by John Vittas
With the Major League Draft less than two months away, several players have separated themselves from the competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Many of those players in the ACC come from the traditional powerhouse programs. Some were well-known before the season, while others have made a name for themselves through the first half of the 2014 college season.
Jake Stinnett, RHP, Maryland
Jake Stinnett has skyrocketed up many draft boards with his performances this spring. This only being his second season in the Maryland rotation and the first as a weekend starter, Stinnett has shined since moving exclusively to the mound.
Originally recruited as an infielder, Stinnett’s weight training program has upped his average fastball velocity from 89 to 94 mph. in just one year. He’s also improved his command on both his heater and breaking ball, throwing both for strikes consistently in 2014.
His stuff is Major League-good, as evidenced by 10.4 K/9 ratio and .156 opponents batting average. His 14-strikeout game against NC State put him on the map as an early-round pick, and his eye-popping fastball, which has touched 97, is keeping him there.
“The biggest thing for him is that he is going from being what I would call a moderate strike-thrower to a consistent strike-thrower,” Maryland head coach John Szefc told Baseball America’s Clint Longnecker. “His walks have decreased dramatically and he makes you beat him.”
Stinnett also has a firm changeup that is a work-in-progress, but manipulates the breaking ball well enough to be effective against different types of hitters.
“He has a tendency to throw it a little bit different to lefthanded hitters and righthanded hitters,” Maryland pitching coach Jim Belanger said to Longenecker. “When he throws it to lefthanded hitters it almost has a little hump in it and it is not as tight of a pitch. Whereas when he throws it to righthanded hitters it has more of that sharp, late, power break to it.
While Stinnett’s improved control has made a difference, his fastball command within the strike zone still has room to improve. If he can also improve his changeup’s consistency, there’s no reason Stinnett can’t be a front-line Major League starter.
Trea Turner, SS, NC State
Turner has the makings of a legitimate Major League shortstop. He can flat out hit. Amassing 611 career at bats, his numbers can be digested like a player who just completed a full MLB season. The Florida native has posted a career average of .342, to go with 52 extra-base-hits (16 HRs), 108 RBIs and 97 stolen bases.
However, Turner has pressed in 2014 as his Wolfpack team has crumbled against ACC competition. He’s sacrificed average for power, trying to lift a lineup that hasn’t lived up to expectations. Subsequently, Turner hasn’t made up for the struggles, but added to them.
Backing the Pack beat writer David Sanders expresses his concerns about Turner’s 2014 trend: “The Turner of the past two seasons used the whole field, but in the games I have seen this season he has been trying to jerk just about everything. He has a tendency to cast his hands a bit, get out on his front foot, and come around the ball rather than wait back and drop the barrel on it. His swing is a bit long, and I wonder how he will adjust as he climbs the ladder in the minors and sees more quality fastballs.”
Regardless, his tools should keep in the first round.
“With a wiry frame and superior athleticism, Turner sprays line drives to all fields. As he fills out, he will be able to take balls out of the ballpark with more consistency,” said ACC broadcaster and former college baseball player John Lewis.
His arm strength, speed and range should allow him to play shortstop at the next level, despite 37 career errors.
Other Future Millionaires: Carlos Rodon (LHP - NC State), Luke Weaver (RHP - Florida State), Nick Howard (RHP - Virginia), Derek Fisher (OF - Virginia), Daniel Gossett (RHP - Clemson)
Michael Russell, SS, North Carolina
In a lineup that has kept him out of the spotlight, Russell has shown steady improvement in each of his three seasons in Chapel Hill. He’s started every game but one in his three-year career, and has watched his average rise from .269 in 2012 to .298 last year, and is the Tar Heel’s leading hitter at .336 this year.
He leads the team with 15 extra-base hits and has posted an OPS of .933. Factor in 38 career stolen bases, and Russell’s numbers indicate that he’s one of the most feared offensive players in the ACC.
“Russell is a good runner with excellent baserunning instincts,” Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt said.
But the question is, how does his game translate to the next level?
“I think a lot of people question whether the bat will play in professional ball,” an ACC team manager Phil DePase said. “Defense and footwork could be better, he makes plays on the run really well. I like him as a college shortstop but I don’t know how big of a draft prospect he actually is.”
Those concerns are warranted, especially after his .216 season in the wood-bat Cape Cod League in 2013. However, there’s no doubting Russell’s spring production and athletic 200-pound frame. For the first time in his UNC career, his size has translated into power.
Fitt called Russell “wiry-strong,” a fair analysis for anyone who has seen him play. While Russell may be bulky for a shortstop, the tutelage of former Tar Heel shortstop Josh Horton has improved his defense, and Russell is not lacking anything in the arm-strength department.
After two solid seasons in a stacked lineup, Russell has emerged as the leader in Chapel Hill, and his bat appears to have taken a large step forward. Couple that with his physical gifts, and Russell could end up going higher in the draft than many presume.
Matthew Crownover, LHP, Clemson
Since undergoing Tommy John Surgery, Crownover has bounced back with a flourish so far in 2014. His six wins ranks third in the ACC and his 2.28 ERA is tenth.
The Clemson website describes Crownover as a “lefthander who is not overpowering, but uses his control to be effective.” While his control does make him effective, the velocity has been there for Crownover too.
With his fastball in the upper-80s and touching 90, Crownover has still been able to surprise hitters who are worried about his plus changeup and slider. His recovery from the surgery has been remarkable.
“Not getting to pitch for a year was a terrible feeling and it really drove me to get back as soon as I could,” Crownover told Lindsey Young of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Many experts are still not sold on the post-surgery Crownover.
“He is a good college pitcher,” Baseball America’s John Manuel said. “I don’t believe he is seen as a premium draft prospect. He does have pitchability and a good changeup.”
DePase also used the word pitchability, praising the movement on Crownover’s fastball. Many scouts are concerned with his velocity, but if he continues to execute as he has in 2014, there’s no reason he can’t get outs at the next level.
John's Projections of Players He Saw (not including Miami, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Boston College, Duke, Wake Forest)
Top 3 Rounds: Carlos Rodon (LHP-NC ST), Trea Turner (SS-NC ST), Jake Stinnett (RHP-Maryland, Luke Weaver (RHP-FSU), Nick Howard (RHP-UVA), Daniel Gossett (RHP-CLEM) Michael Russell (SS-UNC), Mike Papi (1B-UVA)
Rounds 4-10: Brett Austin (C-NC ST), Jose Brizuela (3B-FSU), Matt Grimes (RHP-GT)
Rounds 11-20: John Nogowski (1B-FSU), Artie Lewicki (RHP-UVA), Matthew Crownover (LHP-CLEM), Branden Cogswell (2B-UVA), Brandon Downes (OF-UVA), Ben Brewster (LHP-Maryland), Garrett Boulware (C-CLEM), Tyler Slaton (OF-CLEM)
Rounds 21-40: Justin Gonzalez (SS-FSU), Blake Schmit (SS-UMD), Benton Moss (RHP-UNC), Brandon Leibrandt (LHP-FSU), Daniel Spingola (OF-GT), Whit Mayberry (RHP-UVA), Dusty Isaacs (RHP-GT), AJ Murray (DH-GT), Jake Fincher (OF-NC ST), Parks Jordan (OF-UNC), Logan Jernigan (RHP-NC ST), Steve Wilkerson (2B-CLEM), Mott Hyde (2B-GT)
Names to Remember for Future Drafts
Trent Thornton, RHP, North Carolina
Despite an unconventional delivery, Thornton might be one of the first pitchers taken in next year’s draft. He was dominant as UNC’s closer last year, and has been just as overwhelming to hitters as the team’s ace in 2014. Thornton has increased his use of his off-speed stuff since becoming a starter.
“I’ve been tinkering around with my chaneup, and I’m going to throw a curveball this year that I didn’t really throw last year,” Thornton told Carlos Collazo of the Daily Tarheel. “Obviously, you’ve got to pitch off your fastball, but it definitely helped tinkering around with some other pitchers that as a starter you’re going to need.”
Clearly, it has worked. How does a 1.71 ERA over his first eight starts sound?
“His curveball is good and he throws it with conviction,” DePase said. “He’s kind of a smaller kid so that might shy away teams a little bit but with Thornton’s stuff and command, he should go very high.”
Thornton’s motion includes a high leg-kick and twisting motion, which adds to his deception but makes it difficult to keep runners in check. All things considered, keep an eye on Thornton in the first couple rounds next year.
Andrew Knizner, 3B, NC State
Knizner (pronounced KIZ-ner) is the ACC’s second-leading hitter as a true freshman with an average of .363 and slugging percentage of .531, out-hitting veteran teammates Trea Turner, Brett Austin and Jake Fincher.
Not only is Knizner putting up numbers, he’s drawn the eyes of scouts.
“If anyone has a slump-proof swing, it’s Andrew Knizner. He has very quiet hands and takes the barrel directly to the ball, squaring it up with remarkable consistency for a freshman,” said Backing the Pack contributor David Sanders.
Other experts agree, calling Knizner’s swing compact and on a useful line-drive swing plane. Sanders also says Knizner’s is as quick to the ball as any, allowing him to catch up to any fastball. That is aptly illustrated by Knizner’s total of nine strikeouts in 29 games. That bodes well for his pro future.
The one huge knock on the NC State infielder is that he’s walked just once through the first half of the season. This would be more alarming if he wasn’t hitting .363 and if he was chasing pitches out of the zone, but he’s clearly not.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Knizner’s college and pro coaches try and change his approach to allow for more walks, or if they accept his quick trigger for what it’s worth.