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Draft Notebook: J.B. Bukauskas Shines, Prep Arms Shaking Off Rust

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—North Carolina junior J.B. Bukauskas could be one of the first pitchers selected in this June’s draft. Facing Kentucky on Friday in Chapel Hill, the righthander tossed six scoreless innings, punching out 10 and walking one while surrendering just three hits. The 20-year-old is a fine prospect, but with that top-of-the-draft status comes additional scrutiny, and Bukauskas will look to prove that he can be a starter at the next level while dominating at this one. Bukauskas works from the first base side of the rubber. From the windup he has a fluid leg lift and knee fold before striding slightly closed off toward the righthanded batters box. He’s not the most consistent with his motion off the rubber, and on Friday he showed a tendency to rush off his back ankle and hop down the mound, giving him issues repeating his motion. He has a deep scapular load as his front side starts to drive forward, and his elbow is a bit high in back as he plunges backward. His combination of less-than-ideal balance over the rubber and a longer arm stroke are both barriers to command, but he is a solid athlete, young for a draft-eligible college pitcher and it’s very early in the season. The Virginia native showed his usual excellent velocity, with his fastball parked at 92-96 mph all game long, and scratching 97. In a brilliantly called game, Bukauskas and the Tar Heels recognized Kentucky’s approach quickly and adjusted; in the first time through the order, the Wildcats swung at fastballs early in the count to avoid Bukauskas’s lethal slider. When the 9-hole hitter (Connor Heady) came to the plate for the first time, Bukauskas served him five straight sliders to strike him out. His slider was excellent all game, generating swings and misses in the strike zone. The plus pitch breaks late, taking a hard left turn and running away from righthanded batters. Bukauskas was able to manipulate its break, throwing it with length as a chase pitch with 10-to-4 shape or throwing it with a bit more top-to-bottom action to his arm-side. At 84-88, Bukauskas’s slider may be good enough for him to dominate all season, even when his fastball command isn’t there. In Bukauskas’s final preseason intrasquad start on Feb. 10, his changeup showed tumble and arm-side run as it disappeared before entering the zone, though he did throw it with less arm speed than he threw his fastball. John Manuel noted the strength of Bukauskas’s changeup last summer during his stint with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, but he didn’t have his best feel for the pitch last Friday. While he did throw the pitch with good arm speed, he missed low with it early on and missed deeply to his arm side at one point, nearly throwing a wild pitch. As the game progressed, however, he found feel for the pitch and was able to consistently locate it down and away from lefthanded hitters, though it lacked the tumbling action and fade that it has shown at its best. Many scouts brought up Carson Fulmer as a comparable profile for Bukauskas. Fulmer also had an impressive performance track record (at Vanderbilt), asserting himself as one of the best performers in the nation in his transition to a starting role in 2015. His high-effort mechanics and lack of prototypical physicality lead to uncertainty about his ultimate role. Fulmer, who went eighth overall in a weaker 2015 draft class, made it to the big leagues as a reliever in 2016 but still has a chance to start after some late-season adjustments. Bukauskas is much younger than Fulmer was at the time of the draft, has better control and already has two full years of starter experience under his belt. Kentucky’s lineup includes some promising college hitters, including Evan White, Riley Mahan and Zach Reks. Leading off the season against Bukauskas on Friday, Reks sent the first pitch he saw, a 94-mph heater that caught a little too much of the plate, back up the middle for a single. “Our coaching staff wanted us to be aggressive and I thought we did a great job of attacking the fastball,” Reks said after the series. “Bukauskas switched it up to the curveball and kind of a one-to-one ratio as far as fastball to curveball. He did a good job of adjusting to us. We’ve just got to do a better job hitting the curveball and laying off the low ones.” “If you see it down, it’s a nasty pitch and it’ll dive off the table and it’ll look like a fastball until five feet (before it reaches the plate),” Reks said of Bukauskas’s signature breaking ball. More From Kentucky/UNC Reks has a unique story himself. The fifth-year senior began his collegiate career at Air Force in 2013, batting .210 in 37 games. He transferred to Kentucky the next fall, but not as a student-athlete. Reks took classes and worked in production engineering at Toyota’s plant in Georgetown, Ky. After two years at Kentucky, Reks walked on to the baseball team. He batted .331 in his return to the game in 2016, slugging .500 and walking more than he struck out. “I thought to myself ‘If I’m going to do this again, I’m going to do it all the way,’" he said. "My goal is to play in the MLB and that’s exactly how I practice. I hold myself accountable and I hold my teammates to the same accountability. We practice like we want to go the (majors).” Reks went 7-for-11 and drew three walks in the opening weekend against Kentucky. He showed a strong, balanced swing with excellent barrel awareness throughout the weekend. • White, a more high-profile prospect after a strong summer showing with Team USA, went 2-for-4 on Friday night. In his first at-bat of the season, he smacked a 94-mph fastball to right field for a single. He struck out swinging in his second trip to the plate, chasing a 2-2 slider away from Bukauskas. He’d whiff on two Bukauskas sliders to fall behind in his third at-bat before making contact on a slider that he pushed up the right side of the infield for a ground out. In his fourth trip to the plate, White swung at the first pitch he saw from North Carolina righthander Rodney Hutchison, roping a hard double to the gap in right-center field. White sat out on Saturday and Sunday, nursing a lower-half injury that is considered minor and shouldn’t hold him back too much this season. At first base he showed an impressive glove around the bag, scooping an off-balance throw from the shortstop in the fifth inning on Friday night. • North Carolina shortstop Logan Warmoth had himself quite an opener. After batting .337 as a sophomore, Warmoth had a strong showing in the Cape Cod League last summer. Over the weekend, Warmoth went 4-for-11 with a home run and a double, and he showed pure shortstop tools. The analytically inclined Tar Heels employed dramatic shifts throughout the weekend, and Warmoth exuded comfort in throwing from various angles. He has above-average range and body control to go along with plus hands. Warmoth also showed instincts on the basepaths. After drawing a four-pitch walk in the third inning on Sunday, Warmoth was on the move for a hit-and-run when freshman Michael Busch shot a line drive up the middle. Warmoth tracked the ball’s trajectory and instinctively took a hard turn around second base to go first to third. Warmoth doesn’t blow evaluators away with his tools, but he has no obvious weaknesses, profiles up the middle defensively, has been an outstanding performer and his tools play up because of his intangibles. He’s got the potential to be a day one draft pick come June. • Kentucky’s Sunday starter Justin Lewis showed intriguing potential. He has two high-profile cousins—former NBA forward Chuck Hayes and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. At 6-foot-7, Lewis is an impressive athlete. He starts with a high knee lift and gathers well. He has a loose, live arm action, firing through his three-quarters arm slot and finishing cleanly out front as his shoulders get out over his front side. Lewis has a bit of a wrap in the back and cuts off his front side slightly, but he showed a stable landing. Lewis’s fastball worked at 91-93 with sink and arm-side run. His changeup was his best offspeed pitch, showing plus potential with fading action after a fastball look out of the hand. His breaking ball had long, frisbee-type break; its shape and depth give it potential, but he’ll need to tighten it going forward. The righthander struggled to get his pitches down in the strike zone and looked flustered on the mound for much of his outing. In two-plus innings he allowed five runs on four hits and three walks. Despite the performance, Lewis has plenty of potential because of his athleticism and stuff. He is transitioning from a relief role as a redshirt freshman in 2016 to a starter role this season.
Roberson Improving For Seahawks WILMINGTON, N.C.—On Saturday afternoon, UNC Wilmington righthander Josh Roberson showed solid-average life on his fastball, which worked at 90-93 for most of his five-inning outing but peaked at 95 several times in the first inning. Roberson also showed potential for an above-average slider. Roberson struggled to get his fastball down in the zone, but got plenty of ground balls because of his fastball's late movement and his slider’s vertical shape. “Freshman year it had good break to it, but I couldn’t control it as well,” Roberson said of his slider. “Now that I’m able to throw it for strikes I think it’s going to be big for me, and I think that showed today.” Roberson has made excellent progress in recent weeks. He’s a good athlete and has a loose arm action with the arm speed to develop a consistently plus fastball going forward. “I’ve got to get leadoff guys out,” the junior said when asked about the next step of his development. “I think that’s a big thing for starting pitchers. I struggled to do that today. Just continuing to throw those two pitches for strikes and hopefully incorporate a changeup down the road.” Roberson and the Seahawks got off to a 3-0 start this weekend. Head coach Mark Scalf has a deep, veteran lineup at his disposal and a number of promising power arms. “I think we have a great group here,” Roberson said. “You look at Coastal (Carolina) last year and I think we’re just as good if not better than they were. Our morale is great. We play as a team. All of the guys are great friends and we all love each other.” Wilmington hits the road and faces No. 22 Mississippi this coming weekend.
Gore Impresses LELAND, N.C.—Whiteville (N.C.) High lefthander MacKenzie Gore has early helium this spring. On Saturday, he struck out three in 2.1 innings against North Brunswick High. Gore is a plus athlete, with a high leg kick and hand pump and impressive balance over the rubber. Gore lands online and gets his torso deep out over his front side. He has a tendency to slide off his ankle as he lands, and could gain better command as he gets stronger and gains stability. Gore had faced live hitters for the first time this spring on the previous Monday and showed elite lefthanded velocity, with his fastball reaching 95 mph. On Saturday, his best bolts were 93 in the first and second innings, and he pitched at 89-91 consistently. Gore, still getting his timing down, struggled to consistently get on top of his 1-to-7 curveball, but he showed tight spin and late vertical break with the pitch. At is best, the pitch flashed plus potential, diving down and away from lefthanded hitters. Gore also showed a changeup with tumble and a loose-spin slider in the low 80s. Gore reminds this author of Scott Kazmir, with advanced athleticism and powerful drive off the rubber. Gore measured in at 6-foot and a half-inch, 169.2 pounds at the East Coast Pro showcase last August, though he looks stronger so far this spring.
Bullock And Smith Battle DURHAM, N.C.—On Monday night, South Granville High (Creedmoor, N.C.) righthander Justin Bullock matched up against Northern Durham catcher Spencer Smith in front of a crowd of more than 40 scouts. Bullock, a North Carolina State recruit, showed potential with four different pitches, though he only threw three of them in the game. His four-seam fastball reached 95 mph on Baseball America’s radar gun several times in the first inning, before working more at 91-93 later on. Bullock’s two-seamer has bat-breaking potential, flashing above-average movement as it tailed in on righthanded hitters. He didn’t have his best feel for his curveball, and the pitch looped up out of his hand or broke with length often, but it did show deep shape and flashes of late depth and could play as a chase pitch. The righthander was a bit wild, often rushing his delivery and missing his spots. A key development to follow will be how Bullock progresses as he gets his legs underneath him later in the spring. Smith went 0-for-3 in the game but showed tools and competitiveness. Smith has shown excellent power potential, with a handsy swing and lots of moving parts. He has fluidity and bat speed, and should be an intriguing hitter to follow as the spring unfolds. Behind the plate, Smith received well in both directions, showing the ability to scoop low balls in either direction. He has a quiet left hand and sets a big target behind the plate. After a bouncing ball clipped Smith below the belt in the fourth inning, he writhed in agony for several minutes before ultimately staying in the game and catching three more innings. He has grinder traits, getting up the line well to back up throws to first base and not giving up on plays with runners on base after wild pitches. For South Granville, junior lefthander Holden Laws, Bullock’s cousin, showed intriguing potential out of the bullpen. He is an excellent athlete and showed a quick arm. Laws spotted his curveball with late tilt in the strike zone and his fastball reach 88 mph. He’s a prospect to watch as he matures physically. You can see video of him here.
Around The Nation • Florida righthander Alex Faedo was “just OK” according to one scout who saw him pitch on Friday night. Faedo pitched effectively with his fastball-slider and flashed an above-average changeup. He tossed 4.2 innings and allowed four runs on four hits and three walks, striking out seven in a win over William & Mary. • Vanderbilt starter Kyle Wright, pitched in the mid-90s before seeing his velocity taper off against San Diego last Thursday. Two scouts who saw Wright’s final preseason appearance described all of his pitches as plus. • Louisville two-way star Brendan McKay reached 94 mph with his fastball and showed a plus curveball on Friday, according to three scouts. A fourth scout graded his curveball as a 55 on the 20-80 scale. McKay’s unique combination of stuff and track record could allow him to be a top 10 pick. • Cullman (Ala.) High lefthander Jacob Heatherly came out of the gate very well, showing mid-90s velocity and a plus breaking ball. His velocity backed up in his next outing, topping out at 91 on Monday night. • Florida State commit D.L. Hall reached 96 mph with his fastball and showed his typical hammer breaking ball for Valdosta (Ga.) High on Saturday. • Fresno State southpaw Ricky Tyler Thomas gave the Bulldogs six innings of one-run baseball against Oregon on Saturday evening. There were split opinions on his breaking pitches, but he showed a late-diving changeup and a fastball with life. Thomas struck out nine, allowed two hits and walked none. See video of him here

J.B. Bukauskas Flourishes In Bullpen This Spring

Bukauskas dominated this spring, but he's new to relieving and the club wants him to continue his success in the minors after struggling in 2019.


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