For much of the amateur season the draft chatter has very much been about the arms, and rightfully so. North Carolina State lefty ace Carlos Rodon, Vanderbilt right-hander Tyler Beede, LSU horse Aaron Nola, prep lefty Brady Aiken and flamethrowing righty Tyler Kolek each serve as surefire first-round talents, possibly all in the top 10 come June.
Pitching is where it’s at for the class of 2014, and the majority of the intrigue regarding everyday players is centered around prepsters such as Alex Jackson, Jacob Gatewood and Michael Gettys, though clubs have soured on the prep bats as a whole. One national ‘checker told me this week: “A lot of these kids are just raw. The physical tools are there, but you walk away wishing they had another year or that this was February and not May.”
It’s a shallow class for advanced hitters, but there are a few notable college bats that pop up in conversations for first-round consideration. Hitters. Not just position players who may end up glove-first pros.
Bradley Zimmer, OF — San Francisco
Zimmer appears headed for an industry-consensus first-round grade, but despite solid athleticism and strength — as well as seven home runs this spring — some clubs still don’t love the swing and question the long-term power, considering he’ll be a corner outfielder in pro ball.
Zimmer still is learning to create consistent loft, developing a swing more engineered to take advantage of his bat speed and solid plate skills. It’s a work-in-progress, leaving scouts highly unsure of what the next three years will produce.
At least two high-ranking scouts representing different NL clubs like Zimmer more in the comp round than the top 20, which is quite different than what the buzz coming into the media has been.
Michael Conforto, OF — Oregon State
Conforto, for me, is the best college option in terms of hitters, and he can really play the game. His power numbers were down for half the spring but he’s up to five long balls to go with 14 doubles and a pair if triples. The Redmond High School (Wash.) product is batting .407/.552/.627 with a 41-26 B/K ratio in 43 games for the highly-ranked Beavers, and has always reminded me of Nick Swisher, in terms of athleticism, body type and skills with the bat.
He’s a solid outfielder with an average throwing arm (still sounds like Swisher in his prime), tracks the breaking ball well and is a smart baserunner. Conforto, a left-handed batter, lacks the power profile to be draw long looks for the top five or so, but anywhere after the Colorado Rockies at No. 8 could make a lot of sense.
He’ll face the UCLA Bruins this weekend, a nice test versus a strong pitching staff that includes James Kaprielian, Cody Poteet and a nasty bullpen that throws hard.
Kyle Schwarber, 1B — Indiana
Schwarber is a strong, left-handed batter with a power swing plane. He covers the plate well and can go the other way. The swing path itself is short to the ball, he finishes well with his wrists, locks his head on a swivel and maintains balance throughout a smooth, quick hip rotation, but his load is a bit deep and his hands are busy pre-delivery. Good velocity from a three-pitch arm can expose that with a stuff-and-command combo he has yet to see in college.
He’s a first baseman in pro ball, despite seeing time in the outfield and behind the dish at Indiana, so it’s all about the hit tool. Schwarber isn’t a first-round pick for me; I’d rather take a shot at a better defensive player with long-term tools, or grab one of the high-ceiling arms certain to be on the board through the comp round and early in round 2.
Schwarber and his Hoosiers are at Penn State for a three-game series this weekend.
Casey Gillaspie, 1B — Wichita State
Gillaspie, a switch hitter whose brother, Conor, is with the Chicago White Sox, shows a smooth, easy swing from the left side, but comes close to an arm bar and gets out on his front foot, even during batting practice.
The swing is shorter from the right side, but he overstrides a lot from both sides and his back side gives some during his left-handed swing. It’s not pretty, but he’s put up big power numbers and has yet to show any problems making contact.
One scout sees some Garret Jones in Gillaspie in terms of the power, but he may be more of a project than generally sought out in a college hitter high in the draft. And again, we’re talking about a first baseman only.
Gillaspie and the Shockers host Dallas Baptist over the weekend.
Derek Fisher, OF — Virginia
Fisher’s teammate, Mike Papi has had a big year, likely assuring himself seven figures, but Fisher remains the better prospect despite suffering a hamate injury and missing significant time.
Eric Longenhagen scouted Fisher prior to his injury, noting that the Cavaliers star has “impact bat speed,” that could ultimately create above-average power to go with 65-grade speed and an above-average arm.
Fisher requires more developmental attention than your typical college hitter and that fact will likely play Draft Stock Tug-of-War with his status as one of the draft’s few bonafide first round, everyday college talents. Former UConn outfielder and current Astros prospect, George Springer, was another toolsy college outfielder who lacked typical college polish and was covered with mechanical question marks. Things are working out fine there. Fisher isn’t quite as powerful and explosive as Springer and has different things to correct, but Springer is evidence that college players don’t necessarily come out of the NCAA kiln fired and done. We have to grade out Fisher based on his ultimate ceiling, and ceiling he has.
Fisher faces Georgia Tech this weekend.
The prep prospects led by their offensive promise may be in a race to the finish. Jackson has run away from the pack, but Gettys, Gatewood, Michael Chavis, Monte Harrison, Braxton Davidson, Marcus Wilson, Forrest Wall and Derek Hill all have a shot at round 1, but it’s unlikely all of them will be selected that high.
With some of the group’s struggles, particularly when heat was on hand to get a glance, it wouldn’t surprise if the catchers and shortstops jumped up and sent a few of the hitters to the comp and second rounds.
Palm Beach Gardens High School (Fla.) catcher J.J. Schwarz is one candidate, as is shortstop Milton Ramos of American Heritage High School in Hialeah Gardens, Fla.
“If one of those hitters steps up real quick, that could make the difference. It’s that close with some of them for me,” said one scouting supervisor.
One fun pitcher-batter matchup this weekend is Cal Poly southpaw Matt Imhof taking on UC Irvine’s Taylor Sparks. Imhof has been lights out, piling up the strikeouts along the way. Sparks has scuffled a bit, letting his swing get long, but he’s still a candidate for early Day 2.
Squaring up Imhof a few times could turn some heads.