When Keith Law released his first Future 50 nearly three weeks ago, several of the prospects ranked in the bottom half of the top 30 and beyond were prep pitchers, including left-hander Ian Clarkin of San Diego's James Madison HS and righty Connor Jones of Great Bridge (Va.) High School. A small handful of additional high school arms cracked the top 15, including including Kohl Stewart and Trey Ball in the Top 15.
That group may now have company in the form of right-hander Phil Bickford of Oak Christian HS in Westlake Village, Calif. Bickford dazzled in front of scouts at the Boras Invitational, showing a fastball up to 97 mph and a slider sitting in the low 80s with slurve-like break and shape. At 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, there's physical projection left and one word used by a crosschecker to describe Bickford this week was "electric."
Bickford had one of the better fastballs at the Area Code Games in August -- up to 93 mph -- but has firmed up the breaking ball that sat in the mid-70s last spring and over the summer to go with the extra ticks of fastball velocity. He gets good arm-side run on the heater and does so from a true three-quarters arm slot, creating some deception. He does throw across his body some, but he's athletic and the arm action is fairly clean.
Bickford could challenge for the first round and land in the top 40 with many of the above prospects, and it appears there is a more-than off chance that high school pitching dominates the bottom third of the first round, and the latter half of Day 1.
Judging by the buzz each is generating, Stewart has the best chance of any prep pitcher to land in the top 10, based on talent and not signability.
What to Watch
• Stewart and his St. Pius X (Houston) teammates will face Concordia Lutheran Thursday evening, and Stewart's season is still in its early stages. He's just coming off a suspension and was out due to injury to start the year.
• Grayson (Ga.) High School star Austin Meadows is off until Monday when he'll face Dacula High School, looking to continue to impress scouts with his five tools and left-handed power. Loganville's Clint Frazier is putting up bigger numbers at the plate, but Meadows remains the slightly better prospect due to projectable physical tools and his defensive profile. He goes Friday versus Winder HS and Monday versus Marist. Law profiled Frazier earlier this week.
• Indiana State southpaw Sean Manaea (3-2, 1.14 ERA, 39 1/3 IP, 23 H, 46-13 K/BB) takes on Wichita State Friday night, still looking to turn up the heat a notch or two. He started the season as a potential No. 1 pick, and while that will remains a possibility due to the way clubs approach their bonus allotments, he hasn't shown the stuff of an elite college arm. He's likely been passed on draft boards by at least one or two of his fellow college starters, namely Oklahoma's Jonathan Gray and perhaps even Nevada's Braden Shipley.
• Shipley (4-0, 2.31 ERA, 50 2/3 IP, 40 H, 52-13 K/BB) takes his game to San Diego State to face the Aztecs and continue his strong junior campaign. It appears at this stage Shipley is firmly in the first 20 picks with a chance at the top 10.
• Right-hander Ryan Eades (6-0, 1.35 ERA, 46 2/3 IP, 46 H, 45-12 K/BB) will lead LSU into a weekend series versus Kentucky, a solid club that gets by offensively by working counts and making consistent contact. Eades has first-round talent and a strong final six weeks could solidify his draft stock in the top 25 or so.
• Perhaps the top pitching matchup comes in Oxford, Miss., where right-hander Bobby Wahl (6-0, 1.80 ERA, 45 IP, 34 H, 37-19 K/BB) will go toe-to-toe with Vanderbilt left-hander Kevin Ziomek (5-1, 1.89 ERA, 52 1/3 IP, 28 H, 52-13 K/BB). Neither is a surefire first-round pick, but somewhere on Day 1 or very early Day 2 appears to be the fit. Wahl is looking to prove he can start long term while the concerns with Ziomek include durability, questions about his ability to get through pro lineups without a quality third pitch, and his tendency to pitch off his breaking ball rather than his fastballl.
• Gray (5-1, 1.34 ERA, 53 2/3 IP, 27 H, 63-9 K/BB), who has quickly jumped into the conversation for the top 5, takes on Texas this weekend. The Longhorns are a poor offensive team -- let's face it, they are full of hackers who lack the power upside and boast few threats at the plate -- which could mean Gray cruises if he's on his game.
• Top prospect Mark Appel (4-2, 0.96 ERA, 47 IP, 27 H, 64-8 K/BB) makes a start at USC, a very young team that should be overmatched by the Stanford ace. Fellow Cardinal right-hander A.J. Vanegas is back in action, too, though he's unlikely to get much consideration in the top 60 picks or so.
• Ryne Stanek hasn't helped himself a whole lot this season, showing big-time raw stuff but lacking the command and consistency clubs will want to see if he's to be a top-10 pick. Stanek has averaged fewer than five frames per start and has walked 16 batters in 34 2/3 innings of work. "I love him," said an American League club's national crosschecker, "but I'm not sure what he is just yet. I'm glad there is more schedule left."
• Yukon (Okla.) HS star Jon Denney takes the field both Friday at Edmon Memorial HS and Monday versus Choctaw HS. There are clubs wondering if Denney was a bit of a summer wonder -- he broke onto the scene with big performances on the showcase trail -- but still profiles well offensively, even if he's just a fringe defender behind the dish.
• Reese McGuire of Kentwood (Wash.) HS is Denney's top competition among prep catchers -- neither Chris Okey of Eustis (Fla.) HS nor Nick Ciuffo of Lexington (S.C.) HSl appear to be serious contenders -- and he continues to impress with his throwing skills and his ability to hit. He's a left-handed stick with good contact skills and average power, but he could develop more pop as he matures physically. He's improved his receiving skills but that remains the biggest concern among scouts. I've thumbed pop times between 1.79 seconds and 1.86 seconds, including a 1.84 that McGuire tossed from his knees.
McGuire suits up Thursday at Auburn (Wash.) High School and again Saturday at Safeco Field versus Ballard (Wash.) High School.