Stanford right-hander Mark Appel began the season as perhaps the top candidate to go No. 1 overall. Since very early in the schedule, Appling County (Ga.) High School outfielder Byron Buxton, who has been the top prospect in Keith Law's Top 50 Draft Prospects from the get-go, has moved to the front of that line.
Buxton and his teammates finished their regular season Saturday and will start a playoff run next weekend. He entered that final game batting .566 with a .663 on-base percentage, 14 doubles and 28 stolen bases, not to mention a perfect 6-0 record and two strikeouts per inning from the mound.
Appel, however, continues to tease scouts with big velocity and signs of improved command and offspeed stuff. The 6-foot-5, 215- pounder went seven strong innings Friday night at UCLA, allowing eight hits and an earned run. He did not walk a batter and struck out 10. For the year, Appel is 6-1 with a 2.73 ERA and 81-20 K/BB ratio in 79 innings of work.
"He's the [Gerrit] Cole of this draft," said one scouting supervisor. "You have to look down the road a little bit more than you'd like," on a college pitcher, "but the raw ability is there and he's learning to pitch this year." There are times when Appel looks the part of a No. 1 pick and others when he appears to be quite the risk in the top half of the top 10.
Last week, ESPN's Kiley McDaniel wrote that Florida high school hitter Albert Amora would be his No. 1 overall pick, and ranks him No. 1 among the players he has seen this spring, and that list includes Buxton. One might wonder, however: Why not Florida catcher Mike Zunino?
Generally, clubs drafting No. 1 overall prefer to select a player with immense upside. Zunino is the No. 2 player on Law's latest top 50, but might lack the tools for superstar performances at the big-league level. It's also worth noting that a college catcher has been selected No. 1 overall just three times in the draft's 47-year history, not counting 2010 top pick Bryce Harper, who was a 17-year-old playing at a junior college.
• Mississippi State right-hander Chris Stratton went the distance Friday night, shutting out Ole Miss on five hits -- three of those, one a double, by early Day 2 consideration Alex Yarbrough. Stratton walked one and fanned seven, needing just 104 pitches, thanks to 13 ground ball outs, including two double plays. Stratton is getting first-round attention and improved to 8-0 with a 2.39 ERA and 95-17 K/BB ratio in 75 1/3 innings.
• Louisiana State ace Kevin Gausman, who at age 21 is a draft-eligible sophomore, failed to wow scouts Friday night versus Georgia, but his final stat line is deceiving. He went six frames and yielded three runs on 10 hits -- all of the hits were singles and four were of the infield variety. Gausman whiffed nine and did not walk a batter but did battle with his command and control and needed 120 pitches to get 18 outs. Gausman is 7-1 with a 3.12 ERA and 97-20 K/BB ratio in 75 innings. He has thrown two shutouts and surrendered just one long ball, but his 10 wild pitches and a fastball that is at times true and flat could keep him out of the top five.
• Kyle Zimmer answered the bell Friday, striking out 10 over seven innings, but one scout in attendance was not all that thrilled with what he saw. It wasn't Zimmer's fault; his stuff was good, including a fastball in the 92-95 mph range and a plus curveball. It's that he's been doing it against subpar competition. He remains a potential top 10 selection.
• If Appel, Gausman and Zimmer are the top three college arms, Texas A&M's Michael Wacha might be No. 4 and the 6-foot-6 right-hander danced on the Texas Longhorns Friday night, limiting his cross-state rival to four hits. He struck out nine versus two bases on balls.
• Wacha's biggest challengers for this spot include Oklahoma State's Andrew Heaney and Duke's Marcus Stroman. Heaney, a left-hander, fanned eight through 8 1/3 shutout innings at Kansas and improved to 6-1 with a 1.82 ERA and 102-18 K/BB ratio in 84 innings. Heaney, listed at 6-foot-2 and 174 pounds, lacks the projection of the top four in the class, but his stuff is unquestionable and he's performed consistently all season.
• Prep left-hander Max Fried of Harvard-Westlake (Calif.) High School struck out eight in a complete-game win last week, allowing just two hits and a walk. Fried is a potential top pick, and the No. 1 prep arm in the class. The former title holder, Fried's teammate Lucas Giolito, could regain that crown as he prepares to throw for scouts between now and the draft. Giolito was diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament earlier this spring, the exact same diagnosis of San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson, who underwent Tommy John surgery in mid-April.
• Camarillo High School (Calif.) southpaw Hunter Virant tossed a no-hitter with four strikeouts last week, allowing just one baserunner. Virant is a first-round talent, potentially landing somewhere in the top 20-25 picks.
• St. Edward's closer Stephen Johnson, who typically pitches in the 94-98 mph range and has hit 100 in the past, picked up saves in all three games this past weekend, striking out four in 2 1/3 frames. For the year, Johnson has allowed but 14 hits in 33 1/3 innings, just two going for extra bases. Of the 100 outs he's recorded, 57 have come by strikeout. The Boulder, Colo., native could be the first reliever off the board.
Around the Batter's Box
• No college position player has more to prove the final four-plus weeks than Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero, who has had a disappointing season at the plate and has committed an unexpected 11 errors in the field in 41 games. Marrero went 5-for-12 over the weekend including two doubles and a triple and is up to .280/.343/.422 for the year. Scouts do not appear concerned an ounce about the defensive profile -- he's a big-league defender at short -- but the bat might leave him on the board a few picks longer. Law wrote last week that Pittsburgh at No. 8 might be the floor for Marrero, who otherwise could get to Oakland at No. 11.
• Zunino, whose season numbers are still very good and versus the always-tough SEC, went hitless in four at-bats Friday but went 5-for-8 Saturday and Sunday and is now batting .335 with a .389 on-base percentage and .659 slugging percentage. Zunino has tallied 18 doubles and 12 long balls and is a likely top five pick. If he happens to slip past Seattle at No. 3, the Chicago Cubs at No. 6 might be as far as Zunino reaches.
• Stanford's Stephen Piscotty, who moved to left field -- perhaps his most likely position in pro ball -- after freshman third baseman Alex Blandino blasted three homers last week en route to being named the national player of the week. Piscotty has responded offensively, collecting five hits in 10 at-bats versus UCLA, including his fifth home run of the year off Bruins ace and potential 2013 first-round pick Adam Plutko. The Cardinal star is up to .325/.411/.521 on the season, drawing 20 bases on balls and striking out just 11 times.
• Clemson's Richie Shaffer, who has shot up draft boards as much as any college bat this spring, had a tough weekend, going 2-for-16 with six strikeouts. Shaffer is still a potential top-20 pick, though his swing can get long and at times scouts wish he was a bit more aggressive. He enters play this week batting .347/.481/.599 with eight home runs and a 45-36 BB/K ratio.
• Stony Brook centerfielder Travis Jankowski had a huge weekend series, going 8-for-13 with two home runs, a triple and two stolen bases. The speedster is batting .390/.468/.634 with 29 stolen bases and could sneak into the top 40-50 picks, despite poor competition. He hit well in the Cape Cod League last summer, however, which keeps him in the Day 1 conversation.