2014 Draft Update: Change At The Top As Pitchers Dominate

It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to quantify. It’s not like scouts take attendance at high school baseball games to determine if all the scouting directors are in the bleachers.

But a perfect storm of circumstances attracted all 30 scouting directors to Baseball America’s back yard at the end of March. USA Baseball’s National High School Invitational in Cary, N.C., had a half-dozen potential first-round picks in its 16-team field, with games played on a Wednesday and Thursday.

Carlos Rodon

Carlos Rodon (Photo by Brian Westerholt)

That Friday, the two top college pitchers on most teams’ draft boards, North Carolina State’s Carlos Rodon and East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman, both made home starts in the Old North State, with N.C. State adding shortstop Trea Turner to the buffet of prospects.

None of the scouts contacted for this story either in-person at the event or on the phone thereafter could remember a spring event with all 30 directors present. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, but no one could recall it.

It all happened two months out from the June draft, making it a great time to take stock of the class. The biggest takeaway so far is that pitching and velocity stand out in what is shaping up as a fairly deep draft. Few position players, either among college or high school ranks, have broken out this spring, and most have lost some momentum and rank behind the pitchers on teams’ draft boards.

“The guys stepping forward so far have almost all been pitchers, both high school and some on the college side,” said one scouting director. “We’re still waiting for some hitters to do the same thing.”

Added a second director, “I could probably give you 20-25 names who could go in the back of the first round to second-round range. It’s deep in that part (of the draft) this year.”

Regime Change

Brady Aiken

Brady Aiken (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

The biggest change two months in is the ascent of San Diego prep lefty Brady Aiken to the No. 1 spot, as he and Shepherd (Texas) High righty Tyler Kolek appear to have passed Rodon on most draft boards. Aiken opened the season as a likely top 10 pick and has gotten better, showing improved velocity on his 90-94 mph fastball and better hand speed on his breaking ball to go with his already elite command and knack for pitching. Kolek has hit 100 mph repeatedly and has the best pure arm in the draft.

Rodon, meanwhile, has struggled with diminished fastball velocity and command this spring. The less he throws his fastball—more consistently in the 89-92 mph range rather than the 92-96 peak he flashed in each of the last two years—for strikes, the more he comes to rely on his still-plus slider. An ugly start in late March at Maryland raised questions about his ability to handle adversity, as he has allowed as many unearned runs (15) as earned. While his previous track record helps keep him at the top of the college class, he has yet to show the form that put him there.

Hoffman has had livelier stuff than Rodon but gets hit as well, and both have fallen back to the college-pitcher pack, with Southeastern Conference righthanders Tyler Beede (Vanderbilt) and Aaron Nola (Louisiana State), UNLV righty Erick Fedde and lefties Brandon Finnegan (Texas Christian) and Kyle Freeland (Evansville) closing the gap. Much of the scouting world was in Nashville in March to see Beede and the Commodores play host to Nola, who has dominated more than any other collegian on the field and works off his fastball more than any other college starter, save Fedde.

Pitching remains the strength of the draft class, however, particularly on the high school side. Righthanders Touki Toussaint (Miami), Grant Holmes (Conway, S.C.) and Sean Reid-Foley (Jacksonville, Fla.) have pitched themselves toward the top of the class, as Toussaint has shown improved secondary stuff and control this spring. Holmes and Reid-Foley have run their fastballs into the upper 90s, with Holmes throwing slightly harder.

Two of the biggest movers on the prep side have been righthanders, as scouts rushed in to see Virginia prep Jacob Bukauskas, who reclassified to the class of 2014 and has been throwing in the upper 90s; and Georgia athlete Spencer Adams, who came out of basketball season throwing well, with a fastball touching 95 mph to go with a plus slider.

Jacob Bukauskas

Jacob Bukauskas

The college class also offers pitching depth, especially among lefthanders who had stepped forward to make this perhaps the best class of college southpaws since David Price led the Class of 2007. Freeland and Hartford’s Sean Newcomb have maintained the momentum from their breakout performances last summer in the Cape Cod League and continue to climb up draft boards. Cal Poly ace Matt Imhof (81) and Finnegan (80), who were teammates last summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, ranked 1-2 in Division I in strikeouts.

The prep class also has shaped up strong from the left side, despite a down spring by Arizona’s top prospect, two-way player Alex Verdugo (Sahuaro HS, Tucson), who prefers to hit anyway. Georgia’s Mac Marshall and Florida’s Foster Griffin both threw well in the NHSI, while Hawaii’s Kodi Medeiros has had a good spring but remains a divisive prospect due to his low release point, highly unusual for a lefthanded starting pitcher.

The Class That Can’t Hit

It’s a good thing that most of the top arms in the class have had strong springs, because most of the hitters have not. Prep catcher Alex Jackson has established himself as the top hitting prospect in the draft, with a strong spring to go with a long track record of production. Shortstop Nick Gordon, the son of ex-big league reliever Tom and half-brother of Dodgers infielder Dee, headlines a strong crop of talent in the Orlando area. While Gordon isn’t a consensus choice, scouts report they expect him to be chosen in the first 10 selections for his combination of athleticism, ability to play a premium position and contact ability at the plate.

Michael Conforto

Michael Conforto (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

College outfielders Bradley Zimmer (San Francisco) and Michael Conforto (Oregon State) have joined Turner in the top tier of college bats. None of the three collegians has played to type, however. Zimmer, knocked last summer for a flat swing plane, has hit seven home runs during a stunning season, with a .430/.497/.711 line to go with the homers and 14 stolen bases in 19 tries. Turner has had an odd spring, with a recent hot streak pushing him to a .306/.380/.452 line with four home runs while showing improved arm strength and defensive play at shortstop. However, he’s stolen just 10 bases (after swiping 87 in his first two seasons), and scouts still have real questions about his swing mechanics and impact at the plate. Conforto has just two homers this year after hitting a combined 24 in his first two seasons, but he still owned a .383/.531/.551 slash line. Wichita State switch-hitting first baseman Casey Gillaspie (.402/.507/.692, 8 HR) also was moving into first-round consideration.

The high school hitters remain more volatile, as evidenced by the NHSI matchup of Clovis (Calif.) High and shortstop Jacob Gatewood with Gainesville (Ga.) High and outfielder Michael Gettys. Two of the toolsiest members of the class combined for two singles in front of a throng of scouts, with little hard contact; one veteran scout, when asked if he’d seen Gatewood hit well this season, replied, “Nope, and neither has my staff. And it’s the same with Gettys.”

Gatewood and Gettys could move back up the first round if they make more hard contact as the spring progresses, but Missouri prep outfielder Monte Harrison, a Nebraska football recruit, had opened the spring playing well and was moving past Gettys on the toolsy outfielder front. Bat-first preps such as second baseman Forrest Wall out of Orlando and third baseman Michael Chavis (Marietta, Ga.) were taking advantage of the vacuum and earning first-round consideration.

“The class can be summed up more by who hasn’t hit,” another scouting director said, “than by who has hit.”

As usual, the first round has some injury wild cards, such as Sanger (Calif.) High righthander Luis Ortiz, who had missed a couple of starts with a hush-hush injury but was expected back in mid-April; and Virginia outfielder Derek Fisher, who was out with a hamate injury in his right hand. Other injured prospects who have volatile draft stock include Georgia prep righty Dylan Cease and Florida prep Cobi Johnson.

Rank Player Pos School, City
1. Brady Aiken lhp Cathedral Catholic HS, San Diego
2. Tyler Kolek rhp Shepherd (Texas) HS
3. Carlos Rodon lhp N.C. State
4. Alex Jackson c/of Rancho Bernardo HS, Escondido
5. Jeff Hoffman rhp East Carolina
6. Tyler Beede rhp Vanderbilt
7. Aaron Nola rhp Louisiana State
8. Nick Gordon ss Olympia HS Orlando
9. Kyle Freeland lhp Evansville
10. Bradley Zimmer of San Francisco
11. Trea Turner ss N.C. State
12. Brandon Finnegan lhp TCU
13. Touki Toussaint rhp Coral Springs Christian HS, Miami
14. Erick Fedde rhp UNLV
15. Grant Holmes rhp Conway (S.C.) HS
16. Jacob Gatewood ss Clovis (Calif.) HS
17. Michael Conforto of Oregon State
18. Kyle Schwarber c Indiana
19. Sean Newcomb lhp Hartford
20. Monte Harrison of Lee’s Summit West (Mo.) HS
21. Sean Reid-Foley rhp Sandalwood HS, Jacksonville, Fla.
22. Braxton Davidson 1b/of Roberson HS, Asheville, N.C.
23. Michael Chavis 3b/2b Sprayberry HS, Marietta, Ga.
24. Forrest Wall 2b Orangewood Christian HS, Winter Park, Fla.
25. Max Pentecost c Kennesaw State
26. Spencer Adams rhp White County HS, Cleveland
27. Michael Gettys of Gainesville (Ga.) HS
28. Nick Burdi rhp Louisville
29. Kodi Medeiros lhp Waiakea HS Hilo, Hawaii
30. Casey Gillaspie 1b Wichita State
31. Jacob Bukauskas rhp Stone Bridge HS Ashburn, Va.
32. Mike Papi of/1b Virginia
33. Mac Marshall lhp Parkview HS, Lilburn, Ga.
34. Luke Weaver rhp Florida State
35. Matt Imhof lhp Cal Poly
36. Milton Ramos ss American Heritage HS, Hialeah Gardens, Fla.
37. Marcus Wilson of Junipero Serra HS, Los Angeles
38. Derek Hill of Elk Grove (Calif.) HS
39. Derek Fisher of Virginia
40. Luis Ortiz rhp Sanger (Calif.) HS
41. Alex Verdugo lhp/of Sahuaro HS, Tucson, Ariz.
42. Michael Kopech rhp Mount Pleasant (Texas) HS
43. Scott Blewitt rhp Baker HS, Baldwinsville, N.Y.
44. Foster Griffin lhp The First Academy, Orlando
45. J.J. Schwarz c Palm Beach (Fla.) Gardens HS
46. Taylor Sparks 3b UC Irvine
47. Cam Varga rhp Cincinnati Hills Academy, Ohio
48. Joseph Gatto rhp St. Augustine Prep, Hammonton, N.J.
49. Chris Oliver rhp Arkansas
50. Jake Stinnett rhp Maryland
Compiled by Aaron Fitt, Clint Longenecker and John Manuel