We saved the best for last for the 2015 draft preview. While going through early draft rankings, there are 14 college pitchers that got rated as first round picks and another seven that got mentioned in the top 50, easily making it the best class of picks in this draft. We started the preview earlier this week with high school hitters, then moved on to prep pitchers on Tuesday and college hitters yesterday. None of those groups are considered strong, but the college pitchers make it a decent draft class. The Pittsburgh Pirates have the 19th and 32nd overall picks when the draft begins on June 8th.
I broke these players up into two groups because there are five pitchers with a strong chance of going in the top ten picks. Individually, there isn’t much chance they drop to the Pirates, but as a group there is a good shot that one of them will be available when the Pirates make their first pick. I’ll keep these guys brief, but we will follow them closely until it looks like they have no chance of dropping out of the top ten.
Duke right-handed pitcher Michael Matuella usually gets the nod as the best pitcher due to his plus fastball/curve combo. He has has a slider and change that are both at least average, with strong control. When Matuella isn’t listed as the top pitcher, it’s because Brady Aiken is first. He was drafted first overall by the Astros last year and didn’t sign. He hasn’t decided where to play yet this year, but he should be one of the first picks off the board again.
Just below those two are Vanderbilt righty Walker Buehler, Virginia lefty Nathan Kirby and and Louisville righty Kyle Funkhouser. Buehler was drafted by the Pirates in 2012, but his asking price was out of the Pirates range due to the bonus pool restrictions. Prior to 2012, they likely would have spent they money to sign him since his asking price wasn’t ridiculous, but it’s also possible Buehler wouldn’t have dropped as far as he did. There is something to watch early with Buehler, who will miss his first start due to elbow soreness. They said it is a minor setback, but he will need to show he’s healthy now. Kirby got plenty of mentions last year as a possible first overall pick this year after he had some huge games during the regular season. He’s got a strong three-pitch mix and good control of all three pitches. Funkhouser ranks just below Kirby, but he hits 96 MPH and has a big frame, plus two strong secondary pitches.
Leading off the group of more realistic options for the Pirates, we start with another Vanderbilt pitcher, right-hander Carson Fulmer. He’s a hard-thrower, with a plus curve, who will probably scare some teams off due to his size and high-effort delivery. Fulmer is 5’11”, 195 pounds and doesn’t always have the best control, so some scouts feel he might be better suited for the closing role he had prior to 2014. He is a dominating pitcher though, so it will be interesting to see where he goes, as it’s unlikely a team picks him early if they think his upside is as a reliever.
Righty Phil Bickford transferred so he would be eligible for this draft. Like Aiken, he was also taken in the first round(10th overall in 2013 to the Blue Jays) and didn’t sign. Bickford attended Cal State Fullerton, where he had good results as a freshman, but the scouting reports weren’t always the best. He pitched well in summer ball and decided to transfer to Southern Nevada, a community college, which makes his eligible a year earlier. Bickford throws hard and has a decent slider/change combo, plus solid control. He probably won’t go as high as he did in 2013, but he could be a strong option for the Pirates if he is still around. Bickford made his first start on Saturday and looked good early, but the game ended rough.
Cal Poly Pomona righty Cody Ponce is an intriguing arm due to his size. At 6’5″, 235 pounds, he is an imposing figure on the mound. He doesn’t quite have the stuff of any of the previous mentioned players, but he’s a workhorse that can sit low-90’s with his fastball. His secondary pitches and control are all average at best now. We covered Ponce(with video) earlier in the off-season, after he was ranked 20th overall by MLB.com when the Pirates still had the 20th pick.
Kentucky righty Kyle Cody is even bigger than Ponce at 6’7″, 245 pounds. He is a player that has jumped a lot in the rankings since his sophomore season ended. In the Cape Cod League, he was throwing harder than anyone else, which helped get him named the second best prospect in the league. He missed three weeks with an injury last year and was limited to 38 innings. He doesn’t have the best secondary stuff or command yet, so there are some questions as to whether he will stick as a starter. With that frame though, a team is probably going to give him every chance before they send him to the bullpen. He could catch the Pirates eye due to his size and the fact he throws effectively on a downhill plane already, something they look for in pitchers.
Riley Ferrell will be interesting to follow this year because he was a dominating closer in 2014 and now the TCU righty is switching to the starting role. If he can perform well in the new role, he could shoot up the draft boards, but he doesn’t have much of a third pitch(below-average change) and his size at 6’1″, 200 pounds brings up questions of durability due to some high-effort in his delivery. Ferrell will get a chance to show if he can handle the extra workload and still be as effective when he sees a lineup more than once a game. He throws hard and has a hard-breaking slider.
James Kaprielian doesn’t have huge upside, but his floor is much higher than most players on this list because he has a strong four-pitch mix, good control, durability and he’s a smart pitcher. The 6’4″, 200 pound righty from UCLA doesn’t throw as hard as most top picks, sitting 90-91 MPH, but he does it with command. Baseball America has a great recap for one of his starts from back in July when he was pitching for the USA College National Team. Besides the scouting report, Kaprielian noted that he wanted to add weight to help fill out frame.
Jake Lemoine is a 6’5″ righty out of Houston, who could move up the charts if he becomes a more consistent pitcher. Right now, he has a fastball that hits 97 MPH, with a decent slider/change combo and the size/build to be a workhorse type starter. He doesn’t have the best command, but his delivery doesn’t have a lot of effort to it, so that could be something he can fix with repetition. In two years of college, he has just 132 strikeouts in 176.1 innings. Despite that low total, scouts see potential to be a strikeout pitcher.
UC Santa Barbara righty Dillon Tate is a hard-throwing reliever with a high-effort delivery, meaning that his role will likely remain a reliever in the pros. He’s rated 30th overall by MLB.com and 33rd by Baseball America, which puts him right in the range of the Pirates second pick. Some scouts think he could start because he’s athletic and I don’t think the Pirates would take him with their second pick unless they believed he had a chance to start. He hits 98 MPH with his fastball and has a devastating hard slider. Tate is listed at 6’2″, 185 pounds, but in a recent video, he looks like he’s filled out a little.
Lefty Alex Young gets ranked in the mid-30’s pretty consistently. The 6’2″, 190 pounder from TCU has a great feel for pitching, throwing a four-pitch mix with excellent control. None of his pitches really stand out, but they are all at least average. We have provided video of Young below. As you can see, there is some effort in his delivery. He’s only pitched 83.2 innings in two season at TCU, making four starts and 40 relief appearances. He moved to the starting role in the Cape Cod League and put up strong stats, moving him up draft charts.
Other names to watch include: LHP Tyler Jay, Illinois, RHP Marc Brakeman, Stanford, LHP Andrew Suarez, Miami, RHP Jon Harris, Missouri State, RHP Ryan Burr, Arizona State, RHP Jacob Nix, IMG Academy, RHP Tyler Ferguson, Vanderbilt
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.