The strength of the 2014 Draft class is pitching, as it's deep in both college and high school arms. The first three picks are expected to be North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon, Cathedral Catholic High (San Diego) lefty Brady Aiken and Shepherd (Texas) High righty Tyler Kolek in some order. The record for pitchers selected in the first round (20 in 2001) is in jeopardy.
But the 2014 Draft has proven just as vulnerable to the wave of pitching injuries that has afflicted big league stars such as Jose Fernandez and Matt Moore, as well as top prospects such as Archie Bradley and Jameson Taillon. Last Wednesday, East Carolina announced that right-hander Jeff Hoffman, a potential No. 1 overall choice, would be lost for the remainder of the season to Tommy John surgery. Three days later, Nevada-Las Vegas delivered the same news in regards to righty Erick Fedde, who had pitched his way into the upper half of the first round.
Hoffman and Fedde will see their Draft status take a hit, but the track record of elbow reconstructions is encouraging enough that both still could be first-round selections. In 2012, for example, Harvard-Westlake School (Studio City, Calif.) righty Lucas Giolito didn't pitch again after spraining the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow in March. He still went 16th overall to the Nationals and signed for $2,925,000, then made one two-inning pro appearance before requiring Tommy John surgery.
"I still think it's a good Draft, even with those guys going down," a scouting director said. "I think they could still go in the first round. They also might be available in the second."
Teams picking in the top 10 are suddenly scrambling to identify some alternatives now that Hoffman and Fedde are hurt. Hoffman would have made the obvious top three selections an obvious top four, and now there's no consensus on which pitcher is likely to be taken next after the Rodon-Aiken-Kolek trio.
"Guys are getting hurt and it's tough," the scouting director said. "A guy like Hoffman, he'd done everything he was supposed to do as a top-of-the-line Draft guy. It changes your perspective, especially this time of year. You might say there are four guys you need to see down the stretch, and then that four becomes six and then six gets stretched to eight, because guys are going down."
Hoffman and Fedde aren't the only potential first-round arms with health issues. Milton (Ga.) High right-hander Dylan Cease hasn't pitched since getting diagnosed with a small tear in his UCL in March. Rice righty Zech Lemond has been out since early April with elbow inflammation, and while he should return this week or next, he'll move from the rotation to the bullpen. Baker High (Baldwinsville, N.Y.) righty Scott Blewett has been sidelined for two weeks with shoulder soreness, and it's uncertain when he'll take the mound again.
TCU's Finnegan impresses in return to mound
In a week in which right-handers Jeff Hoffman (East Carolina) and Erick Fedde (Nevada-Las Vegas) -- two of the Draft's top pitching prospects -- succumbed to Tommy John surgery, there was some good news on the injury front. Texas Christian's Brandon Finnegan, one of the best lefties available, successfully returned to the mound on Friday.
After establishing himself as a possible top-10 pick, Finnegan left his April 25 start against Cal State Northridge after three innings with shoulder tightness. TCU team physician Dr. John Conway diagnosed nothing more than some minor inflammation, so Finnegan could have pitched the next weekend against Kansas State. The Horned Frogs decided to save him after winning the first two games of that series, waiting to bring him back against Oklahoma on Friday.
Working on an 80-pitch limit, Finnegan went four innings and earned the decision in a 10-2 victory. He wasn't at his sharpest, allowing two runs on seven hits and two walks while striking out four, but an area scout who attended the game said Finnegan showed everything he needed to.
"His velocity was a couple of ticks down, but that didn't concern me," the scout said. "The stuff was similar to what it's always been. 'Rusty' might be the best way to describe it. I have no doubt he's fine. I came out of there feeling pretty good about it."
Finnegan has spent most of the spring pitching at 93-95 mph with his fastball, and he has reached 97. He misses bats with both his heater and his solid low-80s slider, and he currently ranks fourth in NCAA Division I with an average of 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings (100 whiffs in 76 frames).
Finnegan also has a decent changeup as a third pitch, and he has improved his control and command this spring. Because he stands just 5-foot-11, 185 pounds and features some effort in his delivery, some scouts believe he'll wind up as a late-inning reliever in the Major Leagues. Others see Finnegan along the lines of former All-Star lefty Mike Hampton and believe he can make it as a starter.
High schoolders Bradley, Reed sitting pretty
Bobby Bradley and Cody Reed don't have bodies built to win beauty pageants. But they do possess the ability to help big league clubs win games, and that should get the high schoolers from the Deep South drafted in the top two or three rounds come June.
Bradley is a 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from Harrison Central High (Gulfport, Miss.), which has produced three Major Leaguers in Greg Hibbard and Marcus and Matt Lawton. The Louisiana State recruit is a well-below-average runner who didn't look pretty in trials at catcher and third base, so the team that takes him essentially is getting a bat who's limited to first base. But it's easy to dream on Bradley's bat.
"I hear scouts wonder about the body or the profile, but he could hit .290-.300 with 30 homers, and there aren't many of those guys around," an area scout said. "He has as good a chance to be a plus bat as anyone in the country for me. He has a good feel to hit, a good swing. He doesn't go out of the zone much and uses the whole field.
"Right now, he's more of a line-drive hitter, but he has raw power. When he wants to hit the ball out of the park, he can do it. He reminds me of Pedro Alvarez, and he's got a chance to be a better hitter than Alvarez. Big league bats are hard to find, so you've got to take these guys higher than the rest of their profile."
Reed has added velocity and weight as a senior at Ardmore (Ala.) High. The left-hander now carries 260 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, and he now delivers 92-95 mph fastballs on a regular basis. While he draws physical comparisons to righty relievers Jonathan Broxton and Tommy Hunter, the Vanderbilt commit profiles as a starter because he flashes a sharp slider and a fading changeup.
"His velocity has really shot up," a second area scout said. "I've seen him hit 95. The only thing is he's 260 pounds. He's a big kid. He's strong, no question, but the ideal weight would be more around 235. I saw him in the fall throwing 88-89 and touching 90 at 230 pounds, and the concern is the velocity came with the weight gain. But it's a heck of an arm."