This weekend is a dream come true for college baseball fans, featuring several showdowns between conference rivals and top teams. No matchup is bigger than the one between Virginia and Florida State, two ACC-powerhouses that are among the very best teams in the country. Both teams are trying to lock down their bids for National Seeds. There will be plenty of elite draft prospects to keep an eye on during this series too.
The spotlight will be on Derek Fisher, the Virginia outfielder who returned to action last week after a broken hamate sidelined him for seven weeks. Fisher is one of the best athletes in the draft class, particularly among the college players, and entered the year as a likely Round No. 1 pick. However, scouts would like to see Fisher’s tools, particularly his power, play more in games. After missing time, Fisher will have a good chance to prove himself as he goes up against Florida State’s Luke Weaver on Friday, another potential Round No. 1 pick.
Weaver is fresh off one of his best outings of the year. Last week he hurled a complete game in which he yielded just one hit and struck out seven. Weaver doesn’t possess a blazing fastball, but he has an easy delivery and a body that is fairly projectable for a college pitcher. He pounds all quadrants of the strike-zone and his change-up is a true out pitch. Weaver has a stellar track-record and has a good shot of going in the later part of Round No. 1. He has drawn a lot of comparisons to Mike Leake, which seems like a reasonable upside for him, although you should not expect him to ascend to the big leagues as quickly as Leake did.
Along with Fisher, Weaver will have to deal with other big bats in the Cavalier’s lineup, including outfielder Mike Papi. Papi will probably slide back to first base with the return of Fisher, UVA has a very crowded and talented outfield, but during Fisher’s absence he showed improved athleticism and reads in the outfield. Papi has long been renowned as one of the most polished bats in this draft class, and given the fact that he has proved he can play another position besides first base; his stock is on the rise. Papi should be a logical pick in Round No. 2, but could sneak into Round No. 1.
In a draft class that is already chock-full of power arms, there appears to be yet another pitcher moving into Round No. 1. Chris Oliver has spent most of his time in the bullpen during his career at Arkansas, but has made a very successful transition to the rotation this year. Out of relief, Oliver touched 97 MPH in short stints in the past, and he has continued to retain velocity close to that level as a starter. His fastball features great arm-side run and explosive life. His two secondary offerings, a hard-slider and changeup, have made huge strides for him this year and look like legit weapons for him. With improved strike-throwing ability and his 6-foot-4 frame, there is no reason to believe that Oliver can’t make it as a starter. He is coming off a big game last week in which he beat Vanderbilt and lowered his ERA this season to 2.29. Oliver will take on Auburn this weekend.
One week after NC State’s Carlos Rodon had a breakout performance against Duke, Jeff Hoffman came out last Thursday and responded by turning in his finest outing of the year. Hoffman has always had ace-type stuff, but it has not always translated into swings-and-misses in the past. Over his first two seasons at ECU he averaged just 6.8 strikeouts per nine, and before his last start he was still averaging less than a strikeout per inning this season. But Hoffman was utterly dominant last time out, fanning 16 batters in route to a three-hit shutout. Hoffman still has an outside shot at being the top college arm selected in this draft, but he will need to pitch like this more often. This week Hoffman and the Pirates will draw Florida Atlantic, with Hoffman likely pitching Friday.
With offense so down at both the college and high school levels, teams will continue to search for players with major-league power and will place a premium on those prospects in June. Austin Byler of Nevada fits that mold, as a power-hitting third baseman. Byler is mashing .326/.416/.631 on the year and has flashed improved defense at the hot corner. He took Jordan Brink of Fresno State yard twice this weekend. There is a lot of swing-and-miss in his game and his body leads many to believe that he will have to shift across the diamond, but with that powerful swing from the left side, he could get drafted somewhere in Round No. 3.
After generating a lot of buzz earlier this spring, Brady Aiken continues to build upon his success. In his most recent start on Wednesday, Aiken punched out 12 in six innings of work. He has been nearly unhittable all year and he appears to be locked in a three-horse race with Rodon and Tyler Kolek to be the top overall pick. Aiken’s pinpoint control, lively fastball, and four-pitch mix that includes a knockout curve certainly make him worthy of such recognition. Also, given the fact that he is a southpaw some teams might prefer him to Kolek because of the poor track record of high school righties.
But Aiken is not the only big fish in the San Diego High School area, as Rancho Bernardo’s Alex Jackson could easily be the top bat selected in the draft. Jackson hasn’t been pitched to much this season, but when he has he has been making pitchers pay. Jackson has connected for eight home runs through his first 18 games and has shown an advanced approach at the plate and a willingness to go the opposite way. Earlier this year there were some grumblings about Jackson’s energy level, particularly behind the plate, but he has appeared to have erased those rumors. Reports have indicated that he is playing with more energy and looks more agile there lately. Even if a team converts him to a corner-outfield spot, like the Royals did with Wil Myers and the Nationals did with Bryce Harper, you are buying the bat here.
In any other draft class, Sean Reid-Foley would have really stood out as possibly the best prep pitcher in the class. But in this one, he might be the No. 5 of No. 6 of that demographic to be selected. In fact, he compares very favorably to Kohl Stewart who went No. 4 overall to the Twins last year, and was the top prep arm selected. Like Stewart, Foley is 6-foot-4, very athletic, and owns a three-pitch arsenal. Foley has been over-powering high school hitters this year, and has already recorded 101 strikeouts this season.
Finally, Spencer Adams of White Country High School (Ga.) has been generating serious helium lately. The Georgian oozes projection with a 6-foot-5 frame that has plenty of room to fill out. For such a large individual, he is very athletic and repeats his delivery well. He has seen a big spike in his velocity this spring and has been up to the mid-90’s MPH at times. He is young for the class and with another year of development, he could wind up looking like an absolute steal if he continues to add strength. He probably will be targeted at the end of Round No. 1.