2014 College World Series: Ranking Top 7 Must-Watch MLB Draft Picks
If there’s one reason to appreciate the overlap between Major League Baseball’s amateur draft and the College World Series, it’s because the final eight teams to reach Omaha each year tend to feature many of the top early-round picks from the previous week.
This year is no exception, as there will be six first-round picks in action this weekend, including three players from Virginia’s talented squad as well as several others who were selected in the first five rounds.
Here's a preview of the must-watch MLB draft picks to keep an eye on this weekend during the opening round of the 2014 College World Series.
Chris Ellis, RHP, Mississippi
Drafted: Los Angeles Angels (Third round, No. 88 overall)
2014 Stats (17 starts): 10-2, 106.2 IP, 2.45 ERA, .259 BAA, 35 BB (3.0 BB/9), 64 K (5.4 K/9)
A 6’5”, 205-pound right-hander, Chris Ellis spent his first two years at Mississippi primarily as a reliever, making just three starts and logging 52.2 total innings. He moved into the rotation this spring, where he’s shown the durability to turn over a lineup multiple times and keep hitters off balance with three average-or-better offerings—both of which played an important part in the Angels decision to draft him in the third round.
Yet, despite his overall success and effectiveness, Ellis’ struggles to regularly miss bats this season stems from his lack of a dominant pitch, and it’s hard to see him becoming anything more than a No. 4 or 5 starter without one.
Ellis, like Beede, has already shown both sides of the spectrum in the playoffs, as the 21-year-old right-hander fired a complete game with two earned runs and eight strikeouts to clinch the regional title, only to follow it with four earned runs on one hit and three walks in 2.1 innings against Louisiana-Lafayette in the super-regional opener.
Andrew Morales, RHP, UC Irvine
Drafted: St. Louis Cardinals (Second round, No. 71 overall)
2014 Stats (18 starts): 11-2, 129.2 IP, 1.53 ERA, .182 BAA, 30 BB (2.1 BB/9), 136 K (9.4 K/9)
Right-hander Andrew Morales, a second-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals, was named the Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year this season after posting a 1.53 ERA and 136/30 K/BB in 129.2 innings.
Unsurprisingly, Morales has continued to pitch like an ace for the UC Irvine this postseason, winning two of his three starts while registering a 1.33 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 20.1 innings. In his latest outing, Morales shut out top-seeded Oklahoma State in complete-game victory, his third of the year, to punch UC Irvine’s ticket to Omaha.
7. Taylor Sparks, 3B, UC Irvine
Drafted: Cincinnati Reds (Second round, No. 58 overall)
2014 Stats (63 games): .307/.389/.502, 16 2B, 8 3B, 5 HR, 34 RBI, 8 SB, 27 BB, 67 K
Taylor Sparks turned in a breakout performance last year as a sophomore, as he was named Big West Co-Player of the Year after batting .360/.388/.581 with 25 extra-base hits and 50 RBI.
Though Sparks' production this spring hasn't met expectations—largely due to the length of his swing and overaggressive approach—his athleticism and untapped offensive potential made him one of the best corner infielders available in this year’s draft. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when he was still on the board for the Reds in the second round. At the same time, I didn’t envision him making it to Day 2 of the draft in a pitcher-heavy class.
Lastly, Sparks is a major reason why the Ant Eaters are headed to Omaha for just the second time in school history, as he’s batted .458 with eight runs scored and four extra-base hits in five playoff games while serving as the team’s leadoff hitter.
6. Derek Fisher, OF, Virginia
Drafted: Houston Astros (Competitive Balance Round A, No. 37 overall)
2014 Stats (38 games): .285/.347/.404, 7 2B, 3 HR, 26 RBI, 12 BB, 21 K
Derek Fisher suffered a broken hamate bone in his right hand just 15 games into this season, offsetting his hot start and putting his first-round draft projection in jeopardy. However, despite spending six weeks on the shelf, Fisher made an immediate impact upon his return with two home runs in his first three games back.
The combination of Fisher’s age (20) and untapped power potential from the left side made him one of the more intriguing offensive prospects in this year’s draft class. It also means the Astros landed a potential steal when they popped him with the No. 37 overall pick.
However, that ultimately will come down to whether or not Fisher approaches his offensive ceiling; as a fringy defensive outfielder with average-at-best speed, the majority of Fisher’s future value will always be tied to his bat.
5. Mike Papi, OF/1B, Virginia
Drafted: Cleveland Indians (Competitive Balance Round A, No. 38 overall)
2014 Stats (63 games): .311/.453/.505, 10 2B, 11 HR, 54 RBI, 55 BB, 43 K
Mike Papi emerged as one of college baseball’s premier hitters in 2013, as the then-sophomore batted a robust .381/.517/.619 with 25 extra-base hits, 57 RBI and a 45/25 K/BB in 55 games. While his numbers this season aren't as impressive as they were in 2013, Papi was still regarded as one of the better college hitters in this year’s class entering the draft—which is all the more reason to believe the Indians landed a potential steal in Papi with the No. 38 overall pick.
The 21-year-old is a pure hitter, with an impressive left-handed bat that should produce a good batting average and average power as a professional. Furthermore, Papi’s refined approach and pitch-recognition ability are rare for a player his age, and they should give him a chance to hit as a professional while also reaching base at a favorable clip.
Few hitters in this year’s playoffs have been more consistent than Papi, as he heads to Omaha with a .480 batting average, seven runs scored and two extra-base hits. He also leads the Cavaliers’ offense with seven RBI.
4. Nick Burdi, RHP, Louisville
Drafted: Minnesota Twins (Second round, No. 46 overall)
2014 Stats (30 games): 18 saves, 35.1 IP, 0.51 ERA, .133 BAA, 10 BB (2.6 BB/9), 62 K (15.8 K/9)
Nick Burdi has been utterly dominant as Louisville’s closer over the last two years, as the hard-throwing right-hander has saved a total of 34 games while posting a 0.63 ERA and a ridiculous 124/23 K/BB in 71 innings (39 appearances).
Burdi boats two present MLB-worthy pitches: a dominant fastball in the upper-90s that has exceeded triple digits in the past, and a devastating, swing-and-miss slider that registers in the upper-80s. And since the scouting supports his video-game numbers, it wasn’t surprising to see the Twins take a flier on him in the second round.
Meanwhile, each of Burdi’s four appearances in the playoffs have resulted in a save, as he’s allowed a pair of hits and walks while striking out five batters in four innings.
3. Nick Howard, RHP, Virginia
Drafted: Cincinnati Reds (First round, No. 19 overall)
2014 Stats (28 games): 19 saves, 30.2 IP, 2.05 ERA, .213 BAA, 12 BB (3.6 BB/9), 51 K (15.0 K/9)
Nick Howard ranked as one of the college baseball's top two-way players for Virginia in 2013, as the infielder/right-handed pitcher posted a .794 OPS with 17 extra-base hits and 38 RBI in 50 games to go along with a 3.38 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 61.1 innings as a member of the starting rotation.
Named as a finalist for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award heading into the 2014 season, Howard’s production dropped off considerably this spring to the tune of a .647 OPS and 25 strikeouts in only 43 games.
Howard’s performance on the mound was far from a disappointment, however, as the right-hander made a smooth transition from the starting rotation to the bullpen to emerge as one of the top closers in college baseball. Yet, despite his overwhelming success this season in the ninth inning, the Reds drafted Howard with the No. 19 overall pick due to his potential as a starter—the role in which they plan to develop him in moving forward.
With the Cavaliers offense firing on all cylinders in the playoffs, Howard has been limited to only two appearances in the team’s five games. However, he’s done his job in both outings, converting his lone save opportunity while logging 2.1 scoreless innings.
2. Brandon Finnegan, LHP, Texas Christian
Drafted: Kansas City Royals (First round, No. 17 overall)
2014 Stats (16 starts): 9-3, 97.2 IP, 2.12 ERA, .202 BAA, 27 BB (2.5 BB/9), 129 K (11.9 K/9)
Brandon Finnegan was enjoying one of the finest seasons among college hurlers before leaving his April 25 start with shoulder stiffness.
After skipping several turns in the rotation, Finnegan made his return to the mound on May 13 to throw 80 pitches over four innings against Oklahoma. Though he wasn’t at his best in the outing, the left-hander proved he was fully healthy in time for the draft—or at least healthy enough to convince the Royals to make him the No. 17 overall pick.
Finnegan doesn’t require much physical projection at 5’11”, 190 pounds, but he boasts one of the better fastballs in the draft class, sitting consistently in the mid-90s with the potential to work a few ticks higher in shorter bursts. More importantly, he’s already shown the ability to hold the velocity deep into games.
His breaking ball can be slurvey but is nonetheless effective, registering in the low-80s with a deceptive shape, and it projects as another potential plus offering at maturity. His changeup is another solid pitch with good fading action out of the zone. Beyond the stuff, Finnegan stands out for his feel for sequencing and overall confidence on the mound, both of which have made him one of the more consistent strikeout pitchers in the country.
The TCU ace has been dominant in both of his postseason starts, combining for a 1.93 ERA and 19/3 K/BB in 13.2 innings while also holding opposing hitters to a .152 batting average. He’ll look to continue his success this weekend in Omaha as the Horned Frogs begin a three-game series against Texas Tech.
1. Tyler Beede, RHP, Vanderbilt
Drafted: San Francisco Giants (First round, No. 14 overall)
2014 Stats (17 starts): 8-7, 103.0 IP, 3.58 ERA, .213 BAA, 47 BB (4.1 BB/9), 108 K (9.4 K/9)
After a very promising but also consistent sophomore season, Beede—the No. 21 overall selection in the 2011 draft by the Blue Jays—appeared to figure things out this year through the first half of Vanderbilt’s season, showing an improved feel for the strike zone with his entire arsenal. However, his control and command issues returned in mid-April and have continued to plague him into the playoffs.
Beede turned in the best performance of the 2014 season in Vanderbilt's NCAA regional opener, as he struck out 14 batters over eight shutout innings against Xavier. However, the right-hander’s control was virtually non-existent in his super-regional start against Stanford; prior to leaving the game with two outs in the fifth inning, Beede allowed six earned runs on five hits and four walks while also hitting three batters and uncorking a wild pitch.
When he's at his best, Beede shows front-of-the-rotation upside, with a crisp fastball in the low-90s that tops out at 94-95 mph—sometimes even a tick or two more—as well as an above-average curveball and slider to go along with a potentially plus changeup.
But despite his work with Vanderbilt’s talented coaching staff over the last three years, the right-hander still lacks the overall consistency—both mechanically and in terms of his pitch execution—to be considered an elite college starter. At the same time, few pitchers in this year’s draft class could match his combination of pure stuff and upside, which is why the Giants were comfortable grabbing him with the No. 14 overall pick.
If he can put everything together as a professional, then we may be talking about Beede as a steal at No. 14 within a few years.
So I guess the question is: which Tyler Beede will show up in his first College World Series start?