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2018 Draft Preview, Part One: Early Favourites, Pitching Edition

The author’s early picks for the best picks of the pitchers, subject to change without notice, of course.

NLCS - St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants - Game Four Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Morning, everybody.

Seeing as how we are fully into a new year now, and there’s still not much of anything happening that’s worth paying attention to, it seems to me like it’s about time to fire up the ol’ draft preview machine and crank out some high-quality (well, high-quality-ish...), content on the amateur players whose names we’ll all need to know come June.

I already produced one draft preview, the annual origin issue in which I pull out some returning draftees who were notable names in years past, either as high schoolers or draft-eligible sophomore or whatever, but here begins the proper run of draft coverage for 2018. As per usual, the format will be three players per preview piece (mostly; as always, I reserve the right to cram more players in if I find myself running out of time nearing the draft, just to get some more names out), with a few Persons of Interest posts along the way, specifically designed to highlight some players who aren’t likely to crack the first couple rounds as will most of my writeup subjects.

One final note: I am going to make a concerted effort this year to make these things shorter. In the past, my three-player writeups would usually run about 2000 words or so. The last couple years that’s ballooned, to the point many of them are hitting 3000 or more. I would like to try and get them cut down to the point that three players hits more in the 1500 word range. I can’t guarantee I will succeed, but from the perspective of actual writing time, as well as the time you all spend reading these things, I’m going to shoot for greater brevity this year, at least in terms of the draft coverage.

Anyhow, what we have today is my inital group of pitching favourites for the year. Obviously, things will almost certainly change between now and draft day, but as I’m sorting my follow list and placing players into mental buckets, these are the pitchers in whom I believe most right now.

Matthew Liberatore, LHP, Mountain Ridge HS (Arizona)

6’5”, 200 lbs

Bats/Throws: Left/Left

DOB: 6 November 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Velocity is king in baseball these days; pretty much everyone knows that. Players are bigger and stronger, pitchers are encouraged to throw at maximum effort at all times, and many are employing risky arm actions that can bump a fastball up a few miles per hour but shorten careers. (And I’m not making a value judgement on that last part, for the record; I’m always going to personally lean toward the pitchers who appear to be at less health risk, but it’s impossible to deny that taking advantage of a few tricks to add velocity has given some players careers where they might not otherwise have had one at all. The artistry of pitching has been at least somewhat lost in favour of a more brute-force approach.

There is, however, room left in the game for pitchers who do it with feel, who do it with guile, who get by by changing speeds and keeping hitters off balance and whatever other pitching coach buzzwords you want to dig up. Pitchers who don’t have great stuff, necessarily, but have the intelligence and feel for the craft that they manage to be successful all the same.

And then there are pitchers who have both great stuff and amazing feel. Those guys usually turn out to be very, very good.

Matthew Liberatore is that third type.

Liberatore is one of the more intriguingly precocious talents to come into the draft the past couple years, probably the most advanced high school pitching prospect since Brady Aiken and his ill-fated elbow ligament came along in 2014. Much like Aiken, Liberatore combines remarkable feel for the craft with premium stuff, and the overall package is hard not to get excited about.

It’s not premium velocity that gets Liberatore noticed, but he works in the low 90s and can push up against 95 at the high end. He works up and down both with his fastball, and gets solid run on the pitch. Even better, he puts it where he wants it most of the time, and shows an ability to get inside on right-handed hitters effectively. He’s also tall and physically projectable, though I don’t like just slapping another 5 mph on a guy’s fastball because he’s young, tall, and thin. Still, he’ll get bigger and stronger, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him sitting 93-94 down the road, rather than 90-92, I don’t think.

To the feel and command of the fastball, Liberatore adds command of, and feel for, a pair of excellent offspeed pitches. His changeup is the more advanced of the two right now, and shows solid fading action as well as nice speed differential. The crown jewel of the arsenal, though, is Liberatore’s curveball, which isn’t yet as consistent as the change but will flash plus-plus potential. It’s a Rich Hill job, a big, slow waterfall breaker that drops nose to knees, as the saying goes, and which Liberatore can actually throw for strikes as well as bounce in the dirt.

On top of all that, Liberatore will change up the speed of his delivery, both adding a pause at the top of his leg kick and quick-pitching from the windup on occasion. Very few high school pitchers have anywhere near the kind of feel and mound IQ he possesses, and it shows in pretty much everything he does. The downside? The Cardinals don’t pick until the back half of the first round, and there’s a very good chance Liberatore will be gone before then.

via rkyosh007:

Logan Gilbert, RHP, Stetson University

6’5”, 195 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 5 May 1997

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I think, but won’t guarantee, that I remember taking a look at Logan Gilbert in high school, when he was a skinny outfielder who also pitched. I know he was a position player back then, and I think I sort of remember him, but I could have him confused with some other half-remembered low-round lotto ticket kind of player.

Regardless, Gilbert is a pitcher now, and he just happens to be one of my favourite pitchers in the draft, one who burst onto the scene with a monster 2017 season at Stetson, and specifically showed the kind of breakout stuff that could give him a ton of helium heading into this spring.

Gilbert has that same prototypical pitcher’s frame as Liberatore, but seems even a little more gangly, all arms and legs as he slings home some of the most exciting stuff in the class. His velocity took a huge jump last year, and he now sits comfortably 93-96 with his fastball. He had shown elite velocity in flashes before, but those flashes began to become much more consistent last spring and summer. The low arm slot gives him squirrelly run on the fastball, and makes him especially tough against righties.

Gilbert complements the heater with three distinct offspeed pitches in a curve, slider, and changeup, two of which are very good. The other one is the curveball, which I personally would like to see him keep trying to develop, just to have another speed in his pocket. Admittedly, though, I could see a development department having him just shelve the curve and focus on what works best for him. What works best is a hard, tilted slider that he can backfoot lefties with, and a really solid changeup that could use a little more movement but which he sells very well in terms of arm speed.

This draft class is loaded with college pitching at the top, and there’s some real possibility that Logan Gilbert ends up a little lost in the shuffle. For my money, though, I would take him over pretty much any of the top college arms this year long term, and if he makes it to nineteen I would be thrilled to see the Cardinals call his name.

via 2080 Baseball:

Carter Stewart, RHP, Eau Gallie HS (Florida)

6’6”, 200 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 2 November 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I saved my very favourite for last in this preview post, and here he is. Carter Stewart is my guy in this draft. Not the only pitcher I love, certainly, and maybe not even the player I’m most sure of. But he is my guy this year. (At least for now.)

What Carter Stewart brings to the table is solid velocity, outstanding athleticism, and not only the best breaking pitch in the draft, but probably the best pitch in the draft, period.

Said best pitch in the draft is a curveball, and said curveball is a true hammer, thrown with power, but also possessing incredible size and shape. Stewart will throw the curve in the mid 70s range, so a little harder than that of Matthew Liberatore, whose own very exciting curveball is a slower, loopier affair, but Stewart’s has even more break. He already shows an ability to throw the pitch for strikes — not consistently yet, but occasionally at least — and hitters have no chance to touch it when he’s locating. I believe I can say, without hyperbole, that if Carter Stewart develops to something near his ceiling, his curveball will be among the best in the game, if not the best. Now, that’s not to say it’s a guarantee he gets there, of course, but the potential for something really special is here.

He works around 91-92 with his fastball, and he delivers it with outstanding downward plane, as he is both as tall as Michael Wacha and also works from as high an arm slot. The arm action itself is long in the back, and actually lower risk than the majority of other pitchers in the draft, in my opinion. It could use a little tightening up, but doesn’t need much work at all. He has some feel for the arm speed of a changeup, and can put a little sink on the pitch, but he also drops his arm slot slightly when he delivers it. I’m not sure what grip he uses for the changeup, but he may need to alter it slightly in order to maintain a more consistent release point.

It’s not premium velocity just yet for Stewart, but he’s split time up until now between multiple sports, and I actually think there could be a little more in the tank as he focuses on baseball exclusively and matures physically. I don’t know that he’s ever going to be a fireballer, but I could see him adding a couple ticks, getting into the 93-95 range down the road a bit.

There are some very, very exciting pitching prospects in this year’s draft, both college and high school, but for me, Stewart has potentially the highest ceiling. It will take time for him to get there, and there are obviously plenty of pitfalls along the way, but his raw stuff is as good as any pitcher I’ve seen in multiple years, headlined by that incredible breaking ball. He is also, I should say, at least for now, the most likely of these three pitchers to reach the Cardinals’ position in the draft. Liberatore is probably in the top 5-7 of most boards, and while Gilbert has only really been on the radar as a premium pick for a short time, he’s got great stuff, a great frame, and the advantage of being a college player, so likely to rise a little as the draft approaches if he performs. Stewart is a little less polished, a little further away, and so is the pitcher most likely to be hanging around on the board come pick 19. At least, for now, which could certainly change.

via Perfect Game Baseball: