As soon as last June’s draft ended — perhaps even well before — the conversation about the class of 2014 started and ended with North Carolina State southpaw Carlos Rodon. He was the clear pre-season No. 1 and entered the season with the best chance to be taken off the board first when the Houston Astros select first for the third straight year. We’re about beyond the halfway point of the amateur season and only one thing is clear and that’s that the top of the draft is far from settled.
Rodon hasn’t been what clubs would like to have seen to this point. He’s flashed the firm, mid-90s fastball and showcased the wipeout slider, but his command has been inconsistent as has the velocity and, at times, his delivery. Rodon remains the top college pitching prospect, but East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman is fresh off a strong outing in front of big-time heat that included at least a pair of scouting directors. Other college arms such as Aaron Nola of LSU, Vanderbilt’s Tyler Beede and left-hganders Kyle Freeland of Evansville and TCU’s Brandon Finnegan are also on the radar in or around the Top 10. A blue chip final half-dozen starts from Beede and he could solidify a Top-5 selection, as could Rodon and Hoffman.
Many clubs, however, have San Diego prep left-hander Brady Aiken of Cathedral Catholic Academy (Calif.) atop their draft boards. I spoke to three crosscheckers and two scouting directors from five different clubs who all but confirmed that they were included in the group that sees Aiken as the No. 1 talent in the class.
The class as a whole has grown, both in terms of depth and overall strength. With prep pitchers such as right-hander Tyler Kolek of Shepherd High School (Texas), left-hander Sean-Reid Foley of Sandalwood High School (Fla.) and Coral Springs Christian High Schol (Fla.) right-hander Touki Toussaint holding their status as first-round picks — Kolek is likely to be off the board in the top 5 — it’s the pre-season second-tier among the high school arms that has made the biggest impact.
Right-hander Grant Holmes (Conway High School, S.C.) has shown big arm strength, hitting 97 mph and sitting 95-98 for scouts in March and holding most of that velocity in April. Holmes is now firmly in the mix in the top 20 or so.
The race for No. 1 may be down to a very small handful of candidates. I’m not going to pretend to be in the head of Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow or scouting director Mike Elias, but I Imagine Rodon will stay in the conversation until the final hours, along with Aiken, Kolek and maybe one of the other college arms, particularly if the club can save some pool space with the pick that greatly helps them in later rounds.
The Astros selected prep infielder Carlos Correa two years ago and college pitcher Mark Appel last June. The majority of their top prospects right now are pitchers, but outfielder George Springer, a first-round pick in 2011, has a chance to be a star and was just called up to the majors last week, as does Correa, suggesting there is little reason to believe the club will choose to lean in one direction or the other between pitcher or hitter. If it comes down to Rodon or Aiken, it may be about money, particularly if both finish strong. If Rodon is worthy of being the top pick, it may be difficult for Houston to pass on him considering he could team up with Appel, and eventually right-hander Mike Foltynewicz and Lance McCullers, Jr. to form quite the long-term starting rotation.
The Chicago Cubs at No. 4
If we assume that Rodon, Aiken and Kolek, in some order, are the first three players selected, the Cubs could be left with a decision between Hoffman, Beede and Rancho Bernardo High School (Calif.) C/OF Alex Jackson.
The Cubs chose University of San Diego power bat Kris Bryant last year rather than taking Oklahoma right-hander Jon Gray despite their organization’s weakness being starting pitching. The Cubs, led by Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod and new scouting director Matt Dorey, have never shown a willingness to draft for need — which no club should high in the draft — so Jackson, or perhaps North Carolina State shortstop Trea Turner, prep shortstop Nick Gordon out of Olympia High School in Orlando or Clovis High School (Calif.) Jacob Gatewood, could be the pick. Any of the latter three could be under-slot selections.
If Rodon, Aiken or Kolek get to No. 4, one has to imagine they’d be the top player on the Cubs board and ultimately the pick.
Seattle at No. 6
The Mariners have gone the way of college players high in the draft every year they’ve had a pick in the Top 11. Last year it was New Mexico’s D.J. Peterson. In 2012 the M’s tabbed Florida catcher Mike Zunino, who is already the club’s starting backstop. In Tom McNamara’s first draft as Seattle’s scouting director he called Dustin Ackley’s name at No. 2 overall. Two years later it was Virginia southpaw Danny Hultzen. This could be the first time McNamara and GM Jack Zduriencik snag a prep bat with big-time upside in the top half of the first round, or a high school pitcher with an ace ceiling.
Aiken isn’t getting that far and it’s difficult to believe Kolek will, either. If I had to nail down the club’s most likely names as it stands today I’d put Jackson, Gordon, Turner and Toussaint in the mix. Of course, the pool money may come into play. If it does, Beede, Nola, Freeland, Reid-Foley and outfielders Bradley Zimmer at San Francisco and Michael Conforto at Oregon State could pop up into that range.
It’d have to a wild bonus-saving scenario for Seattle to pass on the best player, especially considering the organization’s lack of everyday talent with all-star ceilings.
The Blue Jays
I have no idea what the Toronto Blue Jays may do in Round 1. They own the No. 9 and No. 11 selections and since the new bonus pool regulations were installed, we’ve seen a few clubs that have two high picks go off the board a little bit with one or both in order to spread around their allotted monies.
It’s an organization with a lot of talent, still, despite trading some top prospects to acquire R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes. The opportunity to add two quick-to-the-bigs college arms is intriguing. Freeland and Nola? Beede and Hartford’s Sean Newcomb? Like I said, I have no feel for the Blue Jays’ preferred philosophy, but they have a chance to add two very good players.
Florida commit and Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High School catcher J.J. Schwarz is the apple of the eye of one area scout down in South Florida. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound backstop “does a little of everything,” the scout said. “He runs well, (has a) solid arm and I love the energy. There’s power there, too, no doubt about it.”
Schwarz has the athleticism and present strength to suggest he can stick behind the plate, but there are some potential long-term adjustments necessary at the plate. He over-strides at times, though the scout noted he’s abbreviated that some and has been keeping his hands back better this spring.
The handful of clubs I have spoken to about Schwarz have varying degrees of valuation, from Comp Round A to somewhere late in Round 2. Schwarz, who calls his own game,typically ranks as the top pure catching prospects among the prep prospects — Jackson is also viewed as a possible catcher, but not everyone believes he’ll remain there — and among the top two or three catchers in the entire draft, behind only Jackson and Kennesaw State’s Max Pentecost.
Indiana’s Kyle Schwarber is listed at catcher but plays a lot of first base and left field and the consensus is that he’s a bat who will move to a corner spot permanently in pro ball.
Matt Imhof, LHP
Cal Poly ace Matt Imhof has dominated his second-rung schedule this spring but has shown enough in terms of stuff and command that he may garner some comp-round attention. He’ll pitch in the low-90s mostly, but can reach back for 93-94 (and the rare 95) and does a good job mixing in his secondary offerings by working off the fastball early in games. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior offers an average breaking ball that most scouts call a curveball with two-plane break, but the pitch teases slider velocity in the 78-82 mph range. The changeup is fringy at best right now but he can throw it for called strikes and keeps it down well.
When I saw Imhof in March, he showed an ability to pitch inside to right-handed batters and may have thrown a cutter or two to help him do so. The four-seamer has some natural armside tail. He doesn’t always stay tall in his delivery, however, bending his back leg early and driving toward the plate, flattening out his pitches and likely reducing the chances his breaking ball sharpens into a true slider or power curveball with bigger bite.
Still, left-handers who can throw strikes with what projects as three big-league offerings, including above-average-to-plus velocity, don’t grow on trees — trust me, I have checked — suggesting Imhof will intrigue numerous clubs on Day 1 and last no longer than Round 2, most likely.
Photo of Alex Jackson by Scott Kurtz