For every Alex Rodriguez (round 1, pick 1, overall pick 1), there are a dozen Edwin Encarnacions (round 9, pick 24, overall pick 274) and Matt Carpenters (round 13, pick 18, overall pick 399), prospects who “overcame” their late-round status and emerged as much, much more than useful pieces. Some might even call Encarnacion and Carpenter two of the 50 best players in baseball.
Despite the relative weakness of this draft class, you can be sure that there will be several late-round picks that will also go on to do great things at the big-league level. Let’s take a look at six prospects that have that potential.
Carson Cross, RHP, Connecticut
Cross is an exceptional talent that is often overlooked because of his age (23) and his injury history (missed 2014 season due to shoulder surgery). Still, the results he put up this year were quite impressive: 10-2, 2.29 ERA, 106 IP, 108 K, 25 BB. Strong results are nothing new for Cross, who went 9-4 with a 2.44 ERA as a redshirt sophomore before being selected in the 24th-round of the 2013 draft. Cross chose to return to UConn for the 2014 season and test the draft waters again, but was shut down after a MRI discovered damage to his rotator cuff .
Nearly 16 months after having some scar tissue removed by Dr. James Andrews, Cross is looking better than ever. His mid-90s velocity has returned and his breaking ball and changeup once again look like above-average offerings. Even more impressive, his control has returned along with the sharpness of his pitches. He threw fewer wild pitches and hit fewer batters this year than during his sophomore year, and his K/BB rate was the best of his career.
After a strong sophomore campaign that saw him move into the rotation, Sborz returned to the bullpen in 2015, setting career highs with 12 saves and an .172 opponents batting average. Sborz was shuffled back into the rotation at the end of the year, when an injury to staff ace Nathan Kirby left a gaping hole in the pitching staff. He was given the start in the play-in game of the ACC tournament and all he did was retire the first 18 batters Georgia Tech sent to the plate, en route to a one-hit, complete-game shutout. Talk about the right stuff.
One of the reasons Sborz has found so much success, as both a starter and reliever, is his ability to pitch to contact. He’s never been a big strikeout guy (165 in 181 innings) and has found incredible success despite a fastball that sits in the 89-93-mph range. His secondary stuff is nothing special, nor is his command, and he served up more home runs than any pitcher on the UVA staff this season, but he just seems to make the right pitches at the right time.
David Berg, RHP, UCLA
Only someone who’s watched UCLA baseball the past four years can tell you how big a part of the team’s success Berg has been. Since setting foot on campus he’s made an astounding 170 appearances for the Bruins, appearing in 71% of the team’s games since 2012. He hasn’t been just prolific though, he’s been dominant, holding down an ERA just over 1.00 the whole time, striking out 230 batters in 257 innings, and racking up 48 saves. During the 2013 season, he set NCAA single-season records for saves (24) and appearances (51) en route to becoming the first reliever to win the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year award.
Clearly, Berg’s role as a professional is not going to be as a starter, and the only question now is how quickly he’ll ascend to the big-league level. He was selected in the 17th-round by Texas last year and chances are, had he signed, he could have been pitching out of the Rangers’ bullpen by now. Chances are he won’t stick as a closer, but he’ll make one hell of a set-up man.
This year’s Sun Devil squad is filled with talented pitching prospects, but the one with the highest ceiling is Lilek. It’s safe to say the left-hander has underachieved during his three years at ASU, but in terms of pure stuff, it’s hard to rank him below Ryan Kellogg or Ryan Burr. His fastball sits in the 90-95 mph range and he pairs it with a slider that flashes plus, but not with the kind of consistency you’d expect from a college pitcher with 42 appearances under his belt.
In the past, command has been what has set Lilek back. He averaged 4.3 BB/9 this season, an increase from 4.2 last year and 3.6 during his freshman campaign. He has, however, posted a healthy strikeout rate (7.5 K/9) and he’s been incredibly stingy in allowing hits (.216 average against this year), leading to the inevitable hypothesis that if he could cut down on the walks, he could be an outstanding prospect.
Lemoine was well on his way to becoming a first-round pick in this year’s draft class, when some soreness in his shoulder sidelined him indefinitely. For the season he made just five starts, hardly enough of a sample size to be able to tell if he was on his way to another sensational campaign like the one he had in 2014. As a sophomore, Lemoine posted a 2.87 ERA and struck out 87 batters over 17 starts.
When he’s been healthy, Lemoine has had scouts drooling over his fastball, which sits 88-94 mph, but can scrape the mid-90s every so often, and his slider, which has flashed above-average with regularity during his time at Houston. For a bigger guy (6-5, 220 lbs), Lemoine also shows good command of his pitches.
Raleigh ranks no higher than tenth on most lists of catcher prospects in this year’s draft class, but he has massive potential once he finally turns pro. We say “finally,” because Raleigh is a pretty good bet to forgo a signing bonus in favor of attending Clemson University, where he’ll have a year to learn under potential 2016 first-rounder Chris Okey.
Like Okey, Raleigh is a terror at the plate. He’s hit .468 with 11 homers so far this season, doing damage from both side of the plate as a switch-hitter. At 6-3 and 195 pounds, Raleigh might eventually outgrow the position, but he seems like he has the athleticism to stick and if he does, he’s going to be one highly sought after commodity in 2018.