quick decisions.
“We would’ve certainly liked to have our choice of all the players,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, whose team finished last in MLB last season but lost out in the first draft lottery. “ … But we’re tickled pink to have Dylan Crews.”
Evaluators considered this one of the strongest draft classes in more than a decade, in part because any of the projected top five picks seemed to have a credible case to be No. 1.
Skenes drew comparisons with Stephen Strasburg as the best college pitcher to enter the draft in years. The Nationals chose Strasburg first in 2009. That year, the Nationals selected Strasburg just before the Mariners selected the best college hitter available, Dustin Ackley, second. This year, the Pirates’ choice of Skenes forced the Nationals to pivot to Skenes’s college teammate.
“It was a very difficult choice,” Cherington said. “I certainly believe that there’s a bunch of guys that were selected at the top of this draft that are going to go on and be very good players in the major leagues.”
As part of MLB’s continuing efforts to lift the profile of its draft, it staged this year’s event at Lumen Field, home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. While the NFL and NBA events draw likely top picks in person, MLB’s draft does not yet qualify as a can’t-miss for those projected as early selections. Not until Grand Canyon shortstop Jacob Wilson walked onstage when the Oakland Athletics chose him at No. 6 did a player appear on the podium.
But the top five picks went largely as predicted, with Indiana high school outfielder Max Clark going third to the Detroit Tigers and SEC powerhouse Wyatt Langford, an outfielder from the Florida team that lost to LSU in the College World Series final, going to the Texas Rangers at No. 4. North Carolina high school outfielder Walker Jenkins went to the Minnesota Twins at No. 5.
“We didn’t really know what was happening in front of us,” said Kip Fagg, the Rangers’ senior director of amateur scouting. “Surprised? No. But … I think it was a really good group up top, and I think clubs had different opinions of that group.”
Maryland shortstop Matt Shaw went 13th to the Chicago Cubs to become the highest-ever Terrapins draftee. He was the 2022 Cape Cod League summer player of the year and hit .341 with 24 homers for the Terps in 2023.
Vienna, Va., native Bryce Eldridge, a Madison High standout who grew up watching Bryce Harper as his favorite player and has been touted as the next Shohei Ohtani because of his skills on the mound and at the plate, went 16th to the San Francisco Giants. Eldridge, who throws 97 mph, had been projected to land anywhere from the middle of the first round to late in the second. (Another Northern Virginia high school standout, Westfield outfielder Jonny Farmelo, went to the host Mariners at No. 29.)
The Giants drafted another two-way star, Reggie Crawford, 30th in 2022. He has made seven starts and taken 35 at-bats since being drafted. He is with San Francisco’s low Class A affiliate, suggesting that the Giants — unlike many organizations before seeing Ohtani’s success — are open to letting two-skill stars pursue both paths.
Skenes was a two-way star as recently as last year, too. The catcher-pitcher hit .314 with a 2.73 ERA during the 2022 season, which he spent at Air Force. Cherington didn’t rule out a two-way career for Skenes, whom he said he has learned not to bet against. But he said the Pirates’ focus, like LSU’s, will be on making Skenes the best starter he can be.
“[LSU Coach Jay] Johnson is doing a good job bringing the right people into the building. I don’t think it’s done anytime soon,” Skenes said. “I think it’s going to be a pattern of success for LSU baseball. I’m really excited to see where that program goes.”
POST AUTHOR: Chelsea Janes