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Rays 2018 MLB draft preview: College pitchers

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Who will the Rays draft with the No. 16 pick next month?

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Louisville vs TCU
TCU righty Sean Wymer is a potential third-round pick
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 MLB draft starts on June 4. With that date rapidly approaching, it’s time to start previewing some players who will hear their names called next month.

The Rays have five picks on the first day of the draft — Nos. 16 and 56 in the normal draft order, No. 31 as compensation for losing Alex Cobb, No. 32 as compensation for not signing Drew Rasmussen (chosen with the 31st pick last year), and No. 71, a competitive-balance pick.

Some of these players have been connected to the Rays in mock drafts, but some were just picked out by us to write about. The latter is the case for most of the players in this post. Based on the rumors being shared in the mock drafts, the Rays are not leaning toward taking a college pitcher in the first round.

We’ll have a few other preview posts in the next couple weeks.

RHP Tristan Beck, Stanford (6’4 190, 21 years old)

2.79 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 77 13 IP, 69 H, 24 BB, 63 K

Baseball America rank: 31
ESPN rank: not ranked in top 50
FanGraphs rank: 35
MLB.com rank: 27

Beck could have been a first- or second-round pick in 2015, but he chose to follow through on his commitment to Stanford. He could have been again in 2017, but a stress fracture in his back cost him the entire season.

Statistically, he has not been as good this season as he was in 2016, when he was a freshman All-American with a 2.48 ERA in 84 innings. His strikeout rate is down from 8.2 K/9 to 7.3, but perhaps that’s the result of a player returning after missing an entire season. That’s not to say he hasn’t been effective, though.

What may be concerning is that according to BA, “scouts say Beck’s stuff has backed up as the season has progressed and his fastball has been closer to average than plus,” which is the opposite of what one would expect from a player returning from injury.

According to MLB.com, Beck’s best pitch is his changeup, which could be plus. The same report rates his curveball as an average pitch, while BA says it could be above average. Whatever his best pitch is, his best attribute as a pitcher is his control.

If the Rays want to draft Beck, they would probably have to use the No. 31 or 32 pick on him. It’s concerning that he missed an entire season, but he’s a proven performer who could still add a little more velocity to his fastball.

RHP Sean Hjelle, Kentucky (6’11 225, 21 years old)

3.72 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 92 IP, 83 H, 22 BB, 82 K

Baseball America rank: 30
ESPN rank: 24
FanGraphs rank: not ranked in top 55
MLB.com rank: 34

Hjelle (pronounced JELL-ee, according to Kentucky’s athletics website), was the 2017 SEC pitcher of the year in a conference that featured four 2017 first rounders and several more who could be next month. He finished with a 3.89 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 108 23 innings.

Obviously, what jumps out about Hjelle is his height. According to MLB.com, if he reaches the majors, he’ll tie Jon Rauch as the tallest player in league history. Unlike a lot of tall pitchers his age, he doesn’t have a problem throwing strikes. His walk rate has decreased each season at Kentucky, and reports indicate he repeats his delivery well.

Velocity-wise, his fastball is average, generally sitting at 90-92 mph. However, because of his height, that velocity probably plays up a bit, and he throws the pitch on a downhill plane. Because he’s only 225 pounds, he could still add strength and gain velocity.

Hjelle’s best pitch is probably his low-80s curveball, which is rated as above average or plus. He complements his fastball and breaking ball with an average changeup, and he locates all his pitches well.

It would be considered a reach to draft Hjelle with the No. 16 pick, but if he’s available when the Rays have consecutive picks at Nos. 31 and 32, he could be an option to balance out other picks who may possess more upside.

RHP Jackson Kowar, Florida (6’6 185, 21 years old)

3.01 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 86 23 IP, 75 H, 35 BB, 84 K

Baseball America rank: 16
ESPN rank: 17
FanGraphs rank: 21
MLB.com rank: 13

Like Hjelle, Kowar is an accomplished SEC pitcher. He was drafted in 2015 but was considered a tough sign. He ended up going to Gainesville, and his decision likely earned him quite a bit of money.

A similarity he has to Hjelle is potential fastball projection. Clearly he’s not as tall, but he does have room to add strength and some velocity. At 92-95 mph, Kowar does have more present velocity than Hjelle.

Regardless of whether there is more fastball velocity to unlock, his best pitch is his plus changeup, which he throws to righties and lefties. ESPN’s Keith Law said it’s one of the best in the class ($).

Does he have all the ingredients to start? His mid-70s curveball is reportedly far behind his fastball and changeup. Sometimes it flashes above average, but it’s not yet a consistent pitch. His control and command need refining as well.

Despite those potential shortcomings, the upside is clear. While Kowar may not be as polished as the typical first-round college pitcher, it appears that if the Rays want him, they’ll need to take him with the No. 16 pick.

LHP Shane McClanahan, South Florida (6’2 188, 21 years old)

3.53 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 66 13 IP, 41 H, 39 BB, 111 K

Baseball America rank: 7
ESPN rank: 9
FanGraphs rank: 6
MLB.com rank: 6

It’s extremely unlikely that McClanahan is available to the Rays, but as a talented local player, the team has had ample opportunity to do its homework on him, and he’s worth discussing.

He’s the best collegiate lefty available in the draft and perhaps the best lefty overall. That’s because his stuff — particularly his fastball — is among the best in the draft. He has touched 100 mph, and his fastball regularly sits in the mid-to-high 90s. He has 111 strikeouts in just 66 13 innings.

His secondary pitches do not currently rate as highly as his fastball. His best one is his changeup, which has plenty of velocity separation from his hard fastball. He also throws a slider. Both pitches have above-average potential.

McClanahan didn’t allow an earned run in his first five outings, totaling 30 23 innings. That included an 11-strikeout game against nationally ranked North Carolina. However, he has not been as good in American Athletic Conference play. He has a 6.56 ERA in seven conference starts.

There are red flags in his profile, which is why a lefty with his velocity and strikeout rate has fallen out of the discussion for Detroit’s No. 1 overall pick. He already has a Tommy John surgery under his belt, which caused him to miss the 2016 season. He pitches with a high-effort delivery, and he walks quite a few batters — over five per nine innings this season — so there is a chance he becomes a reliever.

Are those red flags enough to push him to the No. 16 pick? It still seems unlikely, but it’s hard to not be concerned by his performance in conference play. With his tremendous upside, I’d imagine a team drafting sooner than the Rays takes a chance on him.

RHP Sean Wymer, TCU (6’1 210, 21 years old)

3.80 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 68 23 IP, 63 H, 14 BB, 65 K

Baseball America rank: 89
ESPN rank: not ranked in top 50
FanGraphs rank: not ranked in top 55
MLB.com rank: 91

You may have heard the Rays have tried some different strategies with pitcher usage this season. What if there were a draft prospect already familiar with different roles?

BA’s report refers to Wymer as TCU’s “moment of truth reliever”, and MLB.com’s goes with “troubleshooting reliever.” He gained acclaim for getting big outs in the school’s postseason run in 2017.

He began the season in TCU’s rotation but recently transitioned into a multi-inning relief role. He has nine starts and four relief appearances. His last two games in the regular season:

  • May 18: 4 IP (entered with one out in the fifth)
  • May 13: 5 IP (entered to start fourth)

Out of the bullpen, his fastball sits in the mid-90s, and his curveball could be a plus pitch. As a starter, he also used a potentially average changeup, but his stuff overall wasn’t as good. In either role, he throws a lot of strikes.

With decent stuff, control, and a track record of performance, Wymer looks like a third-round pick based on his rankings. I would assume a team drafting him that high would deploy him as a starter. The Rays have had success doing this with college relievers, like Drew Strotman from last year’s draft.

Others of note

RHP Justin Lewis, Kentucky: According to BA, he was set to sign as the Rays’ 11th-round pick last year, but they lost the money in the bonus pool to sign him. Now he’s the No. 235 player on BA’s draft board. His strikeout rate went from 7.1 K/9 to 11.4, but his ERA is nearly a full run higher.

RHP Andrew Quezada, Cal State Fullerton: Quezada was the Rays’ 20th-round pick last year from Cypress College. He had a solid season in the Titans’ rotation, and BA ranks him as the No. 132 player in the class with a good fastball.

RHP Drew Rasmussen: The Rays drafted Rasmussen with the No. 31 pick last year, but they could not come to an agreement due to the health of his elbow. He previously had Tommy John surgery, and he had a second elbow surgery in 2017. He’s no longer on Oregon State’s roster, and BA ranks him as the No. 174 player in the class.