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2014 MLB Draft Review: Philadelphia Phillies

1.7 RHP Aaron Nola

What’s the most important pitch in baseball? I’ll accept just about damn near any answer here* with a cogent argument, but I’ll take the fastball all day. LOVE the changeup, really like the curve, can appreciate a good slider, and all the extras (sinkers, splitters, cutters, forkballs, etc.) are lots of fun, but I’ve always been a believer in the magic of pitching off the fastball. It’s nice when years of anecdotal observations from being around the game match up with super smart guy research, but that’s what first led me to and then confirmed my need to see a good fastball from a young pitcher before moving on to anything else. Being as simplistic as possible, I think we can break down the fastball to three main areas of good/bad/ugly: velocity, movement, and command. Hit on two of those three — command ideally being one of the two — and you’re instantly on follow lists. Go three for three and now we’re talking an easy plus pitch good enough to get you to AA all by its lonesome.

Nola’s fastball is an easy plus pitch and the reason why he’s well worth the seventh overall pick in a pitching-rich draft. The ability to spot an 87-94 FB (95-96 peak) with plus movement at any quadrant at any time is pretty damn special. I really think he could use his fastball 80% of the time or more and get hitters out through AA. His 82-85 CU gives him another consistent above-average (plus for me in most looks) offering and he commands two breaking balls each with the upside of showing average or better in any given game. He’s really good. The comp that I keep going back to over and over again is Kris Medlen. I’ll take it. As far as recent draft prospects go, he reminds me a good bit of a shorter Kyle Gibson with a lower arm slot.

Semi-bold prediction: Aaron Nola starts a game in the majors in 2015.

*Except strike one. That’s dumb. You’re dumb if you think that. Conversely, if you said the eephus we could be best buds in no time. Also, Nola once did this:

2.47 LHP Matt Imhof

I like Imhof, but don’t love him. I like that he pitches off the fastball (88-92 FB, 94-95 peak), a pitch he commands well that plays up due to solid deception in his delivery. I felt his changeup improved a great deal as the year went on, so I like that. I like his size and physicality. I like his track record of setting hitters up and sitting hitters down. I don’t love that the changeup, though improved, still needs a ton of work before I’d call it a consistent average or better pitch. I don’t love the underdeveloped breaking ball, though others, namely Marti Wolever, deem it presently “above-average.” On balance, there’s enough here to be excited about at this point in the draft. Everybody calling Imhof a potential mid-rotation starting pitcher has it right, I think.

3.81 OF Aaron Brown

It’s absolutely a mistake turning him out as a hitter and not a pitcher, but they are the paid professionals and I’m just a guy on the internet so we’ll just have to wait and see how things play out. Not a direct comparison by any means, but I think there are some similarities pre-draft to former Phillies second round pick Anthony Gose. Brown’s raw tools and current non-hitting baseball skills are undeniably impressive: easy CF range, great instincts on the bases and in the outfield, plus raw power, plus arm strength, the works. His approach is what makes him such a presently ineffective hitter, and, glass half-empty guy I am, I don’t think he’ll ever improve enough in this area to be anything but a minus big league bat. Maybe the speed, glove, arm, and flashes of power make him a useful backup down the line, but I can just as easily see him never escaping AA with his swing at anything remotely close style of hitting. I literally can not recall any hitter with a K/BB ratio as ugly as his amounting to anything professionally. Do not like this pick one iota. Hope I’m wrong.

Semi-bold prediction: Brown reaches the big leagues only after converting back to a pitcher, where he’s currently got the following repertoire: 88-92 FB (94-95 peak), average mid-80s SL, flashes better; better than expected low-80s CU; occasional CB.

4.112 RHP Chris Oliver

One of the few names I think casual draft fans might know, what with him getting a DWI two days before the draft. Like Brown, he’s another college “tools” guy who hasn’t performed as hoped since HS. Just 59 strikeouts (36 BB) in 93.1 IP this past season. He threw only 30ish innings his first two years combined. The scout side of me wants very badly to look past the iffy performance record, but it won’t be easy. I ultimately think he’s a reliever (his role those first two seasons), but he started this past year. I think that explains his down tick in K/9 this year; like many guys, his stuff plays way up in short bursts. I could see him firing away in the bullpen and having great success with some mechanical tweaks as a pro. My notes do make him sound pretty damn good, so I can get where the Phillies were coming from here: 88-94 FB, 96-97 peak; average at best 80-82 CU; average to above-average 85-88 SL; 78-81 CB; 6-4, 180 pounds. Undeniably great value at this point in the draft. Nice pick.
5.142 1B Rhys Hoskins

Hoskins could be Darin Ruf. I actually like his value in a vacuum, but without having a board stacked up like in year’s past it is hard to determine how many other similar players I would have preferred, not that my own take is gospel or anything. I appreciate how Hoskins cleaned up his approach since his sophomore season. The power will definitely play (above-average to plus raw), he has good size (6-4, 225), and I actually think he’s nimble enough to hang in an outfield corner (LF, most likely) more so than your usual college 1B (like Ruf). Not a guy who moves the needle, but a good enough pick.

6.172 LHP Brandon Leibrandt

Nola, Imhof, and Leibrandt: all college juniors, all from elite programs, all Cape Cod standouts, all with plus fastball command. Interesting. Leibrandt is a crafty lefty straight out of central casting: mid-80s FB (84-88), above-average to plus mid-70s CU, average SL, average CB, and that aforementioned command. The results have been unimpeachable to date, so that’s a plus. Do you know who else lived 84-88 (per Baseball America’s pre-draft report) with his fastball before being selected by the Phillies? JA Happ. Hmm. I won’t go so far and call it a direct comp (Leibrandt has better control, for example), but I think that’s sort of Leibrandt’s best case career trajectory professionally. I’d take that out of a sixth round pick. Solid selection.

7.202 – SS Emmanuel Marrero

Don’t get it. Glove is obviously legit, but he can’t hit. Maybe he’s the next Troy Hanzawa. Cool.

8.232 – RHP Sam McWilliams

Size (6-7, 200), heat (up to 94), and ready to sign. Everything you’d want in an eighth round HS selection.

9.262 – RHP Matt Hockenberry

Saw him a lot over the years at Temple, but never thought all that much of him. Certainly never thought he’d be a top ten round pick, but here we are. One of literally hundreds of college arms with ordinary fastballs (88-92), decent command, and usable secondaries. Maybe he’s one of the few that break through and make it as a reliever. Probably not.

10.292 – OF Matt Shortall

I want to like Shortall more than I do, though I still like him as an underslot senior sign gamble with better tools than your usual underslot senior sign gamble. Strong arm, enough speed, makes good hard contact, really intriguing power, good glove in a corner, solid pedigree (Tulane transfer), nice size (6-3, 210). The approach is still a mess, but that’s easier to swallow with a tenth round pick than a third rounder. Just saying.

And the rest…

11.322 – SS/2B Drew Stankiewicz – probably the best ’14 prospect on a decent ASU team; good not great numbers; announced as a SS, but more of a 2B profile defensively; not my preferred college middle infielder left on the board, but not a pick to hate on

12.352 – LHP Austin Davis – scout pick for sure, as ’14 numbers (only season of D1 experience) weren’t pretty; really impressive stuff: 88-92 FB, 94-95 peak, 78-82 SL with upside, good 78-82 CU, low- to mid-70s CB; pro body (6-5, 240 pounds); will need to spend a little of those 9th/10th round savings on him since he’s got two more years of eligibility as leverage, but have heard he’d rather turn pro than return to school assuming the money is there

13.382 – RHP Nathan Thornhill – senior sign who has seen his velocity regress over the years (once hit 94-95, now mostly lives 88-90); also shows CB and 76-81 CU, both flash average or better; above-average command; really solid college performer who lacks dominance in track record or stuff, but a decent pick with the chance to be a good reliever in time

14.412 – OF Chase Harris – well-rounded senior sign with chance to be average or better across all five tools; bit of a tweener since he can’t really play CF, but should be nice organizational soldier for a few years in a Steve Susdorf kind of way; raw numbers are a bit misleading, considering park/schedule adjustments playing at New Mexico

15.442 – RHP Jared Fisher – pathetic peripherals in ’13 got a little better in ’14, but still more a scouting pick than a numbers guy; have him up to 93 with his FB and he has good size (6-4, 235 pounds); hard to find positives in this one, but (count the qualifiers) we can maybe take some solace in the fact there’s a chance he came recommended at least in part by Pat Gillick (four?)

16.472 – RHP Calvin Rayburn – first college guy they stumped me on, no notes on him in my database; D2 player with average numbers, good size, and a funky arm action; some digging reveals he works upper-80s with a lot of cutters and sliders, plus the occasional change; another senior…

17.502 – 3B Damek Tomscha – had an honest laugh when I heard he was the pick, as the Phillies have been after him forever, and, as yet another senior sign, they appear to finally have gotten him (update: he’s already signed); drafted him in the 50th round in 2010, but he was a much better prospect than his draft standing would have you believe; Marlins drafted him out of Iowa Western CC in round 36 the next year and then the Cubs gave him a shot in the 19th round in ’12, but he didn’t sign because a) both teams wanted him to pitch, and b) he wanted to honor his commitment to Auburn; I like his athleticism, glove, and arm strength at third, and he has the chance to hit with a little pop as a pro; nice gamble at this point, I approve

18.532 – C Sean McHugh – good idea of the strike zone, but neither the hit tool or power stand out; not a big believer in his glove, but does have some experience in the outfield if need be; similar to the Stankiewicz pick in that I think the idea behind it was sound, but I don’t love the actual player choice

19.562 – LHP Joey DeNato – crazy successful college arm who will go down as an all-time great for Indiana; scouting profile is almost identical to fifth round pick Brandon Leibrandt (mid-80s FB, relies on good to plus CU, pair of breaking balls that flash average, stellar command), which is either good news or bad news depending on your outlook on life; only major differences between the two are size (Leibrandt is 6-4, 200 and Denato is 5-10, 180) and class (Denato is, you guessed it, a senior)

20.592 – 2B Derek Campbell – taken from my notes: “good athlete, good arm, good glove, weak bat”; numbers support those claims; fifth senior in a row and not a particularly inspiring one at that

21.622 – 2B Tim Zier – second straight college senior 2B from the state of California, so that’s fun, sixth senior in a row; wrote about him last year on the site “rock steady glove, never gives away at bats, smart base runner” and all those things still apply

22.652 – RHP Ryan Powers – finally, a junior – big moment; another college starter with average numbers, good size (6-5, 210), and not a whole lot in the stuff/projection department

23.682 – C Joel Fisher – second senior catcher from the Big 10 in six picks; can’t hit a lick; almost like the Emmanuel Marrero pick, except Fisher isn’t in the same universe as Marrero’s plus glove; it’s the 23rd round, so, whatever, but, short of doing an area guy a favor or something, this is really an indefensible pick

24.712 – RHP Preston Packrall – got nothing on Packrall, the Phillies second D2 pick of the day; for clarity’s sake, whenever I mention numbers for pitchers, I’m pretty much just honing in on K/9 and BB/9, which is apparently the complete opposite way the Phillies must be looking at things since Packrall has a shiny 2.12 ERA and a just super 11-0 record (Tampa, a traditional D2 power, went a decent 54-4), but just 45 K in 80.2 IP; all I can say positively is that he’s from a HS in Clearwater, so presumably they know him better than anybody else would; also, hey, another senior…

25.742 – RHP Bryan Sova – college reliever with so-so peripherals but pretty traditional numbers; sub-six foot righthander short on stuff; another senior…

26.772 – RHP Jacques de Gruy – don’t have him in my notes, but that’s an incredible name so I’m a big fan of the pick already; I do have six other draft-eligible Furman pitchers in my database and twelve total players, not really sure what that says about de Gruy, if anything; ugly ERA, but peripherals more in line with what I want to see (66 K in 69 IP…never mind the 31 BB)

27.802 – LHP Scott Harris – heard this pick over the radio and did my best to guess where Buena Vista University (first D3 player they picked) could be before deciding on California just ahead of Florida…well, turns out it’s in Iowa, naturally; stocky fellow at 6-0, 240, but 81 K/22 BB in 68 IP sounds good to me, and he’s a JUNIOR (!)…

28.832 – RHP Tanner Kiest – attended Chaffey CC where he put up 70 K/39 BB in 48.1 IP; had a rough year based on traditional metrics, averaging just over 4 IP per start; solidly built at 6-3, 200 pounds and those peripherals are fun, so maybe you’ve got yourself a nice little relief sleeper here

29.862 – SS Al Molina – a HIGH SCHOOL PICK, hard to believe; I’ve heard some teams prefer him on the mound; also heard they have a good feel about his signability, but we’ll see

30.892 – RHP Brandon Murray – we’ve officially got ourselves a run of HS picks; really, really big fan of Murray, and would love to have seen him prioritized as their top 11-40th round overslot pick, unrealistic as my hope may have be; plus FB (89-94, 95-98 peak), average low-80s CU, two usable breaking balls, good athleticism, good size (6-4, 200), lots to like; both his command and control are a work in progress, to put it as generously as possible; commitment to South Carolina (where he could be a first round pick in three years) seems very likely to be honored, and I know he’s said that’s his plan, but still expect to see a late run at him on the off chance he changes his teenage mind

31.922 – RHP Shane Gonzales – he’s a ghost, apparently…

32.952 – OF Tom Flacco – fun trends emerging: three out of four HS picks, five straight non-four year college picks, and six straight non-D1 picks; like Molina, Flacco is a NJ HS product; unlike Molina, Flacco has a famous brother who plays a pretty popular sport that all but guarantees Western Michigan will have a new QB and the Phillies will come up empty

33.982 – RHP James Harrington – I was kidding with the “run of HS picks” comment earlier, but now we can officially call off the dogs re: THE PHILLIES WIN-NOW APPROACH = ALL COLLEGE PLAYERS meme; another guy who, if signable (and I think he is), would be a great addition to the system: 88-90 FB, mid-70s CB, upper-70s CU, good athleticism, and room to grow (6-2, 170)

34.1012 – C Scott Tomassetti – nifty little pick from Bryce Harper’s old school, CC of Southern Nevada; underwhelming numbers considering the context, but all my notes on him back in his UNLV days are positive (big power, lots of arm strength); like Tomscha they know him well as Tomassetti was originally an unsigned Phillies draft pick out of HS

35.1042 – OF Thomas Gamble – third HS player taken from New Jersey; son of Eagles VP of Player Personnel Tom Gamble, grandson of the late great Harry Gamble; very unlikely to sign

36.1072 – C Blake Wiggins – hopefully not the only Wiggins drafted by a Philadelphia team this month; had him as a physical SS with power upside in my notes; announced as a catcher, a position where many projected he could be tried professionally; strong Arkansas commit, but open to signing depending on the cash

37.1102 – RHP Rags Rogalla – HS pitcher with good size who…yeah, I’ve got nothing; system is currently really lacking in players named Rags, so he’s pretty much a much sign

38.1132 – RHP Kollin Schrenk – see Rags, but with added bonus of being son of GCL pitching coach Steve Schrenk; with luck, could be traded for Tadahito Iguchi equivalent years from now; heard he’s ready to sign

39.1162 – OF Keenan Eaton – HS hitter from Colorado who is a good defender in CF with lots of bat speed, but Vanderbilt doesn’t often see 39th round picks escape Nashville; the fact that you could muster up an argument that he’s the best position player prospect drafted by the Phillies in this entire draft is yet another reason why the MLB Draft is the craziest draft in all the land

40.1192 – SS Jesse Berardi – NY HS infielder who exists; have heard conflicting reports re: his signability, but my gut says he’s off to St. John’s

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Alex Jackson and Jakson Reetz

A minor bout with writer’s block (and Louisville playing ten minutes from my apartment for three games) has had me silent of late, so I’m going with the old approach of just picking a random topic and writing until something worthwhile comes out. Whether or not I succeeded here is up for debate (as always), but it does feel good to get back in the swing of things.

Quick aside before we talk HS catchers…I put out some feelers (including my first tweet!) as to whether or not the brains behind College Splits have designs on updating their statistical database for the 2014 season, but have yet to hear back. If anybody knows anything on that front, I’d greatly appreciate an update. Not only does College Splits have certain bits of info that no other site has, but it also has all of said info in one convenient place. The thought of clicking around a couple hundred team websites looking for updated stats does not really appeal to me anymore. Getting too old for that, you know?

*****

I’ve written it before and I’ll surely write it again, but I like Alex Jackson as a catcher going forward. I think he’s good enough defensively at present with enough athleticism and general baseball aptitude to continue to progress behind the plate. My older notes on him reveal what I think will continue to become an accepted truth among industry folk: “not sure of the origin of the ‘not a catcher’ talk, but if he looks like a catcher, fields like a catcher, and leads like a catcher…”

I also think Jackson’s bat is very interesting, but not quite on the level of other prospects transitioned to the outfield in a rush to get them to the big leagues. The latter consideration isn’t reason enough to prevent moving him — if not being Bryce Harper disqualified a catcher from moving off the position to speed up a big league timeline, then we’d have thousands of pro catchers and empty outfields — but it does raise the question about what kind of player you’re really getting if you see Jackson as a top five type of prospect. I say very good to great bat with average to slightly above-average catcher defense. As a hitter — and, I suppose, as potential former catcher — I can see some similarities shared between Jackson and former catcher Paul Konerko. I’d like that comp more if I hadn’t used it twice already (CJ Cron and Kyle Schwarber, but you’ve memorized all my comps by now, right?), though I still think it works here in terms of offensive ceiling (adjusted for era, of course). The bat should play in a corner spot, but it could only be categorized as potentially special if Jackson is left alone and allowed to continue catching.

Just about the only thing I don’t love about Jakson Reetz is the spelling of his first name. His athleticism, arm strength, and hit tool are all top notch tools. Reetz was on my short (well, short-ish) list of FAVORITES that I saw play this past summer. The list has held up fairly well — he was joined at the time by Braxton Davidson, Kel Johnson, Jack Flaherty, Keaton McKinney, Ti’Quan Forbes, and Touki Toussaint — and the specific mention of Reetz’ foot speed, opposite field power, approach at the plate, and, again, athleticism made him one of the standouts among the standouts. In what I still consider a relatively weak year for college catching, — full disclosure: I still have plenty of work to do in finalizing college grades, so I could be way off and you can ignore me if you like — Reetz has a chance to go much, much higher than I think many currently anticipate. A bolder man than I might be tempted to jump him to the top of these rankings, but being locked in at the second spot behind a talent like Jackson and ahead of names like Chase Vallot, Simeon Lucas, Evan Skoug, JJ Schwarz, Bryce Carter, Michael Cantu, and on and on and on isn’t a bad spot to be. I don’t want to get the hype train rolling along too briskly just yet, but a source I trust threw down a “righthanded poor man’s version of Joe Mauer” comp on Reetz that exceeded even my loftiest of expectations of what others see in him. I mean, I thought I liked him, but wow. More realistic yet no less valid comps that I like: “better version of Brandon Inge” (that’s from a source) and my own Russell Martin. I can also buy Blake Swihart if you wanted to use a recent draft example as a frame of reference. Reetz is a really good player.

LHP Kodi Medeiros (Waiakea HS, Hawaii)

Burning Question: can he continue to start in professional ball?

Internet Hack’s Answer: Sure. Exciting answer, right? Arm slot and lack of physicality are both fair arguments for the “he’s a reliever” crowd, but pitchers with his kind of stuff should be stretched out and given as many chances as possible to continue starting in the pros. I doubt that response is going to help those who think I’m overly simplistic in my approach to looking at draft talent, but I’m always going to err on the side of “hey, let’s not complicate things, alright?” whenever given the choice. Medeiros has great stuff. He’s gotten great results. He’s a good athlete who is very comfortable being the kind of pitcher he is. Draft him high and let him do this thing. I think he can start, others think he have to relieve; I’m not so baseball stupid to realize that there’s a wide value gap between starting pitchers and relievers, so drafting him too high only to see him up in the pen would be a disappointment on some level, true. It’s just amazing to me that in all the people I’ve talked to, all the smart people who obsess about the draft online all year long, and all the voices inside my own head that won’t shut up when I see Medeiros pitch, I haven’t heard or read or imagined a single person who doubted whether or not Medeiros will consistently get hitters out one day at the big league level. Starter or reliever? Fair question. Will he get guys out? Please, do you really have to ask? For any high school pitcher, that’s an amazing compliment. For a low arm slot 6-0, 180 pound lefthander from Hawaii, it’s really something.

My “not a comp” comparison in terms of recent amateur pitchers with similar general profiles is current Astros minor leaguer Lance McCullers. The righthanded McCullers didn’t have quite the same arm slot questions — hence the “not a comp” caveat — but I think in terms of raw stuff, physical stature, and the overarching “can he or can’t he start?” narrative, it fits. McCullers had a little more giddyup on the fastball (Medeiros sits 88-93, touches 94-95), but Medeiros’ overall fastball grades out very similarly thanks to his uncanny inability (in a good way) to throw any fastball on a direct line to home plate. The young lefty has movement you can’t teach, and it helps an already very good fastball work as plus to plus-plus. Couple that with a wipeout 78-83 slider (a tick softer than McCullers’, yet no less devastating), a surprisingly effective changeup (78-85, above-average upside but will flash plus presently on occasion), and an eagerness to establish ownership on the inner-half of the plate, and you’ve got yourself a first round talent. The “not a comp” comp McCullers’ draft selection — supplemental first, 41st overall — represents a good ballpark draft range (give or take a few picks) for Medeiros.

I could end things here. We’ve at least partially addressed the concerns surround Medeiros, we’ve covered what he throws, and we’ve even offered up a half-hearted yet not awful (I’m not humble, clearly) frame of reference in the person of Lance McCullers. I could end things here, but I can’t. I’ve spent more time away from the site thinking about Medeiros than any other player in this entire draft class. He’s quite easily in my personal top ten most fascinating 2014 MLB Draft prospects to watch going forward. I can sometimes get so wrapped up in this little draft world that I fail to check in enough on how certain guys are doing in pro ball — though I happened to see today that Curt Casali was tearing up AA, damn near brought a tear to my eye — but you can be sure I’ll follow Medeiros no matter where he lands.

The arm slot thing is what gets me, mostly because I didn’t really care all that much about arm slot as recently as six months ago. I’m not sure I necessarily care now — the homework that I’ve done has led me to my personal conclusion that, like a pitcher’s mechanics in general, any arm slot can be effective in any role as long as the pitcher is comfortable with it — but I do find the mountain of available research on the topic pretty darn interesting. I realize I’m years late to this, but I can’t tell you how many hours have been lost these last few months thanks to the work done at Texas Leaguers and Brooks Baseball. Anytime you find something online that makes you a little bit mad you weren’t smart enough to figure out on your own — I’m pathetic when it comes to technology, so those kinds of data pulls are nothing short of miraculous to me — you know you’ve found something worthwhile. Between my own research and a few helpful contacts around the game, the arm slot/stuff comps I’ve heard that I find most instructive are Jake Diekman, a shorter Rich Hill, and, even though he was used for Brady Aiken already, Madison Bumgarner. Interesting group.

Three more fun names I’ll throw out there, more about stuff and potential pro impact than release point: Francisco Liriano, Scott Kazmir, and Jose Quintana. I don’t mean to dilute the already suspect nature of prospect/player comparisons, but I see a lot of Medeiros in a lot of different guys. It happens. The fact that none of the three come all that close from an arm slot perspective bugs me, but the stuff and stature of each guy feels on point. I think any of those three could be fair representations of Medeiros’ ceiling as a starting pitcher (Quintana is my favorite, I think) while a potentially dominant reliever like Diekman should be the floor.

Dylan Cease, Luis Ortiz, and Bryce Montes de Oca

Dylan Cease has first round stuff, but the injury concerns are a major red flag. I’m not a scouting director nor do I want to play one on the internet, but, if you’ll indulge me just one time, I will admit that, job on the line, I would not have the guts to take a top 30ish pick on a pitcher with a partially torn UCL who hasn’t pitched since March. It’s easy to say “wow, he’ll be a great value pick and we can get a first round talent at a reduced price in terms of picks and cash once he starts slipping,” but actually pulling the trigger is a different thing altogether. You only get so many early round selections as a decision-maker in this game, so you’d better be damn sure you’ll hit on those top choices. We’ll have to assume that whatever team selects Cease early has done extensive homework on his condition, but any arm that has already undergone an injury like his is at a higher risk for more trouble going forward.

His plus fastball (easy heat at 90-95, 97 peak), plus breaking ball (Frankie Piliere compares it to AJ Burnett’s while others have deemed it a huge work in progress; I’m with Piliere here), underrated changeup, plus command, athleticism, and freaky strength (pound-for-pound he might be the strongest pitcher in this year’s class) all give him considerable upside, but none of that is of practical use if he’s not healthy. Best case scenario can go either one of two ways: 1) the Platelet-Rich Therapy is effective (like Zach Greinke’s, as cited in the article linked above) and he’s back throwing gas in no time, or 2) surgery is required, but recovery goes well and he returns as good as new (more or less) by mid-season next year. The second scenario isn’t ideal for any high pick, but it’s all about the long view with draft prospects. Worst case scenario is…well, you know. I don’t want to make more of a “small tear of the UCL” than deserved, but every human responds differently to injury and, despite medical breakthroughs so amazing they border on inconceivable, there are no guarantees. This is not a great comp in terms of stuff, but more of a future potential impact/body type/athleticism/injury history point of reference: Cease reminds me a little bit of Rich Harden.

Luis Ortiz has first round stuff, but the injury concerns are a major red flag. I’m not a scouting director nor do I…yeah, you get the point. I lumped the two pitchers together for a reason, after all. Ortiz offers similar stuff to Cease, but with a quality slider instead of a curve as his primary breaking ball. The body has a little more bulk than Cease, and it’s not necessarily good weight, but everybody I’ve talked to has been very complimentary about how hard Ortiz has worked to improve his physique over the past calendar year. I think Grant Holmes is probably the closest physical comp to him in this class, but that’s where the comparison would end for me. I don’t have a good comp for Ortiz so I won’t force one — first time for everything, I guess — but I will say that stuff-wise the aforementioned Cease/Harden comparison makes less sense than an Ortiz/Harden (both slider reliant) comp. Not so much in body type/athleticism, of course.

Unlike Cease, Ortiz is back and throwing. He’s not yet where he was pre-injury, but it’s a process. As for the injury itself, published reports have it as a “forearm strain.” Anecdotally, it seems that forearm strain is code for something else altogether, but speculating beyond that won’t get us anywhere. It is obviously encouraging that he’s back, and we can choose to spin his early struggles due to rust rather than any lingering discomfort. I sincerely hope that’s the case, but I still think it is fair to have Ortiz as a big injury red flag until we see more.

Bryce Montes de Oca is a different animal altogether. Montes de Oca has already had Tommy John surgery, so the road map to his recovery — more accurately continued recovery as he’s already back and throwing well for Lawrence HS — is far more clearly defined. The injury still puts him in the high-risk, red flag category going forward, but he’ll have a few more appearances to show scouts he’s back at or near 100% before the draft. The stuff is pretty much what you’d expect from a young, raw 6-8, 265 pound power pitching mountain of a man: plus fastball (88-94 with serious sink, 96-97 peak), mid-70s curve with promise, and a hard mid-80s change that needs work. The upside is tantalizing, though it is worth noting that (anecdotal observation alert!) young pitchers built like Montes de Oca often take longer to develop if they can develop the kind of body control and ability to harness their stuff at all. I’m as guilty as oohhing and aahhing at guys built like Montes de Oca as much as anybody, so realizing the challenges bigger pitchers face from an athletic standpoint should help temper expectations back down to more reasonable levels. He’s still a premium amateur talent.

Three high upside high school righthanded pitchers who flash above-average big league starter stuff. Three worrisome recent injuries. Three major draft wild cards. June 5-6-7 can’t come soon enough.

Jacob Bukauskas

I didn’t intend to write 1,000+ words on one pitcher, but here we are. Let’s talk everybody’s favorite reclassified young arm, Jacob Bukauskas…

Since day one at this site I’ve championed pitchers of all sizes, tossing aside the traditional belief that short righthanders should be pushed down on draft day. It’s been great to see big league teams seemingly become more open-minded towards shorter righthanders in recent years, no doubt due to my massive influence on front offices across baseball. Teams are realizing that making hard and fast rules about height, weight, and frame requirements serves only to limit one’s prospective talent pool. There will always be worries about shorter pitchers, ranging from the interesting yet unproven belief that short pitchers can’t get the same kind of downward plane as taller guys (accepted as fact by many, but I’m not there yet and I’d love to see the raw data on it) to the patently absurd fears about injury risks and general quality of stuff (“Shorter pitchers are just as effective and durable as taller pitchers“). We’re all human and as such we are all — well, most of us — drawn to pitchers that remind us of other successful pitchers. It’s not our fault, it’s just how our brains are wired. The vast majority of successful pitchers in big league history have fit the traditional height/weight mold preferred by the old guard, so it’s no shock that we look for familiar body types when searching for the next big thing. As much as I like to think I am capable of looking past physical measurements alone, there’s no way I can cop to being without my own scouting biases. Awareness of said biases can lead to over-corrections, and now you see how this whole conversation can unravel in a hurry. Deep down, like everybody else, I have a mental image of what I want my ideal pitching prospect to look like. Over time, I’ve tried to grow more open-minded towards all shapes and sizes. Then one day I wake up and realize I’m giving smaller guys the benefit of the doubt when I might not do the same for otherwise similar traditionally built player. So then I move back towards appreciating a 6-5, 220 pound specimen and the cycle repeats. Now my brain hurts, so let’s go back and see if we can extract a cogent point out of that mess. 

Do you get the feeling at any point there that I was building towards a massive BUT? I hope so. We’re talking J-Lo/Kardashian/Minaj/Antonio Bastardo territory here. Was that lame reference worth forever having “biggest butt celebrity” in my browser history? I’m leaning yes. I do love short pitchers. I think there was a huge imbalance even just a few short years ago ripe to be exploited by smart front offices. The gap has closed of late, but there’s still some Moneyball-type identification of undervalued asset potential here. Let teams battle for the perfectly proportioned pitching prospects while waiting back and scooping up the oddballs who can give you similar results once the ball leaves the hand. I do love short pitchers, but there are a few things to consider on a case-by-case basis when evaluating them that may not be worth worrying about otherwise.

Fastball plane, injury risks, and quality/diversity of stuff aren’t things I will personally ding a shorter player for without specific evidence pertaining to a specific player. No generalizing if I can help it. One thing that I legitimately worry about when it comes to shorter pitchers, especially those on the stockier side, is how much growth is left in their game. Physical projection is critical when evaluating players who won’t play meaningful big league roles for five+ years down the line. It’s not quite real estate’s location, location, location, but a familiar scouting refrain is projection, projection, projection. Performance matters, obviously, and I think I do a decent job of highlighting that, especially with college players with more meaningful track records, but it’s not about what a guy has done in the past but rather a projection about what he will do in the future.

Stone Bridge HS RHP Jacob Bukauskas (6-0, 200 pounds) doesn’t have what I’d call a stocky frame by any stretch, but it is a build that looks more or less how it will look for the first dozen or so years (if he’s lucky) of his professional career. I actually think his body isn’t a concern going forward — he’s a good athlete who obviously works hard to stay in really good shape — but that alone doesn’t mean we’ll ever see a serious uptick in stuff once he hits pro ball, as many automatically assume for all younger amateurs. Obvious counterpoint is obvious: if the present stuff is good enough, then why worry? Dylan Bundy, Grant Holmes, and Bukauskas all showed the kind of premium stuff as prep pitchers to warrant early first round draft consideration. Bundy cashed in, Holmes looks like a really good bet to do the same, and Bukauskas, if you believe the hype over the past few weeks, could very well make it a trio of high achievers.

What’s tough about Bukauskas — and you can attribute this to his frame, or not — is the wide variance of stuff he’s shown from start to start. At his best, the early first round consideration makes complete sense. His fastball is hot (mid-90s, rumors of triple-digit peak early in the spring), his mid-80s changeup will flash plus, and his low-80s slider does the same. On other days, the buzz surround Bukauskas seems more about the novelty of his reclassification; scouts get draft fatigue like anybody else, so when there’s suddenly somebody new to consider the excitement of a shiny new toy can surpass the reality of a good yet not great prospect. Even at reduced velocity (88-92ish, 95 peak), Bukauskas would merit top three round consideration thanks to the flashes he has shown with the secondary offerings (though, in fairness, there are starts when those flashes are few and far between compared to his better days), the freaky high pitching IQ he’s demonstrated with every trip to the mound, and his relative youth.

I may be giant hypocrite, but Bukauskas’ size and ability to add to his frame in a positive way worries me. I’m not proud to say it, but I’d feel much better about his draft ranking if he three inches taller with a little more room to fill out. However, even with a frame that offers little in the way of projection you can see the makings of a mid-rotation or better starting pitcher based solely on present stuff, command, and pitchability. The total package is undeniably impressive, all six feet of it.

Grant Holmes and Touki Toussaint

We covered 1 and 2 on this list the other day, so why not check in with 3 and 4 today? I still want to explore the idea of high school pitching wild cards, something I was hoping to do in a quick piece covering a bunch of names. Once I started going on Grant Holmes and Touki Toussaint, however, I couldn’t stop until I emptied as much as I could from the notebook. Here we go…

RHP Grant Holmes (Conway HS, South Carolina)

What makes him a wild card: he’s currently listed at 6-1, 210 pounds and will have to overcome the dreaded short/stocky righthanded pitcher stigma

Let’s get right to it with Holmes, an outstanding young pitcher with present stuff (easy plus fastball velocity and sink, above-average breaking ball that flashes plus, above-average hard changeup that flashes plus, good yet inconsistent command that takes him from a really good prospect to a great one when working) rivaled by very few in his class. Comps aren’t for everybody, but I find general body type and stuff comparisons useful for developing a frame of reference for players that many reading might never see until they hit the big leagues. Baseball America has used both Chad Billingsley and Eric Gagne as comps for Holmes in the past, but I personally enjoy the Bartolo Colon comparison (forget who mentioned this one, but as a fan of Colon’s, both the young version and the jolly older iteration) most of all. I’ve also heard “husky Sonny Gray,” Yovani Gallardo, and, an excellent blast from the past, former Astros righthander Wade Miller. Alright, I won’t lie: “husky Sonny Gray” isn’t something I’ve heard but one that I’ve come up with. You could think of those names as Holmes’ comp continuum if so inclined: floor (Miller/Gagne), happy medium (Gallardo/Billingsley), and ceiling (thicker Gray). A name that also keeps coming back to me is Wil Crowe, currently a freshman at South Carolina. Crowe, who really should see a doctor about those two lost inches from his pre-draft listed height, has a similar body type, assortment of pitches (though Holmes’ fastball-breaking ball-changeup are all an easy half-grade or more higher than Crowe’s, no disrespect for Gamecock intended), and command. I’m not sure how Crowe fits in to a discussion on Holmes — really, Holmes should be brought up when talking Crowe, noting that he could be a lesser version of the 2014 draft star with continued growth at USC — but I like giving a quality college guy a mention whenever possible so we’ll let it stand.

I think there’s some merit to the popular Dylan Bundy comparison, especially as it pertains to his draft stock. Bundy may not have been the first short prep righthander to go high in the draft, but he has gone his part and more to break through the glass ceiling for the demographic. Bundy’s tremendous early success as a professional – injury notwithstanding – ought to allay some concerns about Holmes’ pro future. I’m not saying that’s logical necessarily, as one man’s accomplishments have no bearing on another’s future, but front offices like having a recent example to cite when justifying a pricey early round selection to the big bosses. That pesky little “injury notwithstanding” note that I slipped in there could give some teams pause; much like how teams could foolishly believe Bundy’s success will help Holmes, there could be some fear that the O’s young hurler’s injury will doom Holmes’ right arm before long. I haven’t heard or read any reasonable person claim Bundy’s injuries have had anything to do with not being 6-3, 220 pounds, so hopefully that’s not the case. Just throwing it out there. I’d be surprised if Holmes matches Bundy’s draft standing (4th overall), but that’s more because of the strength at the top of this year’s draft than a knock on Holmes. That being said, Bundy was still the superior draft prospect; again, not a knock on Holmes, just highlighting how darn impressive Bundy was as an amateur.

Also, and this is similar to what you’ll read below about Toussaint, it should be noted that there have been positive reports about Holmes’ dedication to getting his body in shape over the past few months. Young guys can right present wrongs, and development is as important, if not more so, than straight talent acquisition.

RHP Touki Toussaint (Coral Springs Christian HS, Florida)

What makes him a wild card: his command can charitably be called “inconsistent,” though recent reports have him heading in the right direction.  

I’ve long believed that consistent command begins with consistent mechanics which is aided by repetition and athleticism. Nobody will deny Toussaint’s considerable athletic gifts, so the prospect of improved command comes down to the fairly simple fix of going out and getting innings in. Overly simplistic? Probably. A viable enough potential solution that I’d be willing to use an early first round pick on a pitcher with his kind of stuff? Without a doubt. I’m bullish on Toussaint.

I’m not envious of the big league front office that has to make a decision between a raw yet intriguing prospect like Toussaint and a polished strike-thrower like LSU’s Aaron Nola. The presence of those two players in the same draft pool is why I find the MLB Draft the most fascinating major draft to follow. The two young men will likely grade out as very similar prospects (say, 5th-25th ranked) on many draft boards, but the only real similarity between the two carbon-based lifeforms (well, I guess that’s a second similarity) share is handedness. You could not dream up two better highly ranked opposites. You have the young HS power arm with the flashy stuff who lacks the present ability to properly harness it versus the wily college star with stuff that doesn’t excite but the command of a seasoned big league veteran. That’s as interesting  a story line in this year’s draft as you’ll find, and I can’t wait to track each young player’s respective professional career. However, I want to be careful to not pigeonhole either player into a needlessly constricting archetype. Narratives are great fun, but let’s be as accurate as we can. Toussaint’s command, while admittedly a work in progress, is far from a lost cause, and the strides he’s shown to this point — remember how limited his experience on the diamond is — are very encouraging. Nola is the guy with the plus-plus command, but that’s sometimes said in almost a pejorative manner: he’s not a junkballer relying on guile and precision, but rather a pitcher with really good — not great, but still really good — stuff that does play up because of pinpoint command. Draft weekend couldn’t come soon enough, I love this stuff.

I’m fairly sure I’m on record as calling Toussaint’s curve one of the best prep breaking balls I have ever personally seen. That pitch alone is a separator between him and many of his peers. His fastball is another easy plus pitch thanks to serious movement (it’s a tough one to elevate) and mid-90s heat. Throw in the “other stuff” (cut-SL, split-CU, truer cutter, harder splitter) that appears and reappears depending on the outing, add the aforementioned athleticism, and you’ve got yourself an elite skill set to work with. I’ve taken to calling him the HS version of Tyler Beede, a fairly obvious comparison due to each pitcher’s ongoing issues with throwing quality strikes, but I think an amalgamation of Lucas Sims, CJ Edwards, and, my personal favorite (and a guy Toussaint could look to as a developmental role model), Robert Stephenson gives some idea about what kind of player we’re talking about.

Brady Aiken, Jeff Hoffman (if healthy), Carlos Rodon, and Tyler Kolek make up my current top tier of pitching talent. Not too far behind them are Holmes, Beede, and Toussaint, currently in that order but very much subject to change. I’d be comfortable running with those seven players as my top seven overall players on the board, though there is room for a certain high school bat (or two…) to break through yet.

Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek

I’m realizing now that it might be easier to just write about the high school pitchers that aren’t wild cards. I’ll still get to those wild cards later this week, but let’s first talk about the two clear cut top names on just about everybody’s HS pitching list.

First we have Brady Aiken, the polished yet still ascending lefthander drawing heady yet not totally undeserved comps to a young Clayton Kershaw. Those comps, by the way, are fascinating to me because, while I acknowledge the danger in hyping up any HS arm to that degree, it is a pretty damn good reference point. Per Baseball America’s pre-draft scouting report, Kershaw went from a second/third round pick to the consensus number one high school prospect after emerging as a senior. That doesn’t sound entirely dissimilar to Aiken’s last six months developmentally. The frames are really similar (6-4, 200ish pounds with weight distributed similarly), deliveries both smooth, performances equally dominating, and, most importantly, the two have/had stuff that matches up well (Kershaw’s 90-96 FB and plus CB are both cited in the BA report). Both were/are also considered exceptional athletes with above-average or better deception and command, not to mention potentially decent hitting pitchers. They also both share the strong chance for a third above-average pitch in a changeup, though Aiken’s experimental mid- to upper-80s cutter gives him one extra pitch to play with than a young Kershaw. I’ve tried to get somebody to go on the record and say that the Aiken/Kershaw comparison is ridiculous, but nobody is willing to go that far. Doesn’t make them clones, of course, but it’s not as outlandish as comparing any 17-year old to the best American pitcher alive seems at first.

Looking back at things I’ve done for the site over the years reveals some some similarities between Aiken and Matt Krook (Oregon), Max Fried (Padres), James Paxton (Mariners), and Henry Owens (Red Sox). One comp that I’ve heard that I like is a young, pre-cutter Andy Pettitte. I could see that. I think a more physical Matt Moore is the comp I’m going with. Aiken is a little bigger, little stronger, and a little more advanced as a pitcher at the same age, but I think that’s a pretty good match.

We also have Tyler Kolek. So much is made every year about how amateur coaches mistreat star pitchers, selfishly preferring to extract as much present value from the gifted arms handed to them rather than doing whatever possible to ensure long, healthy, and well-paid careers for the young men with the actual talent and big league dreams. I don’t personally harp on it too much because I find the moralizing — and, yeah, I just re-read my previous sentence and can see the hypocrisy, thanks — positively draining after a while. Blowing up Twitter with virtual disappointed finger wags at coaches who run guys out for 130+ pitch outings doesn’t do a damn bit of good, so just stick with mentioning what happened, why it’s not good, how it could impact the prospect’s draft stock, and save the morally superior routine for something that really matters. ANYWAY, with so much focus on the coaching staffs that chew arms up and spit them out, it’s only right to highlight a school doing right by its star player. By all accounts, the staff at Shepherd HS in Texas has taken every measure to keep Tyler Kolek happy, healthy, and throwing gas. It’s a win-win-win situation (team, player, sport) that deserves more recognition than it has received.

Kolek’s most popular comp is Jonathan Gray. Again, like the Aiken/Kershaw comp, there is a reason why this particular comp has picked up steam. Man strength, plus-plus heat, plus hard breaking ball, usable change, and a better idea on how to pitch than most young power arms are all qualities that the two young pitchers share. Many of Gray’s comps from last year — think of a continuum moving from Garrett Richards to Gerrit Cole to Roger Clemens — apply to Kolek this year. A pre-injury Dustin McGowan goes down as one of the most interesting comps I have heard for Kolek. You could also add on any other big Texan to his comp list; my preferences are the very obvious Josh Beckett and the slightly less obvious but no less applicable Homer Bailey. Another fun one I’ve heard: the decidedly un-Texan RHP Andy Benes. As with any high school pitcher there is a wide range of outcomes, but the kind of present stuff that Kolek shows has made me a believer that whatever path he winds up on will be a good one.

There really aren’t a lot of recent draft comps for a 6-6, 250+ pound prep righty capable of hitting triple digits, so any name you read here is admittedly a stretch. Fifteen minutes through the archives and all I’ve got are Archie Bradley, Chris Jenkins, and Lucas Giolito. I’d say that’s two shining beacons of light sandwiched between a cautionary tale. Like everybody, I liked Bradley a ton and LOVED Giolito, so I think a spot in between them in terms of amateur draft stock is fair (i.e. I’d rank them Giolito, Kolek, Bradley). You could make a case for Kolek being behind Bradley as a draft prospect (better athlete), but I prefer each of Kolek’s most often used pitches (FB/breaking ball/CU) better at this point than Bradley’s at a similar stage of development. If you’re telling me that I can get Kolek’s current repertoire and give him Bradley’s developmental track as a pitcher, then I’m thinking long and hard about using a top three pick on him. It’s certainly possible.

I’ve gotten over most of my worries about Kolek’s maxed out frame and limited athleticism, and learned to appreciate his explosive fastball (nothing below 94 much of the spring, easy upper-90s peak), nasty mid- to upper-80s cut-slider, and super firm changeup as being a blend of pro-ball ready stuff that will give him the rare high HS pitcher floor. The upside is obvious and tantalizing, but when your worst case scenario (injuries excepted) is becoming a dominant closer, you’re a pretty good prospect.