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College arms race heats up

3/26/2012

A college pitcher has been the No. 1 pick in the Rule 4 draft on 13 occasions, including in four of the past six years. Last June, more than a third of the first-round selections were college pitchers, highlighted by the first three overall picks -- Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen and Trevor Bauer. The 2012 class of college arms is gaining steam, meaning a similar result may unfold this time around, too.

The top college pitching prospects all made a case for No. 1 over the weekend with Stanford's Mark Appel, San Francisco's Kyle Zimmer, Michael Wacha of Texas A&M and St. Mary's ace Martin Agosta each tossing a complete game.

None of them, however, would be named our star of the week, if there was such an award. Missouri State right-hander Pierce Johnson, who is climbing draft boards, went the distance and struck out 16 in a 5-hit shutout win against Creighton, which had day two draft prospect Ty Blatch on the bump. Johnson has now whiffed 10 or more in four straight starts and boasts a 1.94 ERA and 66-16 strikeout-walk ratio in six outings on the season.

Johnson stands 6-foot-3 and is listed at 180 pounds but appears to be much stronger and sturdier. He offers a 90-94 mph fastball with some downward plane and sink and complements the heater with a changeup that "is usually plus" according to one area scout, and a slider that can get some swings and misses.

Johnson, who has touched 95 mph with the fastball, has a simple delivery with an aggressive stride toward the plate. His arm path is a bit lengthy but he makes it work and typically displays a consistent release point. There are no wasted movements, though occasionally he fails to finish out front -- mostly from the stretch -- which can cause some mild bouts of below-average command and control.

The package suggests a potential No. 2 starter, and it appears Johnson is creeping into first-round territory.

Arms race

As for the other big-time college arms, Appel struck out seven and allowed two earned runs on six hits and two bases on balls, but wasn't at his best after Stanford a two-week hiatus. (Stanford was off last week.) Zimmer was solid, sitting in the 91-96 mph range and teasing hitters with the plus curveball. He struck out nine and walked just one.

Wacha allowed just two hits against Pepperdine and fanned eight without issuing a walk to improve to 4-0 on the season. He's walked just eight batters in 40 frames. Agosta had his best outing of the season with his first complete game, yielding just three hits and an unearned run to maintain his status as a potential first-round pick.

Louisiana State right-hander Kevin Gausman struggled with his control, issuing five walks in five innings Friday night. He struck out eight and allowed six hits and two runs, while throwing 107 pitches -- 60 for strikes.

Arizona State's Brady Rodgers and Virginia's Branden Kline also threw complete games, and thought neither is receiving first-round grades, both could be taken off the board early on Day 2, which begins with pick No. 61, the first pick in the second round.

Oklahoma State lefty Andrew Heaney, who, like Johnson, could pop into the top 30 picks, also went nine innings, surrendering two runs on seven hits. He did not walk a batter and struck out 13. It was Heaney's third straight complete game and the Oklahoma City native now owns an impressive 65-8 K/BB ratio in 48 innings.

Stanford southpaw Brett Mooneyham continues to impress scouts and went seven strong Sunday, striking out nine batters and winning his fifth straight start. Having returned from Tommy John surgery, Mooneyham's rebuilding his draft stock and his 46-16 K/BB ratio in 34 innings of work is supporting his case for top-50 consideration. He's sitting 90-94 mph with the fastball and one scout liked the deception he's creating with his delivery.

Mississippi State right-hander Chris Stratton struck out 17 at LSU last week in outdueling Gausman for 8 2/3 innings, and followed that up with a solid performance Friday against a solid Arkansas lineup. Stratton added nine more strikeouts to his ledger and is now up to 53 in only 36 2/3 innings.

At the prep level, Harvard-Westlake left-hander Max Fried appears to have his mojo back, striking out 14 in five innings Friday night. Fried had struggled in a few outings earlier this month, but his draft stock hasn't changed much as he's still a potential top-10 selection.

Buzz on bats

• Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero had a tough weekend, and it's really been a struggle for him through the first five weeks of the season. He's making contact consistently, having struck out just six times in 89 plate appearances, but he also has but five extra-base hits in 21 games.

I spoke to a scout Sunday who admitted Marrero is a surefire first-rounder, but doesn't believe he'll be much of an offensive force in the big leagues.

"He can play shortstop, that isn't the question," the scout said. "I just don't think he'll hit that much. I don't see him hitting more than maybe 10 (home runs per year)."

Marrero is hitting .300 with a .360 on-base percentage on the season.

• Florida's Mike Zunino hit two more home runs and is now up to nine for the season, which is second in the country and tops among draft-eligible players who figure into the top two rounds

• Virginia shortstop Chris Taylor is drawing rave reviews for all-around play, despite a .290 batting average. Taylor has three homers, four triples and five doubles and plays a solid shortstop. The one knock on him is the poor contact rates -- 16 percent strikeout rate this season -- but he works counts and can go the other way with doubles power.

Odds and ends

• Top prep pitching prospect Lucas Giolito from Studio City, Claifornia, who was diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament earlier this month, may be back on the mound in April, far ahead of schedule. His coach, Matt Lacour, told the L.A. Times last week that his ace right-hander is "making extraordinary progress" and adds that "Lucas will be throwing very soon." One scouting director hinted this weekend that until Giolito proves the elbow is 100 percent sound, there's not much chance he'd consider him a top-five talent.

Rio Ruiz, another Southern California prep prospect with a chance at the first round, is likely to miss several weeks after undergoing a procedure to break up a blood clot near his right shoulder. Ruiz, a USC commit, is a prospect on the mound and at the plate, though the majority of scouts tend to prefer him as a bat.

• The new regulations brought on by the new collective bargaining agreement has most clubs unsure of how the draft will unfold. One assistant personnel director said over the weekend that "we could see some strange goings on. Having mandated limits is new territory for all of us and it's been tough to get a feel." He added that the college game may benefit as a result, since "some of these players are simply going to want more (bonus money) than is truly available."