I was down in Charlottesville this weekend for the highly anticipated matchup between Virginia and East Carolina, featuring one of the top arms in the draft class, Jeff Hoffman (East Carolina), and one of the deepest teams in the country in UVA. While there were plenty of 2014 draft eligibles on display, Virginia’s impact talent stretches to the 2015 and 2016 classes, as well. We’ll have some additional notes on ECU players, as well as further collegiate and prep updates, in next Monday’s extended Draft Ten Pack.
Player Spotlight: Jeff Hoffman (RHP, East Carolina)
Hoffman entered the year as the top collegiate right-hander in the draft class, and through two weeks he’s reinforced that standing on stuff, if not production. On Friday, Hoffman was saddled with an umpire that simultaneously would not call the low strike and could not figure out how to call Hoffman’s breaker as a strike in the zone. The result was the curve being all but a non-factor outside of a two-strike chase pitch (Hoffman stopped going to it once it became apparent it was not going to be a useful pitch in the zone). It’s useful for evaluators to see pitchers faced with situations like this, as you get to measure a prospect’s ability to work without his full arsenal at his disposal, and by extension his ability to think outside the box. Hoffman’s focus for the evening centered on mixing an 86-89 mph changeup with good late fade and a plus-plus fastball that reached as high as 98 mph, settling in the 94 to 96 mph range for much of the evening. Brandon Downes accounted for two of Virginia’s runs via solo homers—one a high fly ball off a 96-mph fastball that was carried out by a strong wind to left; the other also a pull-side round-tripper off of a changeup hung waist-high and over the plate. Hoffman wasn’t in mid-season form, but the quality of his arsenal and his athleticism on the mound certainly were readily apparent. He remains one of the top arms in the class with a high likelihood of selection in the first few picks come June.
UVA STANDOUTS FOR 2014
Brandon Downes (OF, Virginia)
Downes was not the most highly touted position prospect on the Virginia squad, but a two-home-run effort against one of the best arms in college baseball has a way of forcing a name into the mouths of scouts. The UVA center fielder has solid bat speed and keeps his swing path on line for an extended time, though there’s some swoop to his transition from load to delivery and his hands get started a little late. It doesn’t inhibit him right now, but could later on once he’s working with wood against more advanced arms. He displays a solid approach, but lagging hands lead to soft contact and choppy mid-swing adjustments a number of times throughout the series against arms that were solid but did not standout. He probably maxes out as a 5/5 hit/power guy, with a bump in value due to his chance to stick up-the-middle. For teams that view him as a center fielder, Downes could fit anywhere from the second to fourth round, depending on whether the evaluator fully buys into the bat. –Nick J. Faleris
Derek Fisher (OF, Virginia)
The toolsiest talent on the field, Fisher shows easy pull-side pop in batting practice, though he is still figuring out how to get to it in-game. He’s a strong kid with a smooth barrel delivery that allows for hard contact from pole to pole, and his plus speed out of the box, and underway, add a dimension to his offensive game. Defensively, Fisher has the arm for right field, though UVA currently has him manning left in deference to underclassman Joe McCarthy. As a reminder to evaluators in attendance this weekend, Fisher made the throw of the series on a base hit down the left field line, which Fisher cut off and then delivered on a line to home. The run scored as the throw was cut off, but the relay caught the batter en route to second, promptly ending the inning. Fisher has a chance to grade average or better across the board, and should be a legit first-round consideration provided he continues to flash those tools throughout the spring.
Mike Papi (1B/OF, Virginia)
Papi may be the best pure hitter on the squad, showing quick wrists, a feel for the barrel, and consistent loud contact. He made some of the loudest contact of the weekend, including a long flyout to deep right and a double to the oppo gap off of Hoffman on Friday night. A capable corner outfielder, Papi is manning first base due to Virginia’s embarrassing depth in the grass. He’ll shift back to the outfield, most likely in right field, upon beginning his pro career. He’s a solid-average runner that ticks up a grade underway, and has a chance to provide value on all sides of the ball. Like Downes, he’s likely an impact tool shy of Day 1 consideration, but could come off the board early on Day 2 to a team valuing track record and a college hit tool.
Nick Howard (RHP/INF, Virginia)
Howard is a two-way talent who shows big power in the box and a big arm on the mound. Today his draft stock is highest as a power relief arm, where he sits comfortably in the 93 to 95 mph range, mixing in a 79 to 81 mph curve that will flash above average and a fringe-average upper-70s change. He will need to execute his offerings, and his secondaries specifically, more consistently, but as a high-profile closer on one of the top college teams in the country, he will be throwing in front of decision-makers constantly and could establish himself as a fast track relief arm worthy of consideration as high as the supplemental first round. Early returns are impressive, as the power righty has logged four scoreless innings in 2014, striking out six while allowing just one hit and no walks.
Connor Jones (RHP, Virginia)
A true freshman, Jones has already made three relief appearances through two weeks for the Wahoos, posting an impressive line of six and two-thirds innings pitched, five hits, one earned run, two walks and six strikeouts. Jones has one of the livelier fastballs you’ll see, showing lots of dance in the 88 to 92 mph range, and straightening out some as he climbs as high as 95 mph. (on Saturday, Jones topped out at 93 mph), His change has improved since last summer, flashing a couple above-average off-speed offerings this weekend, while his breaker continues to show promise, but inconsistent shape. He is a high impact arm that could grab a weekend rotation spot as early as this spring once he gets stretched out. Conversely, he could be a huge factor out of the pen once the post-season rolls around and teams are faced with round-robin weekends requiring four games in three days. He is an early first-round favorite for 2016 and should be a huge part of UVA’s success over the next three seasons.
Josh Sborz (RHP, Virginia)
Another talented underclass arm, Sborz struggled to command his stuff on Saturday but battled his way to a win off the strength of his low- to mid-90s fastball, 11-to-5 curve, and mid-80s straight change. He’s a sturdy guy with a strong trunk and little difficulty generating velocity and maintaining it past the 75-pitch mark. Right now Sborz is still more thrower than pitcher, but you can see him starting to put everything together. A solid spring and summer could put him into early-round consideration for 2015, and potentially top-25-overall territory.
Nathan Kirby (LHP, Virginia)
Like Sborz, Kirby is a 2015 arm occupying a weekend spot in the UVA rotation—currently serving as the Friday night ace. After seeing his velocity climb to the mid-90s as times last summer, Kirby was back in his comfort zone this weekend, residing mostly in the 88 to 91 mph range. While Sborz tends to overpower hitters, Kirby takes a more nuanced approach to attacking hitters, utilizing four distinct pitches and altering his sequencing well as he turns over a lineup. There’s room for more velocity and more growth in the secondaries, with the ultimate package capable of boasting four average or better offerings, and maybe more. A solid spring should see him enter the summer leagues on the short list of top lefties in the 2015 draft class.
Joe McCarthy (OF, Virginia)
McCarthy made the defensive play of the weekend, tracking down what appeared to be a sure extra base hit down the right field line, snagging it before it landed, and doubling up a runner at first base with a quick release and accurate throw on the run. Offensively, McCarthy seems to get to the low ball well, but struggles with velocity up and on the hands. The power may be a little light for a corner, though he shows leverage in batting practice and there is room to build a little more torque into the swing. With a step forward in the power department, and a sound showing with wood this spring, McCarthy could establish himself as a true early-round threat, capable of providing value in right field, and at the plate.
Daniel Pinero (SS, Virginia)
It isn’t often that a true freshman earns the starting shortstop job on a national championship contender, but that’s just what Pinero has done down in Charlottesville. It’s likely he isn’t long for the position, as the body is going to get big and strong very quickly, but right now he shows enough athleticism, and soft enough hands, for the limby six-spotter to get the job done. At the plate he is still figuring things out, and has been mostly overmatched thus far. When he finds the ball with the barrel, however, it’s loud and impressive. Pinero will be draft eligible as a sophomore next year, so his draft value will in large part depend on an accelerated developmental arc over the next two seasons. All the ingredients are here to build a power-hitting third baseman with an above-average glove and arm at the hot corner.
Matt Thaiss (C, Virginia)
One of my favorite viewings of the weekend, a short six months at UVA has already done wonders for Thaiss, as he appears to have shed some of the “soft” weight he had last spring in favor of a leaner and stronger build. That strength is readily apparent in both BP and in game, as the freshman smoked an opposite field double to the gap on Sunday, after putting on a solid display pre-game a couple hours earlier. The profile is that of a solid defensive catcher with above-average power and a solid catch-and-throw game. He will be working with a talented staff over the next few years, and if it all comes together it could be an enticing package come June 2016.