It has been all about pitching this spring at both the college and prep levels. The BBCOR bats are certainly having ramifications on the game, as offense among the amateur ranks is at an all-time low. There are two storylines in particular to keep an eye on this weekend; first the arms race between left-handers battling for spots on team’s draft boards, and also the prep pitchers who are lighting up radar guns in the early goings.
TCU Southpaw Brandon Finnegan has been piling up strikeouts at a ridiculous rate this spring. In four of five starts he has accumulated more than 10 punchouts. Finnegan has elite arm speed and can dial his fastball up into the upper 90’s MPH, which is extremely impressive for a left hander. He complements his heater with a hard slider and an improving changeup. His height and arm slot lead some to believe that he could wind up in the bullpen, but his command has also taken a step forward this spring, and Finnegan looks like he has the makings of a possible top-20 pick. Finnegan will be taking the hill against Texas-Tech this weekend.
Another lefty making noise this spring is Sean Newcomb of Hartford. Newcomb reminds some of Sean Manaea from last year’s draft because he is an athletic left hander with a big frame and a big arm. Also, like Manaea, Newcomb hails from a mid-major Northeast school and pitches against inferior competition, which can make it tough for scouts to gauge his true talent. Newcomb had an inconsistent summer on the cape after struggling with a bout of mono, but in his last two starts has yielded just four hits in 14 scoreless innings. Like Finnegan, Newcomb could be a factor in the middle part of Round No.1.
Cal Poly’s Matt Imhof is a sleeper in this draft that could be a great value pick for a club somewhere in the middle of Round No. 2. Imhof is a physical 6-foot-5 and pounds all quadrants of the strike zone. The big lefty had a breakout summer for Team USA and is carrying that success into this season, currently boasting a 4-1 record with a minuscule 1.29 ERA. Cal Poly’s baseball program is also surprising a lot of people, and is starting to look like one of the top teams in the nation.
Kyle Freeland, the ace of the Evansville staff, is yet another southpaw putting up video game numbers. He has struck out 29 batters and granted just two walks heading into this weekend. Freeland already possesses a live fastball and his thin 6’4” frame offers more projection than the average college arm. With Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos in attendance last weekend he hurled six shutout innings with nine K’s. Although it might be a little early for him, the Jays hold the No. 9 and No. 11 picks in this year’s draft.
As usual the spotlight will be on NC State’s Carlos Rodon this weekend. Rodon came up short last weekend in an epic battle with FSU’s Luke Weaver, but it was an encouraging start as he flashed his devastating slider and struck out 12 against one of the nation’s best lineups. This weekend he will be taking on Maryland, another quality opponent. It will be key for him to demonstrate improved fastball command as his location has been spotty at times his year. He still remains the top prospect in this draft, but needs to cut down on the walks that he has been giving up. However, in the past both his fastball command and velocity have improved with the weather.
Another strength of this 2014 class is the depth of talented college backstops. Kyle Schwarber, Grayson Greiner, Max Pentecost, and Aramis Garcia are the cream of the crop, but keep an eye on Brett Austin of North Carolina State. Austin was a high-profile prospect out of Providence High, but struggled to hit as an underclassmen. This year however, Austin is hitting .391. Last week in a devastating series in which NCSU was swept by Florida State, Austin went 7-for-15. Austin is probably a second-tier catching prospect behind some of the aforementioned guys, but could go as early as Round No. 3.
Another catcher to keep an eye on is Mac James of Oklahoma. James played sparingly last year and wasn’t really on anyone’s radar entering the season, but that could change soon. It is not a guarantee that he will be able to stick behind the dish, but he is currently raking.As of right now the Sooner’s catcher’s triple-slash line reads: .442/.494/.636. And yes, you did read that right.
There is no doubt that offense has been down significantly throughout college baseball this year, but a pair of Cal State Fullerton sluggers are still performing well.Outfielder J.D. Davis controls the strike-zone well and generates a lot of power due to the natural loft in his swing. Davis is slugging at a .537 clip so far. His teammate Matt Chapman has also has plenty of pop in his swing. The third baseman has connected for two bombs and six doubles through his first 17 games, but he needs to make more consistent contact. Both Chapman and Davis could be taken somewhere in rounds No. 2 or No. 3, but could go earlier if a team is willing to gamble on their raw power.
The Kentucky Wildcats also possess a potent offense that has been churning out runs by the truckload this season. Juniors Austin Cousino and AJ Reed anchored the offense as freshman, but struggled mightily last year. However the duo has bounced back in a big way. Cousino is slashing .409/.455/.613 and is showing an improved approach at the plate. Reed, who doubles as a power-armed reliever, improved his conditioning over the off season and is reaping the benefits. Reed is currently pacing the country with nine home runs this season. Come June, both Reed and Cousino will be rare commodities with top-three-round-talents and performance to match.
The top arm in a deep high school class is Tyler Kolek, a country strong 6’5” 240 lb. Texan from Shepherd High. Through his first four appearances he has not yielded a hit and has reportedly topped out at 101 MPH. Because his fastball is so overpowering, he doesn’t necessarily need to use his changeup or breaking ball, but he has done a good of incorporating him in his arsenal anyway. He has massive hands which leads many scouts to believe that his change could evolve into a true out-pitch with more polish.
Kolek has been connected to the Marlins early and often this spring, and is probably a good bet to go No. 2 overall, especially given Jeff Hoffman’s recent struggles. In the past the Marlins have a track record of drafting physical pitchers from Texas and Oklahoma, and Kolek certainly fits that bill. In the meantime however, I pity the poor sophomore that has to face Kolek, because he is probably soiling himself in the batter’s box.
No prospect has had more helium this spring than Brady Aiken, a prep lefthander out of the San Diego area. Aiken entered the year with the reputation of a projectable strike-thrower with a hammer curveball, but his velocity has taken a huge leap forward. Early reports have clocked him as high as 97 MPH on the gun. He has also added a cutter to his repertoire, giving him the potential for an arsenal that includes four swing-and-miss offerings. Once considered a factor at the backend of Round No. 1, he has established himself as a likely a top-10 pick.
Mt. Pleasant’s Michael Kopech continues to fly up team’s draft boards and in his most recent start he reportedly hit 98 MPH. Kopech’s delivery is unconventional to say the least, but it does generate a lot of deception and he possesses elite arm speed. The amount of prep arms with premium velocity in this draft class is absurd, but Kopech is beginning to separate himself, along with Aiken, Kokek, and Grant Holmes. In his last outing, Kopech was actually out-dueled by Whitehouse High’s Patrick Mahomes, a legit prospect in his own right, who hurled a no-hitter. Mahomes is top quarterback signee for Texas Tech, and it is not clear whether his future lies on the diamond or on the gridiron. Some team could be tempted by his athleticism and blazing fastball and try to pry him away from football with a seven-figure bonus this June.
Finally, Touki Toussaint of Coral Spring, Fla. continues to improve his stock by flashing better fastball command. With a knock out curve and an electric fastball that has been up to 97 MPH this year, Toussaint may offer the greatest upside of any pitcher in the country. Although he is extremely athletic, he is lacks polish, and it showed last summer in various showcases. Although, it is important to remember that Toussaint, a Haitian native, grew up a soccer player and only began playing baseball his freshman year.