Your 2015 MLB Draft Prospect Primer: 12 Players You Need to Know

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The 2015 MLB draft, which begins on Monday, isn’t going to be one of those legendary classes that produces four Hall of Famers and 25 All-Stars. This is shaping up to be a weird draft for a couple of reasons: First, there’s not an obvious, Bryce Harperesque top prospect. Second, and perhaps because of the first point, there’s still a tremendous amount of uncertainty about what the Diamondbacks will do with the no. 1 overall pick. The draft process is nearly impossible to predict in the best of times, but when there’s uncertainty at the top of the board, the confusion multiplies the further down the chain you go.

So in an attempt to provide some clarity, I’ve placed a dozen of this year’s top prospects into three key buckets. This isn’t an exhaustive primer, so you won’t find anything on, say, Georgia high school outfielder Daz Cameron,1 even though he’ll probably go in the top 10. Also worth noting: I cover college baseball on a regular basis, so this college-heavy primer is partially a product of a draft that’s projected to be college-heavy at the top, and partially a product of my desire to provide the most useful analysis possible.

The Shortstops

alex-bregman-lsu-throwAP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The top position players in this year’s draft include more shortstops than usual. In addition to the four names featured here, guys like Florida’s Richie Martin, UL-Lafayette’s Blake Trahan, and Alabama’s Mikey White could all go toward the back of the first round or early on Day 2.

Brendan Rodgers, Lake Mary High School (FL): Rodgers — whose name is, infuriatingly, the same as Liverpool’s manager — is probably the top prospect in the draft: He’s not a burner, but he can run, field, and throw well enough to play the position competently. If you can do those things and hit as well as the Florida State commit can, you’re going to be a first-division starter for years and years and years.

Dansby Swanson, Vanderbilt: Swanson played second base on last year’s national championship team and won the College World Series Most Outstanding Player award in the process. When shortstop Vince Conde, a ninth-round pick of the Yankees, went pro after the season, Swanson slid over to the other side of the bag and has been perhaps the best player in college baseball in 2015. He could, by the end of the month, become only the fourth player to win the College World Series MOP and the Golden Spikes (college baseball’s Heisman trophy) and go no. 1 overall in the draft. The three guys to do it before were Bob Horner, Phil Nevin, and Pat Burrell, so we can expect Swanson, an explosive athlete and no-doubt shortstop, to turn into an immobile power hitter in the future.

Alex Bregman, LSU: Bregman will probably be the third shortstop off the board. The 6-foot, 186-pound junior isn’t quite the athlete Swanson is, but since arriving in Baton Rouge, he’s absolutely mashed. Bregman has played 191 games in his college career. Do a little division to adjust for a 162-game season, though, and you get a .336/.410/.518 batting line with 21 home runs and 63 stolen bases. Bregman is one of the most polished hitters in the draft, and even if he doesn’t end up playing short as a pro, he’s got more than enough defensive chops to be a good second baseman.

Kevin Newman, Arizona: I understand the Newman hype less than the buzz surrounding the other guys, and that might just be because he’s not really putting up flashy power numbers for an SEC team that I see a lot of, the way Bregman and Swanson are. Sure, he’s hitting .391 this season and never strikes out, but guys who do that without hitting for power don’t turn into good major leaguers. However, ESPN Insider Eric Longenhagen, who has seen a lot of Newman, says the tools are all there.

“On Newman, the tools across the board are good,” Longenhagen says. “Future 60 or 65 hit, 50 glove at short, 55 arm, 60 run, and everything plays up because he’s got great feel for the game.”

The reason for Newman’s disturbing lack of power, Longenhagen says, is that his stance is so wide that he can’t stride into the ball, resulting in 30-grade (or almost unplayable) game power. Longenhagen thinks that if pro coaches narrow Newman’s stance, however, he has the potential for 30-double seasons: “I’d take that, but it is more valuable than it is sexy, and the casual fan wants sexy.”

The Smallish College Pitchers

tyler-jay-illinois-triHannah Foslien/AP Photo

This draft lacks a big, ace-quality arm, but it has an abundance of prospects who could become no. 2 starters if they overcome obvious physical obstacles.

Carson Fulmer, Vanderbilt: Fulmer nudged two-time first-rounder Tyler Beede out of Vanderbilt’s Friday-night role last year, and has been one of the best pitchers in the country this year. The righty has top-of-the-rotation stuff, and his only performance concern is his iffy command: Can he locate enough to avoid walking the world in the pros? Otherwise, the main reservation is that he just doesn’t look like a starter: He’s a 6-foot righty with glasses and a delivery that could charitably be called “unique” and less charitably called “a mess.” Guys his size with weird deliveries have to be athletic freaks to throw 200 innings a year, though FanGraphs lead prospect writer Kiley McDaniel — probably the industry’s high man on Fulmer — recently wrote an article positing that Fulmer might be just such a freak. Even if he can’t start, though, Fulmer’s floor if he’s healthy is probably as a really good relief pitcher, so maybe we should all just stop being babies.

Walker Buehler, Vanderbilt: All that said, I’d much rather have Fulmer than Buehler, the other Vanderbilt right-hander who could go in the top 10. Buehler’s height starts with a 6, and he doesn’t pitch like he’s falling off a bicycle, but apart from that, there’s not much I like better about him than Fulmer. Fulmer, despite being two inches shorter, is built like a tank, while Buehler’s an ephemeral 6-2, 175, so he’s not really “bigger” in any meaningful way. Plus, unlike Fulmer, he’s already been hurt this year.

And while Buehler — like most pitchers — walks fewer guys than Fulmer, his stuff, though still very good, isn’t on Fulmer’s level. If I were running an MLB team, I’d be happy to draft Buehler in the teens, particularly if the other three pitchers in this group, plus Missouri State’s Jon Harris, were all off the board. But he’s not the “safe” choice he’s made out to be.

Tyler Jay, Illinois: Jay is an extremely athletic lefty with a mid-90s fastball, a plus curveball, a developing changeup, and Frisbee slider, plus the ninth-lowest walk rate in the country, all for a top-10 team. So why on earth isn’t he an obvious no. 1 pick?

Two reasons: First, while he’s got the kind of physique that inspires him to wear extremely tight sleeves on his jersey, he’s only 6-1. Second, he’s started only one game all year, so while he’s held his velocity and delivery together in longer relief outings, he’s been next to impossible to scout. I’ve seen him pitch six times this season, but scouts, scouting directors, and GMs can’t afford to go to a part of the country without many other top prospects in the hope that Jay might pitch an inning or two, and those people need to see him in order to draft him in the top five.

But having seen him, I’m sold. He’s such a good athlete that I can’t imagine stamina being a problem.

“He’s always been consistently built up — we just try to mix it in,” Illinois pitching coach Drew Dickinson told me last month. “If there’s a time when we don’t need him on Friday or Saturday and we roll through a couple games, boom, we piggyback him on Sunday.”

And that’s exactly what happened in Monday’s regional final: Illinois’s starter got knocked around, and with the game in the balance, Jay came in to start the sixth and put the ballpark to sleep with a Pedro Martinez–in-the-1999 ALDS of a performance. I have no questions left. Depending on who else does, he’ll go between no. 3 overall to the Rockies and no. 9 overall to the Cubs.

Dillon Tate, UC–Santa Barbara: Tate, at 6-2, 200 pounds, is a little closer to ideal size for a righty starter, and stuff isn’t the problem for the Gaucho ace: His fastball sits in the mid-90s and can reach 98 when he needs it, and he also spins a plus slider. Tate’s a little more raw than the other top college pitchers, which might put off certain GMs, who’d probably rather draft a younger project instead. But the other way to look at it is that Tate just dominated a pretty good college league, the Big West, and still has some growth potential left. He’s probably the overall top pitching prospect in this draft.

The Injured Pitchers

nathan-kirby-virginia-triNati Harnik/AP Photo

For other pitchers, the concern is health: Part of the reason this draft is so weak is that its top pitching ranks have been decimated by injury.

Brady Aiken, IMG Academy (FL): You know Aiken well by now: He was drafted first overall last year, but didn’t sign after the Astros reneged on an under-slot deal because his elbow looked abnormal. While nothing can erase how bad that situation looked for Houston, the Astros’ concerns were vindicated when the aforementioned elbow ligament gave way 12 pitches into Aiken’s postgrad season. His recovery from Tommy John surgery is rumored to be far from routine, because of the physiological abnormality of his elbow, so a team that picks him, likely in the 20s, will get a pitcher with surefire no. 1 upside but the potential to never throw a pitch in the major leagues.

Mike Matuella, Duke: Matuella, another potential no. 1 pick contender before the season, is that prototypical ace, a 6-6, 220-pound specimen with a mid-90s fastball and two quality off-speed pitches (a changeup and a curveball) as side dishes. The catch is that he’s thrown all of 139 collegiate innings because of a nagging back issue that wiped out half of his sophomore year. The good news is that the back issue never recurred; the bad news is that he blew out his elbow as a junior. Like Aiken, Matuella has both ace potential and great risk, though he’s probably not as extreme of a risk as Aiken.

Nathan Kirby, Virginia: Kirby could’ve gone top-10 if he hadn’t spent his junior year recovering from a lat strain, though despite his impressive strikeout numbers in the ACC and the perception that he can finesse his way through major league lineups, I was never a huge fan of his. With a low arm slot and a fastball that rarely breaks 91, Kirby’s biggest weapon is his changeup, and his command isn’t at the level of other college finesse pitchers who will go much lower, such as Cal State Fullerton’s Thomas Eshelman and Illinois lefty Kevin Duchene.

Admittedly, my perception of Kirby is probably colored by the fact that the only time I’ve seen him in person, against Vanderbilt in last year’s College World Series, he had the worst start of his career, a 2.1-inning appearance that was the baseball equivalent of opening the door to your house and finding out it’s full of bees.

Kolby Allard, San Clemente High School (CA): Longenhagen recently described Allard to me as the “Julio Urias starter kit,” which, I dunno, sounds pretty good.

All told, Allard has a vaguely Tyler Jay–like package: He’s a 6-foot-2 lefty with mid-90s velocity and the potential for a plus curveball and above-average command. Plus, he’s very young for his draft class, which is always a positive for high school prospects. The only real downside is that while the stress reaction in his back that kept Allard on the shelf is neither serious nor arm-related, it did keep him off the field as a senior. (To say nothing of back injuries being the kind of old-man problem you don’t want to see in a kid who’s still too young to buy lottery tickets.)

“I get mixed opinions on what his back injury might mean long-term,” Longenhagen says. “Some medical professionals I’ve talked to worry it could be chronic, others think it’s a blip. At least it isn’t his arm.”

It’s not going to kick him 20 spots down the board, like injuries will for the other three guys in this bucket, but Allard’s back injury is a justifiable concern.

Filed Under: 2015 MLB Draft, MLB, MLB Draft, MLB Prospects, College Baseball, High School Baseball, Minor League Baseball, Pitchers, Shortstops, MLB Injuries, Brendan Rodgers, Dansby Swanson, Alex Bregman, Kevin Newman, Carson Fulmer, Walker Buehler, Tyler Jay, Dillon Tate, Brady Aiken, Mike Matuella, Nathan Kirby, Kolby Allard, Vanderbilt Commodores, LSU Tigers, Arizona Wildcats, Virginia Cavaliers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Duke Blue Devils

Michael Baumann is a Grantland contributor and author of the book Philadelphia Phenoms: The Most Amazing Athletes to Play in the City of Brotherly Love.

Archive @ mj_baumann