Draft : : Prospect Scouting Reports
Thursday, January 08, 2009

PART III / Closers The Best Closer Candidates in ’09 Class

Anup Sinha        
In my first two columns on closers, I addressed the evolution of the closer role and the general guidelines that scouts use in determining what pitchers are best suited to close.

With those topics as an appropriate backdrop, I’ve researched and identified the best closer prospects in the college and high-school ranks for the 2009 draft. My Perfect Game colleagues Allan Simpson and David Rawnsley were instrumental in helping me assemble the accompanying lists.

I’ve separated the rankings into four divisions, taking into account the many streams by which closers have flowed into Major League Baseball in recent years. The rankings attached to the player are according to PG Crosschecker’s ranking of the top 500 prospects for the 2009 draft, compiled in October (EDITOR’S NOTE: A revised top 500 ranking will be posted soon).

Top College Closers Who Project as Closers

1. Jason Stoffel, rhp, Arizona (PG-X ranking: 21)
A flame-throwing righty, Stoffel has relieved from Day One for Arizona. He was the primary closer for the Wildcats in 2008 above righthander Ryan Perry and lefthander Daniel Schlereth, who were drafted in the first round last June after working in a set-up role. Stoffel’s 95-mph fastball, power curve and nasty demeanor seem like a natural fit for an end-of-game role, but the club that drafts him may envision him as a starter.

2. Scott Bittle, rhp, Mississippi (PG-X ranking: 74)
A high-effort, small-framed righty who throws 80 per cent sliders with a wicked 12-6 bite, Bittle is very tough on hitters for 2-3 innings. But he is unlikely to hold up as a big-league starter, and an MRI taken by the New York Yankees revealed excessive wear-and-tear in his shoulder. The Yankees drafted Bittle in the second round last June, but elected not to sign him and he returns to Ole Miss as a fifth-year senior.

3. Garrett Richards, rhp, Oklahoma (PG-X: 97)
Richards has enjoyed limited success pitching in relief in two seasons at Oklahoma. He worked primarily as a closer as a freshman, when he saved nine games, and as a middle reliever a year ago. It’s unclear what Richards’ role will be in 2009, and he could either close or start for the Sooners. Richards has the requisite arm strength to close as his fastball touched 98 mph last summer in Alaska. With a trick pitch or more of a wrinkle on his fastball, his prospect status could take off.

4. Joe Kelly, rhp, UC Riverside (PG-X: 91)
Kelly is a small-framed righty with a quick arm. He lacks experience on the mound and hasn’t developed the pitchability necessary for a starter. Kelly must also bounce back from a difficult sophomore season.

5. Del Howell, lhp, Alabama (PG-X: 101)
Howell has had only minimal success in two years as a swingman for the Crimson Tide and has also served as a backup outfielder. He emerged last summer as the No. 1 prospect in the Texas Collegiate League, while working as a closer. Howell should assume the same role for Alabama as a junior.

Top College Starters Who May Project as Closers

1. Alex White, rhp, North Carolina (PG-X: 3)
White has been lights out as the Friday starter for a College World Series contender. Nevertheless, I believe he has the most potential as a closer. The effort in his delivery and arm action would be less of a concern in the pen, and he’s shown an ability to thrive under pressure.

2. Tanner Scheppers, rhp, St. Paul Saints / Northern League (PG-X: 12)
Though Scheppers elected not to return to College World Series champion Fresno State after deciding against signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a second-round pick, he is viewed by scouts as a college arm. Scheppers broke down with a shoulder injury late in his junior year for the Bulldogs, causing him to miss his team’s unlikely run to a national title. There are continuing concerns about his durability because of his slight frame. Scheppers’ explosive fastball/curveball combo would be lethal in the late innings and could vault him to the major leagues quickly as a reliever.

3. Kendal Volz, rhp, Baylor U (PG-X: 17)
Volz has been a starter with modest results to date for the Bears in his college career, and is projected to fill the Friday-night role this spring. But he excelled with his power stuff when used as the primary closer for Team USA’s unbeaten college squad last summer. His ability to pitch under pressure and move quickly as a reliever may push him in that direction once he’s drafted.

4. Ben Tootle, rhp, Jacksonville State (PG-X: 25)
Tootle had decent success as the No. 1 starter for Jacksonville State as a sophomore, but was overpowering when used as a closer in the Cape Cod League. With an extra high-kick delivery, Tootle’s pitches were difficult to pick up. His fastball also routinely sat in the 95-97 mph range, and it’s conceivable he’ll have a 70 fastball and 60 slider (on the standard 20-to-80 scouting scale) if he continues as a closer. He never showed that kind of stuff consistently as a starter.

5. Brad Boxberger, rhp, Southern California (PG-X: 28)
Primarily a starter in two years at USC, Boxberger threw harder (92-95 mph) when used in short bursts out of the pen during Cape Cod League action last summer. He has the solid-average curve and change needed to start, as well as the body/delivery to be a starter, but his closer work in the Cape turned heads.

Top Position Players Who May Project as Closers

1. Austin Maddox, c-rhp, Eagle’s View Academy, Jacksonville, Fla. (PG-X: 16)
Maddox is a potential first-round pick as a catcher, but his throwing arm is so impressive that someone just might draft him as a pitcher. He’s a raw arm-strength guy right now, but some believe he could throw in the high-90s when he gets his mechanics down.

2. Blake Smith, of-rhp, California (PG-X: 18)
Smith has played in the outfield primarily for Cal-Berkeley, but has also worked in middle relief—with impressive results. He was lights-out last summer with Team USA, showing a power arm out of the pen. His fastball was an easy 95. Scouts like him both ways, but there‘s a greater chance he’ll be drafted in the first round as a pitcher despite his relative lack of experience.

3. Robert Stock, c-rhp, Southern California (PG-X: 76)
Stock most likely would have been a first-round pick, as either a catcher or pitcher, out of high school had he not enrolled at USC a year early. Despite a mid-90s fastball and the makings of a plus curve, Stock has struggled with his command while juggling two roles in college and summer ball, He was limited him to just 10 innings as a sophomore at USC, but has been penciled in as the team’s closer this year. He still has first-round tools as a catcher, but the stuff on the mound is tough to ignore. His lack of size (6-0, 190) and pitchability makes the bullpen more likely than a starting role if he signs as a pitcher.

4. Marcus Stroman, ss-rhp, Patchogue-Medford HS, Medford, N.Y. (PG-X: 191)
Stroman is a gifted defender with possibly the strongest shortstop arm to come out of a New York high school since ex-big leaguer Shawon Dunston, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1982 draft. At 5-foot-9, Stroman lacks an ideal pitcher’s build, but with an ultra-athletic delivery he has the upside of both a plus fastball and curveball. If there are prevailing concerns about his bat, someone might find it too tempting not to put him in the bullpen.

5. Nate Freiman, 1b-c-rhp, Duke (PG-X: 273)
The 6-foot-8 Freiman has made all of one mound appearance for Duke in three college seasons. On Feb. 12, 2006, he made a start and suffered an arm injury that forced him to miss 29 games of his freshman season. He has since become Duke’s most valuable bat and the two-way plan was quickly abandoned. But the powerful Freiman could very well throw in the mid-90s in the event he’s given the chance to pitch so late in his career.

Top Closer Prospects / High School Pitchers

1. Mychal Givens, rhp, H.B. Plant HS, Tampa(PG-X: 13)
The highly-athletic Givens comes from a low three-quarters slot, and is capable of pumping his fastball in the mid-90s. He also ranks among the best defensive shortstops in the draft. With a strong delivery and the potential for a plus slider, Givens could move quickly as a closer. But most teams will probably start him off in the rotation and see if his arm slot holds up to the workload.

2. Matt Hobgood, rhp, Norco (Calif.) HS (PG-X: 47)
Hobgood is a jumbo-sized, 6-foot-4, 240-pound flame-thrower. There are doubts about his repeating his delivery and throwing strikes consistently, but his power arm and big body make it easy for scouts to make the proverbial Bobby Jenks comparisons. Like Jenks, Hobgood’s command issues might become immaterial when he’s used for an inning at a pop.

3. Chris Jenkins, rhp, Westfield (N.J.) HS (PG-X: 95)
At an intimidating 6-foot-7 and 223 pounds with a high leg kick, Jenkins looks the part of a closer. He threw 92-93 mph at the East Coast Showcase in Lakeland, Fla., last summer and had the makings of a solid slider. Jenkins has effort in his long arm action, though, and tends to be wild low in the zone. For a one-inning specialist, those would be lesser concerns.

4. Scott Griggs, rhp, San Ramon Valley HS, Alamo, Calif. (PG-X: 107)
Griggs is an “arm-strength guy” who could have a plus-plus fastball as a short reliever. His off-speed stuff is further away and durability is another early question mark, given his medical history. The bullpen might be the solution.

5. Felix Roque, rhp, Miami Christian HS (PG-X: 218)
Roque is an unorthodox 6-foot-4, 204-pound righty who throws nearly side-arm. He’s shown 86-92 mph on a plus-moving fastball at various events, and was particularly impressive during the fall which will elevate his revised PG Crosschecker national ranking considerably. Roque is very tough on righthanded hitters and only rarely needs his curveball. The package screams for the bullpen in pro ball.
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