Who will be the No. 1 pick in the 2024 MLB Draft? These 8 college players each have a legitimate case

We’re a little more than two months away from the 2024 MLB Draft, and a tier of eight elite players — all from the college ranks — has emerged at the top of the class:

  • Georgia 3B/OF Charlie Condon

  • Oregon State 2B Travis Bazzana

  • Florida 1B/LHP Jac Caglianone

  • Texas A&M OF Braden Montgomery

  • Wake Forest 1B Nick Kurtz

  • West Virginia INF JJ Wetherholt

  • Arkansas LHP Hagen Smith

  • Wake Forest RHP Chase Burns

A year ago, a similar dynamic came into play with five players — Paul Skenes, Dylan Crews and Wyatt Langford at the college level and outfielders Max Clark and Walker Jenkins from the high school ranks — separating themselves fairly early in the process. That talented quintet held serve all the way until draft night, when they accounted for the first five selections.

This year’s class features a much deeper group of potential top picks — and far less clarity about the order in which they will be selected. That’s because nearly everyone in that top tier is currently in the midst of a statistically spectacular season for his college team, with the group seemingly alternating weekends looking like the best player in the country. That has made this draft especially ripe for debate and discourse regarding who deserves to hear his name called first on July 14 in Fort Worth, Texas.

At the winter meetings in December, the second-ever draft lottery produced a stunning result at the top, with Cleveland and Cincinnati garnering the first two selections in the 2024 draft despite microscopic odds to land the prized picks. Here’s the order of the top 10 picks:

  1. Guardians

  2. Reds

  3. Rockies

  4. A’s

  5. White Sox

  6. Royals

  7. Cardinals

  8. Angels

  9. Pirates

  10. Nationals

These teams are currently doing the most homework on this upper echelon of draft talent. But rarely are two teams’ draft boards alike, especially in a year like this. It’s possible that whomever the Guardians end up selecting first overall would’ve been gone a few picks later had Colorado or St. Louis won the lottery instead. In addition, MLB’s bonus pool system and the various ways teams navigate it have a massive impact on which players land with which teams, regardless of how the industry lines up the players from a strictly talent perspective.

As such, it’s far from a guarantee that these eight players will be selected with the first eight picks come July. Not only is there another month-plus of game action to help or hurt these players’ cases for the top pick, but there are other viable candidates as well. Specifically, two talented prepsters — Konnor Griffin at Jackson Prep in Mississippi and Bryce Rainer at the well-known Harvard-Westlake School in California — have separated themselves from the rest of this year’s high school class.

But for the most part, these are the eight players whose merits are being rigorously debated by the teams picking at the top of the draft. With that in mind, here’s a closer look at all eight, including how each got to this point and the pros and cons of their prospect profiles.

Barely recruited as a high schooler in suburban Atlanta, Condon originally planned to play football and baseball at Division-III Rhodes College in Tennessee. But when the University of Georgia baseball team offered him a roster spot as a preferred walk-on during his senior year of high school, Condon jumped at the opportunity. After redshirting as a freshman to get stronger and properly prepared to compete at the Div. I level, Condon excelled in the Northwoods League during the summer before his sophomore year.

Once he finally hit the field for the Bulldogs in 2023, he took off immediately, slugging 25 homers and putting himself squarely on the scouting radar. He has leveled up even further as a junior, with a ridiculous 30 home runs through his first 44 games while showcasing improved athleticism at five positions: 1B, 3B, LF, CF, RF.

It’s hard not to draw some parallels between Condon’s meteoric rise and the journey taken by Wyatt Langford, who has already reached the big leagues after Texas selected him fourth in last year’s draft. Though he didn’t redshirt like Condon, the lightly recruited Langford got only four at-bats as a freshman at the University of Florida. He then exploded as a sophomore, with 26 home runs, and somehow got even better as a junior.

Like Langford, Condon’s right-handed power is simply breathtaking, and his performance against SEC competition has been otherworldly. That Condon has become this good this quickly has teams bullish on his offensive potential at the next level. For those confident in his chances of sticking at third base, Condon looks like an obvious pick. But even if he settles into a corner outfield spot, his bat projects to provide the kind of star-level production that any team would love to secure at the top of the draft.

While his efforts to bounce around the diamond have been commended, some teams are wary about Condon’s eventual defensive home. The most pessimistic outlooks envision him as a right-handed first baseman, putting immense pressure on his bat to live up to the hype in order for him to be an above-average big leaguer. Spencer Torkelson and Andrew Vaughn loom as recent cautionary tales, players whose offensive excellence at the collegiate level hasn’t quite translated to the big leagues, a troubling outcome considering their limited defensive value.

A native of Sydney, Australia, Bazzana jumped on the national radar when he was named MVP of the West Coast League — a summer wood-bat league in the Pacific Northwest primarily consisting of collegiate players — in 2021 before he played his first college game. He carried that momentum into his freshman season with the Beavers and hasn’t looked back since.

With a sweet lefty stroke, all Bazzana has done since arriving stateside is mash, winning the Cape Cod League batting title last summer and rewriting the Oregon State record books this spring with a noted uptick in power production. After stealing 36 bags as a sophomore, Bazzana hasn’t run as much this year (9 SB), but he has been an absolute force atop the Beavers lineup in every other sense, at one point hitting a leadoff home run in four consecutive games.

It’s not just that Bazzana has always hit; it’s that he has found a way to get better every season, as he’s frequently lauded for his makeup and exceptional drive to improve. That has included trips to Driveline the past two winters to help unlock more game power, and the results have followed. Bazzana is already up to 21 HR this year, compared to 11 in 2023 and just one as a freshman.

He has made strides in plate discipline as well: After striking out at a decent clip as a freshman (20.5%), Bazzana has cut down on the whiffs and drawn more walks than strikeouts in each of the past two seasons, including a tremendous 53/22 BB/K rate so far in 2024. And while he hasn’t been as much of a threat on the bases this season, the raw speed isn’t an issue; it would hardly be a surprise to see him incorporate steals back into his game at the next level.

While Bazzana’s speed enables solid range in the infield, his actions are just OK, and a below-average arm limits him to second base. While there’s so much to like — and trust — about his bat, it is exceedingly rare to see second basemen selected at or even near the very top of the draft. Bazzana’s raw power grades out as above-average, but it doesn’t stack up to the top-of-the-scale marks ascribed to the likes of Condon, Caglianone and Kurtz. If a team rounds down on Bazzana’s slugging potential with wood bats in pro ball, it becomes a bit more difficult to view him as a slam-dunk top pick.

An alum of the same high school in Tampa, Florida, that produced Hall of Famer Wade Boggs and, more recently, All-Stars Pete Alonso and Kyle Tucker, Caglianone’s two-way exploits have been well-documented for a while now. He underwent Tommy John surgery the summer after his senior season, which limited him to DH duties as a freshman in Gainesville. But once he returned to the mound, Caglianone — “Cags,” for short — quickly evolved into one of the most prolific two-way players ever seen at the college level. As a sophomore in 2023, he led all Div. I hitters with 33 home runs while making 18 starts (4.34 ERA in 74 2/3 IP) for a Gators team that reached the College World Series finals.

In 2024, he has made significantly more progress as a hitter than he has on the mound. He has sliced his strikeout rate from 18% to an astonishing 8% while sustaining truly epic power production (.862 SLG%). As a pitcher, he has continued to demonstrate exceptional velocity for a southpaw, and the strikeouts have followed, but the command hasn’t improved at all (16.1% walk rate is identical to his 2023 mark). While the sense around the industry is that most teams prefer Caglianone as a hitter, his raw stuff from the left side is difficult to write off entirely.

While it is undeniably irresponsible to compare any current or future two-way player to Shohei Ohtani, Caglianone’s pure physical ability on both sides of the ball sets him apart from the handful of two-way players around the game who tend to exhibit elite tools from one side while proving merely serviceable on the other. Caglianone’s profile is not nearly as refined as Ohtani’s for a million reasons, but it is top-of-the-scale juice, and he has been up to 100 mph from the left side on the mound. That is sensationally rare, which is why it’s quite possible that teams picking near the top of the draft would give Cags a chance to stick as a two-way player and help him maximize both sides of his game in pro ball.

For simplicity’s sake, though, let’s stay focused on the bat. Even in the hitter-friendliest environment college baseball has seen in years, Caglianone’s raw power stands out as particularly jaw-dropping. After he set the single-season, BBCOR-era home run record last year, his encore as a junior has included a nine-game homer streak that tied an NCAA record and an estimated 516-foot blast that cleared the scoreboard at Florida’s home ballpark. A more subtly impressive aspect of Cags’ season is that he has found an inordinate amount of success against same-handed pitching, swatting 15 of his 26 homers against southpaws.

By far the most absurd indicator of Caglianone’s power — and of the livelier bats and balls currently being used at the Div. I level — is his home run per fly ball rate. Ohtani led MLB in this category in 2023 at 31.2%; Condon (39%), Montgomery (38.3%) and Bazzana (38.2%) have each clocked in a notch higher than that this spring. But Caglianone’s HR/FB rate? It’s 48.2%! In other words, when he hits a fly ball this season, it’s practically a coin flip whether it’s going to be a home run. That’s legitimately hilarious, and it helps explain another hard-to-believe element of Cags’ numbers: He has hit only two doubles. On a related note: As a rookie in 2017, another hulking, left-handed first baseman named Matt Olson hit 24 homers … and just two doubles. He has since blossomed into a more all-around offensive force, but a player approximating Olson would be an outstanding outcome for Caglianone in the long run.

So much about Caglianone’s statline is difficult to comprehend and, thus, exceptionally challenging to project forward. It’s not just the laugh-out-loud power stats that are unlikely to sustain no matter how strong Caglianone is, it’s also the bizarre way he has managed to “improve” his plate discipline. What’s so mind-blowing about him cutting down his K-rate this spring is that he is still chasing pitches out of the zone at a troubling 38% rate, which would be well above-average at the MLB level. But Cags’ bat-to-ball skills — and his immense strength — have allowed him to consistently do damage on pitches outside the strike zone and rarely go down swinging. Will that work against pro-level pitching, let alone big-league arms? We’ll find out soon enough.

Montgomery has been well-known in scouting circles for a lot longer than most, if not all, of this year’s No. 1 hopefuls. A regular on the high school showcase circuit, Montgomery’s standout ability as a two-way player in Mississippi had MLB teams split about whether his potential was greater on the mound or as a switch-hitting outfielder.

Ultimately, an ultra-strong commitment to Stanford made him virtually unsignable in the 2021 draft, ensuring an additional three years of data to help clarify his future in pro ball. While he got a fair bit of run as a reliever during his two years at Stanford, he primarily starred as a hitter, including during a run to the College World Series as a freshman in 2022. He transferred to A&M for his junior year, and there he has all but ditched pitching while elevating his offensive game for one of the best teams in college baseball.

With his days on the mound seemingly behind him, Montgomery fits a prototypical profile as a rocket-armed right fielder with serious thump. In addition to cutting down his K-rate from 26.6% as a freshman to 18.3% this year and walking at a career-best 20.1% rate, he has markedly improved his right-handed swing since arriving in College Station, making him a more legitimate threat from both sides of the plate. This has enabled a more robust overall slash line: Montgomery’s 1.361 OPS is a considerable jump from the 1.072 mark he posted a year ago. For teams that value switch-hitting, Montgomery — with his lengthy track record of excellence combined with an ability to make high level adjustments — would be a fantastic pick somewhere in the top five.

For all the strides he has made as an Aggie, some teams are still wary of Montgomery’s two years of striking out a good bit at Stanford, especially since underlying data, such as his contact and chase rates, still suggest a hit tool that isn’t as advanced as some of the other top candidates. Montgomery is a good in-box athlete, but he isn’t an explosive runner who will impact the game on the bases or with his outfield range. In turn, the pressure is on him to continue demonstrating an ability to adapt and upgrade his offensive game as he enters the pro ranks and faces even better competition.

There are eight college players with a legitimate case to go No. 1 to the Cleveland Guardians in July. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)There are eight college players with a legitimate case to go No. 1 to the Cleveland Guardians in July. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

Although he grew up in Pennsylvania, Kurtz played most of his high school ball at a boarding school in Tennessee. Originally recruited by Wake Forest as a left-handed pitcher, he gradually developed into an imposing left-handed hitter, pushing a possible future on the mound to the side. He matriculated to Winston-Salem, where he has enjoyed an individual breakout concurrent with that of the entire Wake Forest program.

The Demon Deacons have rapidly ascended into the inner circle of elite Division I programs during Kurtz’s time on campus, reaching their first College World Series since 1955 in Kurtz’s sophomore year in 2023 and boasting another loaded roster in 2024. After an uncharacteristically slow start to his junior year, Kurtz caught fire in April, including an outrageous, two-week stretch in which he launched 14 home runs across 10 games after hitting just three dingers in his first 20 contests.

Come July, Kurtz will be the only player on this list to arrive at the draft with three full college seasons of bona fide offensive excellence to his name. His track record of power (57 HR) and patience (167 walks vs. 115 strikeouts) is unrivaled among his peers, and he has done it consistently against strong ACC competition. He might not be the explosive athlete more traditionally associated with a top pick, but with his combination of offensive aptitude and a stellar glove at first base, Kurtz has all the makings of an Anthony Rizzo starter kit — not a bad player to build around.

We’re talking about a first baseman here, and as mentioned with Condon and Cags, that can be something of a daunting proposition for teams that prefer a more well-rounded profile at the top of the draft. Kurtz is the only hitter on this list who hasn’t competed in a summer league or as part of Team USA’s collegiate national team program, leaving some to wonder how his offensive game will translate with wood bats.

Wetherholt was a relative unknown as an infielder at a Pittsburgh-area high school, ranked by Perfect Game as the 32nd-best player in Pennsylvania in the 2021 class after a limited amount of showcase exposure due to the pandemic (a reality for several of the players in this piece). He didn’t go far to find a home at the college level in Morgantown, and it didn’t take long for the industry to realize the Mountaineers had landed a pretty special player.

After a solid freshman campaign, Wetherholt won the Div. I batting title as a sophomore in 2023, hitting .449 with 16 homers, 36 stolen bases and more walks than strikeouts. Hamstring issues hampered Wetherholt last summer and again this spring, costing the West Virginia star nearly seven weeks of his junior season before he returned in April primarily as a DH. While he has seen more time at shortstop in recent weeks, his mobility remains limited, making it especially difficult to get a read on his viability at the position at the next level.

Rewind to December, when Cleveland won the lottery and before Wetherholt’s junior season was derailed by injury, and you’ll find his name atop several initial mock drafts as the Guardians’ projected pick. He is such a gifted hitter, with one of the most fluid operations and prettiest left-handed swings you’ll see in an anateur prospect, with the results to match.

That Wetherholt was even attempting a move to shortstop this spring is an encouraging sign regarding his defensive potential, and it’s not inconceivable that an MLB team would draft him at the position and see if he can handle it once his mobility is back at full capacity. But even at another spot in the infield, special bats such as this don’t come around often. Wetherholt might not have had the standout season of some of these other guys, but any team picking beyond the top three would’ve been overjoyed at the idea of Wetherholt being available if you’d told them six months ago it’d be possible.

Although he entered this year firmly in the mix for the top pick, Wetherholt will need to finish especially strong for the Mountaineers over the final month to sustain that. He simply missed too much time this season to measure up to the extremely high statistical standard set by the other top-pick hopefuls in the college game.

Additionally, recurring soft tissue injuries might scare off some teams with fears that such issues could continue to haunt the player in his pro career. In turn, it’s not hard to imagine that teams with concerns about Wetherholt’s medical and/or his ability to play shortstop might prefer Bazzana as a safer option as a second baseman with comparable offensive upside.

As one of the youngest pitchers in the 2021 high school class, the east Texas native was highly regarded by MLB teams three years ago but chose the college route in Fayetteville instead of starting his pro career as a teenager. Smith’s first two years with the Razorbacks were very good, but he really took a leap in the fall of his junior year, comfortably sitting in the upper-90s in bullpens with command. Those special showings behind the scenes translated seamlessly to this spring, as Smith has arguably been the most dominant starting pitcher in college baseball in 2024, exemplified by a February outing against Bazzana’s Beavers in which he struck out a whopping 17 batters (including Bazzana thrice) in six scoreless innings.

It seemed impossible that we’d ever see a college pitcher post numbers comparable to what Skenes did in 2023, let alone so quickly. But Smith has produced a stunningly similar line of excellence this spring, albeit in slightly shorter stints than Skenes’ routinely lengthy outings. Skenes finished 2023 with a 1.69 ERA and a .449 OPS allowed in 122 ⅔ innings, striking out 45.1% of the batters he faced. Through 11 starts this year, Smith has a 1.35 ERA and a .439 OPS allowed in 60 innings, having struck out 47.8% of opposing batters. With solid command of his newfound elite velocity, a dastardly plus-plus slider and a gnarly splitter, Smith has carved up every caliber of opponent this spring as the Friday night ace for arguably the best pitching staff in the country. He’s one of the more enticing southpaw prospects we’ve seen in a while.

While improved from a year ago, Smith’s strike-throwing is still only fair at best — and the biggest difference between his statistical dominance and that of Skenes’. Smith has managed to quiet most teams’ relief concerns, but his lower arm slot and shorter track record of pounding the zone consistently could spook some teams from picking him too early. More bluntly, it’s the nature of his position that will have teams leaning toward bats when making million-dollar decisions at the top of the draft, especially in the recent injury-laden climate. While he has been durable in college, Smith had Tommy John surgery as a sophomore in high school.

A highly touted, hard-throwing high school arm in Tennessee, Burns was widely coveted by MLB teams in the 2021 draft but opted instead to start his college career in Knoxville with the Vols. After starring as a starter as a freshman, Burns scuffled in the rotation as a sophomore before excelling in relief in the second half for a Tennessee team that reached the College World Series.

He then made the rare decision to transfer out of the SEC, joining Wake Forest in search of a more stable spot in the rotation and the opportunity to improve with their renowned pitching development resources. That has generally gone as planned, as Burns’ already high-powered arsenal has been amplified further, making him one of the best pitchers in the ACC and the current national strikeout leader, with 127 whiffs in just 69 innings.

Let me repeat that: 127 whiffs in 69 innings! Burns’ 47% strikeout rate is right on par with Smith’s, and if you see him on the right day, his repertoire is somehow even more electric. It’s a dynamic fastball that Burns can run into the triple digits and, even more impressively, sustain deep into outings, hitting 100 mph on his 100th pitch of the game on multiple occasions this year.

And if the velocity weren’t impressive enough, Burns’ high-80s slider is a much more reliable source of swing-and-miss than his heater. He mixes in an occasional curveball and changeup, but his top two weapons are so good that we probably won’t see the development of those pitches until he starts his pro career. Burns’ delivery looks pretty intense on the surface, but it works well for him, and teams have been much more convinced of his chances to start after watching him get so much better across the board this spring.

No matter how athletic he is or the noted strides made at Wake, Burns’ max-effort delivery and occasional lapses with command will scream “reliever” to some teams. And unlike Smith, who has already undergone Tommy John surgery, Burns’ relatively clean bill of health is viewed positively by some but skeptically by others who have watched too many fireballing youngsters hit the shelf recently due to elbow injuries. That’s not to say Burns couldn’t still have a successful MLB career with an elbow surgery interruption at some point, but it’s undeniably another factor for teams to consider when choosing among these players at the top of the draft — especially with so many alluring alternatives on the hitting side.