Prospects facing make-or-break months 

April, 24, 2014
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Tyler BeedeJohn Korduner/Icon SMITyler Beede has a 3.75 ERA with 62 strikeouts and 21 walks in 60 innings.
We're just six weeks until the start of the 2014 draft, which means that players have only 42 days to leave their lasting impressions on prospective clubs.

While consistency for the entire season is something that teams admire, there's no question that clubs value how a player finishes his season significantly more than how he began it.

"It really is a case of, 'It's not how you start, it's how you finish,'" an NL East scout said. "We definitely take the second half of the season more into consideration than the first, particularly in the college ranks. You have to keep in mind that a lot of these guys are playing baseball in February with very little practice, so it's going to take time for players to get warmed up and show their best stuff.

"You definitely don't discount a hot February and March, but I want to see the guy do it in April and May."

And with that in mind, here's a look at four players in the college ranks who have the most to gain -- and also the most to lose -- based on how they finish their 2014 seasons.

Pitchers

Most to gain: Jeff Hoffman, RHP, East Carolina
Most to lose: Tyler Beede, RHP, Vanderbilt

If you'd have told teams that Hoffman would be the player with the most to gain over this past month, they would have likely called you crazy, but after a up-and-down first two months followed by arguably the best start any collegiate pitcher has had this year last weekend against Middle Tennessee State, that's exactly where we are.

"It's going to be a huge final four or five starts [for Hoffman]," an AL front-office member said.

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Bukauskus rising up draft boards 

April, 23, 2014
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ASHBURN, Va. -- Right-hander Jake Bukauskus redefines the scouting term "pop-up guy," which normally just refers to a draft prospect who wasn't on the radar for the top few rounds until something changed the spring of his draft year -- better velocity, more power, improved conditioning, something tangible that takes him from "just a guy" to "he's a #GUY."

Bukauskus does that one better: He's technically a high school junior, but is using a recent MLB rule change to enter the draft a year early because he's already 17, as Drew Ward did last year. And with Bukauskus hitting 98 mph regularly this spring, he has forced an industry scramble to get in and see him, because scouts don't have the history with him they might normally have with a first-round prospect.

On Tuesday night, Bukauskus pitched at home at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va., near Leesburg, and threw a quick seven-inning shutout, with the entire game taking just 80 minutes.

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Hoffman has best outing of the year 

April, 21, 2014
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Jeff HoffmanRobert Gurganus/Four Seam Images via AP ImagesJeff Hoffman's Thursday performance further muddles the top of the first round.
If you were thinking that this was the week that things would start clearing up near the top in the MLB Draft, you were sadly mistaken. This weekend was a prime example of just how volatile this year's class is, and we saw a former contender for the No. 1 pick have his best start of the year, up and down days for the N.C. State dynamic duo, and dominating efforts from the top two left-handed hurlers in the collegiate class.

Hoffman show top-pick stuff

Coming into the season, there were those who believed that East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman had a chance to be the first player selected in the draft after his sensational summer in the Cape Cod League. Those hopes seemed to evaporate this spring, as Hoffman hasn't missed bats this year the way so many expected, and many evaluators felt he wasn't even among the top three collegiate pitchers this season.

If he pitches the way he did on Thursday against Middle Tennessee State the rest of the year, however, that No. 1 overall pick debate might just be back on.

Hoffman was exceptional, striking 16 over eight shutout innings, walking just one and allowing three hits.

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Tyler KolekMike Janes/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesShepherd (Texas) right-hander Tyler Kolek could be the first pitcher taken in the 2014 MLB draft.
Shepherd (Texas) High School right-hander Tyler Kolek is the top prep righty in the draft class this year. He’s one of a handful of prep arms to hit 100 mph already, but he also brings unusual size and strength to the table. It’s a combination that makes him unlikely to get out of the top five picks and a good bet to go in the top two.

Kolek threw on Thursday evening at home, about an hour northeast of Houston, and while he didn't hit triple digits, he still worked with plus velocity. Kolek was 93-97, mostly sitting 95-96, showing good two-seam life on some of the pitches, with others straightening out because he overthrew them. He throws a hard, slurvy slider that is average to above-average when he's pitching to a right-handed batter, 79-83 with sharp break and good tilt.

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Finding MLB talent in unlikely places 

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
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BlewettAP Photo/Stacy Jo GrantPitcher Scott Blewett could be the first first-round pick from the state of New York since 2010.
One of the interesting things about the MLB draft is that in addition to states like Texas, California, and Florida that continuously have several first-round candidates coming out of high school seemingly every year, you also get the talents that come from places that aren’t considered traditional powers. Mets 2011 first-rounder Brandon Nimmo (Wyoming) and Rockies 2012 first-rounder David Dahl (Alabama) are examples.

We likely won’t see anyone from the prep class go in the first 20 picks this year that are from a “pop-up” state, but here’s a look at three guys from all across the country who have a chance to go on Day 1 come this June.

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The best hitter in the draft class 

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
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Alex Jackson Mike Janes/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesAlex Jackson might not stick behind the plate, but his bat will play anywhere.
Hopefully everyone got their taxes done early so they could sit down and watch some amateur baseball over the weekend, because there was an awful lot of interesting action.

This weekend we saw two stars from Southern California continue their sensational seasons, the battle to be the second collegiate starter off the board take an interesting turn, and up and down weekends for the best bats in the class.

San Diego preps continue to thrive

San Diego has been a hotbed of talent over the last few years, and in Alex Jackson and Brady Aiken, it may just have the best two prep players in the country this spring.

Coming into the year, Jackson (Rancho Bernardo HS) was considered by most to be one of -- if not the -- best prep hitters in the country, and while there are still some questions about his overall upside and where he'll end up defensively, he's done very little to diminish his stock.

Jackson was particularly impressive on Thursday, hitting two homers against Torrey Pines High School, giving the right-handed hitting catcher seven on the season and 43 over his three years at Rancho Bernardo.

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Coaches erred in Rodon decision 

April, 13, 2014
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Carlos RodonAP Photo/Nati HarnikControversy surrounds the decision to have Carlos Rodon throw 134 pitches on April 11.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter saw me voice my displeasure over NC State's usage of left-hander Carlos Rodon, the best college player in this year's draft class, on Friday night. Rodon, who has pitched with a 50- or 55-rated fastball all year, was going on short rest on Friday, but showed up (paradoxically) with more velocity, sitting at 92-94 mph and touching 96.

NC State then decided to push Rodon to 134 pitches, sending him back out to start his final inning after he'd already thrown 118 pitches, an acceptable, if upper-bound, number for a 21-year-old pitcher. This was a clear example of a coaching staff putting their own interests over those of a pitcher, a perfect example of moral hazard at work in amateur baseball, one that calls for regulation by the NCAA.

The Wolfpack, despite having two of the best college players in the country this year, are 5-11 in the ACC so far (19-14 overall) and in danger of missing the NCAA tournament, a result that would be devastating given their talent level. The potential cost of missing the tournament is so high that the coaching staff has the incentive to try to win at all costs, including asking players to do things that may not be in their own best interests, such as throwing 134 pitches in one outing. Only one MLB pitcher did that in all of 2013: Tim Lincecum, in his July 13 no-hitter. (In fact, since the start of the 2010 season, only four MLB pitchers have thrown 134 or more pitches. Three were no-hitters, one was Brandon Morrow's 17-strikeout one-hitter in 2010, and all four spread those pitches over nine innings rather than Rodon's 7 2/3 innings.)

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Three quick-to-MLB pitching prospects 

April, 12, 2014
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Nick BurdiAP Photo/Wade PayneNick Burdi could potentially help a big league club as soon as 2015.
It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time when relief pitchers coming out of college were considered something of a commodity in the MLB Draft. The prevailing wisdom was that relievers wouldn't need much time in the minors before being able to give clubs a return on their investments.

These days, we typically don't see relief pitchers go early in round one -- the highest a pitcher who had no chance to start was drafted in 2013 was Corey Knebel by the Detroit Tigers with the 39th pick -- but there are a few guys that have a chance to be day one selections in 2014, and could be among the quickest players to reach the big leagues if things break their way.

• Louisville right-hander Nick Burdi came into the year as the highest-rated relief prospect for 2014, and he's done nothing to diminish that stock so far.

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Rodon's draft stock continues to drop 

April, 7, 2014
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Carlos RodonRobert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/Getty ImagesCarlos Rodon simply has not shown the dominating stuff he had one year ago.
We're now less than two months away from the MLB draft, and while common sense would tell you that the consensus at the top would be clearing up, things are much murkier than they were in February. This weekend did very little to change that situation, with mixed results from the top college pitchers in the class, more dominating efforts from two of the better prep hurlers, and a continued lack of success for the top collegiate bats from the right side.

Rodon struggles again

• Though there have been flashes of brilliance, it's been a disappointing season for NC State left-hander Carlos Rodon, who has gone from being the overwhelming favorite to be the first pick in the draft to a player who is no longer considered a lock for the top three. Still, there's plenty of time for the Wolfpack ace to show the dominance he had shown the previous two seasons, and many have pointed out that he wasn't at his best until later in the 2013 campaign.

Those looking to see that run of domination start on Saturday, though, likely came away disappointed.

Rodon gave up 11 hits over his eight innings in his start against Clemson, giving up six runs (three earned) in the process while striking out five.

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Progress report on 2013 first-round picks 

April, 3, 2014
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videoSpring training has come and gone, and now the members of the 2013 draft will begin their first full professional seasons. Less than a handful of first-round picks didn't receive full-season assignments to start the year, which means that the overwhelming majority of the class will spend time with full-season clubs, a challenge that goes underrated by many.

"It's no joke," an AL East crosschecker said. "The difference between playing 20 to 30 high school games or 40 to 50 college games to all of a sudden playing 100-plus games against vastly superior competition is a huge difference. It's why we have to be so careful with where we decide to put a kid; you want the kid to be put into a situation where he'll succeed.

"It's exponentially worse to put a kid at too high a level than to do the opposite in terms of his development, both physically and mentally."

There weren't a ton of surprises with the roster assignments, but here's a look at some of the more interesting trends -- and 2013 first-rounders to watch in your area -- to start the 2014 season.

Aggressive levels for top three

While the 2013 class wasn't considered a particularly strong class in terms of quantity and quality, one of the things that it did have going for it was that there were several players who were considered to be "fast-track" players, or prospects who wouldn't need a ton of minor league seasoning before they could contribute at the big league level.

And so it isn't surprising -- but still worth mentioning -- that Mark Appel, Kris Bryant and Jonathan Gray, also known as the first three picks to come off the board in June, were given fairly aggressive levels to begin their first full minor league season.

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Top college bats are stepping up 

March, 31, 2014
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Bradley ZimmerAP Photo/Charlie NeibergallBradley Zimmer is doing his best to be more than just Kyle Zimmer's brother.
The last weekend in March was much like the first weekend of the year, with weather seemingly wreaking havoc on every series played. Still, there was some intriguing stuff on display when Mother Nature wasn't acting up; including the best collegiate bats continuing to see their stock rise, two of the SEC's best arms having tough outings, and two southpaws from small schools having arguably their best starts of the season.

College bats picking up steam

It's been a year where inconsistent results have dominated the headlines, but that hasn't been the case for three of the top left-handed bats in the class, who have separated themselves as the best collegiate hitting prospects in the 2014 draft.

• San Francisco's Bradley Zimmer is probably more famous for being the brother of Royals 2012 first-round pick Kyle Zimmer, but he's certainly done enough this spring to separate himself from his talented brother.

Zimmer went 2-for-4 with a walk and a double while scoring three runs against San Diego on Sunday, and has put up an impressive .430/.482/.720 line for the season.

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Carlos RodonAP Photo/Nati HarnikLeft-hander Carlos Rodon boasts arguably the best slider of any MLB draft prospect.
North Carolina State starter Carlos Rodon came into the spring as the consensus No. 1 overall prospect in the draft class, but his first six starts were a tick below those high expectations. As a result, I moved him down to No. 3 on my updated rankings last week behind high school lefty Brady Aiken and prep righty Tyler Kolek. Rodon threw on Friday night at home against Miami with a lot of cross-checkers and scouting directors from teams drafting outside of the top five. Originally they said they hadn't planned to scout him, but they changed course because he's no longer a lock to go that high.

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Toussaint, Griffin have work to do 

March, 27, 2014
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CARY, N.C. -- USA Baseball's third annual National High School Invitational event, a sixteen-team tournament held over four days at the end of every March, looks to be the most talent-packed yet, with, conservatively, eight prospects likely to go in the top two rounds of this year's draft. (That excludes two players, Dylan Cease and David Peterson, who are unavailable this week due to injuries.)

Thursday, the first day of the event, saw every team in action, with two of the top pitchers here throwing in separate games. I'll have more reports on the bats later in the week once they've had a few more plate appearances under their belts, but here's a breakdown of the arms.

• Coral Springs (Fla.) Christian Academy right-hander Touki Toussaint has been on the radar since at least his sophomore year, showing velocity and a loose arm but lacking fastball command or consistency with his secondary stuff. On Wednesday, he was better in both departments, not perfect but much improved over previous looks.

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Five top prospects on the spot at NHSI 

March, 26, 2014
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Jacob Gatewood Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty ImagesJacob Gatewood showed off his power in a special competition at the 2013 Home Run Derby.
One of the more difficult things about scouting amateur baseball -- particularly on the prep side -- is that the level of competition that top prospects face is generally so poor that it's difficult to take much context out of the games. Any pitcher that has a fastball that clocks above 90 mph is going to get a ton of strikeouts, and any hitter with above-average bat speed is going to hit for a high average and look impressive against kids throwing 75 mph.

So whenever there is a chance to see multiple talented high school kids in one area, scouting directors and general managers generally jump at that opportunity, and that's exactly what will happen starting today in Cary, N.C., for the 2014 National High School Invitational.

"It's a huge event," an NL front office member said. "To get a chance to see this many potential guys over a four day period is really idea, and I love that it happens right in the middle of their seasons, because while it's the best look these kids will get, it's not some last chance thing, either.

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Continued struggles a concern for Rodon 

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
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Carlos RodonRobert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/Getty ImagesCarlos Rodon has had a difficult season and struggled again on Friday.
It was a bit of a mixed weekend for the prospects of the 2014 MLB draft, with some of the upper-echelon talents having their worst showings of the year, and some helping re-establish their once promising stock. We saw the top arms coming into the year all have inauspicious results, two hurlers from the Lone Star State have impressive outings and two prep outfielders on opposite ends of the country continue to show impressive athleticism.

• Calling Carlos Rodon's season a disappointment might seem a bit harsh, but he certainly hasn't lived up to his lofty expectations yet, and Friday was an unfortunate new low point for the NC State ace.

Rodon didn't make out of the fifth inning against Maryland, giving up eight runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings pitched, walking four (and hitting two others) and striking out eight. None of the runs were earned -- and he did throw a couple of the best sliders he's thrown all season -- but he once again didn't have any command of a low-90s fastball, and he threw a whopping 116 pitches, a substantial amount for a seven inning start, much less one that doesn't get out of the fifth.

"The concern now is this is a fairly long pattern, not a blip on a radar screen," an NL East scout said.

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