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Insider

Buxton making a bid to be No. 1

4/16/2012

About seven weeks remain until Day One of the draft and since the onset of the season it seems we've realized quite a bit. Thanks to injuries, the rise of the stock of certain prospects and the loss of steam for others, the first round isn't any clearer, but it sure does look different.

Here are three things we've learned the first half of the season:

1. No. 1 is up for grabs

While Byron Buxton still sits atop Keith Law's Draft Board, the race for No. 1 is far from over as the Houston Astros are on the clock.

Buxton is hitting over .500 for the season, including 13 extra-base hits, 16 walks, one strikeout and 18 stolen bases in 18 attempts, but despite his performance and physical tools, there's risk in selecting a high school player, especially considering the competition against which he's putting up those aforementioned numbers in rural Georgia.

When the season began, Stanford right-hander Mark Appel was among the favorites to go No. 1 overall, but his performance this season has been good, yet not eye popping. He struck out 13 batters in another complete-game win over the weekend, but threw 149 pitches, a red flag at any level. The heavy usage could scare off a club or two, especially considering it's not a one-time issue. Appel has surpassed 130 pitches three times this season and has thrown more than 120 in six of eight starts.

He is a big, strong kid at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, but not even Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander or Philadelphia Phillies star Roy Halladay pitch beyond the 120-pitch mark regularly.

Others the Astros could consider include Florida catcher Mike Zunino, San Francisco right-hander Kyle Zimmer and Kevin Gausman, LSU's ace right-hander.

2. College pitchers are rising

Even with Appel's imperfections and the pitch count concerns, he remains a potential top five selection, but he may not be alone among college arms. Zimmer and Gausman have shown plenty of present stuff -- Gausman with a blazing fastball and a recent display of a plus slider, Zimmer with a plus curveball and above average command -- to threaten Appel as the top college pitcher off the board.

Zimmer struggled a bit this weekend, but Gausman was solid, going eight strong innings and fanning seven. The draft-eligible sophomore is 6-1 with a 2.76 ERA and 77-19 K/BB ratio in nine starts -- 62 innings. Zimmer yielded six earned runs on eight hits and three walks over seven frames Saturday, just his second hiccup of 2012.

Duke right-hander Marcus Stroman was strong again Friday, lasting eight innings and allowing one earned run on four hits. He struck out eight and walked one and is now 3-3 with a 2.05 ERA on the season. In 66 innings, the 5-foot-9 Stroman has compiled a 99/13 K/BB ratio.

Oklahoma State left-hander Andrew Heaney has put himself in the conversation for the first round and went nine innings at Texas Friday, earning a no-decision but giving up just one earned run on six hits and a walk. The 6-foot-2 Heaney, who has been clocked in the 91-94 mph range this season, struck out nine and threw 77 of 117 pitches for strikes.

Florida southpaw Brian Johnson needed just 85 pitches to cruise through six frames, and as a low-risk college pitcher could sneak into the first round thanks to good control and an above-average curveball-changeup combination.

Mississippi State's Chris Stratton, Texas A&M's Michael Wacha, Georgia's Alex Wood, Virginia's Branden Kline and Eddie Butler from Radford have all held their stock or improved it since the spring began.

3. The prep kids could carry the torch

In a thin class, at least in comparison to recent years, the high school prospects bring the majority of the star-level upside and could ultimately be the reason the class of 2012 is not considered a poor class in hindsight.

It all starts with Buxton, but if Lucas Giolito can get back on the mound, show clubs he's 100 percent healthy and stay away from the injury bug as a pro, the class could end up a solid one. Left-hander Max Fried, Giolito's teammate at Harvard-Westlake High School (Calif.), also is a top-10 talent who carries projection and pitchability along with a plus fastball and promising secondary offerings. It's not completely out of the question Fried ends up in the top five picks, and has a chance to be a No. 1 starter in time.

Carlos Correa, a shortstop from Puerto Rico, brings tools only matched at the prep level by Buxton, at least among those with first-round grades, and is also a top-10 talent -- he ranks No. 5 on Law's latest Top 50. Law wrote that Correa is "a dark horse to go No. 1 overall."

Mater Academy (Fla.) centerfielder Albert Almora is another prep talent that could go in the top third of the first round.


Other weekend performances

• Florida shortstop Nolan Fontana has a big weekend series versus Tennessee, gathering six hits and five walks and improving his season line to .328/.443/.550 with seven homers. He's drawn 25 walks against just 10 strikeouts, and has stolen eight bases in eight attempts.

Fontana, who stands 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, bats left-handed and has shown a terrific approach and some surprising power. If Arizona State's Deven Marrero isn't careful, Fontana could challenge the Sun Devils shortstop as the top college option in the class at the position. Marrero has struggled this season, but did have a solid weekend, adding his third long ball and ninth extra-base hit of the season.

• Clemson's Richie Shaffer, perhaps the biggest mover among college bats since the start of the schedule, went 5-for-11 over the weekend, drawing five walks and improving to .386/.520/.667 with 22 extra-base hits and a 39-27 BB/K ratio in 37 games. Shaffer could be a top 15 selection, perhaps ahead of Stanford's Stephen Piscotty, who started the season with more ink.

• Cal Poly third baseman Mitch Haniger went 8-for-13 with a double, a home run and a couple of walks and could get some first day attention, though the first round appears to be out of reach. Haniger went 5-for-5 Friday.

• Jesuit (Fla.) High School right-hander Lance McCullers, Jr. extended his season-long scoreless innings streak with 5 1/3 shutout innings in his last start, improving to 9-0 in the process. McCullers, whose stock is directly linked to his command and delivery as his raw stuff is among the best in the entire class, has whiffed 85 batters in 47 2/3 innings on the year.