MLB Draft Bites: Week 1 – The Helium Prospects

Feature Photo: Luis Curbelo, SS, Cocoa (Cocoa, FL)

Welcome to our first installment of MLB Draft Bites!  This week, our partners at Perfect Game provide updates on five lesser-hyped players entering their spring season who could emerge as first-round draft picks come June.  Also, 2080 contributor Nick J. Faleris has updates on recent performances of the top draft-eligible players in the 2016 class.

Players Going Up

Ed. Note: Write-ups were submitted by Perfect Game evaluators prior to the start of the spring season.

Luis Curbelo, SS, Cocoa (Cocoa, FL)
Ht/Wt: 6’3″/185 | B/T: R/R | Age (as of 2016 draft date): 18y, 7m

Curbelo is bound to draw someone unfair comparisons to fellow Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa between now and draft day, and while he’s not quite as dynamic of a player, calling him a poor man’s version of the first overall pick from 2012 MLB Draft isn’t a big stretch. He has a similar stature, with good quick-twitch type movements despite his solid frame.  He shows well defensively, has good, not great speed and a strong throwing arm across the diamond. In particular his first-step quickness and soft hands stand out, allowing his other defensive tools to play up.

While his bat hasn’t shown up as much in games in tournament settings his BP sessions prove that the bat speed and power potential are both there, as few hit the ball as consistently hard as Curbelo does when he’s locked in. He put on a show at two of Perfect Game’s highest-level events during the summer showcase season; the National Showcase in mid-June in Fort Myers, Fla., and the PG All-American Classic in mid-August in San Diego.

While he’s not going to be in the conversation for a top-10 pick, he could easily sneak into the lower third of the first round given his profile and the ever-present need for shortstops at the next level. This could be especially true for a team with multiple picks – such as one of the compensatory and/or competitive balance lottery picks – that may be looking to lock up a player that doesn’t pose as great of a signability risk, as few Puerto Rican players do. – Patrick Ebert, Perfect Game USA

Nolan Jones, 3B, Holy Ghost Prep (Langhorne, PA)
Ht/Wt: 6’4″/200 | B/T: L/R | Age (as of 2016 draft date): 18y, 1m

Jones, a two-way prospect committed to the University of Virginia, plays shortstop now and plays it relatively well, but certainly projects to third base at the major league level. He’s also an accomplished pitching prospect who could potentially do well on the mound at the collegiate level, but as far as pro projection goes, he is at his best with the bat in his hands.

Jones is one of the few prep players in this class to project with an above-average (or better) hit tool, with excellent barrel control, natural bat-to-ball skill, and an advanced approach. He’s more gap-to-gap than over the fence right now, but with excellent strength in his swing through contact, and a body that can still add weight, it’s certainly reasonable to project average power as well.

Defensively, he’s destined to move to third base should he sign out of high school, but that’s not necessarily a knock on his athleticism. He’s a quality athlete for his size—thanks in part to his accomplishments as a hockey player—and though he’s an average runner right now, that may slow down a tick or two. With the actions and glove work necessary to make shortstop work right now, a move to third base shouldn’t be too difficult for him. He has the quick-twitch athleticism necessary for the position, as well as plus arm strength, giving him above-average defensive projection.

We may be looking at a plus hitter, and average-or-better everything else third base prospect here. That’s certainly not a unicorn, but at the same time it’s almost certainly a first round profile, depending on how the draft shakes out. If Jones can show a bit more power this spring, he could slide himself from “potential first-rounder” to “probable first-rounder”. – Brian Sakowski, Perfect Game USA

*Note: Sakowski originally had Jesus Lizard (LHP, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Parkland, FL) ) as his pre-season helium choice for this article, but Luzardo’s immediate future is now in question after reportedly tearing his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) last week, according to ESPN’s Keith Law and other outlets.  He is looking at possible Tommy John surgery, and seeking a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews.

Cole Ragans, LHP, North Florida Christian (Tallahassee, FL)
Ht/Wt: 6’4″/190 | B/T: L/L | Age (as of 2016 draft date): 18y, 6m

Ragans is a projectable lefty that brings size, pitchability and some physicality to the table, which I think should be enough to propel him into the first round as we approach the June draft.

Ragans possesses an already-solid frame with some projection left in the tank. His arm is quick and it stays extremely loose, which should allow for some added velo between now and draft day. In my looks at him over the summer, Ragans showed an advanced ability to work the corner to his glove-side, which was devastating to opposing left-handers. Utilizing his great extension, the Florida State commit consistently pounded down in the zone while moving the fastball to both corners in the 88-to-91 mph range and maxing out at 93. With a bump in velocity and pitching downhill on a more consistent basis, Ragans has the tools with his primary pitch to ascend up draft boards if he continues to improve this spring.

When we look at his off-speed and breaking balls, his best secondary offering has been the curveball. Even from his mid-three-quarters slot, he is able to get consistent spin and shape on the ball while also throwing it for strikes. The development of a legitimate changeup will be key for just how high he goes come June. The pitch has been underwhelming and below-average when I’ve seen it. Throwing it more and developing better feel for it is a must, but he has flashed some changeups that did inspire some hope.

When all said and done, we are looking at a 6-foot-4 lefty with two above-average and potentially plus pitches to go along with a workable changeup. That should lock him into the first round and lead to many broken hearts in Tallahassee once FSU fans realize his chances of making it to campus just shrunk big time. –Chris King, Perfect Game USA and 2080 Baseball

Daulton Jefferies, RHP, Univ. of California (Berkley)
Ht/Wt: 6’0″/180 | B/T: R/R | Age (as of 2016 draft date): 20y, 10m

The Golden Bears open the 2016 spring with high expectations, and a big reason why is the right arm of staff ace Daulton Jefferies. Though not your prototypical long-limbed pitcher, Jefferies is able to match or exceed what most arms on the college side are capable of producing, and he does it with command and a balanced set of mechanics. Jefferies does a nice job of incorporating his strong lower half into his drive down the mound and is able to generate downhill plane while locating to other side of the plate with life. With stats that improved across the board from his freshman to sophomore seasons, he poised for a big junior season and could subsequently see his draft stock skyrocket.

Jeffries is armed with a full three-pitch mix, all of which show at least average to better at present, and project for more, including a fastball that sits comfortably in the low-90s. Jefferies is capable of running his heater into the mid-90s without much effort from his loose three-quarters release point and does a nice job of maintaining his velocity throughout as well. At its best Jefferies’ breaking ball shows sharp bite with 11-to-5 shape in the upper-70s and he rounds out his arsenal with a mid-80s changeup with which he maintains his arm speed and shows late fading life to the bottom of the zone. While the biggest knock to Jefferies’ overall game will be his size, the overall package plays in a starting role, and he’s continued to find success whenever he toes the rubber. –Jheremy Brown, Perfect Game USA

Ryan Zeferjahn, RHP, Seaman (Topeka, KS)
Ht/Wt: 6’4″/190 | B/T: R/R | Age (as of day of draft) 18y, 3m

Plenty of cross-checkers and scouting directors will be in Kansas this spring to evaluate flame-throwing righty Riley Pint, but there is another right-handed pitcher from the Sunflower State that could end up being selected early this June.  Zeferjahn looks the part, as he owns a lean, athletic build and a long-limbed frame that oozes projection.

Presently Zeferjahn pitches with an average fastball, generally sitting in the 89-to-92 mph range, but he’s touched a few ticks higher in shorter stints and it’s easy to envision him living in the 92-to-94 range at physical maturity thanks to above-average arm speed and a clean, loose arm-action. Additionally, Zeferjahn is a good athlete and he shows solid feel for repeating his delivery, although at times his frontside can leak out early. He’s shown quality fastball command, and he particularly stood out in Jupiter (in front of dozens of pro evaluators) when he consistently filled up the bottom half of the strike zone and was able to work effectively to both his glove and arm side.

Zeferjahn’s breaking ball is also a weapon, as the 77-to-81 mph offering shows slider tilt, some depth, and late bite to the glove side. While the term slurve is often used pejoratively, Zeferjahn’s slurvy breaking ball is a quality pitch that flashes above-average and could play there consistently. He hasn’t shown too much of his changeup on the showcase circuit, but the necessary armspeed and athleticism are present for him to develop a serviceable third offering.

It will be interesting to see what unfolds this spring. Zeferjahn fits the prototypical mold for high-end amateur starting pitchers. While he may not possess the highest upside in the 2016 draft class and projects as more a middle of rotation type, Zeferjahn is among the most projectable pitchers in the high school ranks and there’s a chance that his draft stock takes a sizeable jump in the next few months, particularly if he’s made some strength gains and the velocity continues to trend upward. –Andrew Krause, Perfect Game USA

Hudson Sanchez, SS, Southlake Carroll (Southlake, TX)
Ht/Wt: 6’3″/195 | B/T: R/R | Age (as of day of draft): 17y, 7m

The first time I saw Hudson Sanchez play was as a 15-year-old in the middle of his sophomore year. It was obvious watching that game that this was a young prospect worth following closely. He was listed then at 6-foot-2, 175-pounds, but had athletic grace and balance in his actions on defense and the beginnings of some real bat speed at the plate. He also ran a sub-7.0 sixty already. In short, everything projected strongly.

The next three times I saw Sanchez play over the next year and a half were a disappointment, however. The athleticism and projection were still there,  but the hitting approach was so backward that it was hard to get excited. In my terminology, Sanchez had developed, or was striving to develop, a “mechanics over bat speed” swing. Meaning, he came to the plate looking to execute a particular type of swing regardless of the pitch type, pitch location, quality of pitcher, or any other factor. It degraded his bat speed and subsequently degraded his prospect status, at least in this scout’s eyes.

That changed big-time in my last two viewings, both of which were multi-day and against the highest level pitching, at the August Area Code Games and the October WWBA World Championships. Sanchez’ hitting approach was completely different than before. In scout terminology, “the barrel was out hunting.” His swing was full bat speed and the barrel was whistling through the zone and impacting the ball out front, with violence. Sanchez’ performance in the Area Codes reminded me of Gavin Cecchini’s in 2011 when

Cecchini separated himself from the crowd of prospects by seemingly hitting a 95-to-100 mph line drive off the barrel in every at-bat (Cecchini ended up the 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft). It was the same thing for Sanchez in Jupiter, with multiple extra base hits and easy plus bat speed.

The early evaluation of defensive athleticism has not changed either, although watching Sanchez play third base at the Area Codes was a treat. That’s not saying that he may not stay at shortstop for a while, but he made one play at third that any big leaguer would have been proud of, and he made it with confidence and some flair.

So the ingredients are all there for Sanchez’s stock to rise to first-round level this spring if he continues to hit as he did at those two very high profile events. Scouting directors will know that he is just about the youngest prospect in the 2016 class, younger than Jason Groome by over two months and even younger than Carlos Correa by five weeks when Correa was drafted. They’ve seen the bat speed in full force; they will just need to see a bit more of the same approach to hitting this spring. — David Rawnsley, Perfect Game, USA

MLB Draft Bites
By Nick J. Faleris

♦ Top five overall hopeful Alec Hansen (RHP, Univ. of Oklahoma) found his groove this weekend after making it through just four innings and allowing four earned runs on four hits and seven walks between his first two starts of the season. Hansen punched out 11 UCLA hitters on Saturday 6 1/3 innings while walking just one in a hard-luck losing effort. The big-bodied righty sat in the middle 90s with his heater, reaching 98 mph, and mixed in an above-average to plus slider in the mid- to upper-80s with sharp bite.

♦ After impressing on the Cape last summer, Nick Senzel (3B, Univ. of Tennessee) has started the 2016 spring red hot, most recently a 5-for-12 performance this past weekend at the Keith LeClair Classic held in Grenville, North Carolina that included a pair of doubles and three stolen bases. Through the first 10 games of the season Senzel, one of the more impressive pure hitters in the class, is slashing .425/.531/.575, with six doubles and nine walks, paired with just four strikeouts. He’s also swiped six bags in seven attempts.

♦ In a year light on impact catching, Matt Thaiss (C, Univ. of Virginia) stands as one of the more interesting bats. He launched his first home run of the year during this past weekend’s series against Monmouth, finishing the three game stint going 5-for-11 with four walks and no strikeouts. Thaiss currently sits at .395/.490/.535 with three doubles, one home run and eight walks. He has yet to strikeout.

Kyle Funkhouser (RHP, Univ. of Louisville) bounced back after two rough outings to start the year, going seven strong innings against Princeton and allowing two earned runs on four hits and just one walk, while striking out 12 Tigers. Funkhouser worked his fastball well to both sides of the plate, sitting generally in the low 90s with the pitch, while folding in a quality breaker. The senior righty will look to continue to build momentum next Friday when the Cardinals welcome the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame to Jim Patterson Stadium.

Corey Ray (OF, Univ. of Louisville) has enjoyed as strong a start to the season as any draft-eligible bat, slashing .409/.491/.909 through the first three weeks of the season. Ray has done it all, launching five home runs, five doubles and a triple, while drawing seven walks to just five strikeouts, and totaling 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts. Ray entered the spring as a candidate to go first overall in the June draft as an up-the-middle defender with impact potential at the plate and on the bases. Thus far he’s done nothing but strengthen his case this spring.

♦ Cardinals closer Zack Burdi (RHP, Univ. of Louisville) logged another scoreless inning this past weekend and has yet to allow a hit over his first three appearances. One of the top relief arms in the 2016 draft class, Burdi has punched out five hitters in his first three innings of the 2016 season and has allowed just one walk. Burdi is capable of working regularly in the mid- to upper-90s with his fastball and will show a solid low-80s slider and changeup, each with good deception off the heater.