Pitcher Jacob Nix was caught up in the Brady Aiken imbroglio last summer through no fault of his own; the Astros drafted both players, backed out of a reported agreement with Aiken on terms because they didn't like something in his medicals, and then backed out of an agreement with Nix because honoring that deal would have put them well over their bonus cap for the year, costing them two draft picks this year. Nix won a settlement from the Astros for some portion of the $1.5 million he was promised, and rather than go to a four-year college he chose to enroll at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida and pitch for their post-graduate team, which faces a number of collegiate JV and junior college squads.
Nix threw on Thursday night in front of about 50 scouts, his second outing already this spring, and he's already improved his stock since last year. Nix has added about 25 pounds of muscle, and he looks perfectly built for major league workloads. He came out firing bullets, 93 to 96 in the first inning, throwing all fastballs, gradually losing velocity and sitting 90-92 in his last inning, the fifth. He threw a handful of off-speed pitches, with the mid-80s changeup average or a tick better, the 76-78 mph curveball anywhere from below-average to solid-average, with decent spin and good angle. His control was fine, but his command was below-average for reasons I'll detail in a moment. If he builds up his arm strength to where he can hold 92-94 for six innings by the end of the spring, he's got a good chance to go in the back of the first round thanks to his size, stuff and the fact that he's already a bit famous. (It never hurts you in the draft to be well-known.)
Nix's mechanics have also improved since high school, largely the result of his added core strength and better body control, but he's still inconsistent from the point when he pronates through his landing and finish, which he's going to have to tighten up to have average or better command. Nix's release point varied, as he'd drop down just enough to get on the side of the ball and start yanking it to his glove side from time to time -- a bit too often overall -- and he spins off when he lands on his heel, which causes a similar problem. His arm swing itself from separation to pronation is clean and simple, while fixing his landing and working to get him to keep his arm up just slightly more than he does shouldn't be difficult, whether it happens now at IMG or after he signs.
• UC Santa Barbara right-hander Dillon Tate has one of the most electric arms in this year's draft class, and the Gauchos spent the fall and early spring stretching him out to add him to their rotation this year -- a sensible strategy since he has four pitches, generates his velocity pretty easily and towers over any of their other options in terms of raw stuff. His command isn't there right now, but his control is sufficient for him to start, especially considering how many bats he's likely to miss. So the Gauchos' decision to use Tate -- to use their best pitcher -- as their closer was met with scorn and derision from around the game, and rightly so, because it doesn't make their team any better but hurts Tate materially by limiting opportunities to scout him.
The idea that your team is better off with your best arm in the ninth inning is both an overreaction to the save statistic (and the blown save) and a misunderstanding of leverage, a belief that 15 to 20 high-leverage innings over the course of a college season will have more value than the 90 to 100 innings a team gets from a typical Friday or Saturday starter. It's endemic in college baseball but seen rarely in pro ball now because teams better understand the relative values of the two roles.
However, for a college pitcher in his draft year, there's something more on the line than just an extra win or two for the team. Starters are much easier to scout: They pitch on prescribed days, they use their entire arsenals and they're usually in the game for several innings, enough for scouts to get multiple views and to see the pitchers have to get the same hitters out two or three times. The industry also places a higher value on a pitcher whom scouts already know can start. No college reliever, not even one projected to work as a starter in pro ball, has gone in the top half of the first round (defined as the top 15 picks) since the Nationals took Drew Storen 10th overall with an unprotected pick in 2009; the last to be chosen that high with a regular pick was Casey Weathers in 2007.
Tate has top-10, maybe top-five stuff, but he won't get to show it if he's buried in a relief role. The difference to him between showing he can start and pitching in short stints would be at least $1 million, potentially $6 million to $7 million, according to an agent with whom I spoke and who is not working with Tate. The industry needs to see Tate start, the player himself wants to start, and yet Gauchos coach Andrew Checketts wants Tate in the pen -- a move that makes the team no better and might make it worse. It's outrageous, and yet another talking point for scouts who want to persuade pitchers to sign out of high school.