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2015 MLB Draft Prospects – Virginia

JR OF Joe McCarthy (2015)
JR 2B/3B John LaPrise (2015)
SO SS/3B Daniel Pinero (2015)
SR 3B Kenny Towns (2015)
JR C/RHP Robbie Coman (2015)
JR LHP Brandon Waddell (2015)
JR LHP Nathan Kirby (2015)
JR RHP Josh Sborz (2015)
JR LHP David Rosenberger (2015)
SO RHP Connor Jones (2016)
SO C Matt Thaiss (2016)
SO RHP Jack Roberts (2016)
SO RHP Alec Bettinger (2016)
FR 2B Jack Gerstenmaier (2017)
FR 1B/RHP Pavin Smith (2017)
FR RHP Derek Casey (2017)
FR RHP Tommy Doyle (2017)
FR OF/LHP Adam Haseley (2017)
FR LHP Bennett Sousa (2017)
FR 3B Charlie Cody (2017)
FR C/2B Justin Novak (2017)
FR OF Christian Lowry (2017):
FR INF/OF Ernie Clement (2017)

Virginia has spoiled us all when we look at the talent above and think “yeah, it’s good but I’m just not feeling blown away.” That was my initial reaction to seeing the team laid out like this, but then you start doing the math. We’ve got a super athletic corner outfielder with a plus approach and strong hit tool (JR OF Joe McCarthy), a 6-5, 210 pound defensively gifted middle infielder (SO SS/3B Daniel Pinero), a crafty lefty with a plus curve who struck out almost a batter an inning his last healthy season (JR LHP Brandon Waddell), and a power-armed potential professional closer who lives in the mid-90s with three average or better secondaries including a hard cut-SL that could be a major weapon in time (JR RHP Josh Sborz). Then there’s JR LHP Nathan Kirby. All he’s done since getting to Virginia is a) strike out a batter an inning while consistently shutting down some of the stronger lineups in the country each week, b) see his stuff tick up to where he’s now hitting 94/95 with a knuckle curve at 76-84 that is unhittable when on, and c) retain his always above-average or better athleticism and command. He also had that no-hitter with 18 strikeouts against Pittsburgh last season, a performance so dominating he now has his own Wikipedia page. I am far too lazy to do a comprehensive list of all 2015 college draft prospects with Wikipedia pages, so you’ll just have to buy that the only ones I found in my two minutes of research are Kirby, Alex Bregman, Carson Fulmer, and Phil Bickford, though I suppose once Brady Aiken is officially enrolled at a junior college he can be added to the mix. Add those players to a potential first round pick in Kirby (who could be joined in the first by McCarthy, it should be noted) and you’ve got yet another talented Virginia squad. What else is new?

Kirby fascinates me not only because he’s achieved my dream of someday being important enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry but also because I really don’t have a firm grasp on what he is nor what he will be. I mean, I think he’s a high-floor future big league starting pitcher, but I’m not quite sure how high I’m willing to go with his ceiling. Perhaps I’m waiting to see more out of the changeup, a pitch that, as mentioned, seems to get a little better looking every time out. I got a comp from an area guy who has seen Kirby pitch more than 99.99% of human beings on the planet who actually compared him to a lefthanded Ian Kennedy, but with the caveat that his changeup still had some improvement left to truly “earn” such a comp. In terms of repertoire only (future performance as well, I suppose), I see some Alex Wood in Kirby. That comes with the big difference of Kirby’s Danny Hultzen style delivery replacing Wood’s painful looking arm action. Hultzen, the most logical comparison, doesn’t really work because of their flip-flopped stuff (Hultzen had the plus change and emerging breaking ball, Kirby is the other way around) but it’s not the craziest thing in the world. It’s yet another imperfect comp — a familiar refrain if you’ve been paying attention — but of all the recent first round lefties you’ll read about below, I think the closest comp at the same developmental stage is Andrew Heaney.

That leads into the other reason why Kirby fascinates me so. College lefties are weird. College lefthanded pitchers have had a surprisingly (to me) spotty track record since I’ve started this site up in 2009. If we take a look back through the years, you’ll see what I mean. Off the top, let’s be clear that Carlos Rodon is a separate animal altogether. I haven’t written a ton about him because this was a quiet last year for me on the site, but he’s not a guy I’m willing to compare to any other young arm at this point. He’s a man on the mound, and trying to shoehorn him into this discussion would be fruitless. Last year we also saw Kyle Freeland, Sean Newcomb, and Brandon Finnegan off the board in the first fifteen picks. Marco Gonzales went 19th in 2013 while Sean Manaea fell to 34th overall albeit for unique (injury, bonus demands) circumstances. Heaney (9th overall) and Brian Johnson (31st) were first round picks in 2012. Hultzen, Jed Bradley, Chris Reed, Tyler Anderson, Sean Gilmartin, Andrew Chafin, and Grayson Garvin all went in what we now know as a highly disappointing first round (for lefthanded college pitchers, at least) in 2011. Drew Pomeranz and Chris Sale were both popped early in 2010. Mike Minor was the only real first round college lefty in 2009, but a run of ill-advised southpaws saw Rex Brothers (fine, he’s good), Aaron Miller, James Paxton (good, but unsigned), Mike Belfiore, Matt Bashore, and Tyler Kehrer all taken within the top fifty overall picks in the sandwich round.

We’ll leave the two most recent drafts alone because we need at least a little bit of time before rushing to crazy conclusions. So far, however, Rodon, Finnegan, and Gonzales all look good, as each guy is expected to play an important role in the big leagues at some point in 2015. Heaney, Johnson, and Paxton are all still probably too young to say, but each guy has done enough that I think we can call them successes at this point. Pomeranz appears to finally have something cooking with Oakland. Minor is an easy win. Brothers is a maybe, but I’ll be generous and say he’s shown enough at his best to be a positive. I guess that Chris Sale guy is pretty good, too. Not counting 2014 and 2013, that’s seven happy endings from the past four first and supplemental first rounds. On the downside, I count eight pitchers (Bradley, Reed, Anderson, Gilmartin, Miller, Belfiore, Bashore, Kehrer) that have disappointed, and that’s at least partly generous in some respects (still giving time to Hultzen, Chafin, Garvin). For the record, it’s really painful for me to call anybody a disappointment, but I’m trying to be as objective as I can here. I still have plenty of hope for Bradley, Anderson, and maybe even Reed to be average or better big leaguers. Anyway, by draft standards, even when taking into account we’re talking first round picks, that’s not necessarily a devastatingly low number of successes, but college pitching really should be a spot where you have a higher hit rate.

Anyway, diversion aside, I think a Kennedy, Wood, or Heaney type career path is well within reach for Kirby at this point. On the highest of high ends is a ceiling reminiscent of none other than Cliff Lee. We’re talking young Cliff Lee (i.e. before the plus command), so don’t think I’m 100% crazy (just 75% or so). Maybe you can bump that figure up a little higher, as I’ve previously compared two draft prospects (both righties, go figure) to Lee in the past: Chris Stratton (still love him, but whoops) and Trevor Bauer. That last comp remains one worth watching, I think. Bauer hit the big leagues before Lee, so we can’t do a straight age comparison but here’s a rough comparison by innings…

Lee: 7.9 K/9 – 4.1 BB/9 – 90 ERA+ – 241.2 IP
Bauer: 8.3 K/9 – 4.3 BB/9 – 85 ERA+ – 186.1 IP

We can’t finish up writing about Virginia by referencing two players with no connections to the program. That’s my stilted attempt at a transition to a quick discussion of the “other” UVA 2015 draft-eligible players and the many interesting Cavalier underclassmen. SR 3B Kenny Towns (steady glove, has flashed at times with the bat), JR C Robbie Coman (strong arm, good approach), and JR LHP David Rosenberger are all solid college role players that could sneak into the late round mix with bigger than anticipated seasons. The battery of SO RHP Connor Jones and SO C Matt Thaiss could both find themselves as first round picks in a year. SO RHP Alex Bettinger really impressed as a freshman (32 K in 36.2 IP) despite a less than stellar fastball. There are plenty of potential impact players in the freshman class, most notably 3B Charlie Cody, LHP Bennett Sousa, 1B/RHP Pavin Smith, and 2B Jack Gerstenmaier.

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