Heading into last weekend, Jeff Hoffman had seen his stock slip steadily after a run of several consecutive sub-par outings. The ECU right-hander turned that around in a big way last weekend with arguably his best start of the year against one of the better lineups he has faced all season. Hoffman went eight frames against Rice, allowing just one walk and yielding a single run. But perhaps most importantly, Hoffman snapped off some of the best curveballs he has thrown since his breakout summer on the Cape. Hoffman also showed improved fastball command and a more balanced delivery that he repeated with ease. This is the first outing in several weeks that Hoffman has looked worthy of the 1-1 buzz he has received in the past, and it was certainly a good night to do it with Astros GM Jeff Lunhow in the house. Hoffman will hope to keep this momentum going forward and will take the hill against Old Dominion on Friday.
Aaron Nola of LSU has likely been the most dominant pitcher this season at the college ranks, and he appears to be solidifying his spot as a top-15 pick. He has now lowered his ERA on the year to a microscopic 0.47 ERA. He also boasts a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 71-11 on the year. Nola has long been regarded as control artist, but this year he is also flashing more lively stuff. While he won’t blow up any radar guns, his fastball will sit in the low-90’s with life. Nola will take on SEC foe Arkansas this weekend.
However, no college arm has been rocketing up draft boards quite like Evansville southpaw Kyle Freeland. The Purple Ace’s Friday-starter turned in a masterful performance last week in which he went the full effort and fanned 15 batters against Charlotte. Freeland worked ahead and pounded all quadrants of the strike zone with an explosive mid-90’s heater. Freeland also flashed a wicked sweeping slider while mixing in a vastly improved change-up and curveball. Freeland possesses an ideal big-league body at 6-foot-4 that should enable him to eat up innings once adds muscle mass. The overall package is reminiscent of a top-10 pick, and if the southpaw continues to show consistency, there is no reason he shouldn’t go higher.
Another hot name in the industry is Brett Graves, an undersized but athletic right-hander for Missouri. He repeats his delivery well, and fires a fastball in the low to mid-90’s. His out pitch is his slider that has sharp, late tilt. He also has a changeup in his repertoire that he can consistently throw for strikes. Graves is a sleeper to go in the Round No. 1, but could prove to be a steal for a team that is willing to gamble on his height. Graves and the Tigers will take on one of the nation’s best lineups and college baseball’s hottest hitter when they visit Kentucky this weekend. There will be a lot of attention on Graves when he faces A.J. Reed, a first baseman who doubles as a left-handed pitcher. Reed is currently slugging .771 and has launched 12 homers this year, and he is right there with Kyle Schwarber as the best power bat in the college class.
Jordan Brink of Fresno State is another undersized righty with a big arm. Brink throws with above-average velocity and also is very poised and competitive on the mound. In terms of raw stuff, he is probably a little behind Graves, but should be to go in the middle of Round No.2. On the season he is posting impressive numbers and has recorded a 1.84 ERA heading into this weekend, where he will take on New Mexico. He generates plenty of groundballs, but he needs to miss more bats if he is going to remain a starter.
Meanwhile at the prep level, there have been three outfielders who have been heating up lately. Behind the ultra-toolsy Michael Gettys, Derek Hill, Monte Harrison, and Matt Railey have emerged as the top outfielders in the prep class.
Hill, a senior at Oak Grove High (Calif.) has been a well-known commodity in the industry for a while now, and his speed and defense are true impact tools. He projects to be a potential threat to steal-30 bases annually and could be a stellar defender in centerfield. He already has shown the ability to size up a fly ball and takes excellent routes in the outfield. All of a sudden, his bat is starting to really come around too. He possesses a quick, whip-like bat path that should enable him to have solid pop and excellent gap power. Hill profiles as an ideal leadoff hitter and could be a factor at the end of Round No. 1 or into the comp round.
Harrison, a prep outfielder from Missouri, may offer an even more tantalizing package of tools. Harrison features one of the best outfield arms in the class and is an elite quick-twitch athlete. Harrison has the bat speed and strength to hit for power, but his swing needs refinement and he needs to incorporate his lower-half more. Harrison is also committed to Nebraska to play both football and baseball, so signability could be a factor with him. If teams deem him signable, he could go in the early part of Round No. 2.
Railey, a centerfielder from North Florida Christian High School, does not offer the same projection as Harrison or Hill, but his tools are already starting to play. Railey is a compact, physical player who is very fast in short bursts. His hands are very quick and he generates impressive power already. He needs to avoid expanding the strike zone, but he has all the ingredients to be a very solid Round No. 2 pick.
Two prep pitchers have also been climbing the charts over the past few weeks. Bryce Montes de Oca returned to the draft scene in a big way after making his first start since Tommy John surgery this offseason. In his very first start he touched 97 MPH on the gun. Obviously the injury will be a big red flag, but Montes de Oca’s fastball and his imposing 6-foot-8 frame make him an extremely intriguing prospect. He could be a high-ceiling snag between the second and fourth rounds.
Also keep an eye on Cameron Varga a righty from Ohio who has been a steady riser all spring. Varga can command three pitches and dial up to the mid-90’s MPH. All year has Varga has been carving up inferior competition while also improving his secondary offerings. His curveball is his out-pitch and features sharp, vertical break. Varga’s 6-foot-4 frame gives scouts plenty to dream on.
Overall this draft class is shaping up to be a very deep one. There is no slam-dunk candidate to go 1-1 right now, but that could change. The core-five all would probably go behind Mark Appel, Kris Bryant, and Jon Gray from last year’s class, but the first round on the whole is right there with the 2011 and 2005 classes in terms of depth. Obviously the strength of the class lies on the mound, particularly in the power arms. There are an abundance of guys with special velocity, and teams picking in Round No. 3 will find first0round quality arms still on the board. We are about midway through the amateur season, but there should continue to be a lot of movement in the class.
Jason A. Churchill
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