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March 21, 2011 at 3:29 PM

2011 Draft Preview: College Pitching

The Red Sox are stirring around Ft. Myers knocking off the last rust from their lengthy off-season. Minor league camp is ramping up as rows of players line up on the back fields of the Edison Avenue complex fighting for their 2011 assignment. But the scouting department has been operating at full tilt since the late winter. Colleges have flipped the first month of the calendar on their season and high schools in locations that matter have done the same. The Draft season has begun.

Every draft is an opportunity to bolster the club’s future with a new crop of fresh arms and bats, but 2011 presents an alignment of the stars for the Sox. Yes, they have two first round picks (#19 and #26). And yes, #19 overall is the highest they have selected since 2003, when Theo Epstein plucked David Murphy at #17 with his first pick as a General Manager. But more than that, the 2011 draft class is being forecast as the best in a decade. It’s a stocked collection of college and prep players which is so strong that every team in the first twenty picks is guaranteed an opportunity to select a player whose talent would typically have him going within the first 5 or 10 picks.

The final bit of intrigue is the looming CBA negotiations and their effects on subsequent drafts. Pundits have already speculated that draft slotting will be one of the key topics on the table when the next round of negotiations begin in earnest at season’s end. With labor peace at a premium in professional sports, it's a bargaining chip that Major League players could part ways with without affecting their immediate well-being. This would mean an end to the practice of lining up high priced prospects in the draft and using brute force to outspend other teams. It’s a strategy we love, but which we must also admit is unsustainable for the game.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and lose sight of what makes the Draft so fun: the players. Because this is an early Draft preview, you will find me emphasizing that it's way too soon to speculate on who the Sox might take. That's because it is way too soon too speculate on who the Sox might take. Those elusive dots start to get connected two weeks before the draft. With that said, all Sox drafts share very similar beats. The theme in the early rounds of the Sox recent drafts: college pitching and high school bats. Of the 34 players drafted by the Sox in the first five rounds since 2006, 76% have come from those two categories while the remaining 24% is split between college position players and high school pitchers.

Fortuitously, that strategy feeds into the strength of the draft: college pitching. While there is a top tier of pitcher who the Sox won’t have access to, the second tier is filled with an assortment of exciting arms that a typical talent pool would not afford the Sox the chance to select. First, for posterity’s sake, let’s take a look at the cream of the crop that won't get to the Sox. That first level is populated by four pitchers:

1. Gerrit Cole: The higher he goes, the deeper the stake is driven into the heart of the Yankees as their unsigned 2008 1st round pick has blossomed into a true front-of-the-rotation starter. His high-90s fastball, knee-shaking breaking balls, and maturity on the mound put him into an elite class of pitching prospects.

2. Danny Hultzen: Coming into the season he was a certain 1st round pick. Not resting on those laurels, he has vaulted himself to the top of the Draft class by being the clear-cut best pitcher in the country this season. Hultzen’s athleticism is demonstrated by also being one of Virginia’s best hitters.

3. Matt Purke: A draft-eligible sophomore who did not sign with the Rangers as their first round pick in 2009, Purke has been plagued by blisters and diminished velocity in the early going of the 2011 season. At his peak, he offers the potential of a future Clayton Kershaw. He still projects to be a top 10 pick, but his status has wavered.

4. Sonny Gray: A diminutive righty from Vanderbilt whose stuff plays much, much bigger than his size. There will always be questions about small-framed pitchers and he will always prove those questions wrong.

The next tier of pitcher represents arms who could fall between the 5th and 20th picks of the draft and be available for Boston's #19 pick:

1. Taylor Jungmann: The tall RHP has dominated ever since he set foot on the Texas campus. He’s got a big arm, and though his strikeouts have been a bit down this season, he has a strong shot to go in the Top 10 and become a dependable major league pitcher.

2. Jed Bradley: Bradley has an arsenal which would make him the best college LHP in a normal draft. In 2011, he is considered a strong drop-off from the two lefties above him. Still, a LHP who sits in the low-90s, has succeeded at the top levels of college baseball, and throws advanced secondary offerings provides tremendous value in any draft.

3. Trevor Bauer: Bauer has become notorious for his unorthodox pre-game throwing routine which includes kicking a hacky-sack and foul-pole to foul-pole long toss. Gerrit Cole’s teammate at UCLA, Bauer is having a comparable season, though he doesn’t present the same upside as Cole does in the majors.

4. Matt Barnes: A true power pitcher, Barnes has helped transform a dormant UConn program to become a prospect-laden scout’s dream. Barnes dominated the Cape with his mid-90s fastball, but still needs further development of his secondary offerings. And to answer the question about any prospect from the Nutmeg State: he’s a Yankee fan.

5. Tyler Anderson: Anderson will be distinguished as the maiden 1st round pick for the new University of Oregon baseball program. He’s a LHP with helium. Though not a fireballer, Anderson is a polished lefty who can sit in the low-90s and throw a devastating curveball.

6. Alex Meyer: Meyer is no stranger to the Sox. Epstein drafted him in the 20th round of the 2008 Draft and tried to beat down his door on the signing deadline to steal him away from the University of Kentucky. Meyer ultimately turned down the Sox' 2 million dollar offer, but it remains to be seen if that was a good decision. He has always demonstrated plus velocity on his fastball, but he still needs to show some type of consistency in knowing where the ball will go when it leaves his hand.

Beyond this secondary tier, there is still another group which offers good value for the Sox' 26th pick. John Stilson, a RHP from Texas A&M, regularly sits in the high-90s though scouts project his 2-pitch arsenal to play better in the bullpen. Similarly, Anthony Meo from Coastal Carolina has a plus fastball, but he has had difficulty controlling it this season. Logan Verrett, a RHP from Baylor, is a polished starting pitcher who could shoot through the system and provide value within two years.

The two lists above are comprised of only college pitchers but already include 10 players which the Sox should feel fortunate to draft. With the strength of the position players in the draft and the inevitability of teams springing for high school arms, some of these pitchers will be pushed to the 19th and even the 26th overall picks. Of course, I wish I could tell you which ones will fall, but it’s way too soon to speculate.