Feature Photo: Ryan Boldt, OF, Nebraska
Two Vanderbilt hurlers highlight this week’s Perfect Game Draft Pack, as of the top left-handed bullpen arms in the country sees his draft stock continue to rise, while the Commodores’s Friday night arm is proving to be as unhittable as any pitcher in the SEC. PG evaluators David Rawnsley, Brian Sakowski, and Jheremy Brown takes through five players looking to come off the board by the second round of this year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft. Enjoy this week’s edition!
Ed. Note: The prospect profiles first appeared at PerfectGame.org. PG’s complete weekly Draft Pack can viewed here (subscription required).
Ryan Boldt, OF, Univ. of Nebraska
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/220 | B/T: L/R | Age (as of draft date): 21y, 6m
Projected Draft Round: 2
Ryan Boldt looked to be on top of the baseball world before his senior season at Red Wing High School southeast of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was a 6-foot-2, 185-pound left-handed hitter who ran a 6.4 60-yard dash, laced line drives all over the field and had won the Most Valuable Player honors at the 2012 Perfect Game All-American Classic. Boldt looked like a sure first round draft choice for the 2013 draft.
It wasn’t to be, however. An uncommonly wet and late spring, even for Minnesota, left snow still on the fields in early May. When Boldt was finally able to get outside, he injured his knee running the bases in Red Wing’s first game, had to undergo surgery and was done for the heavily abbreviated spring schedule.
Boldt’s freshman year at Nebraska was a success, as he hit .311-2-31 with 20 extra-base hits while playing strong defense in center field.
Boldt’s sophomore year was almost as much a setback as his senior year in high school. The Cornhuskers as a team adopted a hitting approach that heavily emphasized opposite field contact, and while Boldt hit .344, he only had 10 extra-base hits in 55 games and slugged .408. He seemed afraid of pulling the ball at all and drove very few pitches to any part of the field. As a team Nebraska slugged only .369 for the season, with 124 extra-base hits in 57 games.
Scouts openly wondered what happened to Boldt’s swing and potential, especially since he had filled out and got much stronger in college while still maintaining his quick-twitch athleticism.
During the past fall, though, Nebraska coach Darin Erstad overhauled the team’s hitting approach, with immediate benefit. Nebraska has a .449 team slugging percentage after 33 games this spring and has almost as many extra-base hits as they had all last year, including eight more home runs. Boldt is hitting .344-4-22 out of the leadoff spot with 16 extra-base hits and 16 stolen bases.
When I saw Boldt play last week, he crushed deep fly balls to right-center field his first two times up with aggressive, full swings that he was incapable of executing as a sophomore. Both were caught but they were quality at-bats. His third time up the opposing pitcher threw him at least six straight curveballs before Boldt just accepted the inevitable and lined one into the left field corner for a double. Even the authority in Boldt’s swing approach on the opposite field double was different, as he didn’t fist the ball, he drove it.
Boldt is listed in the Nebraska program as weighing 220 pounds but appears more slender. Even if he is that big, it hasn’t affected his plus speed and range in center field, a position he should be able to stay at for a long time.
Scouts seemed skeptical early in the year about Boldt’s adjustments but have steadily started converting as the results keep coming back positive. He may not have his first round luster he enjoyed before his senior high school season, but he is working his way back up the ladder. –David Rawnsley
Ben Bowden, LHP, Vanderbilt Univ.
Ht/Wt: 6’4”/235 | B/T: L/L | Age (as of draft date): 21y, 8m
Projected Draft Round: 2-3
Despite being 6-foot-4, 235-pounds with a fastball that peaked around 90 mph and a known prospect on the travel scene, the No. 258th ranked prospect in the 2013 class went undrafted, a decision many teams would like to now reverse. Having seen an uptick during each of his three years in Nashville, Bowden continues to leave his mark on teams at the backend of games while simultaneously raising his draft stock and establishing himself as one of the top bullpen arms in the country.
While that last statement may raise a red flag in terms of draft stock as relievers don’t generally go high, make no mistake about it the now solidly built 6-foot-4 Bowden has both the durability and overall stuff to be a starter at the next level. Though he began in the weekend rotation to open 2016 after the Commodores lost two-thirds of their weekend rotation to the first round last June, Bowden’s value out of the bullpen is astronomical and gives Vanderbilt a weapon not many schools have at their disposal.
The same strength that would make starting a possibility allows Bowden to work back-to-back days in any given weekend without any sacrifice in terms of stuff. With a rather full and loose arm action Bowden typically works in the 91-to-94 mph range, sporting short running life to his arm side on the fastball while generating severe downhill plane to the lower quadrants of the zone. As if the feeling of Bowden throwing the fastball directly downhill wasn’t enough to make for an uncomfortable at-bat, the Massachusetts lefthander shows solid command to either side of the plate and can work away from hitters with intent.
Just as he was on the Cape this summer, nearly unhittable with a pristine ERA over 17 1/3 out of the bullpen, Bowden has been missing bats at a frequent rate since moving back to the bullpen. Over the last three weekends since assuming his old role Bowden has made seven appearances, six of which have resulted in a save. And this isn’t your typical one-inning closer either as the lefthander frequently works multi-inning outings and is capable of going much longer than your typical closer who ramps it up for an inning at a time.
With the ease of the fastball, the overall command, and the difficulty of squaring up the fastball, Bowden is more than capable of pitching almost exclusively off of his fastball while still finding success and it’s something I’ve personally seen him do. And this isn’t because he’s not capable of spinning a breaking ball or turning over a changeup as he has a feel for both pitches. His curveball is a short 1-to-7 offering that features tight rotation in the low-80s with slight depth while the changeup offers fading life to his arm side while mimicking the arm action he shows on his heater.
Bowden has built up enough of a track record of extended outings where scouts could feel more comfortable drafting him as a starter when compared to other college bullpen arms, and if they do, there’s a good chance he goes at the front of the projected draft round mentioned above. –Jheremy Brown
Kevin Gowdy, RHP, Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara, CA)
Ht/Wt: 6’4”/175 | B/T: R/R | Age (as of draft date): 18y, 7m
Projected Draft Round: 1-1S
A longtime Perfect Game participant, Gowdy has been heavily scouted for a long time now, ever since we noticed a lanky right-hander with an easy arm action and supremely projectable velocity years ago.
As far back as April of 2014 at the Coach Bob National Invitational, our own Jheremy Brown was extremely intrigued by Gowdy, submitting several notes on the young right-hander and lauding, among other things, the ease of his delivery and arm action, the command of several pitches for a then-sophomore, and the absolutely picturesque projection levels.
Fast forward to June of 2015 at the PG National, where Gowdy really put on a show and earned himself an invitation to the Perfect Game All American Classic. He topped at 94 mph, spotting 90-to-93 mph fastballs with life at the knees to both sides of the plate, and showing an excellent slider/changeup combo that both projected at least above average.
I saw Gowdy just a few weeks ago in Arizona, again at the Coach Bob National Invitational, and while the command wasn’t at its best on that day, it was still easy to dream on what he can become at maturity. The delivery is still extremely easy and the arm action is loose, with advanced arm speed and very good extension out front. His entire arsenal – Fastball, slider, and changeup – all project above average or potentially better, as the command profile is more advanced than most others in his class.
Although he’s been labeled a “safer” arm due to his mechanical and command profiles, he’s not without legitimately high upside. The fastball projects to add velocity as he continues to fill out his wiry, athletic frame, and when combined with a pair of off-speed pitches that have both shown the ability to miss bats consistently, he has future mid-rotation starter written all over him. –Brian Sakowski
Eric Lauer, LHP, Kent St. Univ.
Ht/Wt: 6’3”/205 | B/T: R/L | Age (as of draft date): 21y, 0m
Projected Draft Round: 1S-2
If you make a checklist of things you’re looking for in a potential draft target, particularly in a left-handed arm, the Kent State ace is capable of crossing off the preferred attributes with the best of them. He has the size standing at 6-foot-3 with long and loose limbs, he has the arsenal as he’ll show a full four-pitch mix, and also has the track record of success while performing at the highest level last summer on the Cape.
The last statement may be the most important. Although Lauer’s Golden Flashes aren’t members of the SEC, ACC or any of the “Power Five” conferences – similar to Kyle Lewis at Mercer – thus creating the notion of “inflated” stats, Lauer has found success everywhere he’s gone including last summer when facing the best competition college baseball has to offer. And unlike Lewis, it’s a little bit easier to evaluate Lauer’s accomplishments as he can show his command, pitch ability and overall stuff every Friday when he takes the bump.
Even with the type of numbers Lauer has put up to this point in the season, a 0.99 ERA with a 5-2 record and an average of 11.10 strikeouts per nine innings, it comes as little surprise. A known prospect coming out of high school, Lauer now comfortably sits in the 90-93 mph range during the course of a start, touching 94s throughout while showing the same long and fluid arm action from first pitch to last. Though the command was uncharacteristically loose in my viewing it’s more than forgivable as it was the first start of the year. And to put it in perspective, Lauer walked five in five innings during that opening day start and has since thrown nearly 50 innings in which he’s walked just 14.
So to this point of the recap, you have a lefthander who shows good size, has a quality fastball in terms of velocity and life and has above average command of the zone. The next step to factor in when putting together Lauer’s prospect puzzle so to speak is the off-speed in which the Ohio native shows three distinct pitches. Of those three it’s the slider that gained the most notoriety on the Cape and has been a similarly effective pitch this spring. A mid-80s offering, Lauer has shown the ability to get the pitch to the back foot of right-handed hitters while showing command of the late-breaking pitch down in the zone.
Rounding out the four-pitch mix is an upper-70s curveball that features short depth and a low-80s changeup that comes out from a similar arm slot as his fastball. While there may not be a plus pitch in the arsenal, Lauer is an extremely polished collegiate lefthander with solid stuff across the board and is the type of prospect that don’t typically stick around too long on draft day. –Jheremy Brown
Jordan Sheffield, RHP, Vanderbilt Univ.
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/185 | B/T: R/R | Age (as of draft date): 21y, 0m
Projected Draft Round: 1
A Perfect Game All-American out of high school, Sheffield is far from a secret on the national scene as he was up to 97 mph during his prep days. A draft-eligible sophomore after redshirting his freshman season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, it was that injury that helped the Commodores land Sheffield, who was a projected day one pick for the 2013 draft prior to the injury.
Last spring, his first in which he suited up for Coach Tim Corbin, Sheffield had his ebbs and flows, both starting and relieving, and though he was 5-2 on the year with a 2.85 ERA there was still one red flag; the command. Serving as the Friday night arm from the onset of this year, Sheffield has thrived in the role and has seen his numbers improve across the board. And though he has 22 walks this spring, half of them came in back-to-back starts, a rut he has since shook off after the gem he threw against South Carolina.
The most noticeable thing about Sheffield, aside from the high-octane stuff, is the improvement he’s made in his mechanics from last spring to this year as he’s staying much simpler in his delivery with better direction while generating solid extension out front. Of course, these improvements have helped with the noticeable improvement in terms of command without inhibiting his velocity in the slightest.
A steady diet of mid-90s fastball is what onlookers have come to expect whenever Sheffield takes the mound, and when he’s down in the zone he’s proven to be as unhittable as any arm in the conference. With late-running life and a fast right arm, Sheffield is able to stay away from not only barrels, but bats all together when working in the lower quadrants of the strike zone, and has already racked up 63 strikeouts.
The biggest weapon within Sheffield’s arsenal however isn’t the fastball but rather his changeup, a pitch he throws with conviction, plenty of arm speed and solid deception. An 85-to-88 mph offering, the changeup is a pitch that can prove to be devastating against left-handed hitters as he can start the pitch middle-away and have it fade hard out of the zone, or he can spill it back in on lefthanders and expertly located to his glove side with the pitch. When mixed in with the fastball with regularity it’s a true swing-and-miss offering as hitters read fastball out of the hand, only to be left out on their front foot waiting for something that isn’t coming.
Having shown both a curveball and slider in the past, Sheffield has gone mostly curveball this spring, an 11-to-5 offering that shows depth and gives Sheffield a quality third pitch that he can throw for strikes. As he continues to fill up the strike zone on a consistent basis there’s plenty of reason to believe that Sheffield can start at the next level, especially given how well he can carry his stuff deep into an outing. –Jheremy Brown