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Rays 2019 MLB draft preview: College pitchers

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It’s not a deep draft for college pitching, but there are possibilities for the Rays.

Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images

The 2019 MLB draft begins on June 3. With that date rapidly approaching, it’s time to start previewing some players who will hear their names called next month.

The Rays have four picks on the first day of the draft — Nos. 22 and 61 in the normal draft order, and Nos. 36 and 40 in the competitive balance round. They were awarded the No. 36 pick, and they acquired the No. 40 pick in the three-team trade headlined by Oakland’s acquisition of Jurickson Profar.

Some of these players have been connected to the Rays in mock drafts, but some were just picked out by us to write about.

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

Prior to the publication of this post, Ken Rosenthal reported that Carter Stewart reached an agreement with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in the Japanese Pacific League.

RHP Seth Johnson, Campbell (6’1 200, 20 years old)

4.55 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 59 13 IP, 28 BB, 76 K

Baseball America rank: 29
ESPN rank: 37
FanGraphs rank: 44
MLB.com rank: 29

At a junior college, Johnson was a full-time hitter, but it wasn’t working out. He gave pitching a try, went to Campbell, and now he’s going to be a Day 1 pick.

His rise has been impressive, and when looking at his fairly mediocre stats, it’s important to keep in mind just how new he is to pitching. Prior to this season, he hadn’t thrown more than a handful of innings in college.

Despite that inexperience, he has an easy delivery like he’s been pitching for years, and he has good stuff. His fastball is a plus pitch. His slider and changeup have pretty good potential as well.

RHP George Kirby, Elon (6’4 201, 21 years old)

2.07 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 82 23 IP, 6 BB, 105 K

Baseball America rank: 20
ESPN rank: 24
FanGraphs rank: 15
MLB.com rank: 20

Kirby is the nation’s leader in strikeout-to-walk ratio. The next-best pitcher also has six walks but 35 fewer strikeouts.

A team looking for a pitcher who can progress through the minors quickly will be interested in the Elon righty. Throughout his career, he has always thrown strikes, although not quite to the extent he has this season.

Kirby’s stuff isn’t bad either. His fastball has been graded plus with low-90s velocity because he can locate it. He can touch the mid-90s as well.

He also throws a curveball, slider, and changeup. However, what his best secondary pitch is appears to be up for debate. All are described as having above-average potential but are presently inconsistent offerings.

In all likelihood, he’ll be the first first-round pick in Elon history. He pitches in a small conference, but he had success last summer in the Cape Cod League.

RHP Ryne Nelson, Oregon (6’3 184, 21 years old)

4.24 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 63 23 IP, 39 BB, 102 K

Baseball America rank: 84
ESPN rank: not in top 50
FanGraphs rank: 52
MLB.com rank: 84

In his first two seasons with the Ducks, Nelson was a two-way player. He wasn’t having much success at the plate, and he’s worked exclusively as a pitcher this season.

The pitch he’s known for is his fastball. He has touched 100 mph, and it’s a plus-plus offering. His K/9 is fourth in college baseball.

Nelson complements his hard fastball with an above-average or plus slider. He also throws a curveball and changeup, so the arsenal is there for a team who wants to experiment with him in the rotation. But only five of his career 47 appearances are starts.

He has to throw more strikes. His career BB/9 is over 5, and he hasn’t shown improvement as he’s gained experience. In the past, the Rays have been able to coax more strikes out of pitchers after drafting them, so he could be a good fit. With his two-way athleticism, it seems likely that Nelson has the potential for better command.

Clearly, there’s not a consensus on exactly where the righty ranks in the class, but he should be a Day 1 pick.

RHP Carter Stewart, Eastern Florida State (6’6 200, 19 years old)

1.70 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 74 13 IP, 26 BB, 108 K

Baseball America rank: 38
ESPN rank: 29
FanGraphs rank: 57
MLB.com rank: 59

Like the Rays drafting Matthew Liberatore last year, the Braves thought they got a steal when they drafted Stewart. However, they didn’t reach an agreement due to a dispute regarding his wrist after a physical. He committed to a junior college in order to reenter the draft immediately.

He reportedly hasn’t been the same pitcher this spring. Last year, his fastball and curveball were viewed as potential plus-plus pitches, but they haven’t been as good this season. His velocity is lower, and his curveball is not as consistent.

He has a lot to work on professionally. He’s added a slider and a changeup in search of a reliable third patch, and that will need to be refined. There are also some concerns about his delivery. He’ll be a Day 1 pick by a team hoping to unlock the potential everyone saw in 2018.

LHP Zack Thompson, Kentucky (6’3 225, 21 years old)

2.40 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 90 IP, 34 BB, 130 K

Baseball America rank: 11
ESPN rank: 22
FanGraphs rank: 13
MLB.com rank: 15

Thompson was the Rays’ 11th-round pick in 2016, and they tried hard to sign him. However, he reportedly failed his physical and went to Kentucky. That may have been the organization’s best chance at landing him because it appears very unlikely that they’ll have a chance to draft him again.

Shoulder problems bothered him in high school, and it was his elbow that limited him to 31 innings last season. If he does fall on draft day, that track record will probably be the reason why. When he’s healthy, he’s been successful with the Wildcats.

His breaking ball may be his best pitch, and it’s helped him rank in the top five in strikeouts this season, even in one of the nation’s toughest conferences. His fastball is another above-average pitch, sitting in the low-90s. He also throws a changeup.

Thompson has made strides in throwing strikes this season. His BB/9 in 2019 is 3.4, down significantly from previous seasons. His home run rate is also down.

Others of note

RHP Tanner Brubaker, UC Irvine: Brubaker was the Rays’ 28th-round pick in 2018. He transferred to UC Irvine and has been effective. Baseball America ranks him in the top 300.

RHP John McMillon, Texas Tech: McMillion was the Rays’ 21st-round pick in 2016. As a starter and reliever for the Red Raiders, he’s had a lot of trouble throwing strikes. He’s not ranked too far behind Brubaker.

Ryan Zeferjahn, Kansas: Zeferjahn was taken by the Rays in the 37th round in 2016, so he was never going to sign. He’s improved his stock and looks like a Day 1 pick thanks to his good stuff.