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Draft : : Story
2014 MLB Draft: Who goes No. 1?
Allan Simpson        
Published: Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Top 100 MLB Draft Prospects | Draft Chat: Thursday, April 17, 11am-1pm Central

Rodon No Longer a Fixture at No. 1

As Astros Consider Other Elite Arms

In the recent history of baseball’s first-year player draft, Miami prep shortstop Alex Rodriguez (1993), Virginia prep shortstop-turned-outfielder Justin Upton (2005), Vanderbilt lefthander David Price (2007), San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg (2009) and Nevada junior-college catcher-turned-outfielder Bryce Harper (2010) were all viewed as slam-dunk choices to go No. 1 overall well in advance of the proceedings. They easily fulfilled those expectations by going off the board first.

North Carolina State lefthander Carlos Rodon is just the latest can’t miss prospect to be anointed elite status as a pre-determined No. 1 draft choice.

Rodon was projected to be the top pick in the 2014 draft as far back as two years ago, while a mere freshman for the Wolfpack, but there’s significant doubt now that will happen. At the midway point of the current college season, with this year’s draft looming, Rodon has struggled to live up to all his considerable pre-season hype and press clippings on almost every count.

After enjoying unquestioned success in his first two seasons for the Wolfpack, compiling an overall 19-3, 2.33 record with 319 strikeouts in 247 innings, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Rodon has simply not dominated his competition this spring. In fact, he has even struggled to win on a consistent basis. Through his first nine appearances, Rodon was 2-6, though had a more-representative 2.29 ERA and fanned 72 in 63 innings while walking 21.

Lack of run support has contributed significantly to Rodon’s losing record, but scouts say he has only flashed the dominant stuff that had them virtually conceding the top spot to him in this year’s draft at the outset of the season.

His fastball, a steady 94-97 mph offering in the past, has touched that rarified area only occasionally, while his trademark slider hasn’t been as crisp or sharp as consistently, either. He has also struggled to command both pitches in a manner that once set him apart from other top pitching prospects, and he has even scuffled in handling adversity under the steady glare of a horde of scouts.

While he still commands plenty of attention, a mere mortal Rodon has caused the Houston Astros, picking first for a draft-record third straight year, to entertain other options, particularly with the emergence of two hot-shot high school pitchers, California lefthander Brady Aiken and Texas fireballing righthander Tyler Kolek.

Aiken was viewed as a mid- to late-first-round pick entering the 2014 season, but a significant spike in his fastball velocity, to the mid-90s, has seen his stock skyrocket. Kolek has thrown even harder, but his rise to prominence is considered less surprising than Aiken as he was generally considered to be the elite prep arm in the country entering the spring season. He has nonetheless only elevated his worth with a fastball that has routinely reached triple digits, topping at 102 mph.

With the 2014 draft a mere seven weeks away, Rodon is still squarely in Houston’s mix and continues to rank as the top college prospect nationally, but he has obvious company now and the consensus among scouts and scouting directors contacted by Perfect Game is that the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Aiken has taken over as a slight favorite to go No. 1 overall, followed closely by Kolek, and then Rodon.

Aiken really separated himself with the way he perfomed in a couple of outings,” an American League crosschecker said. “He had great stuff with his fastball touching 96-97 to go with an even more dominant breaking ball. He really stood out with his ability to command all his pitches, along with his excellent feel for pitching. Right now, he’s a pretty clear No. 1 for me.”

The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Kolek has been even more electrifying than Aiken with his steady diet of triple-digit fastballs, and opened the 2014 season by hurling 18 straight hitless innings. But he is not considered as polished a product overall as Aiken, and Aiken has the perceived additional advantage of being lefthanded.

Through his first 26 innings this spring for San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High, Aiken is 5-0, 0.54 with four walks and 48 strikeouts, while Kolek has gone 3-0, 0.31 with 48 strikeouts in 22 innings for Shepherd High. He had allowed just two hits and a single walk.

But not everyone is willing to concede the top spot in this year’s draft just yet to Aiken, or even Kolek, who would become the first prep righthander ever selected No. 1 overall in the draft’s 50-year history if the Astros were to stay close to home and tab a local product with the top pick.

Aiken and Kolek have clearly helped themselves this spring, no question,” a National League crosschecker said, “but I will be shocked if Rodon doesn’t go No. 1.”

With Aiken, Kolek and Rodon setting the tone, this year’s draft, set for June 5-7, has the earmarks of becoming one of the most pitching-dominated drafts in history.

In addition to that trio, four other righthanders—East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman, Vanderbilt’s Tyler Beede, Louisiana State’s Aaron Nola and South Carolina prep standout Grant Holmes— are given solid chances of being tabbed in the first 10 picks, along with a pair of college lefthanders, Texas Christian’s Brandon Finnegan and Evansville’s Kyle Freeland.

The most pitching-dominated draft on record occurred in 2004, when seven of the first eight selections were pitchers. The exception, coincidentally, was No. 1 overall pick Matt Bush, who began his professional career as a shortstop but eventually moved to the mound before his career was derailed altogether.

Three years ago, the first four players off the board for the first time were pitchers, led by UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole, already a mainstay in the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation.

You could see as far back as last summer that it would be a pitching-oriented draft this year,” said a National League scouting director. “It was apparent just by looking at the Cape Cod League and Team USA that the number of quality bats would be few and far between.”

Rodon aside, Beede is the most noteworthy member of the current crop of talented arms because he has the distinction of being an unsigned first-round pick from the 2011 draft. He turned down a significant seven-figure bonus offer from the Toronto Blue Jays as a Massachusetts prep pitcher in favor of attending college at Vanderbilt.

Beede’s status, however, may be the most tenuous of all the arms under early consideration this year because of a string of erratic outings. He started off quickly, stemming from a more consistent release point than he displayed in his first two years at Vanderbilt, but soon struggled to command his pitches, including a fastball in the low- to mid-90s, and his performance suffered. Through his first nine starts for the Commodores, Beede was 5-4, 3.23 with 20 walks and 56 strikeouts in 53 innings.

Like Rodon and Beede, Hoffman continues to be in the mix of college pitchers at the top of the draft, even as his performance to date has also been inconsistent. He is just 2-3, 3.34 with 19 walks and 56 strikeouts through his first 59 innings for ECU, and has flashed his superior stuff only occasionally. But at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Hoffman is considered more projectable than the bigger, more-burly Rodon, and his fastball has topped out at 97, though his velocity and command have fluctuated.

Through games of April 15, the six leading strikeout pitchers in the NCAA Division I ranks are pitchers that are all strongly under consideration to be drafted in the first round or supplemental first round. Cal Poly’s 6-foot-5 lefthander Matt Imhof (7-2, 2.07 overall) leads the way with 88 punch-outs in 61 innings, though he is considered a fringe first-rounder because he lacks dominant raw stuff.

Nola and Finnegan rank second behind Imhof with 84 strikeouts, while Freeland is fourth with 75. All have dominated to date with the combination of impressive stuff and pristine command.

Freeland may have elevated his draft stock the most this spring on the strength of his ability to throw consistent and quality strikes with a fastball at 91-94 mph that has peaked at 96, along with an 88-90 mph slider. In 57 innings, he has walked just four while going 6-1, 1.74.

Nola is acknowledged by scouts to have the best command of any pitcher in the draft, even as his control this spring hasn’t been quite as impeccable as a year ago. He has already walked 13 (vs. 7 in 90 innings as a sophomore), but is an impressive 7-1, 0.70 overall. Though his fastball typically only reaches the low-90s, Nola has three above-average pitches and his stuff plays up significantly because of his impressive command.

Finnegan has intriguing raw stuff and has dominated this spring with a fastball that has consistently peaked in the mid- to high-90s, along with two quality secondary pitches, but at 5-foot-11, his lack of size may hurt his chances of going in the first 10 picks. He is 6-2, 1.76 in his first 61 innings.

Beyond that quartet of strikeout artists, Maryland righthander Jake Stinnett (74) and Rodon (72) rank fifth and sixth nationally. Stinnett opened a lot of eyes earlier this spring when he outdueled Rodon in an Atlantic Coast Conference matchup, and now stands to be the first college senior drafted, while Rodon is significantly off his strikeout pace of a year ago, when he rung up 184—37 more than his closest competitor.

Possibly the most dominant college arm this season has been Louisville closer Nick Burdi, who has gone 2-0, 0.00 with seven saves in 14 appearances. In 17 innings, he has walked six and struck out 30.

But while scouts say the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Burdi may have the best pure arm in the college ranks with the combination of a fastball that routinely reaches 100-102 mph and a wipeout slider that often tops 90, teams appear reluctant to lump the powerful righthander with the elite college arms because he profiles as a reliever at the next level. It is expected that Burdi will last until the back end of the first round, though is so advanced that he could conceivably be the first player from this draft class to reach the big leagues.

While Aiken and Kolek are clearly the class of the high-school pitching crop, South Carolina prep righthander Grant Holmes is another prime candidate to crack the top 10 picks. He has showcased impressive raw stuff of his own with a fastball that has peaked at 100 mph, but doesn't offer the same physical projection in his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame that Aiken and Kolek do as the nation’s top prep arms.

Virginia righthander Jacob Bukauskas has made the most precipitous rise through the draft ranks this spring among potential top high-school selections, especially with a fastball that reportedly touched 100 mph in mid-April.

Bukauskas was initially supposed to be a member of the 2015 draft class, but became a part of the current crop when he advanced his high school course load sufficiently to be re-classified as a senior. He appears to have edged his way into first-round consideration, but has continued to elevate his standing at such an accelerated pace through the spring that he could nudge his way towards the top 10 picks overall with a continued strong showing.

The first pick in this year’s draft has an allotted value of $7,922,100, per terms of Major League Baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the Astros still have plenty of time to deliberate on who to select and how to maximize the value of the selection. But for now, the challenge to go No. 1 overall appears to be a three-pitcher affair with Aiken, Kolek and Rodon squarely at the forefront.




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