Yes, friends, it's that time of year again, when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of June and amateur baseball players. Well, okay, maybe it's not quite that time of year yet for most of us, but given we're right about five months out from baseball's first-year draft it is that time when I need to get started doing these previews if I'm going to get as many in as I would like.
As always, I'll mostly be covering the players likely to be first-ish round picks, with a few other players of interest thrown in. Since the focus is going to be mostly on likely first rounders, let's take a quick moment to refamiliarise ourselves with the Cards' recent first-round history, shall we?
2011: Kolten Wong, 2B, University of Hawaii -- Panned at draft time by plenty of fans and analysts alike as Pete Kozma II: The Kozmaning, Wong went out and did his level best to prove everyone wrong. He's a hitter, plain and simple, and so far the defense looks good enough. Put him solidly in the results-first bin, and the pure hitter bin as well. Currently the most promising middle infield prospect in the system in terms of possible future impact.
2010: Zack Cox, 3B, University of Arkansas -- A lot like Kolten Wong, except at third instead of second. The bat is the one tool that really stands out, and most agree it plays at any level. There are more questions about Cox than Wong (tee-hee), largely due to the increased offensive expectations of a player relegated to a corner position. Still, while Cox has lost some lustre among prospect watchers, he's still performed at every level so far. Results first, tools second. Pure hitter.
2009: Shelby Miller, RHP, Brownwood HS -- The big departure for the Cards with their first pick. Miller is the organisation's number one prospect, and it isn't a real tough choice. All tools, all projection, no production pick.
2008: Brett Wallace, 3B/1B, Arizona State -- Stop me if you've heard this one: pure hitter, all production, no projection, questionable tools. Wallace hasn't developed at the major league level yet the way most thought he would, but he already brought the Cards all the value he was going to in the Matt Holliday trade. It remains to be seen if he can make the adjustments to big league pitching, and his power seems to have virtually disappeared.
We won't go back any further; four years is plenty long enough for me to think on. The pattern here is fairly clear: the Cardinals value production more than projection. They believe players who can hit will find a path to the big leagues, and in each of the past four drafts they've taken the most valuable player available. Now, that's not necessarily the best player available, but best is really much tougher to define in the baseball draft anyway. If there's a valuable commodity sitting on the board when the Cards pick, chances are they're going to take him.
So what are we going to start with? The least Cardinal-y draft demographic of all: high school left-handed pitchers. Why would I start there after going through the trouble to map out why the Cardinals almost assuredly aren't going to pick one of these guys? Because it's my draft previews, and this is what I feel like doing. Also, I might still be carrying a bit of a Henry Owens torch from last year.Matthew Smoral, LHP, Solon High School (Ohio)
6'8", 225 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Matt Smoral is a monster. He's huge. Not only does he stand 6'8", he's got a big frame as well. Broad shoulders, long limbs, just a physically large human being. As you can probably imagine, that extra-large frame comes with some pretty hefty projection, as he has plenty of room to fill out and add on to his body. I think the projection card is often overplayed with young pitchers, particularly in regards to their peak velocities, but Smoral is just the sort of player the term was invented for.
That's not to say Smoral's stuff isn't already buzzworthy; it most definitely is. He works his fastball in the 91-93 range, and will occasionally bump a little higher than that. Obviously, the hope is he'll add to that as he matures, but even if he doesn't and just settles in more consistently at 93 he has plenty of oomph for a lefty. He throws a curveball currently that tends to get slurvy, but I think with his arm slot he'll end up with a slider when it's all said and done. Guys with lower arm slots usually have better luck with sliders than curves, and I have a feeling Smoral will be no exception. His changeup is high school standard, which is to say he's heard of the pitch, and has some idea of how to throw it, but hasn't done a whole of it just yet because he hasn't needed to.
Smoral works from a low three-quarter arm slot, and I actually like his mechanics pretty well. I don't recall where, but I did read a scouting report concerned with the fact he tends to land closed and works across his body, but that seems correctable if it is in fact an issue. It would likely behoove him to try and land a bit more straight on, if only to improve his command. He doesn't have any ugly positions in his arm action, though, and I like both his tempo and his drift through the balance point of his delivery.
Obviously, there are going to be plenty of teams lining up to look at Smoral and imagining him as the next Randy Johnson. That may be too lofty a goal, but it certainly wouldn't be out of the question to see him turn into the next David Price. Where he goes in the draft will depend somewhat on how he performs this spring, of course, but the biggest factor for Smoral is going to be whether he shows any signs of increasing velocity between now and the first week of June.
Max Fried, LHP, Montclair Prep School (California)
6'4", 165 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Fried is one of the very few guys whose name is already somewhat known in this draft class. (Actually, known might be too strong a word; he's 'known' to draftniks more than most other potential high school draftees are in January.) If you're looking for the Clayton Kershaw of this year's draft, the smart money is probably on Fried to be it.
Fried has the same projection label as Smoral, and actually has even more room to grow. He's gangly and could easily add 25 pounds without a second thought. And then he could have a second thought and decide to add 15 or 20 more.
Much like Kershaw, Fried's best pitch is his curveball, already a true hammer in the mid-70s he'll throw at any time in any count. The ability to spin a breaking ball so effectively at such a young age is rare, and grabs your attention in a big way. He sets up his curve with a fastball in the low 90s and a fairly advanced changeup. His command of the fastball in particular is a long way from major league ready, but a three-pitch mix of this quality isn't the sort of commodity to go unnoticed in the draft.
I'll be honest; I don't like Fried as well as either of the other two pitchers I'm covering here today. There's something about his delivery that bugs me, but I can't quite put my finger on it. I have to admit, though, he's got a curve you don't often see from kids at this age, and is probably the most advanced pitcher of this group.
Unless something completely unexpected -- like, say, an arm injury -- pops up this sprig, I don't see any way Fried drops very far come June. What will make a difference is what the reports on his velocity say. If he shows signs of inching further into the 90s with his fastball, he could end up a top 10 or even top 5 pick. If he stays right where he is, he'll still be gone before the supplemental round comes along. More polished than your average high school pitcher, Fried should make some team very, very happy come draft day.
Hunter Virant, LHP, Camarillo High School (California)
6'3", 170 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
It's maybe a little too early in the process to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway. Hunter Virant is probably my favourite player in the entire 2012 draft. Why? Well, partially because I think he's an outstanding prospect, and partially because his name sounds like a miniboss from a Metroid game. But mostly because I think he's an outstanding prospect.
Virant's calling card is his raw athleticism, the same sort of athletic ability that made Tyrell Jenkins so attractive as a pitcher. He's long and loose, with natural actions that can't be taught. When scouts talk about looking for what you can't give a player, they're talking about Hunter Virant's gift for movement. At this time last year there was plenty of debate as to whether he would be more attractive as a pitcher or an OF/1B prospect, but as time has gone on it's becoming more and more clear Virant's future is on the mound.
The repertoire is solid already and projects to get better: a low-90s fastball and a changeup that has shown flashes of brilliance, if not much consistency. His breaking ball right now is basically a slurve, and down the line he (and the team that drafts him), will need to figure out whether to tighten it into a slider or get on top and turn it into a curve. I would personally hope for a curveball, and I'll explain why in a moment.
What I love most about Virant is the delivery, but in an odd way. I love the looseness. I love the arm action on the backside. I love how far he extends out in front of the mound, and how well he finishes out over his front leg. On the other hand, there's plenty in his delivery that could be better. He works from a lower arm slot, but only part of the time. He lands closed with his plant foot. Most of all, he just doesn't repeat the same mechanics consistently time after time.
When Virant stays on top of the ball and keeps his arm slot up, I love love love his delivery. When he drops his arm and slings the ball it gets flat and everything stays up. It's a big part of the reason I said before I hope he ends up with a curveball down the road, too; if I'm drafting Virant I want to see him get his arm slot up and get on top of the ball. He could still throw a slider that way, of course, but a curve would be the more natural pitch for him I think.
If you were to ask me why I feel more strongly about Virant than either of the other two pitchers here, I would be hard pressed to give you a proper reason. Honestly, at this point I would have to call it just a gut feeling. But I've already done a fair bit of research on the players I'm going to be writing about over the next few months, and Hunter Virant is, at this moment, the player whose name I would most like to hear called when the Cardinals go on the clock.
Well, that's one in the bag, folks. Between now and June I'll probably put together about a dozen of these, and hopefully by the time draft day rolls around we'll all have a pretty good idea who the players having their names called are.
See you all next Wednesday.