Draft preview: pitchers the Twins could select
1. Tyler Kolek, Shepherd (Texas) HS
Scouts knew about Kolek as one of the top 2014 targets in Texas when he broke his left arm in a collision at first base in March 2013. The injury ended his junior season, but Kolek kept himself in shape. When he went to the tryouts for Texas’ Area Code Games team in late May, his fastball popped 99. A three-sport star who was drawing interest as a defensive end, Kolek decided to focus exclusively on baseball after the ACG tryout. Kolek then spent the summer establishing himself as the hardest thrower in a draft class full of velocity, and has maintained triple-digit radar gun readings all spring, hitting 100-102 mph regularly. Kolek’s fastball sits 96-98 mph thanks to tremendous strength, coordination in his 6-foot-5, 245-pound body and surprising arm speed. Kolek is very athletic in his delivery has a very long stride, even for his size. Scouts consider Kolek’s consistent top-end velocity unprecedented in the draft era for a high school pitcher. His fastball plays up beyond its pure velocity readings because of its heavy plus life, working downhill with sink. His dense fastball will likely be a groundball-inducing offering when hitters make contact. He throws both a curveball and slider, and the slider is a power pitch in the mid-80s that is his best secondary pitch and shows at least plus potential. His curveball has decent shape but he prefers the slider. He repeats his delivery and throws quality strikes. He has shown a changeup in showcases or in the bullpen but hasn’t needed it in games. Kolek can lose his direction to the plate, working from the far first base side of the rubber and occasionally landing closed. But he has cleaned up his delivery this spring, leading to the consistent velocity. He has performed as expected as a potential top-five pick against small school Texas competition, striking out 60 percent of hitters against 6 percent walks. Scouts struggle think think of a physical comparison for Kolek and that lack of analogous players make scouts wonder how his body will progress as he ages. Strike-throwing ability and the development of his offspeed stuff will be the keys to his development, as he has the chance to develop into a power pitcher that fronts a rotation.
2. Jeff Hoffman, East Carolina
Scouts in the Northeast recall Hoffman as an athlete with some projection who was not ready for professional baseball, with a mid- to upper-80s fastball. He made good on his East Carolina commitment, and three years later, he could become the highest-drafted player in program history despite requiring Tommy John surgery in mid-May. Hoffman has a premium pitcher’s body at 6-foot-4, 192 pounds, with twitchy athletic ability, and his stuff has grown with his body. He broke out in the Cape Cod League, where he ranked as the No. 1 prospect last summer, and pitched well in front of a large scouting crowd at Virginia in February 2014 in his second start. He was having an uneven season until mid-April, when he struck out a career-best 16 in eight one-hit innings against Middle Tennessee State. It was his last start prior to surgery, though. At his best, Hoffman’s athletic body, electric fastball and ability to maintain his velocity evoke Justin Verlander. His fastball sits from 92-96 mph, reaching 97-98, and his two-seamer features above-average sink, life and arm-side run. His changeup and curveball both flash plus, with the changeup being more consistent. He also throws a slider, which usually earns average grades. Hoffman appeared poised to be one of the first seven players drafted, but his late arm injury and surgery cloud his immediate draft future. His athleticism and elite velocity still portend a rosy future if he returns to health, and a team with extra picks will likely take a shot at him.
3. Erick Fedde, Nevada-Las Vegas
A Las Vegas High graduate, Fedde remains a tall, projectable righthander as he was in 2011, when the Padres drafted him in the 24th round. He has pitched in the UNLV rotation for three seasons and gained significant confidence pitching last summer in the Cape Cod League and then with Team USA. Fedde ran his fastball up to 92 mph in high school and pushed 94 last summer. He’s still slender at a listed 6-foot-4, 175 pounds but has added strength and touched 97 mph this spring, more often sitting in the 90-93 range. He repeats his delivery, throws quality strikes with the fastball and commands his slider well. The pitch has taken a step forward this spring, flashing plus at 81-84 mph at times, scraping higher. He has shown the ability to bury it or land it for strikes. Fedde’s changeup plays average. UNLV skipped his turn in a non-conference weekend in early May, which together with his slender frame stoked durability concerns. Those fears came to fruition a week later, when it was disclosed Fedde would have Tommy John surgery. Fedde’s polish and upside would have landed him in the first 10-15 picks, and still could keep him in the first round in a volatile class thanks to his track record.
4. Aaron Nola, Louisiana State
The Blue Jays drafted Nola and his older brother Austin in 2011, and they both turned down the Jays to play the 2012 season together at LSU. While Austin is now playing shortstop at Double-A in the Marlins system, Aaron was having one of the best seasons in college baseball in 2014. Athletic and flexible, Nola manages to stay on top of his pitches and command them despite a mid-three-quarters release point that gives his fastball excellent life. His fastball sits 93-94 mph and touches 95 regularly, and he reached back for 96 in a hyped, head-to-head showdown with Vanderbilt and Tyler Beede in March. Nola’s fastball command ranks toward the top of the college class, as he can pitch to both sides of the plate, though his walk rate has increased (1.3 to 2.3 per nine) this season as he has thrown more sliders. His strikeout rate has jumped even more (8.7 to 10.7 per nine). Nola arrived at LSU with a plus changeup with sink that looked like his fastball out of his hand, but he has lost feel for his change while improving his slider, which was once below-average. Scouts give his slider average or better grades as he has added power to the pitch, but they would like to see a return of his plus change. Nola gets swings and misses in the zone with his fastball, the mark of a starting pitcher, and is one of the safest bets in the class. His command should help the 6-foot-1, 196-pounder move quickly.
5. Touki Toussaint, Coral Springs Christian HS, Miami
Toussaint might have the least baseball experience of any top draft prospect, yet arguably the highest ceiling of any high school pitcher. He’s of Haitian descent and was a soccer player who began playing baseball as a teenager. He gained note in scouting circles as an underclassman by running his fastball up to 97 mph with a hammer breaking ball. While his control was below-average on the showcase circuit last summer, he showed all the raw material. Then he made significant strides as a pitcher this spring. Although he sat 90-93 mph at the National High School Invitational in frigid weather, Toussaint has had numerous starts where he sat 93-96 mph, touching 97 with plus life. He has elite arm speed and whip-like arm action with long arms. His curveball shows flashes of being a plus-plus offering and potentially the best in the class. His hammer, according to TrackMan, had the highest spin rate of any Perfect Game All-American. Toussaint’s changeup improved dramatically and has at least plus potential. Control will be his biggest question mark, as he has struggled to consistently fill up the strike zone. But his elite, quick-twitch athleticism could go toward allaying those concerns, as he is probably the best athlete in the pitching class. Toussaint also has a great pitcher’s body at 6-foot-2, 198 pounds with a high waist, long extremities and large hands. He is also young for the class and won’t turn 18 until after the draft.
6. Tyler Beede, Vanderbilt
Beede was the fourth high school pitcher drafted in 2011, after Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley and Jose Fernandez. The Blue Jays and Beede didn’t come to terms, though, with the Jays offering $2.4 million and Beede seeking $3 million or more. He headed to Vanderbilt and struggled as a freshman but seemed to put things together while earning Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year honors in 2013. Even in his 14-1, 2.32 season, Beede walked 5.6 per nine innings, and he had a rough summer with Team USA, with his delivery getting out of sync when he couldn’t find the strike zone. He has thrown more strikes this spring (3.3 BB/9) but has been more hittable, and scouts give him average control grades with below-average command. Nevertheless, Beede looks the part of a first-rounder at an athletic, powerful 6-foot-4, 215 pounds with a clean arm, and he flashes plus with three pitches. At times he pitches with a well above-average fastball, reaching 97 mph and sitting 92-94. His changeup has been his best secondary offering this spring, earning plus grades, and he throws one of the hardest curveballs in the draft at 80-81 mph, giving him a third plus pitch. Beede has a big personality and rap alter ego (Young Beedah) and was the life of Team USA’s clubhouse despite his struggles last summer. He’s a wild card in the first round whose last starts, particularly at the SEC tournament, will be watched closely as scouts look for signs of improved strike-throwing.
1. Brady Aiken, Cathedral Catholic HS, San Diego
Aiken’s advanced feel for pitching and lean, projectable body have made him a big-name prospect for years, but he became a no-doubt, top-of-the-draft talent when his velocity jumped this spring. Aiken’s fastball sat in the 88-91 mph range and topped out at 92 on the showcase circuit last summer, but he spent the winter working out, and he made waves by running his heater up to 97 in an early-spring showdown against Alex Jackson’s crosstown Rancho Bernardo High team. He has sat at 92-93 mph this spring, regularly touching 96, and spots his fastball well at the knees to both sides of the plate. His curveball was already a solid-average pitch last summer at 73-75 mph, but one scout called it “silly good” this spring, a 77-78 hammer with depth and sharp bite. Aiken also has good feel for a changeup, giving him a third potential plus pitch, and some scouts say his slider is another promising offering, though his curve is his calling card. A former football quarterback early in his high school years, Aiken is a standout athlete with an ideal pitcher’s frame (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and a fluid delivery with minimal effort. He stands out most for his extraordinary ability to command his entire repertoire. The UCLA commit also draws plaudits for his intelligence and ability to make adjustments.
2. Carlos Rodon, North Carolina State
The son of Cuban-Americans who moved to North Carolina when he was a 9-year-old, Rodon emerged as one of the state’s top pitchers as a high school senior and was being crosschecked heavily when back spasms sapped his velocity and pushed him down the draft. A 16th-rounder of the Brewers in 2011, he spurned more than $500,000 to attend North Carolina State, where his velocity jumped immediately as he firmed up his body and shortened his stride. He hit 97 mph regularly in short stints to open his freshman season, with a slider that immediately became one of the best in college baseball. His slider remains the best pitch in the draft for most scouts, sitting 85-87 mph and scraping 89 at its best with two-plane depth. Multiple scouts have given Rodon’s slider 80 grades on the 20-80 scale when it is on, though some say he relies on the slider too much. More concerning this year was a lack of explosiveness on his fastball for the first half of the season, when Rodon often sat 89-92, as well as below-average command, particularly to his arm side. His changeup was a solid-average pitch last summer, when he dominated Cuba to end his summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and pitched like a big leaguer. It has been inconsistent and often non-existent this spring, however. His listed 6-foot-3, 234-pound frame is an asset for some due to thick, strong legs and durability; others knock him for a lack of athleticism and projection. Rodon’s confidence crosses over into cockiness at times, but his competitiveness gives him a No. 1 pitcher’s mentality. A second-half revival of his fastball velocity back to the mid-90s, tied to improved direction in his delivery to home plate, had him more closely resembling the pitcher who led Division I in strikeouts and strikeouts per nine in 2013, when he led the Wolfpack to its first College World Series trip since 1967. The worst-case scenario for Rodon is a potential closer, but he’s a potential frontline starter with some refinement.
3. Kyle Freeland, Evansville
Just 170 pounds when the Phillies drafted him in the 35th round in 2011, he went to Evansville and earned a rotation spot as a freshman, when he was throwing 85-88 mph. He has grown to 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, and the quality of his stuff has continued to improve as he has grown into his body and retained a quick arm. He hit 96 mph in the fall after pitching at 89-93 mph last summer in the Cape Cod League, and he has maintained that stuff this spring. Freeland has a loose arm and plus-plus control and projects to have big league command, and his 15-1 strikeout-walk ratio ranked second in the country, and his 106 strikeouts ranked third. Freeland gets swings and misses with his fastball as well as a hard slider in the 85-86 mph range when he’s right. The slider is lethal to lefthanded hitters. He also throws a solid-average curveball that he locates well. Freeland’s changeup can be too firm at times but has good tumble when it’s on. Some scouts aren’t convinced Freeland’s delivery will allow him to start, as he has a bit of a head jerk, but he has shown the athleticism to repeat it and throws a high volume of quality strikes. He rose up draft boards all spring as his numbers popped off both the radar gun and the stat sheet.