Draft Tracker: April 20
J.R. Graham, rhp, Santa Clara
Graham has always been a fighter.
He was born three months premature and weighed only 2 pounds. As an infant, he stopped breathing in his father's arms before coming back to life.
But that wasn't the last time Graham flirted with death. In middle school, he was playing basketball and was on a fastbreak toward the basket when a player tripped him from behind. He slammed into a brick wall and was knocked out on impact.
"I ended up breaking my collar bone, but the way I hit, they thought I would have broken my neck," Graham said. "And if the collar bone had gone down about two inches further, it would have punctured my lung. They said they were surprised that I lived, because usually an impact head-first into a brick wall like that kills people. So, I was just knocked out and convulsing on the floor of my middle school gym."
Graham said he's also nearly been hit by a car while trying to cross the street and had his neck run over by another rider in a BMX race.
"Throughout my whole life, people have been telling me, 'You're too small' or 'You can't do this,' or whatever," Graham said. "So, going out and proving people wrong is something I like to do. . . It's been awesome this year. It's kind of like a dream come true, basically. I'm just a little kid out of Livermore and it's awesome to finally get some recognition for the hard work I've put in. I couldn't dream it up any better."
Graham was drafted in the 46th round by the Athletics out of Livermore (Calif.) High in 2008. He came to Santa Clara as a two-way player, but just recently started focusing solely on pitching and is getting some second-round buzz, thanks to a fastball that sits in the mid- to upper-90s.
Graham isn't physically imposing, standing 6 feet and 175 pounds. He knows he is blessed with a lot of fast-twitch muscle fibers, but also gives a lot of credit for his arm strength to his father, who helped develop a workout program that J.R. uses. The program utilizes plyometrics and medicine balls to improve core strength and explosiveness.
So far on the season, Graham is 2-1, 3.09 with 32 strikeouts and one walk over 35 innings. Despite his big arm strength, some scouts are still skeptical about Graham's future as a pro.
"I know he's got great makeup, he's aggressive, he's a bulldog and all those great things you want to say about a guy, but you still have to be realistic with what you have," a National League crosschecker said. "Sometimes guys get enamored with radar gun readings, but his breaking ball isn't consistent and his fastball lacks plane, so he pitches up in the zone a lot. So, I have a hard time saying this guy's a late-inning guy in the big leagues."
In addition to his impressive fastball, Graham throws a slider and a changeup and he knows he needs to keep developing his secondary pitches.
"My slider is a pretty good pitch, I like it," Graham said. "I like throwing it early and just kind of get it over, to get hitters to take, because most hitters are geared up for that fastball when the come to face me, so I just kind of give them a little wrinkle with that first pitch, to get them thinking.
"My changeup is my biggest pitch in development right now. I used to throw a split and then learned to throw a changeup over the summer. I don't have the greatest feel for it, but I think it could develop into being my go-to pitch. It has a little split action to it and kind of drops off the table a little bit. But, I think I need more time to develop those pitches because I'm pretty much a new pitcher. I didn't really start pitching until my junior year of high school and then just a year ago is when I first started focusing only on pitching."
Graham has another plus tool to go along with his imposing heater and outstanding makeup: He may have the best YouTube account
of any player in this year's draft.
"My grandfather is going through chemo right now—he was actually diagnosed with cancer before I graduated high school and they said he wasn't going to live to see me graduate from high school," Graham said. "So, it's hard for him to get out to games and he loves watching me play. So, my dad videos me when I pitch and posts it on YouTube, so my grandfather can watch it. We're hoping he survives a little bit longer to see me get drafted and hopefully play in the pros."
It sounds like being a fighter runs in the family.
Cory Spangenberg, 3b, Indian River State (Fla.) JC
Spangenberg started his college career at Virginia Military Institute, where he hit .370/.414/.596 over 235 at-bats as a freshman. He ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the Valley League this summer, but has really opened some eyes this spring at Indian River State. Spangenberg is one of the draft's best pure hitters and recently cracked Baseball America's overall midseason Top 50 list at No. 36.
"All he does is hit," an American League area scout said. "He's a real solid player there. He's got a line drive approach, gap-to-gap. He's a pure hitter. He knows how to hit, uses the whole field and gives you good at-bats every time up there. He has the bat speed and the feel to hit, that's what he's really all about. He's playing third base. Some clubs might want to keep him there to see how he does. Other clubs might want to move him off to maybe second base, maybe the outfield . . . if there's a knock on him, it's: Where does he profile defensively? But with his special makeup and work ethic, and his ability to hit, whoever takes him is going to find a place for him to play because they're going to want to keep his bat in the lineup, for sure. He's an outstanding makeup kid. He's the type you want in your organization."
Tayler Scott, rhp, Notre Dame Preparatory HS, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Scott did not pitch at any major showcase events this summer, but he's popping up this spring in what's shaping up as another down year for Arizona high school talent. Scott moved to the United States from South Africa and he's a good athlete that is also a standout soccer player for Notre Dame Prep. Scott has a projectable 6-foot-2 frame and is committed to Arizona.
"For me, he's probably the best high school arm in the state," an American League area scout said. "He kind of came out of nowhere a little bit. He'll sit 90-92 and he'll show you a plus breaking ball at times. He's a real athletic kid. He was playing soccer and they won a state championship, so he got out to baseball late. He's kind of rounded into shape the last three or four weeks. The curveball is below-average now, but he shows it plus every now and again. Doesn't throw changeup much—basically just a fastball and a curveball, but throws the breaking ball for strikes and has a chance to be an out pitch."
Hawtin Buchanan, rhp, Biloxi (Miss.) HS
Buchanan was just okay on the summer showcase circuit, sitting in the mid 80s with his fastball and mixing in a soft curveball. But, the Mississippi recruit was a surely a guy scouts would follow because of his massive, 6-foot-8, 240-pound frame. He's showing there was more in the tank this spring.
"He has a tall frame with a big, strong build and he throws downhill," a National League area scout said. "He's been pretty good this spring, compared to what he was this summer at the showcases. He's progressed a lot. I saw him his first time out and he was sitting 93, touching 94. Then, the second time around, there were a lot of 94s. He's come on late. He's showing more consistency with the curveball, throwing a lot of strikes and he's competing real well. He's come on pretty strong here lately, too."
Keenyn Walker, of, Central Arizona JC
Walker has been drafted twice already—in the 16th round out of high school in Utah in 2009 and last year at Central Arizona, in the 38th round. Scouts have always been intrigued by his 6-foot-3 build, the fact that he's a switch hitter and his assortment of tools. Despite the impressive athleticism, the raw tools didn't always transfer over to the baseball field and he didn't even start regularly last year. This year is a different story. Walker is hitting .421/.513/.622 with 49 stolen bases in 48 games and it's looking like he has a chance to get more than the $250,000 he reportedly turned down out of high school.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see him in the supplemental or second round," an American League area scout said. "He's finally decided to play this year and he's in the lineup every day, taking some good swings. There's still some swing and miss and there's still some question marks about whether or not he's going to make consistent enough contact, but he's running 70 or 80, depending on how much he wants to put into it. You'll hear one guy that loves him and one guy that hates him—and they're both right, because he does a lot good and a lot bad."