MLB Draft’s battle of Ohio: Guardians, Reds gearing up to make top 2 picks

CINCINNATI — The top two players in the MLB Draft are coming to the Buckeye State. Well, eventually. The Cleveland Guardians own the No. 1 pick in the draft, which begins July 14. They’ll likely take one of two college hitters, unless they opt to get cute with their bonus pool allotment. Their cross-state rivals, the Cincinnati Reds, will presumably snag the other guy at No. 2.

Then, it’s up to the players to climb through the minor leagues for a chance at helping to gain or retain possession of the heralded Ohio Cup.

Cleveland and Cincinnati, a couple of teams teeming with young talent, will converge Tuesday at Great American Ball Park.

The Guardians burst onto the scene in 2022, pushing the New York Yankees to a decisive Game 5 in the American League Division Series before taking a step back last season. They’ve rebounded with a 42-22 start in 2024 and might be the league’s greatest surprise. The Reds emerged as a National League up-and-comer last summer but sputtered out of the gate this season only to rescue their season with a recent seven-game winning streak.

Neither team was tanking or doing anything resembling rebuilding when they landed the top picks in December. Such is life with MLB’s new draft lottery. Tanking teams, here’s your nightmare. Suffer through 100-plus losses, and then don’t wind up with a chance to select Oregon State second baseman Travis Bazzana or University of Georgia slugger Charlie Condon.

The Guardians had a 2 percent chance of securing the top pick, the ninth-best odds of any team. The moment Guardians president Chris Antonetti learned his club had struck unimaginable fortune, he looked like he had seen a three-headed ghost. When the picks were revealed on an MLB Network set in a massive hotel ballroom at the Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., he rushed onto the stage and bear-hugged team representative John McDonald, a longtime infielder and coach with the organization.

After losing 100 games for just the second time in franchise history in 2022, the Reds’ luck in that year continued in the inaugural MLB draft lottery, picking seventh instead of fourth. A year ago, there were a consensus top five picks and the Reds were on the outside of that grouping before picking Wake Forest right-hander Rhett Lowder. In the lottery’s second year, the Reds had just a 0.9 percent chance at the top pick and nearly got it. They landed the second pick, perhaps making up for the bad luck of the year before.

Neither franchise has ever previously held the top pick. The Reds have three times owned the No. 2 pick, which they used to take infielder Kurt Stillwell (1983), infielder Nick Senzel (2016) and pitcher Hunter Greene (2017), now the club’s radar-gun-stirring ace.

Two years after the Reds selected Stillwell, the team took hometown shortstop Barry Larkin out of the University of Michigan with the fourth pick. Stillwell made his big-league debut in 1986 and then was traded to Kansas City following the 1987 season along with pitcher Ted Power for lefty Danny Jackson and another player. Jackson would help the Reds win the 1990 World Series, as would Larkin, who eventually was enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y. A generation after the team took Stillwell, it took Senzel as its second No. 2 pick. Senzel had five injury-riddled seasons in Cincinnati before he was non-tendered this offseason and signed with the Washington Nationals. The 2016 draft proved to be a poor year to have a high pick as only the 32nd pick in that draft, Dodgers catcher Will Smith, has put up a double-digit bWAR in his career so far.

Cleveland has had mixed results, at best, with its five No. 2 picks: pitcher Steve Dunning (1970), center fielder Rick Manning (1972), pitcher Greg Swindell (1986), infielder Mark Lewis (1988) and pitcher Paul Shuey (1992).

Manning spent nine years as the club’s center fielder and won a Gold Glove Award. He’s also been the team’s TV analyst for 35 years. Swindell was an All-Star in 1989 and spent parts of seven seasons with the franchise. The Indians traded him to the Reds in November 1991. They traded Lewis to Cincinnati, too, after parts of four underwhelming seasons in the majors. Dunning spent four shaky years with Cleveland before the club dealt him to Texas. Shuey battled arm injuries but did spend nine seasons with the team as a reliever. Four picks after Cleveland snagged Shuey in 1992, the Yankees selected a high school shortstop named Derek Jeter.

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Yankees legend Derek Jeter was the sixth pick in the 1992 draft, four selections after Cleveland went another direction with its choice. (Al Bello / Getty Images)

The Guardians held a pair of draft meetings early last week. Ethan Purser, who was promoted to amateur scouting director a few days before the draft lottery, is leading the process for the first time. Purser was the first person in the organization to learn the Guardians had landed the first pick, but he couldn’t tell a soul. At the Winter Meetings in December, he entered what he dubbed an “underground dungeon,” with nothing but his room key and a notepad. He was barred from having contact with the outside world as he watched, with 15-20 other team representatives and league officials, how ping-pong ball sequences determined the draft order. He called it the “most terrifying thing” he had done in a while.

The Nationals actually landed the top pick, but they were ineligible because of a league rule that bars a team that pays into the revenue-sharing pot from finishing in the lottery in consecutive years. The redo benefited Cleveland.

Purser had to wait more than two hours — until the picks were revealed on the broadcast — to escape that windowless room. To pass the time, people played Sequence, Yahtzee, Settlers of Catan and Texas Hold’em, using Cheez-It crackers and cookies as poker chips.

Cleveland has been a longstanding pitching factory, but with its first selection, it’s taken a pitcher only twice since 2011. Seven of the last nine No. overall 1 picks have been position players, though the Pittsburgh Pirates scooped up mustached phenom Paul Skenes with the top choice last year.

In a year of historic offensive performances in college baseball, the Bulldogs’ Condon and Beavers’ Bazzana have separated themselves as the top performers, followed by two-way slugger Jac Caglianone of the University of Florida and a pair of pitchers in Wake Forest right-hander Chase Burns and University of Arkansas lefty Hagen Smith.

Most, though, expect either Bazzana or Condon to be taken first by the Guardians and the other then snapped up by the Reds.

Bazzana, a left-handed hitting Australian, was the Most Valuable Player of the Cape Cod League last summer and followed that up with a big season for Oregon State this year, hitting .407/.568/.911 with 28 home runs and 66 RBIs. He put up that line while racking up more than twice as many walks (76) as strikeouts (37). Bazzana has played exclusively second base for the Beavers and no second baseman (or Australian) has ever been taken with the top pick. He also played in the outfield for Oregon State earlier in his career. He played shortstop, third and the outfield in the Cape Cod League.

A former walk-on, Condon set the Bulldogs’ single-season and career home run records, with 36 on the season entering Monday’s Super Regional final against NC State. He hit 61 home runs in his two seasons at UGA after redshirting as a freshman. The right-handed hitter has played third base, first base and all three outfield spots this year. Condon’s 36 home runs are the most in a college season since the NCAA adopted the BBCOR bat standards in 2011. It’s the highest mark since Rice’s Lance Berkman hit 41 home runs in 1997. The all-time college mark is 48, set by Oklahoma State’s Pete Incaviglia in 1985. In addition to the home runs, Condon was hitting .436/.559/1.009 with 57 walks and just 39 strikeouts entering Monday night’s game.

Either team could go in a different direction, but in a draft year not as full of impact players as were available a year ago, it may be Bazzana and Condon who are part of the battle for the Ohio Cup in future years.

(Top photo of Charlie Condon: Stew Milne / Associated Press)

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