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2016 Draft: Kyle Lewis Swings Way to Top-Five Consideration

After a breakthrough summer in the Cape Cod League, Mercer outfielder Kyle Lewis entered the spring as a potential first-round pick and has managed to dramatically improve his stock over the course of the season. He’s among the country’s leading hitters with a .411/.545/.729 line, 17 homers and 61 walks against 43 strikeouts at the time of this publication, numbers that helped him win the Southern Conference Player of the Year Award for the second straight season. With elite performance to back up five-tool promise and one of the best swings in the class, he’s in the conversation to be one of the first five players off the draft board.

I saw Lewis this past weekend when the Bears traveled to North Carolina for their regular-season series finale at UNC-Greensboro. The video below offers two angles from batting practice and a couple throws from center field, concluding with his first three plate appearances of the series. Other draft follows from this series get their own blurbs at the end.

Physical Description

Playing in the Southern Conference, Lewis looks pretty different from everyone else on the field. He’s listed at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, and features a high-waisted, athletic build that should add another 15 pounds or so. He shows fast-twitch ability in all phases, coupling athletic movements in the box with fluid actions in the field.

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Timing of Jason Groome’s Suspension Raises Questions

The biggest news regarding this year’s draft broke a couple of weeks ago when we learned that Barnegat High School (N.J.) left-hander Jason Groome – a strong candidate to become the No. 1 overall selection in June – was temporarily suspended for violating a transfer rule.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association requires that any athlete who transfers schools without changing addresses must sit out the first 30 days of the season or half of the team’s total number of games. According to multiple media reports, the NJSIAA found Groome violated that rule when he transferred to Barnegat for his senior season after spending last year at IMG Academy in Florida. In other words, because his parents didn’t move with him to IMG – which is a boarding school – he didn’t provide the “bona fide change of residence” as outlined in the NJISAA’s bylaws. Because of the ineligibility ruling, Barnegat forfeited both games in which Groome has pitched, erasing the 19-strikeout no-hitter he threw on April 11. He’s eligible to return to action this week.

For a second, let’s not consider why parents would be expected to move with their children to a boarding school. Let’s also not consider how this transfer rule is in place to prevent the gaining of an athletic advantage, and that Groome was transferring back to the school where he played his freshman and sophomore years to play a final season with his hometown friends. And let’s also not question why the NJSIAA doesn’t allow an appeals hearing under the rule. You can find other media outlets exploring these issues at length, with the majority opinion coming down on the side of the player. Instead, let’s focus on the timing of the suspension, which is at least unfortunate, and at most suspicious.

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Will Craig’s Power Bat Buoys 2016 Draft Stock

In a draft year that’s churning out a better college hitting crop than the industry expected before the season began, Wake Forest infielder Will Craig is another such college hitting prospect that’s making a strong case for a top-two-rounds selection.

I saw Craig this weekend when the Demon Deacons visited N.C. State for a three-game series that included a rare Monday night game, which aired on ESPNU. He’s a high follow mostly for his bat, and he’s done nothing but rake since he arrived in Winston-Salem. As of publication, he’s comically slashing .466/.581/.909, placing him inside the nation’s top five in all three categories. Perhaps then it’s no wonder that he surfaces as the ACC’s top draft-eligible batter in Carson Cistulli’s latest installment of top college players by (maybe) predictive stats.

The video below moves from batting practice to pre-game infield to game swings. For the sake of an evaluation, it helped that he was facing N.C. State left-hander Ryan Williamson, a solid pro prospect who gets his own video and bullet point further down. Both videos also feature receiving demonstrations by N.C. State catcher Andrew Knizner, another solid prospect who gets mentioned in this space.

Physical Description

Craig looks every bit of his listed 6-foot-3, 235-pound constitution, a big-bodied frame that has reached its full development. His natural strength is concealed by a soft, thick build that’s supported by a pair of tree trunks. He also has unexpected rotational athleticism for such a big dude, which is more apparent when he’s pitching than when he’s doing anything else. Ideally, his pro training regimen trims 10-15 pounds and replaces the void with muscle. Craig was drafted by the Royals in the 37th round of the 2013 draft out of Science Hill HS (Tenn.), where he teamed with Tigers lefty Daniel Norris.

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Blake Rutherford Shows Tools of a Top-Five Draft Pick

I got my first look at Blake Rutherford (Chaminade College Prep, Calif.) at USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars showcase last summer. The 18-year-old outfielder, whom evaluators considered a top 10-draft prospect entering the spring, reinforced that status at last weekend’s National High School Invitational at the USA Baseball complex in Cary, NC, perhaps elevating himself given the underwhelming performances of some of his similarly talented peers.

The video below merges Rutherford’s batting practice from Tournament of Stars and his four at-bats from the Chaminade Prep vs. Walton HS (Ga.) contest at NHSI.

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Tennessee’s Nick Senzel Among 2016 Draft’s Top Bats

Infielder Nick Senzel has been an impact player for Tennessee ever since he arrived in Knoxville, but his draft stock took a major jump forward last summer when he was named MVP of the Cape Cod League and positioned himself as a first-round candidate heading into the spring.

He’s built on his momentum in his first 12 games this season, hitting .396/.500/.521 while answering some questions about his glove and where he’ll play at the next level. I caught Senzel when the Volunteers visited East Carolina in Greenville, N.C., as part of the 13th Annual Keith LeClair Classic last weekend. The video below starts with his pre-game batting practice in ECU’s indoor cages, then moves to pre-game infield and concludes with his first three at-bats from the game.

Physical Description

Listed at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Senzel has a muscular, pro build that looks about five to 10 pounds denser. He’s barrel-chested with broad shoulders and, in general, well developed and proportioned. Though he won’t get much stronger than he already is, you probably don’t want him to, either, as added mass would just limit his flexibility and medium-twitch athleticism.

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Lefty Jake DeVries Gives Air Force a High Draft Follow

There have been just three Air Force draftees since 2007, with the most recent coming last year when senior right-hander Ben Yokley was signed by the Cardinals as a 29th-round selection. Now the program is entering unchartered territory thanks to two pitchers in junior left-hander Jake DeVries and junior right-hander Griffin Jax, each of whom will command more scouting attention this spring than any Air Force player of the last decade.

I first wrote about DeVries in October after he flashed some intriguing pitching tools in the Cape Cod League last summer. As I mentioned then, Air Force players have obligations that supersede baseball and make it more complicated for teams to sign them out of the draft. This is particularly the case for players who aren’t seniors, as noted by Brent Briggeman in a piece recently for The Gazette of Colorado Springs. DeVries and Jax, explains Briggeman, basically have three options: they can (a) sign a pro contract and remain at Air Force to graduate while playing baseball on available leave time until the academy grants them a release from active duty, (b) resign from the academy and face two years of active duty as an enlisted airman, or (c) come back for their senior year like Yokley did, sign the contract, and then balance pro ball with combat training.

Briggeman notes that neither DeVries nor Jax has asked out of their commitments, though their performance this spring might change the situation. I’m told that academy leadership doesn’t have a thorough understanding of how the draft process works and may be uncomfortable setting a precedent in letting players out of those commitments. This is obviously a fluid situation, but the takeaway for now is that teams will have to clear administrative hurdles to sign either pitcher away from their senior seasons at the academy.

I got an up-close look at both DeVries and Jax this past weekend when Air Force and Navy squared off in a three-game series known as the Freedom Classic in Kinston, N.C. The video of DeVries is from the first inning of his start on Saturday, and the video of Jax (further down) is from the third inning of his start on Friday.

Jake DeVries

DeVries has most of the baseline attributes you want to see in starting pitcher prospect. He’s big, throws with little effort, has plus velocity and can spin a breaking ball. The biggest question mark surrounds his ability to throw strikes. Let’s talk about the pros first.

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2016 MLB Draft: Louisville’s Corey Ray Thriving Atop Order

One week into the college baseball season, Louisville head coach Dan McConnell’s decision to bat Corey Ray atop the order this year looks like it’s going to pay dividends for the next four months.

If you’re unfamiliar with what the star outfielder has done over the four games since he moved up to the leadoff spot from the three-hole last season, consider this cartoonish statline: .733 AVG (11-for-15); .750 OBP; 1.533 SLG; 1 double; 1 triple; 3 HR; 6 SB.

For sure, Louisville’s two opponents for those four games – Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Eastern Kentucky – aren’t teams that we could have expected to offer much resistance. But no matter: it’s an exceptional beginning that deserves mention as the five-tool prospect looks to establish himself as the best position player in the 2016 draft class.

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Cal’s Daulton Jefferies Shows First-Round Potential in Opener

Daulton Jefferies wasn’t at the very peak of his game in California’s season opener against Duke at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Friday, but the junior right-hander still flashed the stuff that makes him an early favorite to be a first-round selection in June.

I was on hand for his first start of the year as he opposed another top draft prospect in Duke right-hander Bailey Clark. To paint a fuller picture of Jefferies’ prospect outlook, I’m mixing my takeaways from this outing with what I saw this summer when he pitched for the Team USA Collegiate National Team and ranked as my No. 13 prospect on the squad.

The video below shows all 15 pitches from the first inning of his start on Friday. He tossed six innings and gave up five hits, two runs (both unearned) with two walks and nine strikeouts.

Physical Description

Jefferies is listed at six feet and 180 pounds. He has wiry strength and still projects in spite of his stature, with room for mass through his shoulders and a lean torso that tapers off at the waist. It’s an athletic body type that’s not difficult to maintain. He also shows quick-twitch actions when fielding his position, which you’ll see at the 1:30 mark in the video.

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Minor Leaguers Weigh Risks in Minimum-Wage Lawsuit

The minimum-wage lawsuit that a group of former and current minor leaguers is bringing against Major League Baseball could mark a paradigm shift in the industry. In a nutshell, a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would fundamentally change the business model of the game, both at the minor league and major league levels.

As legal analyst Nathaniel Grow details as part of his running coverage of the suit, the plaintiffs contend that MLB violates federal and state minimum-wage and overtime laws by paying many minor leaguers as little as $3,300 a year. If plaintiffs were to obtain a favorable ruling, the cost of doing business for major league teams would increase dramatically. In all likelihood, major league clubs would try passing down that cost to minor league affiliates. In one extreme yet plausible scenario, we could see retraction in the minor leagues, which would have ripple effects on player development, the amateur draft and the international signing period. And that’s just the baseball side of it, saying nothing of the impact on regional economies that rely on their minor league franchises.

When a verdict is handed down, there will be plenty of time to assess its impact, the good and the bad. For now, I want to look at an issue that is getting less attention than the lawsuit’s hypothetical fallout: the risks that current minor leaguers must accept if they decide to join the lawsuit.

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Even More 2016 Draft Prospect Standouts from Jupiter

One doesn’t simply write about Jupiter, not without first reflecting on this matter’s relative futility.

Perfect Game’s 2015 WWBA World Championship – often referred to by its aforementioned host town in Florida – marks the last stop on the high school showcase circuit. Between Oct. 22 and 26, 85 travel ball teams competed against each other at the Roger Dean Stadium complex, the spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins. Though most of the top-flight draft talent was concentrated among 20 or so teams, it was still tricky to navigate 13 fields in a golf cart while jockeying for real estate behind home plate of said fields with hoards of other golf carts. This happened for five days, for 10-14 hours each day, depending on your ambition level. And lo, this test of scouting endurance was further complicated by basic human maintenance, as one must still eat on a regular basis and displace the eaten contents on a more timelier one. I say these things to say that there was a lot happening at once, and as one half of a two-man FanGraphs team that slogged through this test, I also say that it was difficult to see all of which that happened at once, in case your expectations were higher before you finished reading this sentence.

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College Team USA Top 20 Prospects: Nos. 1-10

It will be a challenge for the 2015 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team (CNT) to match what the previous two editions of the club have achieved in terms of the draft. The 2014 CNT produced 10 first-rounders in this year’s draft, including five of the top six college players taken as well as four of the top six picks overall. The 2013 CNT also produced 10 first-rounders.

That’s why ranking the top-20 prospects on Team USA isn’t an easy exercise. The majority of the players have the tools to land in the first round, so there are a few places on this list where the talent runs together. Nevertheless, the obvious strength of this year’s team was power arms with pitchability. The weakness was the lack of impact middle infielders.

Because of the length of this feature, we decided to split the list into two parts. You can see the 11th-20th ranked players and honorable mentions here.

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College Team USA Top 20 Prospects: Nos. 11-20

It will be a challenge for the 2015 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team (CNT) to match what the previous two editions of the club have achieved in terms of the draft. The 2014 CNT produced 10 first-rounders in this year’s draft, including five of the top six college players taken as well as four of the top six picks overall. The 2013 CNT also produced 10 first-rounders.

That’s why ranking the top-20 prospects on Team USA isn’t an easy exercise. The majority of the players have the tools to land in the first round, so there are a few places on this list where the talent runs together. Nevertheless, the obvious strength of this year’s team was power arms with pitchability. The weakness was the lack of impact middle infielders.

Because of the length of this feature, we decided to split the list into two parts. The top 10 prospects will be coming tomorrow.

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Lefty Jason Groome Leads Top 15 from 2016 Draft Showcase

USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars is an annual event held in Cary, N.C., that serves as a tryout for the 18U national team trials roster. Six teams that include more than 100 players compete in a tournament-style showcase over six days, and USA Baseball selects 40 players for the trial roster who then compete for 20 spots on the team that will go to the World Baseball Softball Confederation 18U World Cup, set for Aug. 28-Sept. 6 in Japan.

For scouts, TOS represents the No. 2 stop on the high-school summer showcase circuit after PG National, and it’s a prime opportunity for evaluators to watch many of the nation’s best draft-eligible high-school players do battle against each other while hitting with a wood bat. Often, showcase performance factors heavily into a prep prospect’s evaluation and helps put relatively unknown players on the map. This was the case for Cardinals first-rounder Nick Plummer, whose outstanding play on the summer circuit carried more weight since he played in a Michigan high-school league that starts the count at 1-1, thus complicating the evaluation. Another recent example is Manny Machado, who emerged from relative obscurity and turned heads at the 2010 TOS and East Coast Pro showcases. He became a high-level follow for Florida area scouts entering the spring, and you know the rest.

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College Team USA Loaded with Draft Talent as Usual

As dependably as Earth orbits the sun, so too does USA Baseball stack its Collegiate National Team with premium talents that later find themselves atop teams’ draft boards. Each summer, Team USA plays a few tune-up games against various teams from the summer collegiate Coastal Plain League before embarking on a multi-week schedule competing against Chinese Taipei, Cuba and other international squads. For major-league clubs, this summer tour and the Cape Cod League are the top destinations to scout the best college talent available in next year’s draft.

I’m going to compile a ranking of the top prospects on Team USA once its season is over, but having seen the first three games and the preceding batting practices/infields, I have enough notes to share in advance of a more comprehensive and penultimate post. Let’s do three hitters, three pitchers and a bonus round of 2017 guys. All of these players appeared in Kiley’s 2016/2017 draft rankings.

Corey Ray, CF, Louisville

Ray has been the most impressive position player over Team USA’s first three days, and if I was forced to rank all these guys now, he would slot in as my top hitting prospect and No. 2 overall behind Georgia RHP Robert Tyler. The quick-twitch center fielder has taken loud batting practices with a fluid, lefthanded stroke that produces above-average raw power and has shown a deliberate approach in games, using plus speed to set the Team USA single-game steals record with five in the first contest against the Holly Springs Salamanders of the CPL. He’s still developing instincts for his position, but his range, solid average arm and controlled aggression fit the center-field profile.

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Enigmatic Skye Bolt Leads UNC’s Draft Crop

It’s a pretty average year for draft-eligible talent in North Carolina, with Duke right hander Michael Matuella leading the way as a possible first-round pick, despite undergoing Tommy John surgery after just a few starts. West Columbus High School center fielder Eric Jenkins is the state’s second-best prospect, a 70-grade runner with projectable hitting tools who should go inside the top two rounds.

After those two come a sheaf (the correct collective noun for prospects) of players who grade similarly talent-wise after the third round. Among them are UNC center fielder Skye Bolt, Charlotte Christian HS right-hander Jackson Kowar, Marvin Ridge HS left-hander Max Wotell, Southpoint HS left-hander Garrett Davila and Greenfield HS outfielder Isaiah White.

UNC, the state’s top exporter of pro prospects, once again runs deep with draft talent, even if it won’t produce a first-rounder as it has five times in the last six years. Of the potentially seven Tar Heels who could be signing pro contracts in the coming weeks, Bolt is the most interesting (and mercurial), and there are a few more who show enough promise to justify clogging up the FanGraphs servers with the following words and moving pictures.

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Cal Poly Pomona’s Cody Ponce Still in Play for First Round

Cody Ponce entered the spring as a potential first-round pick following a breakout summer in the Cape Cod League. That’s still the case now just two weeks before the draft, and I saw why during his Sunday start against Tampa in the Division II World Series, which was played at USA Baseball’s National Training Complex in Cary, N.C.

In the Cape, the Cal Poly Pomona right-hander sat 92-94 mph, touching 97, and combined his fastball with a hard cutter, curveball and changeup. That’s the same four-pitch mix he’s working with now, although the stuff wasn’t as sharp in my look compared to the reports from the summer. Still, he’s logged 62.1 innings this spring on his way to a 1.44 ERA with 54 hits allowed, 14 walks and 67 strikeouts so far this season, albeit against inferior competition.

At no point over the last 10 years has Cal Poly Ponoma produced a player that was drafted inside of the top-10 rounds. Ponce, who ranks No. 23 on Kiley’s latest draft board, will certainly end that streak and likely become the program’s highest-drafted player since 1983, when the Dodgers selected left-hander Mike Munoz in the third round.

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LSU’s Alex Bregman Firmly Among the Top-10 Draft Prospects

I’m not usually compelled to make a seven-hour round trip to scout one player, but that’s what I did last weekend when I drove from my home in Raleigh, N.C., to Columbia, where South Carolina hosted Louisiana State in both teams’ final regular season series before the SEC tournament. The featured attraction was LSU shortstop Alex Bregman, who ranks No. 4 on Kiley’s draft board and went sixth in his mock draft at the time of this writing.

A 29th-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2012, Bregman has been hitting from the moment he stepped onto campus in Baton Rouge, winning the Brooks Wallace Award as the nation’s best shortstop in his freshman year. Offensively, he took a step backwards in his sophomore campaign, but seems to have added a bigger power element to his game as a junior this season, slashing .329/.417/.577 with nine home runs and 29 stolen bases through 55 games.

A native of Albuquerque, N.M., he grew up playing travel ball with Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart. Because of that friendship and the fact that the organization drafted him three years ago, it’s hard to see Bregman falling past Boston at seventh overall. But as Kiley noted in his most recent mock draft, teams ahead of Boston have eyes for him as well.

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Tempering Expectations for Virginia’s Nate Kirby

Of the pitchers expected to be selected in the first round of this year’s draft, Virginia lefthander Nate Kirby is one of the safer bets to remain a starter as a professional. But despite a clean profile, his limited upside restrains my enthusiasm as we head down the home stretch of the college baseball schedule.

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Louisville’s Kyle Funkhouser States Case for Top-Five Selection

In an otherwise depressing draft season, Kyle Funkhouser did his best to raise our spirits over the weekend, delivering a signature performance that – outside of Dillon Tate and the recently injured Chris Shaw – most of this year’s top amateur prospects have yet to.

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FSU’s D.J. Stewart Offers First-Round Tools in Unusual Package

Florida State outfielder D.J. Stewart was regarded as a first-round talent heading into his junior season, but after seeing him during an Easter weekend series at N.C. State in Raleigh, I came away with a lesser opinion.

A 28th-round draft pick by the Yankees out of high school in 2012, Stewart batted .364/.469/.560 as a freshman, then slashed .351/.472/.557 as a sophomore last year on his way to being named the ACC Player of the Year. He hit a disappointing .232/.362/.316 while playing for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team last summer, although he’s now carrying a .306/ .506/.595 line through 37 games this season. I got two looks at Stewart last week – one on Thursday and the other on Saturday – which is more time than you want to spend without sunscreen at Doak Field unless you’re a masochist who delights in the stinging pain of hot showers.

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