The 2012 MLB Draft is less than a week away. On June 4th, 30 MLB ballclubs will roll the dice on a bright group of young stars, hoping to fortify their team’s future with some blue-chip talent. While this class doesn’t contain any once in a lifetime phenoms like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper or even Dylan Bundy, it does boast one of the deepest pools of premium high school talent as well as some very polished college arms. Stanford right-hander Mark Appel and UC San Francisco’s Kyle Zimmer are both safe bets for the middle of a quality Major League rotation. Southern boy Byron Buxton sits on the opposite end of the risk spectrum. An unfairly gifted five-tool high school centerfielder, “Buck” will need a dedicated player development system to help him realize his full potential as an Eric Davis-type superstar. So-Cal’s Lucas Giolito is a similarly flashy, blue-chip prospect, though his particular physical gifts work better off of the pitcher’s mound– where he lights up radar guns with 98 MPH heat. For teams looking to balance risk and reward while maintaing a more manageable budget, Florida catcher Mike Zunino could shape up as one of the draft’s best bargains. For clubs picking after the first five slots, Zunino’s strong defense and legitimate plus power could prove to be a great value under the MLB’s new bonus guidelines.
Earlier this week, BaseballNewsHound.com ranked and graded the top 60 draft eligible players. Below is a some scouting information on the 2012 MLB Draft’s five best five prospects.
Right-Handed Starting Pitcher
Overall Future Potential: 59
This year’s crop of premier arms is thinner than in recent drafts, but it has plenty of future big league starters nonetheless. Appel is arguably the safest bet, of any of this class’s pitchers, to assume a role at the front of a big league rotation. His ceiling probably falls just short of a David Price or Dylan Bundy, but his floor shouldn’t be any lower than a solid mid-rotation guy. Though he wasn’t an elite-level talent, Appel has been on scout’s radars since his Monte Vista high school career. He was a two-sport star on both the basketball court and baseball diamond, and was named the Contra Costa Times Prep Athlete of the Year in 2009. After leading Monte Vista to a Division-I North Coast Sectional state championship as a power forward, he finished his senior season by tossing 31 innings of 0.90 ERA baseball on the baseball field. With a fastball that was already reaching 91-92 MPH regularly, he ended his high school career riding a 24 inning scoreless streak and even tossed a no-hitter against a rival program. Academically dedicated, he was drafted in the 15th round by the Tigers, but instead decided to attent Stanford.
Throughout his three-season Cardinal career, Appel has developed from a lanky reliever in to a fireballing power-starter with a big league destiny. After posting a so-so freshman campaign mostly out of the bullpen, he put together a break-out sophomore season. With a fastball that often reached the high 90′s, he assumed his post as the club’s Friday night starter. As the point man, he posted a 3.02 ERA through seventeen starts. Over the following summer, he then boosted his draft stock by showing off premium heat in the Cape Cod League and mowing down the nation’s best amateur hitters. This season, he’s solidified his place atop the college ranks with the best baseball of his amateur career. He’s put together a tremendous 9-1 record and a sparkling 2.37 ERA through 110 innings pitched. His body has broadened and filled out further. More importantly, his feel for pitching appears to have to taken a leap forward as well. He’s throwing with more confidence and going right after hitters this season. More than just a hard-thrower, Appel has proven better than the vast majority of pitchers his age at using his entire repertoire and challenging hitters.
Appel’s go-to pitch is his mid 90′s heater. While many scouts have complained about the pitch’s lack of movement– he’s developed this reputation after proving hittable throughout his Cardinal career– his two-seamer actually shows above-average tail and run. The tall righty releases the ball with a rock-n-fire, over-the-top delivery and his long fingers and arm extension add extra life. His free-and-easy delivery, with an arm action that’s long in the back and quick in the front, makes his fastball hop out of his hand. With velocity that already sits in the 93-96 MPH range, it’s not hard to see Appel’s heater sniffing triple digits one day soon.
Appel’s frisbee slider is already ready for the Major Leagues. Primarily using it to wipeout right-handers, he spins his slider with strong two-plane break in the low 80′s. With hissing spin, the pitch runs down and away from right-handed hitters with late break. He also snaps it off against lefties and can drop it in the strikezone for called strikes when necessary. He does a nice job of staying on top of it, and he rarely hangs it up in the zone. Already solid-average, with more power behind his breaking ball, it could develop into a legitimate strikeout pitch in the MLB. His circle-changeup is promising as well, and he’s done a much better job of commanding it this Spring. With more work, his change should be a big league average offering.
Appel has no trouble throwing strikes, and his command and feel for pitching have improved drastically during his final two seasons at Stanford. This year, he’s walked just twenty-four batters in 110 innings pitched and of the eighty-eight hits he’s allowed, only three have left the park. He does a nice job of working both sides of the plate with his fastball, through he’s prone to leaving it out over the plate when he’s in trouble. He can throw his slider and changeup for strikes as well, and should have above-average command once he plays professionally and works with pro coaches. His delivery is pretty clean and repeatable, but because he’s mediocre athlete, he’ll need to work on strengthening his trunk to improve his balance and release. He does give a long look to opposing hitters, and left-handers might give him more trouble as he climbs the professional latter.
Pitching for one of the nation’s most historically successful programs, and in a very competitive conference, Appel put together a very impressive college career. Stanford hasn’t produced an overwhelming number of big leaguers, but it’s list includes plenty of brand-names– with Mike Mussina, Jack McDowell and Drew Storen headlining the list. Boasting premium fastball velocity and advanced command over two solid offspeed pitches, Appel has as much talent as any of them. The Astros, who hold the draft’s number-one overall pick, are in the market for an advanced arm and will likely call Appel’s name on June 4th.
Harvard-Westlake HS (CA)
Overall Future Potential: 60
Hands down, Lucas Giolito is the most athletically gifted young pitcher in this draft class. He has all of the tools for super-stardom. Baseball is a mental game, and on that side, Giolito has it knocked. He’s a bright gregarious student in the classroom and a poised, confident competitor on the mound. Physically speaking, he’s a Ferrari. Standing at a sturdy 6’6″, with a high waist, square shoulders, long arms and powerful legs, Giolito has the look of a young Roy Halladay. His a rare athlete for a tall pitcher too, showing great body control, awareness and balance. His mechanically sound delivery is simple and repeatable. He has a clean arm action and an easy, loose weight transfer.
Though Giolito’s raw talent ranks with other top high school arms of recent drafts, like Jameson Taillon and Dylan Bundy, his development was stunted by injury. He sprained his elbow in the seventh inning of his start against Alemany high school in March and missed the majority of his senior season. Luckily however, the injury wasn’t severe enough to warrant surgery and he resumed throwing in early May.
Though Giolito sat out most of the Spring recovering from a sprained elbow ligament, he’ll end his high school career with plenty of awards and accolades anyway. Pitching alongside Max Fried and in a very competitive circuit, Giolito went 9-1 with a 1.00 ERA and 76 strikeouts through 70 1/3 innings pitched during his junior season. In the ’11 Southern Section Division II playoffs, he threw consecutive shut-outs and no-hit Arroyo Grande high school. He took home honors as Baseball America High School Pitcher of the Year and Mission League Pitcher of the Year. During last summer’s Perfect Game All-American Classic, Giolito took the mound and rather easily retired David Dahl, Skye Bolt and Carlos Correa in order. His fastball hit 97 MPH on the radar gun– the fastest mark of any pitcher at the game.
Giolito has a golden right arm. His fastball sits firmly in the 93-95 MPH range, and was clocked at 100 MPH during his first start of 2012. The ball explodes out of his hand, and flat-out overpowers opposing hitters. With long arms and a healthy stride, he gets great extension towards home plate and really gets on top of batters. Unlike most hard-throwing high school arms, Giolito maintains his velocity throughout his starts, and he rarely dips below 92 MPH when he’s healthy. He throws his heater for strikes, and though he relies mostly on a four-seamer, his mechanics and hand-strength are conducive to adding sink and a downward plane. Beyond pure velocity, his control is already good enough for the big leagues, and while his command is still a work in progress, he does a nice job of staying on top of his fastball and keeping it on sharp angles.
Beyond his heater, Giolito is armed with a nasty breaking ball and a game-worthy changeup. He throws his breaking pitch with variable velocity. He’ll drop it in the zone for knee-buckling strikes at 80-84 MPH early in the count, and will spike it in the dirt at 86-88 MPH and wipe-out opposing batters when he’s ahead, with two strikes. A power slider with depth, it’s arguably the best offspeed pitch among high school pitchers and it has the potential to be a plus-plus strikeout pitch once he harnesses his command of it. He already shows a veteran feel for his repertoire and he’s almost too comfortable throwing his slider– the high frequency probably contributed to his UCL injury.
Though his elbow injury may keep him out of the number-one slot, Giolito’s athleticism and clean delivery should re-assure teams about his future durability. He has a strong commitment to UCLA and will probably need top-three money to start his professional pitching career immediately.
Appling County HS (GA)
Overall Future Potential: 63
Buxton is the 2012 draft classes’ top athlete. The Georgia native provides the dictionary example of a five-tool player. Blessed with blinding foot and bat-speed, a cannon arm and baseball instincts to match, he elicits comparisons to a young Eric Davis. High praise for Buxton, Davis was one of the best pure athletes to ever play on a big league diamond. Amazingly enough, Buxton was largely overlooked as a top prospect early in his high school career, largely due to his town’s remote location– Baxley is a two-hour drive from deep south city Savannah Georgia. But he’s burst on to the national scene with two colossal seasons and impressive performances on the All-Star circuit. He left scouts and spectactors in awe with the spectacular arm strength and swing power he displayed in the East Coast Pro Showcase and in the Under Armour All-American Game.
A star football player, Buxton has earned two All-State selections. Playing wide receiver, quarterback and defensive back, he caught fifteen touchdown passes during his junior season and he led the ACHS Pirates to the AA final four. He added sixteen more offensive touchdowns during his senior year and led the team in interceptions. He earned All-State honors at both wide receiver and defensive back. On the baseball field, he’s an even better performer. In his junior season, he put together a monster line, batting .597 with ten homeruns and 42 RBI. During the Under Armour All-American Game last August, he finished second in the Homerun Derby and nearly launched a ball completely out of the park during batting practice. During his senior season, he hit .549/.649/.852 and stole thirty-four bases through thirty-five attempts. Leading Appling County to the top of the Nation’s rankings, he proved not only a gifted hitter, but also a tremendous pitcher. At the World Wood Bat Association National Championship in July 2o11, he tossed fastballs that lit up radar guns, hitting 94 MPH on multiple occasions. He struck out thirteen batters en route to two saves and a complete game win.
Buxton’s best tool is his foot speed. He’s runs a legitimate 6.55 60 yard dash, and his wheels transfer to the diamond seamlessly. On a bunt attempt last season, he ran a blazing 3.88 to first base. A polished baserunner, he reads pitchers well and rarely gets gunned down. He’s been clocked stealing second in 3.18 seconds, a tenth of a second less than the average MLB base-stealer. In the outfield, his experience catching balls on the gridiron plays well, and he covers ground in center like a free safety. He plays all-out all the time with a Porsche motor, and his long, fluid stride allows him to glide in to the gaps.
At the plate, Buxton has premium potential. Setting up wide-open, he shows plus power to his pull-side during batting practice, and can drive the ball up the middle and to the opposite field with some authority as well. He hasn’t faced advanced competition on his high school circuit, but he has the tools to hit. He’s a patient batter with an unselfish approach. His loose hands and powerful base afford him easy power when he squares up pitches. His hand-eye coordination and plate vision helps him put the bat on the ball, and he’s decent enough at hitting offspeed. His bat control and swing mechanics need some work, as he has some trouble lofting pitches on the outer quadrants of the plate, and he often sacrifices power for contact late in the count. For a young kid out of a deep South town though, he’s very advanced.
Buxton has the potential to be a superstar big leaguer. He’s not a boom or bust prospect though, as his makeup, mental toughness and dedication to the game should mesh with pro coaching very well. He’s already a fairly polished product, and he shouldn’t be too much of a project to develop. It also helped that his athleticism and cannon arm make pitching a nice fallback option.
Many expect the Astros to select Buxton number-one overall on draft day. If Houston decides to go another route, taking Appel or Giolito instead, Buxton will almost certainly hear his name called by the Twins– a franchise that is absolutely enamored by ability.
Right-Handed Starting Pitcher
University of San Francisco
Overall Future Potential: 59
Kyle Zimmer is a late bloomer. He left La Jolla High School as a 5’11″ third baseman who had just posted a team-leading .410 batting average in his senior season. As he prepared to enroll at USF though, his talents didn’t garner much attention from scouts. As someone who finished high school with a 4.20 GPA and as a member of the San Diego All-Academic team, that didn’t seem to affect his future anyway. In his first season at USF, he road the bench.
The team’s star third baseman, Stephen Yarrow, left little room for Zimmer on the diamond. So, during his freshman season, his coaches decided to try using his plus arm off the mound. Through 5.1 innings pitched, he totaled an unimpressive 8.10 ERA, but because his fastball touched 90 MPH, Coach Nino Garratano decided to have Zimmer devel0p some offspeed stuff in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League over the summer. The move immediately proved to be the right one. Zimmer tossed 46 sparkling innings of 1.37 ERA-baseball and was named honorable mention All-Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League.
After getting little attention from the pro baseball world throughout his amateur career, Zimmer broke out in his sophomore year and put together a historic junior campaign. He walked on to the Dons’ field in 2010 with a strikingly different frame, now standing at 6’4″ and carved out of lean muscle. Boasting a power heater, quality offspeed stuff and advanced command, Zimmer struck out 89 batters in 91 innings and was named First-Team 2011 All-WCC. He opened his junior season in dominant fashion, tossing consecutive complete game shutouts against Hawaii and UC Santa Barbara. USA Baseball named him to the Mid-Season Golden Spikes Award Watch List and he finished the Spring with a 2.85 ERA and leading the WCC in strikeouts (102) and K/9 (10.6).
Zimmer’s best attribute is his ability to throw his above-average fastball for quality strikes. His balanced, quiet delivery and quick, clean arm action help him generate plus velocity efficiently. His four-seamer sits firmly in the 93-95 MPH range deep in to his starts and rarely dips below 92. Though it’s a traditional, straight four-seamer, he stays on top of it and attacks hitters, making it very difficult to loft. Zimmer is adept at working both sides of the plate and keeping his fastball away from the barrel. He’s no finesse pitcher though, he can ramp his velocity up to 96-98 MPH when he’s loose. His easy wind-up and quick arm make it difficult for opposing hitters to react to his heat and he spent much of 2012 simply over-powering the competition. Though he’s still relatively new to pitching, for a top college arm, his command and control are already MLB-quality and both could be plus in the near future.
A bright student and a tremendous athlete, Zimmer is the complete package. He’s taken to pitching unbelievably quickly and he’s developed at a whirlwind pace. His command and delivery are big-league caliber and his repertoire is premium– complete with two nasty offspeed pitches. Sitting around 78-80 MPH, his curveball is one of the best in the college ranks. With big 11-5 movement, it pops out of his hand with a tight arch and dives down and away from right-handed batters. He can throw it for strikes and he has a great feel for the pitch. With more experience and coaching, he should be able to mold it in to an MLB strikeout pitch by throwing it harder and out of a fastball tunnel. His changeup is solid. Released with near-fastball arm speed, his change has good two-seam tail and he can generally get it over the plate when he needs to.
Zimmer is a gifted young pitcher, and his makeup and intelligence make him a low-risk pick. Heading in to the Spring, Appel was considered a safe bet to be the first college arm selected on June 4th, but Zimmer’s incredible development might ultimately land him in Houston.
University of Florida
Overall Future Potential: 57
In this year’s thin pool of catching prospects, Mike Zunino is a diamond in the rough. He’s a phenomenal ballplayer with an extraordinary track record and the trophy case to match. Before enrolling at Florida, he led his high school ball team to two consecutive Class 5A state championships and set his school’s single season homerun record twice. It was until his college career that he truly came in to his own however. After being honored twice while in high school, Zunino has been named an All-American in each of the three season’s he’s spent with the Gators. After a strong freshman season, his production exploded in 2010. He hit a whopping .371 with 19 home runs overall and ranked atop the SEC with .422 average and eight homeruns during conference play. He led the Gators to a conference championship and was named the 2011 SEC Player of the Year. His senior season has been just as impressive. He’s hitting a monster .323/.394/.649 with 16 home runs, and he’s a semi-finalist for the Johnny Bench Award. For the second consecutive season, he’s also drawing heavy consideration for a Golden Spikes Award for the second consecutive season. Facing the nation’s most polished amateur competition, he’s totaled a .328 batting average through 660 career at bats with the Gators and he’s belted 44 home runs and 57 doubles.
Zunino is a rare athlete, especially for a catcher. Deviating from the traditional fire hydrant catcher mold, Zunino is built more like a puma. Standing at 6’2″, 200 pounds, he’s tall and carved out of wood, with a powerful core and strong hands. Blessed with above-average strength and body control, he’s a great receiver, and he’s made just three errors in all of 2012. The son a former minor league catcher, he knows how to frame pitches and his sharp reaction times make him a goalie-type blocker. He’s also a surprisingly skilled baserunner, capable of posting 60 yard dash times in the 6.8 to 6.9 range. He brings quick twitch athleticism to the diamond. Though his arm isn’t a weapon, he moves quickly and smoothly out of the crouch. He controls the running game and he’s capable of posting spectacular pop times of 1.8 to 1.9 seconds. He has a lightning quick release and he makes the most out of his average arm strength– allowing it to play a tick or two above.
Though Zunino is an accomplished defensive catcher behind the plate, his ability at the plate makes him a top prospect. Mechanically speaking, his swing strikes a balance between power and plate coverage. He shows above-average bat speed, and his hand and core strength allows him to drive offspeed pitches and to get-around on heat on the inside corner. He sets up with high hands and closed hips, similar to Derek Jeter or Albert Pujols, and uses a toe-tap to transfer his weight. He loads cleanly and keeps his hands quiet and separated from his lower-half. During his swing, he keeps his front hip closed as long as possible, keeps his hands inside of the ball and his head in the hitting zone– completely focused on the baseball. He drives pitches on all parts of the plate, to all fields, showing plus pull-power and solid homerun pop to (opposite) right field. A patient hitter, he’s prone to strikeouts but he shows nice pitch recognition and he can square up same-side breaking pitches. After excelling against premium college arms for three seasons, he’s well-prepared for a pro career. His ceiling may ultimately fall short of a Matt Wieters or Brian McCann, but he has the makings of a power hitting All-Star catcher none-the-less.
A long-time performer, Zunino’s combination of track record and tools should get him drafted within the first ten picks on draft day. He has an outside shot at the number two or three slots. Jim Callis of Baseball America speculates that Zunino could fall in to the very interested Pittsburgh Pirates.