MLB Draft 2012: An Early Look at the Top 15 College Prospects

Zachary Ball@MLBDraftCntdwnAnalyst IJanuary 11, 2012

MLB Draft 2012: An Early Look at the Top 15 College Prospects

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    It's hard to find a better crop of draft prospects than the group that headlined the 2011 class. Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole, Taylor Jungmann, George Springer, Trevor Bauer and Matt Purke each have perennial All-Star potential.

    The 2012 class is not only short on that same kind of elite talent but also not nearly as deep with solid all-around talent.

    Still, the class does have some strengths, notably pitching. Stanford RHP Mark Appel is a sensational prospect, but he has yet to have a truly dominating year like say a Trevor Bauer or Taylor Jungmann. Still, he has prototypical size and a blazing fastball. Texas A&M RHP Michael Wacha came on late last season and could overtake Appel with a dominating campaign.

    Beyond the pitching, there are plenty of question marks surrounding the majority of the top hitters. Will SS Deven Marrero hit enough to be an everyday shortstop? Will OF Victor Roache's power translate to the pro level? Can 2B Steve Nysiztor bounce back from a lost season?

    So many questions, but luckily we have an entire season's worth of college baseball to get some answers.

    Here are the top 15 college prospects right now.

15) Kenny Diekroeger, SS, Stanford

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    When the Rays tabbed high school shortstop Kenny Diekroeger with their second round pick back in 2009, it seemed like that was going to be as low as the rangy shortstop would ever be selected. Heading into the 2011 college season, with Diekroeger coming off of a sensational freshman campaign at Stanford, many considered him a likely top 10 selection in 2012.

    And then he played the 2011 season...and underperformed. He clearly struggled with the new bats, witnessing declines in just about every offensive category. Furthermore, Stanford struggled to play at the level that was expected of them, putting even more pressure on Diekroeger to be perfect.

    Coming into the 2012 season, that pressure should be lessened. Stanford returns the likely No. 1 pick in the draft, Mark Appel, as well as fourth-year starter Brett Mooneyham, who missed the entire 2011 season.

    If Diekroeger can have a bounce-back season, he could jump up draft boards as we near closer to draft day, and with an impressive squad behind him, he'll likely be playing well into June, giving teams an even better look.

    Once upon a time, scouts had doubts about his ability to stick at shortstop, but he looked strong there last year, even as he continued to struggle at the plate. He's a big-bodied guy, but he's also one of the most impressive athletes in this draft class, so don't count him out.

14) Tyler Naquin, OF, Texas A&M

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    Without a doubt, the Aggies top offensive player this season was OF Tyler Naquin, who could be a very interesting prospect on draft day. Naquin was a 33rd-round pick of Baltimore’s back in ’09, but honored his commitment to A&M, where he blossomed into one of the best hitters in the Big 12 this past season.

    In 68 games, he hit .381 with a team-leading 23 doubles, seven triples and 68 runs. He also hit two home runs, drove in 44 runs, posted a 29:35 BB:K ratio and swiped six bases.

    But Naquin didn’t just contribute at the plate. He utilized his cannon arm in the outfield to rack up seven OF assists.

    With another strong campaign, Naquin could further improve his stock.

13) Christian Walker, 1B/3B, South Carolina

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    The South Carolina 2012 draft class kicks off with 1B/3B Christian Walker. After a stellar freshman campaign that saw him earn Freshman First-Team honors from Baseball America, Walker took up the offensive burden left when Jackie Bradley Jr. started the season terribly and then was lost with an injury for most of the season. Walker had an incredible offensive year, leading the Gamecocks with a .358 average, 64 runs, 21 doubles, ten home runs, 62 RBI and a .554 slugging percentage.

    He turned up his play in the super-regionals, scoring three runs, driving in two, bashing one home run and playing stellar defense en route to a two-game sweep of UConn.

    Walker came to South Carolina after a sterling high-school career that culminated in a No. 1 individual ranking in the state of Pennsylvania his senior season and a 49th-round selection in the ’09 draft. He also won the ’09 International Power Showcase Home Run Derby.

    In addition to his light-tower power, he is also an incredible athlete. In addition to third base, he also played first and catcher in high school. He was clocked in the low 80s off the mound at a few Perfect Game showcases and he has good enough range to handle either first or third as a pro.

12) Jeremy Baltz, OF, St. John's

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    After turning down a mediocre offer from the Yankees as a 45th-round pick in 2009, Baltz went off to Rutgers and put together one of the finest seasons ever put together by a freshman.

    He hit 24 home runs, drove in 85 runs and maintained a .396 average, winning Big East Freshman of the Year honors as well as a spot on the conference All-American team. He then dazzled in the Northeast Collegiate League, and started to earn some buzz for the 2012 draft.

    He regressed a bit in 2011, witnessing a slump in his batting average (.311). He continued to be a solid run producer, driving in 60 runs but also saw a decline in his power (just six home runs). On a plus note, he continued to show solid plate discipline, walking just five fewer times than he struck out.

    With perfect size and a dazzling bat, Baltz could very easily be one of the first college hitters taken in the 2012 draft.

11) Branden Kline, RHP, Virginia

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    The Cavaliers should take a hit next year after losing Danny Hultzen and Tyler Wilson, but they should be bolstered by the addition of RHP Branden Kline to the rotation.

    A 2009 sixth-round draft pick by the Red Sox, Kline has pitched the last two years out of the bullpen, saving a combined 20 games. In 2011 he posted a 56:22 K:BB ratio and a 1.88 ERA in 32 contests.

    Kline has good size (6-3, 190) and is a former Louisville Slugger Maryland State Player of the Year. He throws in the low-to-mid 90s and complements his fastball with a curveball and a slider. He has already proven himself as a reliever, and with Hultzen and Wilson departing, along with Will Roberts and Cody Winiarski, Kline might finally get his shot as a starter.

    If he can have a strong year in 2012, he could boost his stock greatly.

10) Jake Barrett, RHP, Arizona State

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    Jake Barrett should have no problem achieving higher than his third-round status from three years ago, wwhen Toronto scooped him up, but failed to get a deal in place due to the right-hander’s strong commitment to ASU.

    Barrett will undoubtedly be one of the top arms to watch for in the 2012 season, but unfortunately, the season will likely be a wash for the Sun Devils, who face the possibility of being suspended from postseason play for some off-the-field transgressions committed by the previous coaching staff.

    That might make it hard for Barrett to channel all of his ability, but if he can string together some nice starts, he could be right in line for a top five selection.

    Toronto was so high on him back in 2009 because he had a big-league body (6’3″, 225 lbs), a good fastball (90-94 mph) and two pitches (curveball and splitter) with above-average potential.

9) Michael Wacha, RHP, Texas A&M

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    Wacha doesn't offer as much upside as some of the other top arms, specifically Lucas Giolito or Lance McCullers, Jr., but he does seem like he's a much safer bet. Like Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, Wacha deals in the low-to-mid 90s, and throws a mean slider. He also offers a changeup and curveball.

    Wacha was especially impressive down the stretch last season, more than picking up the slack left behind when John Stilson went down. He led the Aggies in innings pitched, strikeouts and starts, and posted a stellar 2.29 ERA. He really shined in the College World Series, putting together back-to-back gutsy performances against Florida State and California.

    Wacha has prototypical size (6'6", 200) and figures to be the staff ace with former teammate John Stilson signing with the Blue Jays.

8) Marcus Stromen, RHP, Duke

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    Don't let Stromen's size fool you. Despite checking in at a measly 5'9" and 175 pounds, Stromen is a likely preseason All-American, and could be a major factor in the 2012 draft.

    Splitting time between the bullpen and the rotation, Stromen racked up 90 strikeouts in a mere 64 innings. He only surrendered one home run and posted a 2.80 ERA. Furthermore, the diminutive right-hander wowed scouts with a low-to-mid 90s fastball and a stunning slider that has the makings of a true plus pitch.

    An astonishing outing in the Cape Cod League in 2010 really put Stromen on the map. In just 25 innings he posted a 32-to-3 K:BB ratio. He only allowed 10 hits and didn't surrender a single earned run.

    Developing a third pitch is a must to keep him out of the bullpen long-term and he'll likely get a full season in 2012 at Duke to show what he's capable starting every weekend.

    Aside from the stuff, Stroman is a sensational athlete, who has played a little bit of shortstop for the Blue Devils. He should be an above-average fielder at his position and has the perfect attitude any team would want in a player.

7) Brian Johnson, LHP, Florida

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    The Gators are loaded with talent, and next year will be no different. Yes, they lost a couple of key pieces, but their star-studded roster will be led by their top draft prospect for 2012, LHP Brian Johnson.

    Johnson had a great season, posting a 3.62 ERA and a 72:15 K:BB ratio in 15 starts before an errant Mike Zunino throw plunked him in the head and sidelined him with a concussion. Johnson had a fantastic freshman campaign as well, making 14 starts and picking up six victories. He also made an impact at the plate, hitting .405 in 84 at-bats, bashing four home runs and driving in 21 runs.

    Like most of the players on the UF roster, Johnson was already drafted once, back in the 27th-round of the 2009 draft by the Dodgers. He spurned that offer to come to UF, where he has continued to grow into his 6'3", 225 pound frame and develop his stuff. Johnson has been excellent at keeping his low 90s fastball down, but in the zone during his time with the Gators. He has shown a great curveball that got better as the 2011 season wore on.

    The upcoming season will be a true test for him. Will he choose to give up time at the plate in order to better hone his skills as a pitcher? Or will he continue to be one of the better two-way players in college baseball?

6) Victor Roache, OF, Georgia Southern

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    Without a doubt, Roache is the most powerful hitter in this draft class.

    All you have to do for proof is check out his sophomore campaign for Georgia Southern. Not only did he lead the nation with 30 home runs, but he compiled that number in just 60 contests, an extraordinary rate for a guy who looked as lost as he did the year before.

    Roache's power surge was even more impressive when you consider he did the damage with the new bats introduced by the NCAA. The bats were supposed to decrease power production, acting more like wooden bats used at the professional level. The idea was that hitters who weren't affected as much by the new hardware would be more likely to see their games translate to the pro level.

    If that is indeed the case, whichever team gets Roache is going to be very pleased. He further justified his status as a first-round guy when he tore up the Cape Cod League, finishing second in both home runs and RBI, and ninth in batting average.

5) Kevin Gausman, RHP, LSU

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    Kevin Gausman was one of the most talented high school pitchers available in the 2010 draft, but due to concerns about his signability and his strong commitment to LSU, he dropped all the way to the sixth round, where the Dodgers took a flier on him. He didn't sign and instead honored his commitment to LSU, where he blossomed into one of the top pitchers in a very impressive SEC.

    The right-hander made a team-high 14 starts, winning five. He posted a respectable 3.51 ERA and held a 86:23 K:BB ratio in a team-leading 89.2 innings.

    Batters only hit .215 off of him, and he served up only five home runs all season. His finest performance came in an early season outing against Tennessee. He tossed a complete-game shutout, scattering four hits and striking out seven. He walked none.

    Gausman has the potential to be a top 10 pick in 2012, thanks not only to his velocity and developing secondary pitches, but also to his very prototypical pitcher’s body. At 6’4″ and 185 pounds, he still has plenty of room to add some more weight (increasing his durability and stamina).

4) Chris Beck, RHP, Georgia Southern

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    Chris Beck ranks as one of the top college pitchers and could give the top overall arm a run for his money with a strong season. He certainly had one in 2011. Coming off of a rough debut as a freshman in 2010 (2-4, 8.31 ERA), Beck thrived as the team's Friday night starter. He won nine games, accounting for a quarter of the Eagles total win-total, posted a strong 3.23 ERA in 19 starts and struck out a team-high 109 batters in 103 innings.

    At 6'3" and 220 pounds, Beck has a perfect frame. His fastball is an above-average pitch, sitting in the low-to-mid 90s, sometimes scraping the 96-97 mph range. His slider and his changeup both improved drastically over the course of the 2011 season, with the former showing potential as a plus offering.

    He has also shown well during the summer, pitching incredibly well (2-3, 2.12 ERA, 41 strikeouts) in the Cape Cod League this past

3) Mike Zunino, C, Florida

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    You could tell Zunino was going to be special by the way he tossed aside incumbent catcher Austin Maddox, locking down the starting job and flourishing both at the plate and behind it, en route to SEC Hitter of the Year honors.

    The rising junior hit .383 with 19 doubles, 15 homers and 59 RBI. In conference play, he was in a class of his own, hitting .442 with eight homers and 33 RBI. The scary part is, as good as Zunino was at the plate, he was even more impressive behind it, showing natural leadership skills and showing above-average defensive ability.

    He made only three errors all season long, allowed just seven passed balls and threw out 28 percent of attempted base-stealers. His arm was easily the best of any SEC backstop.

    Furthermore, he took on the role of team leader, and it seemed to come naturally. He'll headline another stellar UF squad with College World Series hopes.

2) Deven Marrero, SS, Arizona State

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    Marrero is hands down the top shortstop available regardless of draft class (high school or college).

    Don't let his regression with the bat in 2011 fool you. Yes, his offensive numbers dropped in just about every category, but I'm guessing that had more to do with the new bat that the NCAA forced upon the players last year. Playing this summer with Team USA and using wood bats, Marrero was the team's top hitter. He also had a great showing in the Cape Cod League, where he was named an All-Star.

    On defense, Marrero is astounding. He was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 and should be the front-runner for the award again in 2012. He has a rocket for an arm, smooth footwork and has the perfect size (6'1", 194) to stick at shortstop long-term.

    Simply put, Marrero is a solid all-around player capable of hitting .300 at the big-league level while providing Gold Glove caliber defense.

1) Mark Appel, RHP, Stanford

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    Appel doesn't have the frontline stuff that last year's No. 1, Gerrit Cole, has, but he's got as much potential as any arm in this draft class.

    Appel (6'5", 190) had a solid campaign for Stanford, but he didn't benefit much from playing on one of the most underperforming teams in the Pac-10. Even before the season began, the Cardinal were hit with numerous injuries, including a season-ending one to fellow ace Brett Mooneyham.

    Once they got into the regular season, they struggled to find their footing. They finished the season on a high note, however, and Appel was a big part of their strong finish and their run to the Super Regionals.

    He led the squad with 110.1 innings and also paced the Aggies with 86 strikeouts, two complete games and 17 starts.

    The best part is that Appel has yet to reach the part of his college career where his talent catches up with his experience. And believe me, he has plenty of talent. For starters, he throws a great fastball that sits in the 92-95 mph range and occasionally scraped 97. He complements that pitch with a strong slider, albeit one he still needs to gain better control of after tossing eight wild pitches and hitting eight batters last season.

    He also has a cutter and a changeup in his arsenal.

    The only thing preventing Appel from being declared the consensus No. 1 pick right now is results. If he produces in 2012, he's going to be a virtual shoo-in for a team in dire need of elite talent.