Two weeks ago, I tried to ease into this year's draft coverage (actually still next year's draft coverage, I suppose, technically), by profiling three players, all pitchers, who will be returning to the draft this year after becoming embroiled in the Brady Aiken quagmire of 2014. Mac Marshall I like fairly well. Jacob Nix I absolutely love. And Aiken himself, the source of all the consternation, I can't quite make up my mind on. The talent is undeniable, but the risk profile is so unusual that I honestly have almost no idea how to even parse what I see as his future value.
This week, I'm going to continue the origin story issue of our 2015 draft class by bringing you three more players, all pitchers once again, who were previously drafted and will reenter the draft this year with just a little bit of extra baggage.
It's kind of unfortunate they're all pitchers, really; particularly in light of the first batch being all pitchers as well, there's not a ton of variety to my first two previews of the year. Nonetheless, that's how things have fallen this year, and so I shall abide by the whims of fate.
Phil Bickford, RHP, Southern Nevada Junior College
6'4", 200 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Phil Bickford was not supposed to be here. At all, in fact.
First off, players chosen in the first round of the draft don't often forgo signing for whatever reason, just in general. Guys who go in the top ten picks and don't sign are even more rare, so much so as to be nearly nonexistent. And yet, that's exactly Phil Bickford, who turned down a very sizable bonus from the Toronto Blue Jays as the tenth overall pick in the 2013 draft to attend Cal State Fullerton.
And that's the final piece of the, "He shouldn't even be in this position," puzzle that is Phil Bickford. He was drafted in 2013, turned down the bonus money, and then headed off to a major college powerhouse program in the baseball world. There was no reason to believe he would be seen on a draft board before 2016, his junior year of college.
What has changed there is perhaps the most intriguing bit of the Bickford story so far: after just one year at Cal State Fullerton, he has transferred out of school to Southern Nevada JC, which some of you may remember as the juco Bryce Harper attended while waiting to get drafted, with an eye toward 2015, rather than waiting out his full college commitment.
Which means, of course, the biggest question mark about Bickford going in to the draft is likely going to be his price tag. This is a guy who turned down the Blue Jays' money as a top ten overall selection; what he's asking for this time around is really anyone's guess. That being said, it would seem he's giving up a fair amount of leverage doing it this way; leaving college for a juco program and a shot at the draft one year earlier isn't exactly the most viable long-term solution if you aren't planning on moving straight into pro ball.
The thing about Bickford is this: whatever price tag you might want to try and place on his talent, whatever he's going to demand, whatever draft slot you might have to take him, he's the kind of talent that could very well make it all worth it. He works from a low arm slot, sort of in the Jake Peavy mold, and has stuff reminiscent of Peavy as well. Coming out of high school, Bickford leaned heavily on a fastball that crept into the mid-90s and featured crazy, squirrelly movement that overmatched high school age hitters on a routine basis. His secondary stuff was weak, with his changeup a bit ahead of his slider, which had occasional frisbee moments, but all too often came out flat and spinny, while the change usually at least ended at the bottom of or below the strike zone due to plus sink.
That scouting report has changed, at least a little bit, in light of what Bickford did pitching in the Cape Cod League this past summer. The velocity was a tick better than it had been; working in relief (common on the Cape, since it's a showcase league), he hit 97 on the gun and managed to keep all the movement. The big difference, however, was his slider, which suddenly looked like an out pitch, rather than the slurvy offering it had been coming out of high school. The change is still around where it was in high school, but now, as his third offering instead of primary offspeed pitch, it becomes a real weapon. The fastball/slider combination is good enough you could stick him in a relief role and probably get him to the big leagues in two years, I think. Problem is, of course, you would have to be crazy to spend something like a top five or ten pick on a pitcher and then just stick him in the bullpen.
The improvement Bickford showed on the Cape may or may not carry over to college ball this coming spring; if it does, I can't see him getting out of the first five picks. If the slider regresses back closer to where it was in 2013, he's still probably a lock for a top half of the first round draft slot, to be perfectly frank. He's just too damned talented not to go high in the draft this year.
For me, I don't like Bickford's arm action. In addition to having Peavy's arm slot and Peavy's stuff, he also has a similarly high-stress delivery as Peavy, I feel, and his long-term durability is a concern. For the record, it's not the low, slingy arm slot that bothers me; it's the lateness of his arm coming through. I would be very worried about him holding up to a starter's workload long term in pro ball. However, a talent like this is exactly the guy you take and then worry about how you get value out of him later, either through creative usage or just flipping the guy once he builds up some trade value in your system. If there are three pitchers as talented as Bickford in this year's draft I would be shocked.
Andrew Suarez, LHP, Miami
6'1", 205 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Andrew Suarez is going to get drafted in 2015, and it will be the third time he has been selected. Toronto picked him out of high school back in 2011, but were unable to lure him away from a commitment to play at the U. The Nationals took him in the second round this past year, but couldn't figure out how to allocate their bonus dollars and watched him head back to Miami for his senior season.
The funny thing is, Suarez actually could, if he really wanted to, return to school in 2015-16 as well, due to the fact he is, athletically speaking, a redshirt junior right now after having missed time early in his college career with a shoulder injury that required surgical intervention. However, you would have to believe he won't tempt fate and shoot for a fourth time being drafted; he should sign with whatever team picks him this year with a minimum of fuss in all likelihood.
Suarez isn't a huge guy, being maybe just a shade bigger than Marco Gonzales, and the size of the stuff is similar, as well. If anything, Suarez has a little more fastball, clocking in consistently in the low-90s, topping out around 94. The pitch is a little straight, but hitters don't seem to have a ton of success against Suarez even so, mostly because he does have pretty solid command of the pitch. He doesn't generate a whole lot of empty swings, but he doesn't give up a ton of smoked contact, either.
Where Marco has a plus changeup as his primary offspeed weapon, Suarez's best secondary offering is an above-average slider he can bury down and away from left-handed hitters. He doesn't seem to have the same confidence in the pitch against righties, working more with his fringy changeup and a curveball all the written reports tell me exists, but I have yet to see in practice and so must assume it is an apocryphal offering.
I'll be honest: I'm not a huge fan of Suarez. The stuff isn't huge, the body isn't anything special, and he's already had arm issues in the past. His best fit, for me at least, is as a lefty reliever down the road, and while there are certainly worse things in the world one could be, there are much better bets I would prefer in the early rounds of the draft this year over a guy with such a limited ceiling.
Hunter Virant, LHP, UCLA
6'4", 175 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Hunter Virant is a perfect example of what can go wrong in the developmental process, and why going to college may not be all it's cracked up to be if you happen to belong to that narrow population of people who have the ability to potentially play baseball professionally.
Virant was selected by the Houston Astros in the eleventh round of the 2012 draft, but chose to attend UCLA rather than take the money the 'Stros offered him as an above-slot later round gamble. At the time of that draft, Virant was one of my very favourite pitchers in the whole class that year, with a smooth, quick arm action that generated velocity and movement easily and, I believed, would be a plus both from a health standpoint and a future repeatability (which is really a future consistent performance-ability), standpoint.
Three years later, Virant barely looks like the same player. The quality of his stuff regressed his freshman year at UCLA, and he missed the entirety of his sophomore campaign with a lower back issue. His delivery is a mess currently; gone is the smooth, almost liquid movements of his high school delivery, replaced by an arm action that is just...wow. I don't know who told Virant to completely straighten his arm at the back of his delivery, like a knockoff Ubaldo Jimenez or something, but I really wish whoever it was would call him back up and let him know they were joking, damn it.
Back when Virant was coming out of high school, his changeup was advanced for his age, and he paired it well with a fastball he was able to occasionally push into the mid-90s. Even his freshman year of college, the repertoire was already suffering, as his velocity dropped into the upper-80s and his changeup disappeared for long stretches of time. He's never had a great breaking ball, but it was competent at least.
We won't really know all that much about what's going to happen with Hunter Virant, and where he might go in this draft, until draft day rolls around and every team gets to see a full spring's worth of work with which to determine his future value. I was the number one member of the Hunter Virant fan club, and held on tight even as the wagon wheels started to disintegrate off the bandwagon. However, at this point, I'm not sure how much confidence there is (or should be, for that matter), in a player who looks so very different coming out of college than he went it.
If, that is, Virant is even good enough to justify a high pick this spring. There is more than a little reason to be concerned about what has happened to his stuff and his health; if you put a gun to my head and forced me, right here and now, to decide whether or not to drop a couple million dollars on a guy who looks like so many things have gone so serious wrong over the past few years and hasn't even been healthy for the past year, I have to admit, as much as I like him the first time around, I'm not sure I wouldn't steer clear this time around.