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2010 MLB Draft Prospect: AJ Cole

RHP AJ Cole (Oviedo HS, Florida)

  • 91-93 FB/94-96 peak; has reportedly been as high as 98
  • potential plus 76-80 KCB
  • average 84-88 SF that acts as a change
  • 78-81 SL that appears to come and go from outing to outing (?)
  • projectable frame at 6-5, 190 pounds
  • Zach Wheeler and Rick Porcello comps


Lots to like about AJ Cole’s game, clearly. His biggest strengths include his present plus fastball velocity, a potential plus knuckle curveball, and that wildly projectable 6-5, 190 pound frame. For a prep pitching prospect, that’s about as close to the holy trinity as you can get. I’m just about positive that I’ve seen Cole throw a splitter and I can’t remember ever seeing him throw a true change, so I’m doing a bit of guesswork when I claim he uses that mid-80s split as a de facto changeup. Without any legit industry source backing me up, I’ll hedge my bets and stick with calling the pitch a “splitter that he uses as a facsimile for a change” for now. Whatever you want to call the pitch, it’s probably a stretch to call it anything more than average right now. That may sound like a knock, but remember how rare it is to see a high school prospect with three present average or better pitches. An average third pitch may not be a negative, but it does highlight a clear area where Cole could stand to improve this spring. There are currently conflicting reports on the existence of Cole’s slider (I personally haven’t seen it), but smarter men than I have clocked it anywhere from 78-81 miles per hour. The similar velocities of the slider and his knuckle curve has me wondering if Cole actually throws two distinct breaking balls at all. If I had to guess, I’d say his actual repertoire consists of a fastball, a spike curve sharp enough that it’s been confused with a slider, and a changeup with above-average downward movement that may or may not be held with an actual splitter grip. A rough conservative breakdown of that arsenal might look something like this:

Fastball: 60/70
Curveball: 45/60
Changeup: 40/55

I see a lot to like in the Cole’s delivery and throwing mechanics. His arm action seems nice and easy and he appears to have little trouble repeating the same consistent 3/4 delivery from pitch to pitch, batter to batter. The one negative thing I can say about Cole’s mechanics is that he seems to rush through each step of his delivery a heck of a lot quicker than most guys I’ve seen. That last problem seems like one that can be corrected with good professional coaching, but that’s an evaluation that will be made on a team-by-team basis this spring.

Speaking of pitching mechanics, allow me to make an admission of apathy on the subject. It’s true, I’m largely indifferent to pitching mechanics. My pet theory is that 99.99% of the baseball watching population can only derive so much usefulness from evaluating a pitcher’s throwing mechanics. In my estimation, all pitching deliveries fall somewhere along a bell curve  that looks a little bit like the following – maybe 15% of the time a pitcher’s mechanics are so perfect (Nolan Ryan, for example) that it is abundantly clear whatever he is doing is working and will continue to work going forward, roughly 15% of the time a guy’s mechanics are so obviously cringe-worthy that you can’t help classify his arm as nothing more than a ticking time bomb, and then there is that big fat middle 60% or so that falls somewhere in between the two extremes. If a pitcher has mechanics in that middle part of the curve, I’m willing to change my personal focus from analyzing each individual part of the setup, windup, and follow through (yeah, like I can really do that anyway…) to worrying about a) does the pitcher have any kind of track record of arm problems, b) can the pitcher repeat whatever they are doing on the mound pitch after pitch after pitch, c) does the pitcher maintain velocity of his fastball and sharpness of his breaking balls, and d) does the pitcher tip off the batter by showing clear differences in arm speed when throwing different pitches. Those four things are what I care about most. That is, of course, unless something obviously good or bad (highly subjective, I know) jumps out at me. If enough people I talk to/read like a certain guy’s mechanics, I’m sold. If, in addition to getting a passing mark from somebody I trust, the pitcher is able to repeat his delivery and maintain a consistent velocity while doing so, I’m sold twice over.

The popular industry comp of Porcello works in a lot of ways, but I much prefer sizing the young Florida righthander up with Porcello’s Detroit teammate, Justin Verlander. Verlander represents Cole’s ultimate upside as a big leaguer, but it’s interesting to compare the two pitchers at similar points in their development. Despite possessing a 93 MPH peak velocity fastball, Verlander wasn’t even drafted coming out of Goochland HS (VA). Scouts questioned his shaky control and inconsistent mechanics while also citing concerns over how his 6-4, 170 pound high school frame would hold up as a professional. He embarked on an intense workout program upon enrolling at Old Dominion that helped move him closer to the finished product that we see today. Cole offers a similar velocity floor (low-90s) when compared to the high school version of Verlander, but has the edge when it comes to prep peak velocity as he has been clocked as high as 96-98 MPH at various stages in the past year. So, Cole has a better fastball at this point in his development, plus more consistent breaking stuff and a more advanced overall feel for pitching. If, and it is admittedly a pretty sizable if, Cole’s 6-5, 190 pound frame fills out like Verlander’s similarly projectable high school frame did, then you could eventually be talking about two very similar pitching prospects come draft time.  With a little more muscle packed on, Cole’s fastball has the potential to be one of the signature pitches in all of baseball much in the same way Verlander’s heater has emerged as a special offering.

If you don’t like the Verlander comp, or the more popular Wheeler/Porcello industry comps, maybe you like the totally coincidental comparison to a trio of Yankee stars, future, present, and past – Phil Hughes, AJ Burnett, and a bigger and harder throwing version of Mike Mussina. When the upside is Burnett (3 WAR floor), Mussina (future HOFer), and Verlander (2.80 FIP in 2009), and the most similar prospects in reason memory are Rick Porcello ($3.5 million bonus) and Phil Hughes (BA’s fourth best prospect in baseball in 2007), only signability concerns or injury will keep you out of the first ten picks.

Orioles, Dalles, and Cowan

I normally try to avoid the two things I’m about to do. I don’t like linking to somebody’s work if I can’t provide my own interesting take and, seeing I rarely have any interesting to say myself, I shy away from this popular (and easy to produce!) blog tactic. I don’t know, it just feels cheap to me to just throw up a link without adding to the conversation. I also really don’t like quoting myself because it feels tacky to me. Of course, now that I’m stumped on any ideas for new content, I’m more than happy to go all cheap and tacky if it’ll make my life easier. There’s a lesson in all this somewhere, I bet.

Enough with the boring introduction, onto the main course. I love these insider-y takes on scouting, the draft, and player valuation. The more first hand accounts detailing young mostly unknown players’ skill sets, the better.  Check it out, I’ll wait.

I enjoyed reading this piece entirely on its own merit, but once I realized it mentioned a couple of my favorite somewhat below the radar prospects from 2009 I knew that I had to squeeze a post out of it. The first name that caught my eye was Justin Dalles, catcher from South Carolina. I wrote this about him back in the day:

Dalles is exactly the kind of sneaky high upside, low risk that warrants taking a chance on once the top prep players on your wishlist are all long gone.

I waffled on his draft position before settling on him being taken in the 7/8 round range. He eventually went to Baltimore in the sixth. Baltimore scouting director Joe Jordan claims Dalles is an average defender with a slightly above-average arm, good enough athleticism, and a chance to have a bat worthy of starting in the bigs. Interesting.

I also loved Jake Cowan, ranking him as high as 13th overall among college righthanders and 1st overall out of the entire junior college ranks. Here’s what I said about him almost a year ago:

1. Jake Cowan (RHP – San Jacinto CC – Texas): Cowan combines a plus 95 MPH fastball with two above-average secondary offerings. A fastball like that coupled with strong secondary stuff makes Cowan stand out above his junior college peers. There are players below that have great fastballs, there are players below that have decent secondary offerings, but no player below combines the two quite like Cowan. To use an all too often repeated scouting cliche, Cowan is as much a pitcher as he is a thrower and that’s a very good thing going forward.

According to Jordan, Cowan was sitting 92-93 with the fastball, showing good sink on the pitch, in addition to a good slider and a decent changeup. It’s funny how you can see the vague scouting report from last February was inflated a smidge or two, but Cowan is no less of a prospect just because he didn’t hit 95 this summer or show as impressive a changeup as expected. The Orioles claim he was a third round talent that fell to them in the tenth. Not a bad gamble that late in the draft.

Now if only they didn’t take Matt Hobgood, future bust, with their first rounder. Alright, maybe I don’t really believe he’ll be a bust, but I certainly wasn’t enamored with the pick at the time. Anyway, that’s my conclusion. Impressed how I tied everything together there at the end? No? Don’t care, time for the weekend!

Where The College Talent Is

I’m not well informed enough to make a controversial stance and say that the following universities have the “best” rosters (with regard to potential pro talent, not necessarily winning college talent), so I’ll totally wimp out and, for now anyway, call these rosters some of the most intriguing that I’ve seen so far. I’ve stuck to the big name conferences, but I’ll expand this list to some of the little guys as the offseason rolls along.

ACC – Virginia
Big East – South Florida
SEC – LSU/Georgia/Vanderbilt (even when being spineless, I can’t pick a favorite…)
Big 12 – Texas
Pac-10 – Oregon State
Big West – UC Riverside
West Coast – Gonzaga
Conference USA – Rice
Mountain West – Texas Christian

Random College Plus-Plus Tools

So, I’ve got a 33-page Word document going with every notable college team listed (including junior colleges and D-II/D-III teams) that is now up over 11,000 words. I don’t say it to brag — I mean, come on, how big a dork would I have to be proud of something like that? — but rather to set up the next couple of days of posting. Since my current Word doc has real quick notes on a ton of college players, I thought it would be a good idea to share out some of the more interesting findings so far. I won’t have complete player profiles done on the major guys for a while, and I doubt I’ll ever have complete profiles written on some of the lesser names, so this gives me a chance to shine the spotlight on some lesser known guys who happen to feature a truly standout tool or two.

Plus-Plus Tools

Rutgers

SR C Jayson Hernandez (2010) and his jaw-dropping throwing arm. The guy may have little to no power to speak of, and he may be considered one of the weaker hitters currently playing major college ball, but, man oh man, can this guy throw. If he can wake up the bat even a teeny, tiny bit, he could find himself drafted with the chance of someday being a shutdown all-defense big league backup.

South Florida

JR C Eric Sim (2010) and his almost as good as Hernandez’s plus-plus but not quite all the way there yet arm. Overall, Hernandez is the better defender; he is closer to a finished product defensively (his ability to block balls and his footwork are both currently ahead) and, as mentioned, has a slightly more impressive arm. Sim’s bat is more of a question mark at this point. I’ll be honest and say I’m not really sure how it’ll play in the Big East this spring. What I do know is that some scouts have already given up on Sim as a catcher and are instead dreaming of what kind of heat his arm could generate when getting reps throwing off the mound.

Texas A&M

SO RHP/SS Adam Smith (2011) and the bazooka launcher attached to the right side of his body. If you’ve been following the draft over the past few years the name Adam Smith should sound familiar. No, not the Wealth of Nations guy. The highly sought after 2008 recruit who wound up in College Station playing for the Aggies. Smith has always had a crazy strong arm, but only recently has he had the chance to showcase it regularly on the mound. I still believe he can play a capable SS/3B and hit enough to be productive at either spot, but I couldn’t fault a team that instead saw him as a potential closer-type throwing easy 97 mph fastballs off the bump.

San Diego

FR OF Matt Moynihan (2012) doing his very best Usain Bolt impression with legit plus-plus speed. A future piece here is definitely going to be about players who fit the ideal “leadoff man profile.” I must have wrote that phrase about 50 times when during the quick reports of college guys this year. Maybe I’m misremembering previous year’s talent bases, but it seems that 2010-2012 has a disproportionate amount of players with the potential for really good big league careers as lineup table setters and up the middle plus defenders. Moynihan has that potential, though he is obviously a few years off from getting there. He combines that plus-plus speed with good discipline along with superior range and an arm that fits well in CF to make himself an enticing prospect to watch.

Old Dominion

JR LHP Kyle Hald (2010) and his dominating split-fingered changeup. Hald doesn’t throw hard (sitting mid-80s), but he does everything else you could possibly want a pitcher to do well. The secondary stuff is solid (hard SL and decent show-me CB), he is an outstanding fielder, his pickoff move is a legit weapon, and his mechanics are clean, consistent, and repeatable. That alone would make him a potential mid-round get, even when factoring in the below-average fastball. It’s the inclusion of his unique split-fingered change that makes him a sleeper to watch in 2010. I may be wildly overrating him based on one great pitch, but it’s a pitch that impressed me so much I’m willing to stick my neck out for it.

Jacksonville State

SR RHP Alex Jones (2010) and his surgically repaired elbow’s nasty slider. Jones is coming off from Tommy John surgery and, unfortunately, is feeling the impact hard. His fastball that once topped out in the low-90s was only able to get up over 86 this past summer. Thankfully the procedure and subsequent time off had no negative consequences on his plus-plus slider, a pitch that may be the best of its kind in all of college baseball. If Jones can pick up some of that lost velocity, he’ll find himself as another potential mid-round college reliever sleeper. He’s got the pro body (6-6, 190 pounds) and financial advantage (he’d be a senior sign) that many similarly talented pitchers in the mid-rounds seem to lack.

Quick College Look Ahead – UConn, LSU, and Kansas

Not sure what direction to take now that I’m finally staring at almost four months without “meaningful” baseball. Right now the plan is to go back and respond to any comments I’ve missed over the past few weeks, continue plugging away with college/high school draft scouting reports, and sharing out any interesting tidbits that I happen to run across – probably doing that last bit on a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule. I’m open to providing just about any kind of content (college team profiles, closer look at high school player groups, top ten positional rankings, whatever), so if there is anything in particular that anybody wants to see, drop me a comment or an email. It’s a loooooooooong offseason and this normally a pretty dead period for any kind of draft news, but reading and writing about faraway prospects may help the next couple of frigid months go a little quicker. For now, here are a couple notes about some interesting college teams and players to watch heading into 2010.

Connecticut

The Huskies feature one of the nation’s most intriguing pair of two-way talents in SO RHP/SS Nick Ahmed (2011) and SO RHP/3B Kevin Vance (2011). Ahmed turned some serious heads in summer league play with a fastball sitting in the low-90s, a low-70s curve with promise, and a presently league average change. Ahmed may have been the hotter name over the summer, but Vance’s stuff is currently a touch better. He has similar velocity to Ahmed (normally sitting 90-92 with the FB), but a better overall breaking ball and plus command give him the overall edge. Both players figure to see plenty of time on the mound in 2010, though neither should be limited to just pitching. Ahmed and Vance will each fight for time on the left side of the infield, an area that Connecticut has well covered between the two two-way guys and returning star Mike Olt. If Ahmed locks down either the 3B or SS spot on a semi-regular basis (with Olt manning the other spot), don’t be surprised to see Vance get a shot working behind the plate.

LSU

The defending champs bring back an absolutely loaded squad. There are some questions on the pitching side that will need to be sorted out, but the Tigers outfield depth is just silly. SO OF Mike Mahtook (2011), JR OF Leon Landry (2010), and SO Johnny Dishon (2011) would have been my guesses as the starting outfielders heading into the spring, but the return of SR OF Blake Dean (2010) and the arrival of SO OF Trey Watkins (2011) give LSU five legit pro prospects in the outfield. Mahtook is a definite five-tool talent who just looks like a future first rounder, Landry will draw plenty of Jared Mitchell comps due to his football playing background and impressive raw physical tools, and Dishon profiles similarly to Mahtook but may be just a little bit short in each tool category when directly compared to his outfield mate. Dean is slowly rounding back into baseball shape after a run of bad luck offseason medical work. Meanwhile, all early buzz on Trey Watkins has been nothing but positive. Reports of his plus-plus speed have not been exaggerated as Watkins really is a joy to watch run, especially when he is doing the running after having driven a ball into the gap for a triple.

Kansas

The folks in Lawrence figure to be pretty occupied by a different kind of bball through early April, but the left side of the Jayhawks infield deserves an early mention before getting buried in the avalanche that is KU basketball. JR 3B Tony Thompson (2010) has special potential with the bat and a cannon for an arm at third. His 6-5, 220 pound frame, power potential, and questionable future at third base (even with the big arm he may have to slide across the diamond as a pro) garner late career Troy Glaus comps. The man to his left will be JR SS Brandon Macias (2010), another Kansas infielder with plus arm strength. Macias has very good defensive tools that should play up with as he gains experience playing at the highest level of collegiate ball. He has enough pop in his bat to go along with above-average speed to make him an interesting five-tool player to watch this spring.

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