2015 College Preview: All-America Teams
Scouts usually cast a skeptical eye as they size up a draft class. No draft has everything, and usually the evaluators will notice what’s missing.
That has become even more notable in recent years as the college game has shifted more to a pitching and small-ball approach. As has been the case in recent years, this class has less power than teams would like, though it has good pitching depth. Plenty of starters and relievers stand out in what shapes up as an excellent group of arms.
“Is there a standout college guy who is without question a 1-1? No,” one scouting director said. “There are a few hickeys with everybody.”
While the 2015 class does not have one player who is head and shoulders above the rest heading into the season, the depth of pitching talent means there should be plenty of intriguing candidates for the top of the draft come June.
“Pitching is the strength of this class,” the scouting director said. “I’ve never seen so many good arms in my life. There are a ton of power arms. Guys who let it rip.”
It’s not a good year for draft-eligible catchers. The best junior in the class, Fresno State’s Taylor Ward, spent the summer as the third catcher on Team USA because sophomores Zack Collins and Chris Okey (Clemson) earned more playing time. Both Collins and Okey face questions about their gloves, but their all-round potential should make the 2016 class a better one.
Zack Collins, Miami (So.)
Baseball America’s 2014 Freshman of the Year hit .298/.427/.556 last year, providing immediate impact in the middle of the Hurricanes’ lineup. He has excellent power, showing the ability to drive the ball in a way that few college hitters even attempt in today’s game. Even more impressive, Collins’ advanced approach means that when pitchers nibble to stay away from his power, he will wait until he either gets a ball to drive or he’ll take a walk. His long swing does lead to strikeouts, but it’s a fair price to pay for plus power.
Collins has excessive movement in his hands at times, and when he gets uncomfortable, his pre-swing movement becomes more pronounced. But the bigger questions revolve around his glove, and scouts are glad they have two more seasons to evaluate whether he can stick behind the plate. He’s currently a below-average receiver, and his mechanics get in the way of his throwing as he posts consistently below-average pop times.
“Collins is the most intriguing of this (catching) group, but the glove is a pretty big question mark at this point, and he’s much less intriguing if he ends up at first base full time,” a national crosschecker said.
It’s a weak class of first basemen, but then first base is usually one of the less-loaded positions of the college class. Scouts generally view college corner infielders, especially first basemen, with skepticism, as the better athletes will gravitate to the outfield corners. As one scout explained, the best pro first basemen are probably playing either catcher (Zack Collins) or outfield (D.J. Stewart) in college.
Austin Byler, Nevada (Sr.)
A senior who didn’t sign with the Nationals as a ninth-round pick last year, Byler has a long track record of production and led the Mountain West Conference in both batting and home runs last year. He has not always translated that production to the summer. He struggled in an 11-game stint in the Cape Cod League in 2013, though last summer he hit four home runs in another brief 11-game stay in Cotuit.
See Also: 2015 All-America Team Lists
A former third baseman who moved to first base last year, Byler fits much better at his new position, but his value still is all in his bat. He crowds the plate, but he has shown he can both pull a pitch on his hands or drive balls to the opposite field. He projects to have above-average power to go with an average hit tool. He turns in at least average run times and is better than that underway, showing he has some athleticism too. Byler had a back injury in 2013 but showed no ill effects from it last year.
The safest bets among the position players this year are the middle infielders. Alex Bregman and Dansby Swanson both have significant track records of production. Bregman was the 2013 Freshman of the Year and Swanson was the Most Outstanding Player in last year’s College World Series. And the depth goes well beyond that. Florida’s Richie Martin, Louisiana-Lafayette’s Blake Trahan, Texas’ C.J. Hinojosa, Cal Poly’s Mark Mathias (a second baseman who will miss time with a labrum injury) and Arizona’s Kevin Newman ensure that scouts around the country will have plenty of infielders to keep an eye on all year. What’s less certain is how many will be able to play shortstop as pros. While this group is deep, it lacks an obvious shortstop who stands out with both his glove and bat.
Alex Bregman, Louisiana State
Bregman looks like the safest pick in this year’s draft. Scouts are nearly unanimous in their belief that he’ll end up as a productive big leaguer. His sophomore season (.316/.397/.455) didn’t match the sensational stats of his freshman year (.369/.417/.546), but it still pegged him as a hitter with excellent contact skills with gap power. His swing is a little unconventional, and he got a little pull-happy over the summer with Team USA, but at his best he peppers the opposite-field power alley with singles and doubles.
Scouts are skeptical that Bregman will stick at shortstop, however. He has a chance to be an average defender with a tick above-average arm, and he can throw from a variety of arm angles. But most teams want a rangier, more fluid defender at short, so he could end up sliding over to second. Some scouts have suggested he could catch, and while his tools would fit there, he’ll go too high in the draft to be a conversion candidate.
“He’s a big leaguer, likely an everyday big leaguer. Is he that guy who makes an impactful difference? Probably not, but he’s a big leaguer,” a scouting director said. “He’s a good piece for a major league club. That can be a great pick, but is he the guy who takes you to promised land?”
Dansby Swanson, Vanderbilt
After his freshman season was almost wiped out by a shoulder injury, Swanson starred as a sophomore second baseman. He has already shown everything scouts want to see from a college second baseman, and if he shows similar skills at shortstop this spring, he will cement his status as the top middle infielder in the draft.
Swanson’s line-drive stroke should allow him to hit for average. He’s looser and more athletic than Bregman, but like Bregman he succeeds at the plate with a contact-oriented, line-drive approach. Swanson hit three home runs last season, but he has the bat speed to reach double digits thanks to some pull power.
Defensively, Swanson should have the tools to handle shortstop, though scouts will want to see him perform there on a regular basis. He has plus speed and a quick first step, and he pairs that with a potentially above-average arm.
The position is not as thin as first base, but third base also prosents a modest crop of talent. The best, Sheldon Neuse, is expected to move over to shortstop this season.
Sheldon Neuse, Oklahoma (So.)
Neuse is likely to play shortstop for Oklahoma this year after an outstanding freshman year as the Sooners’ third baseman. His excellent arm allows him to make plays at either position, although most scouts see him as too limited in range to stick at shortstop. At third, he has the tools to be an above-average defender.
In addition to being the quarterback of the infield and serving as the club’s three-hole hitter, Neuse will also put his plus arm to work as Oklahoma’s closer. His 92-94 mph fastball and potentially above-average slider would make him a legitimate pro prospect on the mound as a pitcher if his bat weren’t so advanced.
This year’s outfield class has depth, but no obvious standout.
“Is there a five-tool college center fielder? No,” said another scouting director.
Several useful corner bats have shown the ability to hit for average but need to drive the ball more, while other, more toolsy outfielders have struggled to hit consistently. It’s a continuing theme in college baseball, but it’s notable that only one of the nine outfielders who made the Preseason All-America Teams reached double- digits in home runs last season. Scouts say this group has power potential, but it may not show itself until they reach pro ball.
“This is a very solid combination of speed and profile corner players,” a third scouting director said.
D.J. Stewart, of, Florida State
Stewart remains a favorite of scouts in spite of a poor summer with Team USA (.232/.362/.316), as they look back at his long track record of success at Florida State. He was the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year last year, and his freshman year was every bit as good as his sophomore season.
Stewart has the build of a corner outfielder, with surprising athleticism for his 6-foot, 230-pound build. He has average speed, but is expected to slow as he matures. Scouts see plus power in batting practice but aren’t sure if he can consistently tap into that power in games because his swing doesn’t generate much loft, although he does show excellent bat speed. His approach has been more line-drive oriented.
Ian Happ, of, Cincinnati
A former second baseman who has made a solid transition to right field, Happ has one of the best swings in the college class. The switch-hitter has a balanced set-up and a short stroke that sprays line drives from foul line to foul line. He projects as an above-average hitter who may produce average power down the road.
Happ is a solid athlete who is an above-average runner with a tick above-average arm. It fits in right field, and scouts who have seen him play second base in the past may be tempted to see if he can move back to the dirt. He’s not a fluid second baseman, but with his bat he won’t have to be a Gold Glover.
Gio Brusa, of, Pacific
Brusa is this year’s wild card. He’s one of the toolsiest outfielders in the class, with athleticism, an excellent frame (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and the chance to have at least four above-average tools.
A switch-hitter, Brusa has above-average power potential with above-average bat speed from both sides of the plate. He’s an average runner and has a solid-average arm that plays in right or left field, where he should be at least an average defender.
So why is there so much hesitation around Brusa? Scouts don’t know if his bat will ever catch up to the rest of his game. He was one of the stars of the Cape Cod League last summer, hitting .322/.341/545 with six home runs, but even there he was a free swinger who struck out 31 times (24.5 percent of plate appearances) with four walks. At Pacific, the results have been less inspiring, as Brusa has hit .257/.324/.397 in his first two seasons.
With a strong junior year at the plate, Brusa could jump to the top of this class of college hitters. But if he produces the same middling performance he showed in his first two years at Pacific, he will become the kind of high-risk, high-reward player who usually slides deeper into the first round.
“It’s a case of prove it to me. It reminds me of Carlos Pena. Carlos Pena came from nowhere went to Cape and won the MVP award. Then he was a first-round pick the next year. Is Brusa a Carlos Pea) type? I’m champing at the bit to get going and find out,” said a fourth scouting director.
The ranks of legitimate two-way stars are pretty thin. A.J. Puk is the first-teamer, but many scouts see a much brighter future for him on the mound. South Carolina freshman Alex Destino earned third-team honors before his first official game, and he’s expected to play a much more prominent role as a hitter than pitcher this year.
The position took a hit when Jameis Winston entered the NFL draft. Aside from makeup questions, scouts considered him the best athlete in the college draft class and he also garnered votes for having the best outfield arm, even though his best work for Florida State was as a reliever.
A.J. Puk, lhp/1b, Florida
As a freshman Puk impressed as a lefty reliever who also made three starts. He was used sporadically at the plate, serving largely as a pinch-hitter who hit .222 with limited power.
He’ll move into a much more prominent role this year, as he’s expected to serve as Florida’s primary DH and a member of the weekend rotation. His professional future looks to be on the mound as he has a chance to follow in former Gator lefthander Brian Johnson’s footsteps.
Puk has a three-pitch mix, including a solid-average fastball and quality secondary stuff. At the plate, he has plus raw power, but scouts wonder if he’ll be able to get to it in games as he has a longer, leveraged swing with average bat speed. He still should easily best last year’s .270 slugging percentage.
This year’s college class can compare to most any recent year in talent and depth. It may lack a clear preseason No. 1 pick like David Price in 2007 or Stephen Strasburg in 2009, but it makes up for it in depth.
“I’m sure I’ll kick myself for saying this, but it’s a banner year for college pitching, at this point anyways,” a scouting director said.
Carson Fulmer, rhp, Vanderbilt
If Michael Matuella looks like the prototype ace, Fulmer is an ace who breaks the mold. He’s 5-foot-11 with a delivery that features all kinds of effort, ending with a significant head whack. But Fulmer has a fast arm, outstanding stuff and the leadership and competitive nature that coaches and scouts look for in starting pitcher.
Fulmer’s 93-97 mph fastball is one of the best in college baseball, thanks in part to its movement, and his slider gives him a second above-average pitch. His changeup is less consistent but flashes average as well.
Fulmer worked out of the bullpen as a freshman and started in the pen as a sophomore, but he earned a move to the weekend rotation in April and quickly became a key part of the Commodores’ title run. He pitched well on short rest in the deciding game of the CWS Finals against Virginia.
Fulmer can’t do anything to assuage concerns about his height, but he could allay scouts’ other worries by showing more consistent control. Scouts generally believe that a still head is a key to consistently throwing strikes, and Fulmer’s control problems add to that belief. He walked four batters per nine innings last year.
Kyle Funkhouser, rhp, Louisville
In a class of pitchers who combine excellent stuff and track records of success, Funkhouser fits well. He was Louisville’s ace last year, setting school records for wins in a 13-3, 1.94 season and showed excellent durability, averaging nearly seven innings per start.
Funkhouser’s 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame allows him to eat innings as he pounds the bottom of the zone with a 92-94 mph fastball with bore and sink. His ability to work down in the zone with a heavy ball has been an almost unfair in the current college offensive environment. He has allowed three home runs and 24 extra-base hits in 175 college innings.
Funkhouser was just as good with Team USA last summer, showing improved control and the ability to mix a slider, curveball and changeup that could end up being at least average offerings.
Nathan Kirby, lhp, Virginia
Kirby was the ace of one of the best teams in college baseball last year, dominating with an above-average fastball, above-average curveball, average changeup and excellent control and command. He struck out 18 while no-hitting Pittsburgh last April and logged quality starts in 15 of his 18 appearances.
But in the biggest start of his career, all of that fell apart. Kirby lost his release point and his control in a nine-run, five-walk second inning that gave Vanderbilt an insurmountable lead in the first game of the CWS Finals.
Scouts don’t expect any longterm effects, but it does provide ample motivation for Kirby. He’s one of the most polished pitchers in the class, one whose combination of excellent stuff and control should allow him to move quickly to the majors.
Michael Matuella, rhp, Duke
Matuella is the college pitcher who fits the profile of a No. 1 pick. He can touch 97-98 mph with his fastball and sits 93-96. His slider and curveball have flashed plus, and his changeup is a usable fourth pitch that looked even better in workouts this January. And at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds he has the frame scouts love. Even better, Matuella has proved to be an excellent strike thrower, walking 2.25 batters per nine innings for his career.
Most scouting directors see him as the likely top college pick in June, with a significant caveat. Matuella has had a light workload at Duke and has not pitched summer ball in his two years of college. Scouts want to see that he can handle a starter’s workload, noting that he has yet to throw 60 innings in a season. His return from a lat injury last spring was handled very carefully, and he didn’t pitch last summer or fall due to spondylolysis, a back condition. If Matuella shows his best stuff and shows he can maintain it all spring with a clean medical report, he could be a serious candidate to go No. 1 overall this June. But those are a lot of ifs.
Walker Buehler, rhp, Vanderbilt
Few pitchers come into this season with as much track record of success as Buehler. He was quite effective as a freshman swingman for the Commodores in 2013, going 4-3, 3.14 in 16 games, including nine starts. Buehler then took on a much more prominent role in Vanderbilt’s run to a national title last year, going 12-2, 2.64. He didn’t rest on that success, as Buehler then went to the Cape Cod League to earn Cape Cod League postseason co-MVP honors with 15 scoreless innings in the Cape playoffs. Buehler sits at 92-94 mph with his fastball and he can bump it up to 96 mph when he needs to, but he’s often comfortable racking up ground balls. His curveball flashes plus already and his changeup is consistently average or better in his better outings.
As with many years, you could double the number of relievers on the All-America Team and still not lack for quality candidates. Illinois’ Tyler Jay, UC Santa Barbara’s Dillon Tate and Arizona State’s Ryan Burr all have admirers, and that doesn’t account for UCLA’s David Berg, owner of the NCAA single-season saves record (24). The submarining Berg heads into his senior season with 132 career appearances, 36 saves and a 1.24 career ERA. Some of the relievers might end up starting in pro ball, but the success of Brandon Finnegan’s jump from Texas Christian to the Royals’ World Series bullpen last season will have scouts looking to see which relievers might be able to move quickly to a big league bullpen.
“There are guys in this year’s draft who are college relievers who organizations will think they can get there quick as a reliever and also can start down the road,” a scouting director said.
Riley Ferrell, rhp, Texas Christian
Ferrell’s fastball/slider combination gives him a pair of big league pitches. Hitters have to gear up for a lively 95-96 mph fastball that touches 99, but he can drop in an 87-88 mph slider that leaves hitters handcuffed. More than 40 percent of all batters who stepped to the plate against him last year struck out.
Ferrell has a changeup as well and no big concerns about his delivery, so some teams may look at him as a starter, but his devastating fastball makes him a pitcher who could move quickly as a reliever. TCU also has the luxury of having reliable redshirt senior Trey Teakell as a set-up man, giving them one of the best bullpens in college baseball.