2014 MLB Draft: 10 Fast-Rising Prospects to Watch on Day 1

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2014

2014 MLB Draft: 10 Fast-Rising Prospects to Watch on Day 1

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Much like sciencethough not nearly as predictablethe Major League Baseball draft is constantly evolving and takes many different paths before we see the full picture. The projections for this year's class have undergone drastic changes over the last three months, with talent rising and falling every single day. 

    It's easy to get caught up in the spectacle of what these young athletes are doing on the field, but there's a world of difference between succeeding at the high school or college level and projecting to professional baseball. 

    As a result, some of the best performers don't maintain their spot on a draft board if their raw tools don't look as sharp. That's a hard fact N.C. State left-hander Carlos Rodon has learned, though he isn't likely to fall below the No. 3 selection, which is held by the Chicago White Sox. 

    But then there are the players who just keep growing and getting better every time they step on the field. With the 2014 MLB draft set to begin on Thursday, the high-rising prospects are the ones who will determine the direction of the first and second rounds. 

    Here are the players who have been the most impressive down the stretch this season and have been shooting up draft boards accordingly. 

Nick Gordon, SS, Olympia HS (Fla.)

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    Projected pick: Top five

    This spring has been Nick Gordon's coming-out party, though he was hardly a mystery before the year started. You can't be the son of a former All-Star (Tom Gordon) and the brother of a current MLB shortstop (Dee Gordon) without drawing some attention. 

    Fortunately, Nick Gordon has a much higher ceiling than his brother thanks to more natural strength and the ability to play shortstop. The Florida high school star has also pitched, but his future clearly lies in the middle of the diamond. 

    As a pitcher who has been clocked in the low-90s, Gordon's arm obviously rates very well at shortstop. He also has soft hands and excellent footwork with range for days to either side. Combine those skills with plus bat speed, a compact swing and gap power, and Gordon looks like a future star. 

Sean Newcomb, LHP, Hartford

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    Projected pick: Top 10

    Sean Newcomb has become a lock to go within the top 10 picks thanks to injuries knocking other players out of that range as well as an impressive late-season surge that has pushed him into the top tier of college starters in the 2014 draft class. 

    One of the things that makes Newcomb so appealing is the way he delivers the ball. Teams are going to be more conscious than ever about the effort exerted by prospects due to the surge in elbow injuries around the sport. You can't help but be amazed by how little effort the Hartford southpaw uses but still manages to generate mid-90s velocity with his fastball. 

    In addition to the ease with which the ball comes out of his hand, Newcomb gets excellent plane on the heater when he's finding the release point. He has long limbs and struggles to find the arm angle, so he does come with some command issues right now. 

    But how do you not bet on a 6'5" left-hander with a plus fastball-slider combination?

Kyle Freeland, LHP, Evansville

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    Projected pick: Top 10

    With Carlos Rodon secure in the top spot, the race to become the No. 2 college left-hander selected in the 2014 draft is very close between Newcomb and Evansville's Kyle Freeland. 

    You can't really go wrong with either player, though Newcomb has a bigger frame (6'3", 170 lbs) and a more traditional arm angle that projects well for 180-200 innings. 

    Freeland brings some of the best control in the class, boasting an incredible 128/12 K/BB. He's not pitching against the best competition, so some of the numbers are inflated, but missing bats shouldn't be a problem for him at any level. The lefty hits his spots, throws in the low-90s and gets great life on his heater with a three-quarters arm angle. 

    His slider flashes plus at times, though there are instances where his arm angle prevents him from staying on top of the ball. That will have to be corrected for Freeland to reach his ceiling as a No. 2 starter, but 6'3" lefties with two potential plus pitches don't last long in the draft. 

Aaron Nola, RHP, LSU

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    Hal Yeager/Associated Press

    Projected pick: Top 10

    Everyone knew who Aaron Nola was coming into the year—you can't dominate the SEC the way he did in 2013 (1.57 ERA, 122/18 K/BB, 126.0 IP) without getting a lot of attention. 

    Yet Nola has managed to perform even better this season with all the pressure in the world on his shoulders, posting a 1.47 ERA, 134 strikeouts and 69 hits allowed in 116.1 innings. He's still the same pitcher he was before, throwing three above-average-or-better pitches and commanding all of them, making him more appealing. 

    The one potential drawback teams may have about Nola is his low arm angle, which is virtually from the side, as that isn't what you usually see from a starting pitcher. He's never had problems getting left-handed hitters outa typical problem for sidearm hurlersso there's nothing to suggest he can't be an MLB starter, and his polish will allow him to move through the system quickly. 

Michael Chavis, SS/3B, Sprayberry HS (Ga.)

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    Projected pick: Mid-first round

    Normally, a third baseman who projects to hit more for average than power isn't going to command attention since you have to hit homers as a corner infielder, but Michael Chavis isn't an ordinary hitter. 

    The Georgia standout has a very short, compact swing with plus bat speed, making it easy to see why his bat projects so well for average. His bat path is flat, and his lack of load limits his power projection, but he always seems to find gaps. 

    Despite being a shortstop in high school, Chavis doesn't have the athleticism to play there in pro ball. He does have plus arm strength and lateral quickness to handle third base, however. His bat is the carrying tool, and it is what will get him drafted very early on Thursday. 

A.J. Reed, 1B, Kentucky

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    Projected pick: Late-first round/compensation round

    I may be buying too low on Kentucky first baseman A.J. Reed as a late-first-round pick, but there are drawbacks to his game that make me skeptical that a team will take him early. 

    Let's start with the positives. Reed has tremendous raw power and finally proved it this season with 23 homers and a .735 slugging percentage. There's not a lot of pop in this year's class, which has been a trend for a couple years now, so even a first-base-only prospect with a small track record of success in college is going to get elevated. 

    The problem with Reed is that his power doesn't come from his bat speed but rather his natural strength. He gets the bat through the zone well enough, though velocity will give him problems as he moves up the ladder. His approach is getting better with more consistent hard contact, but he will get caught off balance more often than you want to see from a college junior.

Nick Howard, RHP, Virginia

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    Projected pick: Late-first round/compensation round

    When the season started, Nick Howard looked like a solid bet to go in the second round simply because he didn't have enough experience on the mound. The right-hander has been a two-way player during his three years at Virginia, but this is the first season he's pitched more than 20 games. 

    Despite being a reliever for the Cavaliers, Howard has the stuff and frame to become a starter. He's a 6'3", 215-pound 21-year-old who can touch the mid-90s with his fastball. His slider comes and goes, but it flashes above average with tilt and sharp late break over the plate. 

    Howard has a changeup that doesn't get used too often due to the fact that he has been pitching in relief, so it will need more work and may cause him to spend more time developing in the minors than the typical college junior. The raw ingredients are good enough to project him a mid-rotation starter, though, making it unlikely that Howard will be on the board by the time St. Louis makes the final pick of the compensation round. 

Alex Blandino, 3B, Stanford

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    Projected pick: Late-first round/compensation round

    Even though the Stanford baseball program isn't the powerhouse it used to be, there is always at least one high-round talent on the roster. This year, it's third baseman Alex Blandino, who should find himself going before the end of Day 1 on Thursday. 

    Blandino isn't the typical Stanford hitter in that he actually has raw power and lets it play in games. The coaching staff typically encourages hitters to put the ball in play, meaning they have to sacrifice pop in order to do so. 

    He has good bat speed and excellent bat-to-ball skills with a sharp eye at the plate and good pitch-recognition skills. He won't have ideal power for a third baseman, but his bat and defense are good enough to project him as an MLB-regular. 

Casey Gillaspie, 1B, Wichita State

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    Projected pick: Late-first round/compensation round

    As mentioned earlier in the A.J. Reed slide, teams are going to elevate a player with raw power because it's so difficult to find now. Wichita State first baseman Casey Gillaspie falls into the same category, making it difficult to see him lasting very long on Thursday. 

    Gillaspie is a switch-hitting first baseman with a good swing from both sides of the plate. It's a little shorter from the right side, but his power is above average from either side. The Wichita State star also has a good eye and approach to project for a high average. 

    The limitations for Gillaspie are vast. He's strictly a first baseman with no speed whatsoever and fringe-average defense. His bat will play at the position, but he's going to have to hit a ton to produce real value on the field. 

Mike Papi, OF, Virginia

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    Projected pick: second round

    It's probably selling Mike Papi low to say he's still a second-round pick, but he's the type of player you know what to do with before the draft. When he does get picked, he'll likely be seen as a solid move for the team that drafts him. 

    As part of a loaded Virginia team that could have as many as three players taken on Day 1, Papi has certainly been scouted heavily. He's a fringe-average runner who will be limited to left field, but his left-handed swing looks pretty, with bat speed and fluid motion from start to finish. 

    The drawback to Papi's swing is that he doesn't create much loft on the ball and lacks natural wrist strength to drive the ball over the fence. He has the profile of a high-average/OBP, fringe-power guy in the big leagues, similar to Daniel Nava of the Boston Red Sox. 

     

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