The 2011 draft class is being hyped as one of the best in recent memory. With less than three weeks until draft day it’s time to zero in on some of this year’s best prospects. Over the next couple weeks I’ll be profiling some of the higher-profile players.
With Vanderbilt starter Sonny Gray on the mound Thursday night, Vandy fell to Georgia 5-4. Although Gray’s line- 4 runs, 9 hits, 3 walks, and 6 strikeouts over 6 innings- was unimpressive, he showed electric stuff at times, and still projects as a top-10 pick.
Coming out of high school in 2008, Gray dropped to the Cubs in the 27th round primarily because of his strong commitment to Vanderbilt. Listed at only 5’11” 180, Gray will always have to answer questions about his small stature, but he has big-league stuff. Thursday night, his fastball ranged from 89-93, sitting mostly at 92, and the pitch featured good action, tailing away from left-handed hitters. When Gray is able to keep his fastball low in the strike zone, he makes it tough on hitters to elevate the ball, as evidenced by his 1.96:1 GO/AO ratio this year.
Gray’s best pitch is his sharp, 12-6 curveball. His curve sits in the low 80s, and he showed the ability to throw it for strikes and to burry it in the dirt and get swings-and-misses. He got around a couple of his curveballs, causing the pitch to lose its sharp break, but he threw enough good ones that it’s not hard to project his curveball becoming a plus-plus offering down the road.
In addition to his curve, Gray featured an 81-84 mph change-up. The pitch has more fade than sink, but he throws it with solid arm-speed and it should at least be an average offering in the future.
Projecting Gray’s future arsenal on the scouting scale, his fastball rates as plus (60), his curveball plus-plus (70), and his change as above-average (55).
My biggest concern with Gray is his ability to command the ball. He has a slight “wrap”, where he pronates his wrist and cups the ball as he extends his arm at the back of his delivery. The problem with wraping in your delivery is that you have to make the additional movement of unwraping, making it more difficult to maintain a consistent release point. The wrap is by no means a fatal flaw, and whichever team drafts Gray could certainly make an effort to clean it up, but with the his current delivery it’s hard for me to envision Gray ever having above-average command.
Overall, I like Gray a lot. He reminds me some of Roy Oswalt. Both undersized right-handers have similar drop-and-drive deliveries, and both feature big-time breaking balls. Gray will be hard pressed to match the career that Oswalt has had, but with three above-average offerings he should have a long career as a solid 2nd starter.
Other Players to Watch:
Aaron Westlake* (1B, Vanderbilt)- Selected as a draft-eligible sophomore by the Blue Jays in the 22nd round last year, Westlake has had a huge junior season. Powered by 12 home runs, Westlake has put up a .359/.479/.630 slash line this season, even more impressive when you consider that he’s put up those numbers with the new, less-powerful metal bats. At the plate, Westlake employs an unorthodox stance. He keeps his hands very low, but his hands are quick and lose enough that he makes his swing work. Defensively, Westlake has soft hands and is extremely flexible, making him a great target to throw to. In a different draft class Westlake is probably a first rounder, but he might slip out of the first round this year. He should have a productive career as a starting first baseman in the Adam LaRoche mold.
Jason Esposito (3B, Vanderbilt)- Esposito seems to be one of the more polarizing players in this year’s draft. Few question his defense at third where he shows soft hands, a quick first step, and a strong, accurate arm, and he could probably play 2nd or even short in a pinch. But, despite putting up a solid .343/.416/.520 line this year, there are questions as to how much he’ll hit. There is no doubt that he has power, but his swing can get a little long at times, so there are questions as to how he will deal with major-league caliber pitching. Esposito has enough tools that I think somebody will take a chance on him before the end of the supplemental round.
Zach Cone (OF, Georgia)- After a monstrous sophomore season in which he hit .363 to go with 29 extra-base hits, Cone looked like a first-round pick heading into 2011. But after last night’s game Cone is hitting only .273 and slugging only .356. Despite his struggles, Cone’s tools are obvious. On Thursday night he bunted a one-hopper right to Esposito at third base and nearly beat it out at first. And even though he hasn’t hit for power, with his strength and bat speed, it’s easy to see him doing so in the future. Understandably, some of Cone’s struggles this year may be attributable to a horrific early season collision in which Cone collided with teammate Jonathan Taylor, leaving Taylor paralyzed, but it’s impossible to know. On tools alone, Cone could be a first-round pick, but with his struggles this season I’d be surprised if he went before the third round.
Michael Palazzone (RHP, Georgia)- Palazzone came to Georgia as a highly-touted recruit. He was drafted out of high school in the 18th Round by the Braves and Baseball America ranked him the 20th best high school prospect eligible for the 2008 draft his senior season, but it wasn’t until this year that Palazzone began to pitch as expected. Palazzone doesn’t blow hitters away, but he has excellent control, walking only 11 in over 100 innings this year. His fastball sits in the upper 80s, but it plays up because he locates it and he has an above-average straight-change to keep hitters off the fastball. Palazzone throws his change with excellent arm-speed and it is a swing-and-miss offering. He also throws a huge breaking ball, sometimes clocking at 68 mph or slower. If he can effectively locate the big curve in the zone, the pitch will be a good weapon to keep hitters off-balance, but developing a tighter breaking ball to get swings-and-misses out of the zone will likely be an important part of his pro development. Palazzone profiles as a back-of-the-rotation starter, but he is polished and should rise quickly through the minors. I could see Palazzone being selected anywhere from the 6th to the 10th round.