Florida is a powerhouse of amateur talent year after year, and this season it is no different. Continuing on my prep talent first impressions tour around the I-4 corridor of the state (caveats covered in an earlier post), I've got notes on four Sunshine State standouts who could find themselves in the first round come June.
Many teams have idiosyncratic approaches to the draft, and it shows in their track record. Some are velocity-centric, stats-focused, tools-heavy, size-obsessed, etc. But the one type of player every club universally drafts is the projectable high school pitcher. Most teams believe you have to draft for upside, and the projectable high school arm is the easiest way to find it -- fill out the frame with good weight, and velocity can soar.
Keith Law recently posted his top 50 prospects list for the 2012 MLB draft, and these four players made it into his top 30. Let's take a look at them in the order that Keith ranked them, starting with two of the best projection plays in this year's draft class who hail from opposite sides of Orlando.
Walker Weickel is a lanky 6-foot-6, 205-pound righty from Olympia High School on the west side of Orlando. Keith ranked Weickel ninth on his list, and at Weickel's season debut the scouting community appeared to agree, with more than 50 scouts in attendance, including a number of crosscheckers and scouting directors. The thing that gets scouts excited about Weickel isn't so much what he does well (which is plenty), but what he doesn't do poorly.
In the earlier post linked above, I assessed average-sized (by MLB pitcher standards) prep righties Carson Fulmer, Lance McCullers and Tyler Pike, who lack much physical projection. I mentioned how Fulmer and McCullers had enough effort in their deliveries that the bullpen was their likely ultimate destination, how Fulmer's three-quarter arm slot didn't do him any favors (by lowering his release point), and how McCullers seemed to have frequent focus lapses. This is typical with high school pitchers -- there's almost always at least one major flaw and a couple of smaller ones -- but it's expected because, after all, they are 18-year-old athletes.
In a world where baseball better understands the value edge a 210-inning starter has over a 50-inning reliever -- and where rich bonuses and accountability make busts less tolerated than ever -- not having these flaws that scream bust or bullpen is where Weickel excels. He features a projectable frame, effortless delivery, conventional high three-quarter release point, clean arm action, solid command and excellent makeup. Makeup is often the black box used to explain why prospects don't develop as expected, but multiple sources gushed about Weickel's maturity, work ethic, humility and professionalism.
But focusing on what Weickel doesn't do poorly is a disservice to what he does well. He sat 90-93 mph and touched 95 before tiring late in the outing, and he flashed an above-average 74-75 mph curveball as his out pitch. He features his fastball prominently and has a solid 80-81 mph changeup that he doesn't need against high school hitters but throws a handful of times per start. He walked a few batters in a row, but even that was when he consistently just missed the arm-side corner of the plate for a few batters. All things considered, Weickel was outstanding.
Righty Zach Eflin, hailing from Hagerty High School on Orlando's east side, has also shown the ability to attract some scouting heat to his starts. Similar to Weickel, many of the things that scouts love about Eflin aren't necessarily his current raw stuff but instead the indicators that point to his stuff's getting better with age. Eflin's projectable 6-5, 200-pound frame is near ideal, and he also boasts very clean arm action with a smooth delivery. These factors combine with his athleticism give him solid command of an already above-average fastball sitting at 90-92 and touching 93.
Keith ranked Eflin 23rd overall, and Eflin's draft stock may well depend on the development of his breaking ball, a 78-80 mph slurve with three-quarter tilt, which showed occasional bite and above-average potential but still has a ways to go. He also showed what looked like a competent changeup in warm-ups that I didn't see used in the game. Eflin's velocity and projection are his selling points, but his feel and secondary pitches will be the key to his staying in first-round contention.
When you first see Keon Barnum, a 6-4, 220-pound left-handed first baseman from Tampa's King High School, there is an obvious comparison to Ryan Howard. The second at-bat I saw from Barnum ended with a rocket over the right-center field wall, and that comparison suddenly held more weight. Barnum is a bat-only prospect with plus raw power who will ultimately be limited to first base despite surprising agility for his size and solid arm strength.
There's an assumption when you see a big slugger that there will be length to his swing, trading some batting average for power. That's not the case with Barnum. He's surprisingly direct to the ball, letting his bat path, strength and bat speed create backspin and power. All the elements are there for a power swing that also hits for average, which explains why he's ranked 24th on Keith's list. Barnum's draft stock will be determined by how his hitting tools play in a game, mainly his ability to square up good pitching, his pitch selection and the consistency of his hitting mechanics. My look was too small of a sample to reach a conclusion, but Barnum's age (old for his high school class) doesn't give his bat much margin for error to stay in first-round consideration.
Weickel's teammate, outfielder Jesse Winker, is ranked 30th on Keith's list and, like Barnum, is a bat-only prospect who is tough to get a read on after just a few early-season games. Winker has quiet hands and the strength and bat speed that allow him to have a direct path to the ball while still showing average raw power as a teenager. On the other hand, Winker is already a below-average runner and has fringy-at-best arm strength that is held back by an awkward, short-arm stroke, limiting him to left field as a pro.
This means the bat has to carry Winker, but he has the hitting tools to make it happen, along with room to add muscle to the upper body in his 6-3, 200-pound frame. Winker "steps in the bucket," meaning his stride strays away from the pitcher a bit, and he employs a big leg kick, which many hitting gurus feel can be problematic for hitters, potentially leaving them vulnerable to good velocity inside and/or causing issues with timing. Winker also can get aggressive with his weight transfer, getting off balance by sending too much of his weight to his front foot. If a team pops Winker in the first round, it is projecting above-average hit and power tools from an everyday left fielder and thinks his present hitting shortcomings can be fixed by its development staff.
Kiley McDaniel has worked in the scouting departments of the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates, and has previously written for Baseball Prospectus.