The two biggest prep story lines for the draft in the early going this spring are two high school pitchers with recent velo spikes: San Diego area lefty Brady Aiken (UCLA commit) and Virginia righty Jacob Bukauskas (North Carolina commit). The stories about how they got to where they are now is very different, though.
I've seen Aiken a number of times (he's known as a "famous" prospect to scouts), all the way back to last spring at this point and a bunch of times last summer before he took the fall off to rest his arm. I reported Aiken's velo spike via a number of tweets on March 8th. The short version is he went from 88-91, hitting 93 mph over the summer (and me ranking him as a late 1st round/sandwich round prospect last month) to 93-96 hitting 97 mph in a one-inning scrimmage (and striking out fellow 1st round prospect, Oregon commit C/RF Alex Jackson) while throwing a sharper breaking ball (and jumping into the top 10 pick conversation). It's expected that in a longer outing, Aiken will sit lower than that, but he was a new prospect regardless.
The early word coming out of Aiken's couple short outings since that scrimmage is that he is indeed sitting a little lower, mostly 90-95 but hitting 97 mph again. His above average curveball that varied all summer with his arm speed is now plus while his changeup is still above average and he's expected to show the same above average command as the spring continues. That full package of everything above average with athleticism, a 6'3/210 frame and two plus pitches from the left side is a 2/3 starter; advanced versions of that at age 17 (Aiken will be 17.81 on draft day) never get out of the top 10. I also mentioned on twitter that Aiken is an example where lack of physical projection could be overlooked when there's a fluid athlete that's very young.
Aiken's complete package compares favorably with the top arms in the draft: North Carolina State LHP Carlos Rodon, East Carolina RHP Jeff Hoffman, Texas prep RHP Tyler Kolek (TCU commit) and Vanderbilt RHP Tyler Beede. Those all look likely to go in the top 10 right now with some bats filling out the rest of the group. There's a deep second tier of arms that includes South Carolina prep RHP Grant Holmes (Florida commit), LSU RHP Aaron Nola, UNLV RHP Erick Fedde, TCU LHP Brandon Finnegan, Hartford LHP Sean Newcomb, Hawaii prep LHP Kodi Medeiros (Pepperdine commit) and Florida prep righties Sean Reid-Foley (Florida State commit) and Touki Toussaint (Vanderbilt commit) that Aiken now looks to have jumped.
Bukauskas was classified for the 2015 class early in the summer and I wrote him up as one of the top pitchers at Perfect Game's Junior National, where he sat 89-91 (hitting a tick or two higher on some guns) with an average three pitch mix. He's a little small at 6'1/195 without much plane and had some effort to his delivery, so I wrote him up as a really good college pitcher that's a reliever in pro ball. A few months later, Bukauskas reclassified to the 2014 class in an effort to get to campus at UNC quicker; it was understood that he didn't want to sign for the money that would be offered and many weren't even sure if he would be draft eligible (some players like Florida junior C Taylor Gushue reclassified and were never draft eligible).
Word started to circulate late in late Feburary that Bukauskas was throwing harder than ever in preseason bullpens, with rumors that he was as high at 97 mph. Scouts flocked to his first few starts and he's been sitting 92-95, hitting 96 both outings and 97 mph on some guns with an above average slider. There's still some effort, the command isn't top notch right now, he is smaller than you'd like and this is a really deep prep pitching class, but we have a new top 2-3 round candidate. He was old for the 2015 class, but will be 17.65 on draft day, making him the youngest notable prospect in the draft class and now another recent example of a little-to-no-projection arm that's very young finding new velo where many thought there wasn't anymore.
Some of the top pitchers mentioned above have also shown flashes early this spring. TCU commit and Texas prep RHP Tyler Kolek has regularly been up to 98-100 mph depending on the outing, sitting in the mid-90's. I had slight concern that his breaking ball was only a 55-60 pitch (only meager in the company of top 10 picks) on the 20-80 scale and that sounds like it's still the concern, as he's slowly picking up a changeup and still looks like an easy top 10 pick.
Florida commit and South Carolina prep RHP Grant Holmes has been up to 98 mph a few times, showing some of that velocity that was eluding him late in showcase season. Holmes has a 60 breaking ball and has taken even quicker to a changeup with better command than Kolek, but less physicality at 6'1/205. Scouts still complain that he loses some arm speed from the stretch and he doesn't have ideal plane on his pitches, but he also should go in the top 10-15 picks.
Vanderbilt commit and Miami-area prep RHP Touki Toussaint has been up to 96 or 97 mph in every start this spring with a plus to plus-plus hook and above average splitter, as many saw from him this summer. He's also still out of control at times, but will gear down and command stuff that's a notch lower than his peak. Teams that want to believe in him see the physicality and this geared-down approach that will likely find him a home in the top 20-25 picks.
Florida State commit and Orlando-area prep SS Nick Gordon had a lot of heat at his last game, which I was at. I'll save all the notes for a future writeup, but you can get an idea of the industry perception that the Phillies (picking 7th overall) had three high level executives there while the Blue Jays (picking 9th overall) had their GM, scouting director and pro scouting director in the house. It's a little early to be scouting who is scouting a player (it's pretty useful down the stretch), but when that many high level guys drive a few hours to see a player and it matches the top 10-15 pick hype Gordon had already garnered, it's hard to ignore.
I'll be at what will possibly be the most heavily-scouted event of the year, the NHSI tournament in Cary, NC at the end of the month. It will be big for a number of players, but those with the most to gain are Georgia prep CF Michael Gettys (Georgia commit) and Northern California prep SS Jacob Gatewood (USC commit). Both have enormous, top 10 pick tools but questions on their bat. The perception can only be changed so much by one game in the spring, but a four-game look against top pitching that every team will see? That will impact their draft stock.
Another prospect I saw recently that I'll write up soon is Canadian RF Gareth Morgan, an North Carolina State commit. Morgan will have a lot of chances to prove himself, as he travels with the Canadian Junior National Team and they'll have heavily-scouted stops in St. Pete, Phoenix, Ft. Myers and Orlando this season. He was okay in St. Pete, where I saw him twice, but could make himself a lot of money (and go in the top 2 rounds) if he can make consistent contact in the subsequent showings; I've got him in the 3rd-4th round.
Being as I'm based in Florida, I see the most players here and am about to wrap up a trip around the state to sample the best players. Ole Miss commit LHP Foster Griffin has had a velo spike and he now sits 90-92, hitting 94 mph at times. The added arm speed made his curveball sharper and he's jumped into top 50 pick territory. UCF commit Cre Finfrock is a smallish righty, but his velo jumped late in the fall and has continued this spring, sitting 91-95 and hitting 97 mph according to one scout. He's got enough curveball and feel to be comfortably in the top 5 rounds in my forthcoming Florida draft rankings.
Tomorrow, I'll go see Florida State commit RHP Sean Reid-Foley, who scouts are raving about. I saw him many times over the summer, working 91-94, hitting 95 mph and snapping off an above average to plus slider along with a solid changeup. Word is he's doing that consistently and has improved him command; scouts think he wont make it out of the top 20-25 picks. Two more players on the rise are Florida commit C J.J. Schwarz and FAU commit SS Milton Ramos. Schwarz took a jump in the fall, proving he's got a chance to stick behind the plate while he put on some weight and showed improved raw power; scouts think he won't make it out of the 2nd round. Ramos is still a little erratic for some scouts, but can stick at shortstop, is a plus runner and has a little pop in games; he fits in the 2nd-3rd round right now.
Lastly, there's a few more stock up/down arms in the Sunshine State. North Florida commit RHP Brad Depperman was surprisingly good when a couple scouts encouraged me to follow them to his start right after I saw disappointing Florida State commit RHP Cobi Johnson just up the road. Depperman was 91-93 in the early going with three average or better pitches and the athletic 5'9 righty has solid command as well; it will take the right team to draft a guy that size, but he's in the top 5 round mix now. Johnson is a lanky, projectable 6'4 and has shown three above average pitches in the past, but his command was off and the stuff tailed-off quickly. I've heard the same story from a number of scouts that saw him before me. Johnson fits in the 2nd-3rd round based on potential, but is in a unique situation. Johnson's dad is a Blue Jays pitching coach and they've taken it easy with pitch counts and exposure the past 12 months, so it's hard to gauge what the signability situation will be.
Miami Dade JC commit Jeremiah Muhammad is a teammate of Toussaint and was 88-92, hitting 94 mph in relief of Toussaint in the game I saw. He also flashed a solid-average curveball that he had iffy feel for, but Muhammad is a projectable 6'5 with a solid delivery; he's another top 5 round type prospect that more teams will be on than Depperman due to Muhammad's size. Stanford commit RHP Keith Weisenberg has been up and down this spring, sometimes sitting in the high-80's and other times hitting 94 mph; he fits in the 2nd-3rd round right now. Florida commit RHP Alex Faedo had turf toe and he's just getting into the rotation now, as he showed some rust the first few outings. UCF commit RHP Kyle Marsh is just getting back on the mound after a torn ACL and is sitting 88-91 mph, but sat in the low 90's and hit 94 mph last season, so scouts are holding out for a velo bump.
Moving outside of Florida for prospects (but staying put in another sense) Connecticut prep RHP Austin DeCarr (Clemson commit) and his prep team have been in Florida the last few weeks (and will be back again in a few weeks). Scouts report that he's up a few ticks, hitting 95 mph after topping at 93 mph this summer. I should see DeCarr in a few weeks in Fort Myers. Another northern arm that will be seen in a different place is Norwell HS (IN) righty Jonah Patten (Arkansas commit), though he isn't on the Norwell roster anymore after being kicked off the team for chewing tobacco for the 2nd time. Patten is a 4th-5th round prospect with command of three average pitches and will pitch this spring in the Iowa Spring League. This may be a good move in the end, as Patten may get scouted more with fellow Arkansas commit and possible top 50 pick, Iowa prep RHP Keaton McKinney throwing in the same league.
San Diego-area prep C/RF Alex Jackson (Oregon commit) still looks to good at the plate for scouts to consider leaving him behind the plate long enough for him to master the position in the minors. That said, his performance this summer was underwhelming given the tools and that has continued this spring. It's unclear where he fits in this draft class, as I think he's in that second tier behind the top 5-7 players I referenced at the top, but not worthy of going in those 6-10 slots. These types of issues usually work themselves out throughout the spring and with the new CBA, clubs can opt to go well below slot with a player they like to spend the savings later.
Continuing out in California, North Carolina commit 3B/RHP Jack Flaherty has made the transition this spring to being more of a pitcher, at least as a pro prospect. Flaherty was one of the big names in the class early in the summer, flashing elite long speed (but more like above average speed on the bases) and feel to hit from a projectable 6'4 frame that would likely fit best at the hot corner. He regressed a bit and looked more awkward in general late in the summer, making him more of a 3rd round pick, pitching only sparingly. I saw him last spring at the NHSI and his delivery was just okay, he sat 87-91 and threw a lot of sliders that were about average. The stuff is a little better this spring, peaking at 93 mph with good plane and solid-average stuff from a good plane at times, though he's still a 2nd-3rd round fit.
Another elite arm committed to Vanderbilt, Atlanta-area prep RHP Dylan Cease has had an up-and-down spring like Toussaint. Cease have been up to 97 this spring just like he was last summer and he's been more consistent with his curveball, but scouts have told me his velocity is tailing off by the 2nd or 3rd inning and the command and changeup still aren't there. Cease is only 6'1 and needs to show some polish to go in the top 50 picks and keep up with the loaded local prep class that includes Gettys, 3B Michael Chavis (Clemson commit), LHP Mac Marshall (LSU) and RHP Spencer Adams (Georgia).
Hickory HS lefty Coan McAlpine is uncommitted and was essentially unknown until recently. He sat 79-84 mph in a tournament in July but was otherwise hard to see, though scouts went out of their way to find him after word spread that he sat 88-91 mph in a preseason bullpen while there was still snow on the ground in North Carolina. To illustrate how brand new this velocity is, one area scout I talked to had never heard of him while another had already seen all three of McAlpine's first three starts to try to get a feel for him. It's too early to know where this one will land, but McAlpine has solid size at 6'3/200 and there's top 5 round potential if he can keep this new velo all spring.
In Texas, two arms have been throwing well: Arizona commit RHP Michael Kopech and Texas Tech commit RHP/RF Pat Mahomes (yes, the son of that Pat Mahomes). Kopech is a famous name from the showcase circuit that I was the low man on since I didn't like his long arm action or crossfire delivery, though he's cleaned those up a bit. He's been sitting 92-95 and hitting 97 mph this spring with the same above average curveball he had at times last summer. It sounds like a team will bite in the 2nd round, but I have him a notch below that. I saw Mahomes play the outfield and hit and gave him a 5th round grade as there is some upside and he also played football, so scouts know there could be a little more in there when he gives baseball his full attention. It turns out the little more came on the mound, where Mahomes is sitting 89-92 and bumping 93 this spring with a three pitch mix; he's in the 3rd-4th round mix right now.
A couple 2015 prospects have stood out (click here to see the best in the class) recently. Plant High School in Tampa has produced a number of elite athletes and should be a top destination for scouts next year as OF Kyle Tucker (brother of Astros OF Preston Tucker) and RHP Jake Woodford. Woodford has been 88-93 mph this spring with a slider at 78-80 mph that's above average at times and a body some scouts have compared to Gerrit Cole. Tucker is a lean, athletic 6'4 (very different than Preston physically) and has a smooth lefty stroke with above average bat speed. Both are committed to Florida (as Preston Tucker and another recent Plant product Pete Alonso were) and are early round prospects that will get a lot of attention this summer, as they didn't go to any events this past summer.
Some other underclassmen have caught my eye recently, including two Orlando area standout arms: 2015 LHP Juan Hillman (UCF commit) and my #2 prospect in the whole 2016 class, RHP Austin Bergner (uncommitted but highly coveted by many colleges). Bergner is a primary pitcher but was surprisingly agile playing shortstop given his size (6'3/170) and age (16). Hillman had three average or better pitches and sat 88-91 deep into his start. I saw Mississippi prep junior RHP/1B Austin Riley (Mississippi State commit) briefly this summer play both ways, flashing pro potential that got him to 64th on my 2015 prep list. I'll see him in a few weeks at a tournament, but scout buzz (his teammate, senior Ole Miss commit OF Clay Casey is drawing crowds and a 2nd-3rd round grade from me) is that Riley's been working 91-95 mph recently.
I scouted the Canadian Junior National Team and it turns out most of the best prospects on the roster are juniors eligible for the 2015 draft. None of these players are committed to a school yet and I knew of a few of these guys as RF Demi Orimoloye (#19) and 1B Josh Naylor (#55) already placed on my 2015 prep list in November.
Naylor is a husky first baseman that makes a lot of contact and has some pop, though his physique draws lazy comparisons to Rangers 1B Prince Fielder and Cubs 1B prospect Dan Vogelbach (Naylor's power isn't in either of their leagues). Orimoloye is a physical beat that runs and projects for above average raw power; he hit a homer in one of the games against minor leaguers, but fell into to bad habits dipping his back shoulder to loft the ball. C Darren Shred looks like he can stick behind the plate and he has some solid contact skills while a number of underclassmen arms showed pro potential. RHP Kristian Storrie is 6'3/190 and was mostly 88-90 mph with a curve that flashed average potential, RHP Mike Soroka is 6'4/195 and was 86-89 mph with a solid-average slider from a low slot, and RHP Matt Ianni is 6'8/230 and was 85-90 mph with cut and a fringy slurve.