And we’re back. We started the countdown of the top 15 draft-eligible righthanded college pitchers yesterday with 15 through 11. One thing I forgot to mention when players 15-11 were unveiled yesterday was that the list is restricted only to righthanded college starting pitching prospects – it’s a no reliever zone here. The bullpen guys will get their own special ranking at a later date. The top 10 through 6 draft-eligible college righthanded starting pitching prospects right after a very special picture. See, the young woman pictured below isn’t just making an appearance because showing pretty girls is an easy way to increase traffic; no, I’m far too classy a gent to stoop to that level. She is actually the significant other of the player used as a comparison to the sixth ranked player on the list. Hmm…
10 through 6 after the jump…
10. Alex Wilson (Texas A&M)
Wilson’s story is reminiscent of the player ranked one spot below him on this list, a happy coincidence that I swear I didn’t consider when putting together the rankings. Like Sam Dyson (number 11 on the list), Wilson has overcome a major arm injury only to resurface as a viable top two round draft candidate this June. The Winthrop transfer’s comeback story is as good as any, but what matters now is that his stuff is back and his performance is once again turning heads. On the year, Wilson has struck out 21 batters in 12.2 IP. More importantly, he has done it while flashing some pretty exciting stuff. Wilson features a strong low-90s fastball (touching 94), an above-average low-80s slider, and a rapidly improving changeup.
9. Kyle Heckathorn (Kennesaw State)
The giant man (6-6, 240) with the giant last name (for some reason his name makes me think left tackle), Kyle Heckathorn has, you guessed it, giant upside on the mound. He has shown dominance (141 K’s in 127.2 IP) in his two years with the Owls, but inconsistency (both in stuff and performance) has kept his prospect stock down. I like to think of Heckathorn as the very poor man’s Stephen Strasburg. Both players face less than the best competition on a regular basis, throw fastballs that touch the high-90s, and terrific high upper-80s sliders. Heckathorn adds in an above-average low-80s changeup and complements his high velocity four-seamer with a two-seam sinking fastball that may be his best weapon. I wrote this over the weekend after Heckathorn’s first start of the season and it still holds up days later…even if it does sound a little too much like what I wrote about Sean Black yesterday:
On one hand, this is a bad sign; failure to dominate lesser competition is not something Heckathorn wants to put on his resume. However, he is still striking out over a batter an inning and he is getting guys to pound his heavy stuff into the ground with regularity. My fearless prediction about Kyle Heckathorn’s eventual draft position – no matter where the consensus decides he should go in the draft, he’ll go at least 15 spots higher. It only takes one team to like you enough to make you rich, and I get the feeling that a scouting director will see the big righty on the right day and fall in love.
8. Mike Nesseth (Nebraska)
Nesseth’s scouting profile reminds me a little bit of a less refined version of the player ranked one spot ahead of him on the list. Between a mid-90s fastball with great sinking action, hard low-80s slider with loads of potential, and at least some feel for a changeup, Nesseth shows enough variety with his arsenal to warrant a high grade even as a draft-eligible sophomore. His track record doesn’t have a whole lot of meat to it, but when he has pitched, he has produced. Nesseth put up huge strikeout numbers in his debut season with the Cornhuskers, but did so out of the bullpen. Naturally, this raises questions about where he’ll stick as a professional.
His excellent summer ball performance in the rotation leads me to believe he can start as a professional. If a team agrees with that assessment, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him popped late in the first round. If not, he’ll get thrown into the mix with a large group of college relievers jockeying for position in the supplemental and second rounds.
One trend I’ve noticed — and I’m not sure if it’s about this year’s top college pitchers or my own personal preferences — is that there are more fastball/slider guys than fastball/curveball guys on the list. How about that?
7. Kendal Volz (Baylor)
From the mock draft:
Volz has a big-time arm, but between his numbers being more good than great and the fact some scouts think his long term home is the bullpen, he has a lot to prove in 2009. Fair or not, Volz also has a little bit of the stink of a highly touted, but so far disappointing Baylor recruiting class attached to his name. The underachiever tag is one he’ll have to fight to remove this upcoming spring.
So far, so good. Sixth ranked Baylor is 6-2 with a series win over Pacific and individual wins over Houston and UCLA. Fellow highly touted members of Baylor’s “disappointing recruiting class” are off to fine starts, including 1B Dustin Dickerson and OF/LHP Aaron Miller. For his part, Volz’s performance has been good (low ERA, but non-spectacular peripherals), but not great. Fortunately for Volz (and Volz’s agent) his scouting reports have continued to outpace his numbers so far in 2009.
Through two 2009 starts, most of the reports on Volz’s performance alludes to his development into a much more well-rounded player. It may be an old scouting cliché, but Volz is more pitcher than thrower so far this spring. There is a very big difference in forecasting the future of a player with a million dollar arm who can just throw it by overmatched competition vs. a player who has a plan on the mound who is capable of changing speeds, spotting the fastball, and setting hitters up. The power stuff hasn’t been quite it used to be so far, but it’s believed it’ll come back once the season gets rolling.
Many worry about an eventual transition to the bullpen in Volz’s future, but, shockingly enough, I’m not on board with this idea. I view a move to the bullpen as a last resort used primarily for a prospect who absolutely cannot come up with a viable third pitch. That part of the game isn’t a problem for Volz. His three-pitch mix includes the big fastball (88-91 so far this year, but it’s touched 95 in the past), a plus slider (77-82), and an effective change. I understand Volz has the power stuff that screams “closer” and the fact that he was so successful in relief during the summer is enticing, but it’s still best to let an arm as talented as Volz’s pitch his way out of the starting rotation. With a return to the power stuff he has shown in the past, Volz will remain in the mix to go in the top half of the first round.
Fun fact about Kendal Volz – his real first name is William. That mean he actually chooses to go by the name Kendal. I’d make fun of him further, but Mr. Volz stands 6-5, 225 and was an all-district linebacker in high school…
6. Mike Leake (Arizona State)
You’d better believe the top five college draft-eligible righthanded pitchers are a heck of a group if Mike Leake, one of all-time favorite college players ever, is on the outside looking in. Leake literally has everything I look for in a pitching prospect. Let’s do it bullet point style:
- Plus athleticism – has played first, second, short, and every outfield position as a Sun Devil
- Ability to handle the bat – hit .340/.500/.574 in 47 at bats last season (12/9 walk to strikeout ratio)
- Groundball inducing stuff – so far this season, 19 of his 23 non-K outs recorded have come on the ground
- Plus secondary pitch – slider works better another groundball inducing weapon, but it also creates plenty of swings and misses
- Above-average third pitch – his changeup is nearly as good as his slider
- Plus command – his ability to spot any of his three pitches has earned him universal praise from scouts
- Plus control – roughly 1.75 BB/9 in his college career
- Plus makeup/competitiveness – only good things have been said by scouts, coaches, teammates, and parents about Leake’s drive to succeed and strong work ethic
What Leake is missing is an ideal frame (he’s 6-0, 180), an overpowering fastball (sits 89-92), and a whole lot of room for growth. I’d argue the last point a bit because I think any two-way player stands to gain a little something once they begin to focus solely on one aspect of the game, but, on the whole, those negatives are fair criticisms of Leake’s game. Fortunately, a blazing hot fastball and a “prototypical pitcher’s frame” each fall very low on the list of things I care about. A high radar gun reading on a fastball is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but good fastball movement (something Leake has in spades) trumps good fastball speed every time. There is something to be said about a physical frame that needs filling out eventually producing a better fastball down the road, sure, but many college pitchers are what they are by their junior seasons anyway. The backlash against short righthanders is not grounded in empirical research, so I tend to actually look at short righthanded pitching as being a potentially undervalued asset in the draft every year. Yes, I just spun Leake’s lack of height as a positive. Your mileage might vary with that part of the assessment.
One industry comp and one personal comp for Leake before we wrap this thing up. First, my slightly off the wall comparison – highly-touted Japanese prospect Yu Darvish. Darvish has four inches on Leake and throws a knuckle-curve, but they have similar stuff (sinker, slider, change) otherwise. The better comparison may be the more common one – a lesser Tim Hudson, right down to the two-way talent shown at the college level. You could do worse than a poor man’s Tim Hudson come draft day.
I can’t wait to see where Leake winds up on draft boards come June. How will teams balance his lack of upside (I’m as high on him as anybody, but I still see him as more of a very good middle rotation arm than an ace) with his better than average likelihood of reaching it? There will be sexier options on draft day for teams picking in the mid- to late first round, but there may not be as sure a bet to be a dependable major leaguer as Leake. I bet he is a target of teams with multiple high picks (Arizona) and mid-market franchises picking in the late teens/early twenties (St. Louis, Toronto, Houston).