MLB Draft 2014: A Closer Look at the Most Big League-Ready Prospects
For many diehard sports fans, the annual Major League Baseball draft ranks below the respective drafts in the NFL, NBA and NHL. The main reason: delayed gratification.
Regardless of how skilled the top players are on a yearly basis, it often takes years to hone the craft of becoming a big league baseball player. Even phenoms like Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Mike Trout took time in the minors before bursting on the scene as superstars.
Yet, each draft class supplies teams with the opportunity to draft players that are closer to the big leagues than some of their counterparts. Primarily, this group includes college-age pitchers. Unlike high school arms, pitchers excelling at the NCAA level often have refined command and have built up arm strength.
While they aren't ready to become star-level pitchers from the moment of arrival, their road to a big league bullpen or rotation can be shorter than most.
The following details six arms to watch—all entering the draft after spending time in college—as the June extravaganza approaches. Although some excellent and polished hitters can emerge from this group of young players, at-bats and defensive tutoring are often a detriment to projecting quick success from a position player.
If your favorite team selects one of these arms in the early rounds of the 2014 draft, look out for an arrival from a new star this summer or early in 2015.
Nick Howard, RHP, Virginia
If you've caught any games of the 2014 Virginia Cavaliers, it's likely Howard's inclusion in this group is confusing. After all, he has played and been profiled as an infielder for much of his collegiate career.
Yet, the right-handed junior is much more than an infielder in the ACC. Armed with a 98 mph fastball on the mound, the Cavaliers dual-threat has also carved a role as a closer. It's that position, according to Jim Callis of MLB.com, that can help put Howard in the big leagues very quickly.
Virginia, one of the top programs in the country, knows what it takes to win. Cavaliers coach Brian O'Connor tabbed Howard as a closer because of talent and the knack for using all his stuff in short bursts. It's that quality that can make Howard an effective big league reliever. Per Doug Doughty of The Roanoke Times, O'Connor said:
He’s aggressive, he works fast; he’s got all the qualities that you look for in a really good closer. As a starter, you have to conserve yourself a little bit more. You can bring him out there in the ninth and it’s like his hair’s on fire. He can just let it rip, He doesn’t have to hold anything back.
In 28.1 innings pitched in 2014, Howard has a 2.22 ERA with 50 strikeouts, 12 walks and 18 saves.
Aaron Nola, RHP, LSU
When projecting future success or failure for young pitchers, it's instructive to look for certain traits, including arm strength, stuff, maturity, poise and a strong, compact throwing motion. For Louisiana State University righty Aaron Nola, every prerequisite is present on the path to the draft.
After a 9-1, 1.42 ERA run through the regular season, don't be surprised if Nola takes home a second consecutive SEC Pitcher of the Year award before signing with a major league team. Despite the stats and accolades, it's a combination of command and poise that will land Nola on a big league mound very, very soon.
According to Jim Callis of MLB.com, Nola is "the first name that jumps to mind" when discussing players from the upcoming draft that could make the earliest impact in The Show. That sentiment would likely be shared by Paul Mainieri, LSU's coach.
Despite having former pupils like Brad Lidge, Kevin Gausman and Jeff Samardzija, Mainieri spoke about Nola's unmatched poise on the mound, per Teddy Cahill of MLB.com.
He's not emotional or boisterous. You don't see him pout or hang his head. He doesn't snap the ball if he gets squeezed. It's having that mental toughness. That, as much as his talent, is why I don't imagine how general managers can pass on him.
Jacob Lindgren, LHP, Mississippi State
When assessing prospects that are major league-ready, long-term projections aren't necessary. After all, just because a player lands in the big leagues quickly doesn't mean that a 15-year career, multiple All-Star games and a trip to Cooperstown will commence.
For Mississippi State reliever Jacob Lindgren, those career achievements may or may not occur. His long-term future is up for debate, but few would argue a quick path to the big leagues and early start on a solid big league career for a pitcher with a knack for getting big outs.
After a dominant SEC tournament performance, Lindgren's season statistics are video-game worthy: 25 games, 93 strikeouts, 51 innings pitched and 0.88 ERA. Against SEC foes, that ERA shrank to 0.49.
When the star lefty lands in the hands of a major league team during June's draft, a potential impact reliever could quickly emerge and dart through a minor league system. Instead of trading assets for a veteran reliever at the August waiver deal deadline, a team could give Lindgren a chance to emerge in September.
MSU head coach John Cohen believes that Lindgren has what it takes to get the job done, per Drew Champlin of AL.com.
"When the game's in the balance, he knows it and he wants the ball," Cohen said.
Nick Burdi, RHP, Louisville
Louisville righty Nick Burdi isn't just an intriguing prospect; he's a potential difference-making arm during the 2014 pennant race. That sentiment, echoed by Keith Law of ESPN.com (subscription required), has gotten back to the young, ascending pitcher. Per Rick Bozich of WDRB 41, Burdi said:
We’ve talked to some teams and we’ve heard that. But right now my focus is living in the moment and enjoying being a Louisville Cardinal. I try to keep my mind off of that, but it's always been a dream of mine to play in the big leagues. If a team chooses me in the first round, that's also been one of my dreams. It's a bunch of stuff that I try to keep off my mind, but at the same time I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it.
As the draft approaches, baseball fans should also be thinking about it. With a 96-98 mph fastball that carries sink and movement, Burdi has the ability to pitch out of a major league bullpen before the end of the 2014 season. With 32 innings pitched for the Cardinals in 2014, Burdi has a 0.56 ERA with 57 strikeouts and just eight walks.
Carlos Rodon, LHP, North Carolina State
If North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon had been part of the 2013 draft, the Houston Astros might have made him the No. 1 overall pick. With a different trajectory, coaching staff and development, perhaps Rodon and current Astros rookie star George Springer would be helping to turn around a franchise.
Of course, that didn't happen. At this time last year, Rodon's name was often used in conjunction with the top pick of the 2014 draft. While that may still turn out to be prescient, it hasn't been as smooth of a ride in 2014 for the ACC star.
With workload concerns and an ERA over 2.00, Rodon could slip down into the lower half of the top 10 selections in the draft. Slot or draft position shouldn't change the thinking on this pitcher, though. The same talent that had scouts excited in 2013 is still present now. With the right coaching, a quick trip to the big leagues can still commence.
Baseball America's Aaron Fitt, in a conversation with Aaron Beard of the Associated Press, expressed enthusiasm about the talent that Rodon still possesses for MLB teams to consider.
You can nitpick and find things to complain about if you want. The fact of the matter is, he’s left-handed. He’s got the best pitch in college baseball with his slider. He’s got an incredible track record of success and big-game success. He’s incredible fierce and competitive. All that stuff is in place.
Kyle Freeland, LHP, Evansville
Strikeouts, regardless of the level of competition, will generate buzz and conversation around young pitchers. For Evansville lefty Kyle Freeland, the ability to miss bats (128 SO in 99.2 IP) created enough excitement and interest for The Wall Street Journal's Michael Salfino to profile the star in April.
In that piece, Salfino compares Freeland's early-season strikeout rate to some recent collegiate pitchers during their final season in the NCAA. When names like Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, Jered Weaver and David Price are used in the same conversation as an Evansville starter, there's precedent for inclusion on this list.
Before the season began, Freeland's name was rarely seen in conjunction with top prospects. Now, thanks to a jump in velocity and strikeout rate, that's changed. If Freeland can carry over his ability to miss bats, the road from draftee to major league debut won't be littered with many bus rides to minor league parks.
All statistics courtesy of NCAA.org unless otherwise noted. Statistics are updated as of Wednesday, May 28.