CLASS OF 2012: Top Prospects
In the last 25 years, you can count almost on one hand the number of high-school baseball players that were so talented at an early age that their prospect status was established in the baseball scouting community well in advance of their draft year.
Some of the players that immediately come to mind are Cincinnati prep outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. (first pick in the 1987 draft), Miami high-school sensation Alex Rodriguez (No. 1 in 1993), Texas fireballing righthander Josh Beckett (No. 2 in 1999), the Upton brothers (B.J., No. 2 in 2002; Justin, No. 1 in 2005) and California outfielder Delmon Young (No. 1 in 2003). All announced their arrival as prime-time prospects as high-school juniors, and even sophomores in some cases.
A case could also be made for Nevada prep sensation Bryce Harper, who was so gifted as a Las Vegas High sophomore that he would have been an overwhelming favorite to go No. 1 overall in the 2011 draft had he stayed the course in high school and not elected to leave early to become eligible for the draft a year ahead of schedule. Harper was a slam-dunk choice as the top pick in this year’s draft.
In the absence of Harper, the 2011 draft does not have a high-school player that stands head and shoulders above his peers. But the 2012 draft class does.
Lance McCullers Jr., a junior at Tampa Jesuit High, is so advanced in all phases of his game that he could conceivably be a candidate to go first overall two years from now as either a righthanded pitcher or power-hitting infielder. The general view among scouts is that McCullers’ upside may be slightly higher on the mound, and radar-gun readings in the 96-97 mph range have been standard procedure for him at this early stage of his career.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound McCullers comes by his talent honestly as his father was a second-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies out of a Tampa high school in 1982, and went on to play seven years in the big leagues, mostly as a reliever with the San Diego Padres.
PG CrossChecker's Allan Simpson has prepared an early list of the top 200 prospects in the 2012 draft class, and McCullers sits comfortably in the No. 1 spot. Four of the top six positions are occupied by high-school players, but none of the others has the natural talent, or the high-profile status that McCullers has enjoyed pretty much since he was a heralded high-school freshman.
No less an authority than Tampa Jesuit pitching coach Geoff Goetz, himself a first-round pick in 1997 out of the same school, has no doubt that McCullers is a rare commodity.
“It’s as rare as I have ever seen,” Goetz told the St. Petersburg Times earlier this year. “I mean I played with Josh Beckett as a senior (with Team USA’s junior-national team) and he was amazing. But to have that kind of velocity at his age and to be able to throw two other plus pitches for strikes, I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s just a different level.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he hit 100 next year. He might have already hit it. At 16, he’s not even close to hitting his peak, velocity-wise. But if he can consistently pitch between 93 and 97 and get hitters out, holy cow, he’s still be better than 99.9 percent of the guys out there.”
Not only does McCullers have a loose, fast arm with electric stuff, but he has command of all three pitches in his repertoire. In addition to his dominant fastball, he also has a mid-80s power curve and a changeup. His superior arm strength is readily evident on the left side of the infield, and his powerful lefthanded bat makes him a middle-of-the-order presence.
There were rumblings during the summer and early fall that McCullers might leave school early, and transfer to a junior college to become eligible for the draft a year ahead of schedule, much like Harper did, but those rumors have pretty much dissipated. McCullers, however, did make a verbal commitment last spring to attend the University of Florida—in 2013.
Though he will be a man among boys at the high-school level for two more years, McCullers will set out to lead Tampa Jesuit to a state 4-A title that narrowly eluded the team last spring. As a sophomore, he hit .457-2-30 while posting a 2-0, 0.39 record with three saves and chalking up 34 strikeouts in 18 innings. He will continue to interchangeably play shortstop and be used in a closing role, though below-average speed may eventually push him to third base at the next level.
While McCullers has already become the unquestioned hot topic in the 2012 draft class, the other distinguishing feature is the potential impact that Stanford might have throughout the first round. On the accompanying Top 200 list, the Cardinal has four players in the top 18. Never before has a draft produced more than three first-rounders from the same school.
The list of Stanford products includes righthander Mark Appel at No. 2 and shortstop Kenny Diekroeger at No. 4. The 6-foot-5 Appel pitched sparingly as a freshman, going 2-1, 5.92 while working mostly in relief, after being drafted in the 15th round in 2009 out of a California high school. Diekroeger, a local prep product and an unsigned second-round pick in 2009, led the Cardinal in hitting as a freshman (.356-5-41) while spending most of the season at third base.
It was during the summer that both players truly established themselves as top prospects for the 2012 draft. Both played for Newport of the New England Collegiate League and ranked 1-2 among that league’s top prospects. Appel’s fastball peaked at 97 as he made the seamless conversion to a starter, while Diekroeger showcased five-tool ability while making the transition from third to short. Both players should be impact players for Stanford as sophomores.
Stanford outfielders Stephen Piscotty and Jacob Stewart, meanwhile, ranked 1-2 among the top prospects last summer in the Alaska League, and also secured positions among the elite prospects for the 2012 draft. Piscotty ranks No. 15 on the list, Stewart No. 18.
Obviously, the 2012 draft is still more than a year and half away, and much can change between now and then, but the prospect status of McCullers is expected to stand the test of time, just like the handful of elite high-school talents that passed before him.