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Rays 2018 MLB draft preview: High school pitchers

If a high school pitcher falls further than expected, can the Rays use their extra picks and larger draft budget to take advantage?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
Blake Snell was a first-round pick by the Rays in 2011. They haven’t drafted a high school pitcher in the first round since
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Next up in our draft preview series is a group of high school pitchers. We’re saving the up-the-middle bats for last. Based on the predraft buzz we’ve seen, the Rays seem more likely to select from that group of players with their early picks, so they should be fresh in your mind closest to the draft.

It’s interesting that the Rays have not selected a high school pitcher in the first round since 2011, when Taylor Guerrieri and Blake Snell were among their large quantity of first-round picks. Since then, these are their first high school pitchers off the board:

2012: Nolan Gannon. No. 152 overall
2013: Stephen Woods, No. 188 overall
2014: Cameron Varga, No. 60 overall
2015: Edrick Agosto, No. 598 overall
2016: Austin Franklin, No. 90 overall
2017: Michael Mercado, No. 40 overall

Obviously, quite a bit of this is semantics. Snell was the No. 52 pick but still considered a first rounder.

I think in 2018, their first high school pitcher will come off the board closer to Mercado or Varga than Agosto. With three extra picks early in the draft, they have more money to spend and a greater opportunity to pounce if a highly touted player falls due to bonus demands.

Another factor is the fortunes of high school righties selected in the first round. Baseball America covered this earlier in May, and if you’re not a subscriber, I’d highly recommend using one of your monthly free articles on the story. The lessons learned don’t directly apply to the Rays in this draft because it focuses on those pitchers drafted in the top 10 and why they’re selected in those positions, but they could have a chance to get good value with their picks if teams in front of them start passing on high school righties.

Video is courtesy of Baseball America and 2080 Baseball.

College pitchers preview
Corner bats preview

RHP Mason Denaburg, Merritt Island High School (6’3 190, 18 years old)

Baseball America rank: 22
ESPN rank: 58
FanGraphs rank: 27
MLB.com rank: 24

When the season started, if the Rays wanted to draft Denaburg, they would have had to use the No. 16 pick. Because he missed over a month with biceps tendinitis, he could be available with the No. 31 or No. 32 pick. He returned at the end of the season and reportedly looked fine, so it’s hard to say how the injury affects his stock.

That could present the Rays with an interesting opportunity. If he’s expecting top-20 money but isn’t a top-20 pick, the Rays are in position to meet his demand with the second-largest bonus pool in the league.

Denaburg has plenty of arm strength. His fastball averages 92-95 mph and has touched 97. He complements it with a potential above-average or plus curveball and a promising changeup. Because he previously played catcher and does still play football, there’s a chance his stuff improves if he focuses on pitching full time.

RHP J.T. Ginn, Brandon (Miss.) High School (6’2 199, 19 years old)

Baseball America rank: 40
ESPN rank: 40
FanGraphs rank: 51
MLB.com rank: 34

Teams looking for elite stuff will surely be looking at Ginn. His fastball velocity is among the best in the class and may be the best among high schoolers. It has touched 100 mph and sits in the mid-90s.

It’s not his only pitch, either. His slider has been rated as a potential plus pitch at a minimum, and it’s even been called a plus-plus pitch. Not many pitchers boast two 70 pitches on the 20-80 scouting scale.

Why is he not ranked higher then? There seem to be significant concerns regarding his high-effort delivery. While BA reports that he has made strides this season, it apparently hasn’t been enough to totally alleviate those concerns. He also hasn’t used his changeup in games very often.

Ginn is older than most high school prospects in the class, and he would be a draft-eligible sophomore in 2020 if he chooses to attend Mississippi State.

RHP Ethan Hankins, Forsyth Central High School (6’6 200, 18 years old)

Baseball America rank: 17
ESPN rank: 31
FanGraphs rank: 31
MLB.com rank: 21

At the start of the amateur season, it would have been nonsensical for sites besides Bless You Boys and McCovey Chronicles to write about Hankins in a draft preview. Then he missed a large part of the season with shoulder fatigue, and he was suddenly in play for a lot of teams.

ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Hankins as the top prospect in the draft before the season started. Clearly that injury has affected his stock.

Prior to getting hurt, Hankins could command a mid-90s fastball that touched the high-90s. He also had a plus breaking ball with a promising changeup. Since his return, the velocity hasn’t been the same, and his breaking ball has not been as consistent. Both Law and BA attribute this to an intentional effort to avoid re-injuring the shoulder again.

Teams will certainly have to do their homework on the medicals. Further complicating his draft status is his commitment to Vanderbilt, a prestigious program with a reputation for developing pitchers. If Hankins doesn’t get an offer he likes, he could go to school, and if he stays healthy and performs well, be a top pick in three years.

LHP Brett Hansen, Foothill (Pleasanton, Calif.) High School (6’4 190, 18 years old)

Baseball America rank: 72
ESPN rank: 46
FanGraphs rank: not ranked in top 55
MLB.com rank: 95

Hansen is the third- or fourth-best high school left-hander in the class, depending on the source. The top two — Matthew Liberatore and Ryan Weathers — may not be available to the Rays.

Hansen requires some projection. He tends to throw strikes, but his stuff is average right now. His fastball is generally 88-92 mph, and his changeup and curveball are inconsistent. However, he is athletic, and if he gets stronger, he can improve his stuff and maintain higher fastball velocity.

This scouting report is not unique among high school pitchers, but like Hankins, Hansen is committed to Vanderbilt. He was previously committed to Stanford, which would indicate he values academics. Will a team be willing to meet his asking price and hope his stuff develops?

If the Rays are willing to do that, he may be available with the No. 56 pick in the second round. If he’s signable, the No. 92 pick in the third round could be a stretch.

RHP Cole Wilcox, Heritage (Ringgold, Ga.) High School (6’5 220, 18 years old)

Baseball America rank: 38
ESPN rank: 13
FanGraphs rank: 36
MLB.com rank: 19

Wilcox has many of the ingredients teams look for in a successful starter. His arsenal has the necessary depth, he has the size, he’s athletic, and he throws strikes. So why isn’t he ranked higher?

Every report cites concerns about his delivery. Baseball America calls it funk. Law says it’s unorthodox. FanGraphs says his mechanics need adjustments, and MLB.com says his delivery isn’t smooth. So far it hasn’t stopped him from being successful, and the variance in rankings from public sources could be a reflection about how different teams view him.

Stuffwise, he has a 92-95 mph fastball with sink. There seems to be some question about what his best secondary pitch is. Some say it’s his slider, and some say it’s his changeup. Either way, they’re both described as potential above-average pitches.

It’s hard to say where the Rays would have to pick Wilcox if they want him. He could be there at No. 31 or 32, but it’s possible a team picking in the top 15 either believes his mechanics are OK or is confident it can help him make the adjustments it deems necessary.