I wanted to do a piece on “draft risers,” despite the fact that I don’t really believe in the idea of moving guys up or down too much based on junior (or, in rare cases, senior) season successes or failures. There’s obviously a good deal of fluidity in the draft process, but I reject the notion that there are any major college players or well-traveled high school showcase stars that aren’t already firmly planted on the radar of both big league scouting staffs and devoted draft followers alike. That said, it would be silly not to acknowledge that there are prospects that show the incremental improvement that elevates “good” prospects (call them 2-5 round types) to “great” prospects (round 1, earlier the better). Jacksonville’s Chris Anderson is the poster boy for this type of mover, but his day in the sun on this site will come soon enough. The real reason why I wanted to do a draft riser piece was to write about a name that is now very much in the mix for the first overall pick in the draft, Jonathan Gray from Oklahoma.
Prior to the year, my basic notes on Gray included info on his fastball (88-92, 94/95 peak), slider (low-80s, consistently an above-average pitch that flashed plus), changeup (80-85 straight change that flashed plus), and a burgeoning cutter (88-90, very similar action to his slider). Needless to say, he was a very good prospect. His 2013 scouting dossier has been updated to include a much firmer fastball (94-97 consistently, including a peak of 98-100 and no signs of diminishing velocity late in games), a cut-slider that morphs his two above-average pitches into one major weapon (83-88), and a steady low-80s changeup that remains an average at worst offering. You can see why he’s now considered a strong top ten, potential top five, and, I’ll repeat it again in case anybody missed it, outside contender for a top one kind of draft pick. People don’t say “top one caliber pick” for obvious reasons, but I think it’s funny so I’m keeping it.
The comp for Gray that put everybody on notice in the past was when somebody — I hate that I forget where the comp came from, apologies to the most likely candidates at Baseball America and Perfect Game — compared him to Roger Clemens. Aaron Fitt hinted that Gray’s most recent start reminded him of watching Gerrit Cole as an amateur. A few of the other names that I’ve heard from those who have seen him this year: Max Scherzer (whom Cole was compared to as an amateur), Matt Harvey, Addison Reed, Garrett Richards, and, big gulp, Justin Verlander. I think that gives you a pretty decent spectrum of outcomes to work with: low-end (Reed/Richards), most likely (Harvey/Scherzer), and thank the deity of your choice for reaching a ceiling like this (Verlander/Clemens).
With a few pitchers falling by the wayside in the early going, it’s now looking like a three-horse race for the top spot among pitchers in this year’s draft. Mark Appel (another “draft riser” if you can call such a big name a riser), Sean Manaea, and Jonathan Gray have all jumped out ahead of the cumulative SEC pitching monster of Ryne Stanek, Jonathon Crawford, Bobby Wahl, Ryan Eades, and Kevin Ziomek.