JR RHP Walker Buehler (2015)
JR RHP Carson Fulmer (2015)
rJR LHP Philip Pfeifer (2015)
SO LHP John Kilichowski (2015)
JR RHP Tyler Ferguson (2015)
JR OF/RHP Kyle Smith (2015)
JR SS/2B Dansby Swanson (2015)
JR 3B Xavier Turner (2015)
JR OF Rhett Wiseman (2015)
rJR 1B Zander Wiel (2015)
JR 2B/SS Tyler Campbell (2015)
SO OF/1B Bryan Reynolds (2016)
SO C Jason Delay (2016)
SO OF/INF Nolan Rogers (2016)
SO RHP Hayden Stone (2016)
SO LHP Ben Bowden (2016)
rFR RHP Jordan Sheffield (2016)
SO C Karl Ellison (2016)
SO RHP/LHP Aubrey McCarty (2016)
rFR OF/INF Tyler Green (2016)
rFR OF Drake Parker (2016)
SO OF/2B Ro Coleman (2016)
FR 3B/SS Will Toffey (2016)
FR OF Jeren Kendall (2017)
FR RHP Brendan Spagnuolo (2017)
FR SS Liam Sabino (2017)
FR RHP Joey Abraham (2017)
FR RHP Matt Ruppenthal (2017)
FR RHP Collin Snider (2017)
FR RHP Kyle Wright (2017)
FR C Tristan Chari (2017)
FR 3B Joey Mundy (2017)
If JR RHP Walker Buehler, JR RHP Carson Fulmer, JR SS Dansby Swanson, JR RHP Tyler Ferguson, and JR OF Rhett Wiseman were your favorite big league team’s top five prospects heading into the season, I think you’d feel all right. Brewers, Angels, Tigers, Marlins (this year), and Rays fans know all too well what I’m talking about there. Buehler wasn’t in Keith Law”s final top 100 prospects back in 2012 and he ranked 50th on Baseball America’s list. Here, however, Buehler came in at 28th with the following text accompaniment:
28. RHP Walker Buehler (Henry Clay HS, Kentucky): classic case of a plus pitchability arm who one day wakes up to big league quality stuff; his upper-80s FB (91-92 peak) has jumped to a steady 90-94, peaking 95-96; best offsped pitch is an above-average 76-78 CB with plus upside, one of the best of its kind in the class – even more effective when he throws it a little harder (78-82); third pitch is a straight CU with tumble that at times is his best offering; hardly going out on a limb, but Buehler is one of my favorite prep arms in this year’s class: smarts, three big league pitches, and repeatable mechanics all add up to a potential quality big league starter; 6-1, 165 pounds
Since then all Buehler has done is dominate the SEC, add a second plus breaking ball (80-85 SL) and further refined his mechanics, command, and pitchability. The only thing he hasn’t done since his high school days is grow. For some teams this could present a problem, but I don’t see anything in his delivery (to say nothing of his awesome athleticism) to knock him for standing in at his present height and weight of 6-1, 160 pounds. What stands out to me above all else about Buehler’s progression over the years is the first line in the quoted section above. Young pitchers are probably too easily categorized as “pitchers” or “throwers” at an early age. Being a pitcher who is called a pitcher should not be newsworthy, but many use it as a shorthand for praising a guy’s command, smarts, and, at times, offspeed stuff while knocking his velocity. Calling a pitcher a thrower has a more obvious pejorative tone; throwers can do just that (often quite hard), but do so without understanding many of the nuances of what it truly takes to get more advanced hitters out. My favorite pitching prospects are the guys who don’t have the knockout fastballs at an early age, but develop it in their late-teens. Throwing in the mid- to upper-80s is more than enough to get even most good high school hitters out, but short fastballs like that get exposed against bigger programs and on the showcase circuit. When a stacked lineup is staring you in the face, you have to learn to be crafty and think along with the hitters by putting emphasis on the art of changing speeds, pitching backwards (more opportunities to throw offspeed stuff), and relying on refining command. If you just so happen to one day wake up and find your arm is now capable of throwing 91 MPH, then 93 MPH, then finally mid-90s heat, so much the better. The skills that you relied on before won’t disappear; if you use it wisely, you’ve only added another weapon to your arsenal.
Beyond his smarts, pitchability, command, athleticism, and groundball tendencies, Buehler sticks out to me for having two legitimate, distinct above-average to plus breaking balls. They can run into each other at times — I’ve seen an unhealthy amount of baseball in my life and consider myself reasonably bright, but distinguishing between curves, sliders, and even cutters isn’t a personal strength — especially when they are both in the low-80 MPH range, but there’s enough separation between his mostly upper-70s curve (77-83, really) and his “hard CB” from high school (then 78-82) that is now a fully formed 80-85 slider that both get swings and misses. I will say that in my experience viewing him and talking to smarter people who have seen him way more, the two pitches don’t often seem to be in that above-average to plus range within the same game. I’d like to chart a few of his starts to test the validity of this claim, but it’s been said to me that he’ll figure out which breaking ball is working early in the game and then lean on it almost exclusively as his breaker of choice throughout the game. The ability to spin two quality breaking balls on top of an impressive fastball (90-94, 96 peak) and average mid-80s sinking changeup that flashes much better on top of all of Buehler’s previous strengths and two arguable weaknesses (size and inconsistencies with his breaking balls) make him a difficult pitcher to find an instructive comparable player for. Some of the names I’ve tossed out as ceiling comparisons over the past few years include Roy Oswalt, Javier Vazquez, and Julio Teheran. All of those work and don’t work for various reasons, I think. I also think I like Buehler so much as a prospect that I’m cool with dropping the Zack Greinke with a harder curve comp that’s been on my mind with him for a while now. It’s not meant to be a comparison we all get crazy carried away with — Greinke was already in the big leagues at Buehler’s current age, after all — but in terms of the total present prospect package of stuff, pitchability, build, and frame, I think it works very well.
Fulmer has had almost as much success as Buehler through two college seasons with their only significant difference coming in the former’s more common bouts of wildness. It’s not the kind of wildness that raises any kind of red flags, but rather something that falls somewhere between the typical developmental path of an electric young arm and the potential start of a long, fruitful run of being “effectively wild” from now until the day he retires. That aside, the biggest real question about Fulmer will be future big league role. I’d like to think I’ve long shown a willingness to allow players to play themselves from bigger roles (starting, up-the-middle defensive spots, etc.) to smaller roles, so it should be no shock that I’d run Fulmer out as a starter for as long as he shows he is capable of holding down the job in pro ball. A big part of believing in Fulmer as a starter is the fact that his stuff does not appear to appreciably suffer in longer outings. He has the three pitches he’ll need to go through lineups multiple times (mid-90s FB, honest 99 peak; plus low-80s breaking ball; mid-80s changeup with promise) and more than enough deception in his delivery to make him a tough matchup in almost any circumstance. There is some fair cause for concern that his delivery — I’m not expert on on these things and I mostly only care that it’s repeatable, but it’s rough enough that even I can see what the fuss is about — won’t allow him to hold up throwing 200+ innings a season. This isn’t the only reason why Buehler is universally regarded as the better prospect (see the silly amount of fawning I do over him above for more), but it’s a big one. Not all drafts are created equal, but I have a hard time imagining Fulmer falling too far on draft day one year after a very similar pitcher in Grant Holmes went 22nd overall.
Ferguson is sometimes the forgotten man when people discuss Vanderbilt’s awesome pitching. On just about any other staff in the country he’d be the unquestioned Friday night starter. The greater likelihood that he’ll remain in a rotation has me wondering if we’ll all look back on the pre-season draft rankings and wonder how he fell below Fulmer. I’m not sure I’m gutsy enough to make that call right now, but it’s super close. If Ferguson shows a better changeup (currently interesting but undeniably raw) than he has to date, I think the bandwagon will get very full, very quickly. He presently throws gas just like Buehler and Fulmer (90-95, 97 peak) with a pair of above-average breaking balls in his own right (above-average low- to mid-80s cut-SL and a mid- to upper-70s CB). He’s also the most conventionally looking big league starting pitcher of the trio (6-3, 225) with amusingly similar peripherals through two seasons, especially when looked through a park/schedule adjusted prism (7.71 K/9 and 3.51 BB/9 in year one; 7.60 K/9 and 3.51 BB/9 last year). Big, strong, and consistent with good stuff from a top flight program known for churning out good big league pitchers? What’s not to like? If he misses a few more bats and shows a little something extra with the changeup, he’s an easy first rounder.
Swanson broke out last season in a big, big way. His first real test at the college level was hardly a test at all as he hit .333/.411/.475 with 37 BB and 39 K in 282 AB. He also added 22 steals in 27 attempts for good measure. The numbers obviously speak for themselves, but it’s still nice when the scouting reports back it up. Swanson can really play. I’ll indirectly piggyback a bit on Baseball America’s Trea Turner (with less speed) comp and reuse one of my comps for Turner last year for Swanson. It actually fits a lot better now, so I don’t feel too bad going to the Brett Gardner well in back-to-back drafts. The package of athleticism, speed, defensive upside at a critical up-the-middle spot with an above-average hit tool and average-ish power (little less, probably) works out to a consistently above-average regular with the chance for stardom — certainly flashes of it — within reach.
There’s a bit of a gap between Vanderbilt’s (draft) class of 2015 and Wiseman, but that speaks to the strength of having four likely first round picks more so than any major deficits in Wiseman’s game. I’ve run into two interesting schools of thought about Wiseman while putting this together. The first, and I’ll admit that this was my initial view from the start, is that he’s still more tools than skills right now. The tools are quite strong, but the fact that they haven’t turned into the skills many expected by now gives some pause. Still, those tools that were clear to almost all going back to his high school days are still real and still worth getting excited about. The breakout could come any day now for him and when it does we’ll be looking at a potential first-division regular in the outfield. The opposing view believes that Wiseman’s development has gone as scripted and what we’re seeing right now is more or less what we’re going to get with him. He’s a great athlete and a far more cerebral hitter than given credit, but the tools were overstated across the board at the onset of his amateur career and now we’re seeing expectations for him correcting themselves based on what he really is. There really are no pluses in his game and no carrying tool that will help him rise above his future fourth outfielder station. I’m a believer that it’s always wise to bet on athletes having the light bulb turn on before too long, so count me in as still leaning closer to the former (and my original) position. I do understand the concerns about Wiseman potentially topping out as a “tweener” outfield prospect — he hasn’t shown the power yet to work in a corner, but that’s where he’s clearly best defensively — so going on the first day might be off the table. He’s still an intriguing blend of production (good, not mind-blowing) and tools (same) who could wind up a relative bargain if he slips much later than that. I could see him both being ranked and drafted in the same area that I had him listed (110th overall) out of Buckingham Browne & Nichols.
In any event, I don’t think Wiseman’s viewed by many as quite the prospect he was back in high school and a good part of that was the way many — me included — viewed his rawness, age, and relative inexperience as a New England high school product as positives. We all are guilty of assuming there are concretely meaningful patterns we can expect from prospect development and that all young players will continue to get better with age and experience. Development is not linear and can be wildly unpredictable. Some guys are as good as they are going to get at 17 while others don’t figure it out (unfortunately) until way after their physical peak. This speaks to the heart of what makes assessing and drafting amateurs so much fun. We’re all just trying to gather as much information on as many players as possible and then making the best possible guesses as to what we’ll wind up with.
Vanderbilt has good players beyond their special top five. rJR 1B Zander Wiel’s success in limited at bats in 2013 had me really excited to see what he could do with steady playing time in 2014. The results were more good than great, but I remain encouraged about his future. Like Wiseman, toolsy JR 3B Xavier Turner has held his own (and more, at times) in two years as a mainstay in the Commodores lineup. His offensive skill set doesn’t necessarily scream professional third baseman (more speed and gap power at present), but that doesn’t mean it won’t play at the next level. Also like Wiseman, I’d stick with Turner this year because it never hurts to bet on athleticism. He’s an elite athlete with the kind of strength and speed blend even a fine physical specimen such as myself can appreciate. It’s awful hard to top a college left side of the infield of Swanson and Turner…hopefully there’s some good news coming regarding the latter’s suspension that will make that infield a reality.
1/20/15 EDIT: SO LHP John Kilichowski is eligible for this year’s draft. FR 3B/SS Will Toffey is eligible for next year’s draft.
One comment about the Vandy infielders – you mention Turner as their 3rd baseman. He isn’t on the roster any longer (he may not be at Vandy either) If you recall, he left the team in the middle of the CWS last year (some NCAA violation) and hasn’t seen the field since. I’m not sure who will play 3rd this season, but Corbin has a number of good players who could easily back fill for Turner.
Funny you mention it because I completely blanked on that when initially writing this up. As you astutely noticed, it’s definitely written like Turner is on the roster — which, technically he is per the school’s website — but after realizing my error, I tacked on this last sentence (“It’s awful hard to top a college left side of the infield of Swanson and Turner…hopefully there’s some good news coming regarding the latter’s suspension that will make that infield a reality.”) to hedge my bets a bit. Kendall Rogers tweeted yesterday that Turner is still suspended, but also mentioned that Corbin said Vanderbilt will appeal the suspension. I’ve heard through back channels that they have a decent shot at winning the appeal (well, more so that they should win but you really never know) because the suspension was for ticky-tack over-regulated NCAA nonsense more than a serious offense. Either way, the overall context of the piece focuses on the players as draft prospects and less so how the infield will ultimately line up, so I think that section of the piece holds up as written. It’s probably little confusing if you don’t know the back story what with only that quick one sentence addressing it at the very end, I’ll definitely grant you that.
Has it officially come out on what the suspension was for?
If it’s out there, I haven’t seen/heard it. Still sounds like he’s on the roster, but not active and not likely to be activated any time soon. Also sounds like he has no plans to transfer, so he could just spend the year getting his academics in order while working out on his own in preparation for the upcoming draft. Not super helpful, but it’s all I got!
Isn’t there a LHP redshirt freshmen named Ryan Johnson on the roster also? Come on
Come on? This isn’t the Vanderbilt team page. That’s here.
I understand it is not the team page but just wondering why you have this years whole team roster above as prospects with exclusion of Ryan Johnson And Penn Murfee?
Ah, well then that makes a lot more sense. I could give you a line about why they weren’t included, but full transparency is a big part of what I aim to do here so I’ll be completely honest. I don’t know much at all about either guy. Nothing in my notes on either, no numbers to use as a jumping off point, and no mention of either from anybody I talked to that knows the program a lot better than I do. That obviously doesn’t mean they are no good, of course. A player’s mere presence on the Vandy roster is enough to get consideration as a prospect of some merit, what with the school’s prospect evaluation and player development track record in recent years. More times than not a player’s exclusion on here says more about the limits of what I do — this is a one-man operation, after all — than anything negative about the player.
Always interested in hearing more about guys I don’t know more about, so if there’s anything you want to share either here or via email I’d be pleased to use it to add to my notes.
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