The Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft is fast approaching (June 4-6th) and, as such, it's time to jump start our fifth year of draft coverage. Over the coming days and weeks Project Prospect will have more lists, stats, and scouting reports than you can shake a stick at -- though why people used to shake sticks at large numbers of things has always confused me. We'll start with a Cliff's Notes version of the top-tier prospects in this class and get more in-depth as we go along.
Byron Buxton - CF - Appling County High School, GA
Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg entered the draft with unprecedented levels of hype; Buxton has yet to elicit the same level of promotion from national media types. The reason for this is partly because Buxton isn't quite the same level prospect as the two Nationals' young superstars, but he isn't that far off.
In terms of raw tools, Buxton has few peers, not just in this draft class but in all of baseball. A true burner, he has been clocked at 6.5 seconds in the 60 yard dash and hustles from home to first in under 4.0 seconds, an elite number from the right side. His arm strength allows him to reach the mid-90's off the mound and prevents runners from taking the extra base when a ball ever falls in the alley.
In the batter's box, Buxton shows explosive hands and excellent hip rotation. His swing can get a little long and he can get thrown off balance some, but every 18 year-old has adjustments to make. I have yet to run into a scout who doubts Buxton's hit tool.
The worst tool in Buxton's arsenal is his power, which could still end up pretty darned good. There's enough bat speed, hip rotation, and raw leverage in Buxton's mechanics to feel that a 25+ home run a season future is within reach once he fills out his 6-foot-2, 180-ish pound frame. While his power may get a 60 or even 65 -- depending on how generous you feel about his future growth and ability to make adjustments -- the current grade might be a 30. Buxton didn't scorch the ball as often as many would have liked, given his raw ability, this spring.
Yet scouts still rave about his plate discipline and passion for the game. Buxton didn't spend much time on the showcase circuit, and he has split his athletic attention between baseball and football, so he's more raw than say Bryce Harper or Justin Upton at similar points in their careers. Still, Buxton has the potential to be a franchise corner stone who plays elite defense at a key position while hitting anywhere from leadoff to cleanup.
Carlos Correa - SS - Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, PR
Carlos Correa was born September 22, 1994. By then, The Lion King has just finished it's first run in theaters. And Boyz II Men beat out Lisa Loeb atop the Billboard charts. Give me a minute, I need a walker and oxygen tank.
Despite making me realize my own mortality, Correa's age is a terrific asset. He's nine months younger than Byron Buxton. While not the same pure athlete as Buxton, Correa is already bigger and stronger than his draft classmate. While Buxton's power is his weakest tool, it's Correa's best. Calling Correa a future 30 home run guy might be conservative. 30 bombs! Conservative! For a 17-year-old shortstop! Exclamation points!!!
The rest of Correa's tools range from above-average to plus with exceptional make-up and work ethic.
The only real downside with Correa is that while he currently has enough range for shortstop, he'll probably outgrow the position. Already 6-foot-4 close to 200 pounds, Correa will probably have to shift to third base in the not too distant future. A move to third won't wreck his value since his bat could easily withstand the transfer down the defensive spectrum and he has the tools to be a really good defender at the hot corner. Guys who can stay on the left side of the infield and hit in the middle of the order are rare birds. Correa shouldn't make it out of the top five selections in the draft.
Kevin Gausman - RHP - LSU
One of my personal favorites from the 2010 Draft, Gausman was selected in the 6th round -- despite my first-round grade (sorry I just pulled a muscle patting myself on the back) -- but failed to come to terms with the then-money-strapped Dodgers. Two years in Baton Rouge have vaulted him back into the draft's elite thanks to a terrific fastball and much improved secondary.
Gausman comes at hitters from a high arm angle, with an even higher leg kick. His arm action is simple and smooth. His arm is strong...really, really strong. Gausman works 93-96 MPH with above-average movement and flirts with triple digits. His slider flashes plus. His changeup maybe a half-grade higher.
Gausman has struck out 30.6% of the batters he's faced this year, while walking only 5.7%, and he's playing in college baseball's toughest conference.
It's debatable if Gausman ever turns into a true ace, but he's a front-of-the-rotation arm with the best combination of stuff, performance and upside in this draft.
Mark Appel - RHP - Stanford
When I first saw Mark Appel, I compared him to a delicious sandwich that someone had added brussels sprouts and skittles to. By that I meant that I liked a lot of things about Appel, but there a few points in his mechanics that didn't need to be in there. Going back and watching more film, I no longer see skittles and the whole meal should taste better.
Early in his career Appel had a habit of throwing across his body. This year everything is much more in-line to the plate, which is good, because that's where you want the ball to go. I didn't love the arm action before. It took him a while to get the ball up to a point where you can actually start accelerating it towards home. But it was really a matter of timing. Appel's timing seems better. It's not perfect but at least the brussels sprouts are now braised in bacon fat, greatly improving the flavor.
Appel's raw stuff has always been good, his fastball sits 94-96 MPH and he has advanced control of it. Both his changeup and breaking ball could be above average.
The results have been middling for a pitcher of Appel's quality. Striking out 25.1% of NCAA batters is good but not elite. While his fastball velocity is above-average, the pitch plays down because he doesn't hide the ball well at all. Ultimately I think that keeps Appel from being an ace, but I'm still more bullish on his long-term prospects than I was a few months ago. His upside is still that of a front-of-the-rotation hoss, and his downside may still be a solid No. 3 guy.
Appel's in Houston's mix to go number one overall. That would be a little rich for my blood but Appel may have the best odds of being at least an above-average regular of anyone in this draft.
Max Fried - LHP - Harvard-Westlake High School, CA
Plus stuff, command of four pitches, ideal frame, and an arm action that ought to be used as a study guide for young pitchers, and he's lefthanded to boot! Max Fried is about as close to the 'total package' as you'll find from a prep hurler. He's likely to be the first high school pitcher off the board and the top southpaw overall.
His fastball velocity is currently just average, though he'll touch 93-94 MPH, but if Max Fried doesn't add velocity, I'll personally write each of you a check for 12 dollars*.
THAT'S HOW CONFIDENT I AM! Fried's curveball ought to be above-average and could turn into a real weapon with some added RPM. What really sets Fried apart from other pitchers his age is his touch and feel for pitching. He works in a cutter and has truly excellent feel for a change-up that could end up being his out-pitch.
He's still got a lot of growing up to do, but it's all physical maturity, not mental. Fried has an exceptionally high floor for a high school pitcher. His stuff is good enough right now. I think he could pitch in the big leagues today and not get shelled too bad. By the time he's 22 or 23, Fried may be one of the best young pitchers in the game.
* checks may be postdated
Luc Giolito - RHP - Harvard-Westlake High School, CA
An elbow injury robbed Giolito of most of his senior season and robbed fans of potentially the best high school one-two punch since A.C. Slater and Zack Morris. Yet, he's still in this elite group. Though Giolito is a high school righthander with a recent elbow injury, any team that passes on him in the 6-10 overall range will be second-guessing themselves.
The reasons are two-fold: 1) the injury wasn't super severe and 2) Giolito is an amazing talent. Surgery was not deemed necessary, as the injury was merely a UCL sprain, not full-on tear. When healthy, Giolito has elite arm strength. He's touched 100 MPH and sat 93-97 MPH with good movement. He compliments his plus-plus fastball with a curveball many big leaguers would kill for. His change up lags behind the other two elite offerings, but Giolito has shown enough that it projects to be borderline plus in the future as well.
Giolito, built like Roy Halladay, is a big, imposing presence on the mound. At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, he's a man-child but he maintains excellent athleticism. His delivery is balanced and repeatable with a smooth, efficient arm action. One area Giolito has room to improve is his hip rotation. He opens his front hip very early in the drive towards home. This move sacrifices some power. That's right, a kid who throws nearly 100 MPH, is sacrificing power.
Had he stayed healthy and dominated this spring, Giolito may very well have been the first righthanded high school pitcher to go first overall in draft history. Maybe he needs Tommy John surgery in a few years, but the success rate with that rehab is high enough that it doesn't destroy a pitcher's draft stock. In a draft short on guys who can be real difference makers, I'd gamble on Giolito. Talents like this just don't come around very often.
Mike Zunino - C - Florida
Zunino is universally considered the top collegiate bat available. The fact that he plays a premium position has pushed him into pretty much everyone's top five.
If draft history has taught us anything, it's that some of the biggest mistakes come when teams reach for a player just because he plays a catcher. If a guy plays shortstop and can't cut it, second or third-base are always options. Nearly every corner outfielder once patrolled center. Catchers are often all-or-nothing bets. You don't see too many former catchers playing second, and Mike Zunino is no Craig Biggio.
Zunino receives pitches well and is an advanced game-caller for an amateur. He's on the bigger side, at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds but he shouldn't outgrow the position. His arm is only average. And he could approach slug territory as a runner as he ages.
Zunino could turn into an average or slightly above hitter but he will have some adjustments to make. His swing will never be confused with Will Clark's but he has solid bat speed and good natural strength. Power is his best offensive tool. Zunino can crush a mistake, and there aren't many catchers who go big fly 20 times a year. That last part is the key to Zunino's prospect status. He doesn't do anything great but everything could be pretty good "for a catcher".
His tools grade him out to be a solid, everyday player. Zunino doesn't quite live up to the lofty status of Buster Posey or Matt Weiters as collegiate catchers, yet he'll likely still be drafted in a similar spot because he play the same position and his class lacks proven hitters.
Drafting Mike Zunino in the top five is like proposing to the "cute" chick in your office. She's kinda fun and on Mondays you have fun conversations about Game of Thrones, but mostly she's just there and it's simple. Cute is a relative term. The girl in the next cubicle over doesn't go from a six to Kristin Bell just because everyone else in the office looks like Steve Buchemi. There's nothing really wrong with a six. Just don't feel like you have to settle early on. Go to spin class or the farmer's market.
Follow Lincoln Hamilton on Twitter: @LHamiltonPP