Helium is a term generally used for a player on the rise across Draft boards. Sometimes it's a guy who is well-known and is helping himself move into the upper echelons of the first round. Other times, it's a relative unknown putting himself firmly on the map.
If there's a strength in this year's Draft class, it's probably high school pitchers. There are the elite names being mentioned, the Jameson Taillons and Karsten Whitsons of the world. Then there's a fairly large group of talented arms, slotted to go anywhere from the later stages of the first round through the third or so.
One of those is Peter Tago, who has the challenge of trying to make a name for himself in a crowded Southern California crop. He was already well thought of because of his electric fastball, despite not fitting the tall, gangly, projectable mold, and may have been a good choice for a team looking for a high-schooler with arm strength in the second round. But Tago's been moving up lately because that fastball -- he does have a breaking ball and some feel for a changeup as well -- has been even better of late. He's been up around 96 mph recently and there was a report that he was touching 97 in his last start. That kind of velocity doesn't grow on trees, and, as a result, teams thinking they might nab him in the second round might not have the chance.
Radar-gun readings aren't the be-all, end-all when it comes to evaluating pitchers. But they can certainly help a guy put himself on the map, especially if he is coming off surgery. Such is the case with Jacob Petricka at Indiana State, not exactly a hotbed of baseball talent. Petricka had Tommy John surgery a few years back and is a transfer from Iowa Western Community College. The red-shirted year means he'll be 22 on Draft day, but if he keeps throwing like he has, that won't be a concern to many. Petricka has been hitting 98 mph with his fastball lately and has 87 strikeouts in 81 2/3 innings. At 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, he's got the kind of frame scouts love. Even if he's a future reliever, what he's doing this year has moved him way up draft boards.
Lead balloon update
If helium signifies those on the rise, it's fairly apparent what lead balloon means, right?
All it takes is a bad performance at a key time or an injury concern -- even if it's unfounded -- or some questions about a player's character to make him plummet on Draft boards.
There probably isn't a perceived elite player with more question marks around him right now than Louisiana State's Anthony Ranaudo. The junior entered the spring at or near the top of any Draft list and was generally thought of as the top college pitcher.
But a funny thing happened on the way to his coronation. First, he got hurt. Anytime a pitcher has elbow issues, it's going to be a cause for concern. Ranaudo missed several starts with the injury. When he came back, he was brought back slowly, for obvious reasons, but all things looked like they were headed in the right direction.
Then came a big matchup against Ole Miss lefty Drew Pomeranz. Rain delayed it a day, and most wished it never had taken place. The marquee game was a disaster for both pitchers, and Ranaudo didn't make it out of the second inning, allowing nine runs on nine hits.
Everyone can have an off day, and most scouts were anxious to see what Ranaudo would do the following week. They didn't get a long look as the big right-hander went just two innings at Florida, allowing four runs on six hits. Next came Vanderbilt, which lit up Ranaudo for six runs on five hits over 2 2/3 innings.
For a player who was thought to be a top-five pick, at the very least, an 8.26 ERA is not exactly what was expected. Those who have seen Ranaudo frequently don't think he's still hurt. But his command, particularly in leaving balls up in the zone, has really hurt him. So this weekend's start against Kentucky takes on a lot more weight than just any SEC outing.
Something to prove
Ranaudo isn't the only one from that big LSU-Ole Miss meeting who needs to prove he's OK.
Pomeranz, who had supplanted Ranaudo as the top college arm on most boards, gave up five runs (four earned) in three innings against LSU. He allowed only one hit and struck out three, but walked nine.
Unlike Ranaudo, Pomeranz bounced back strongly in his next start, striking out 11 and allowing just one run over 6 1/3 innings against Mississippi State. Things didn't go quite as well the following week against Arkansas. Pomeranz pitched into the seventh and struck out eight, but he allowed four runs on nine hits to get his first loss of the season.
What was more concerning were reports that his velocity had taken a dive. Typically, the lefty can run it up to 94 mph and sits comfortably at 91-92 mph. Against Arkansas, however, he was throwing his fastball around 85-90 mph.
It's since come out that Pomeranz has been dealing with a strained pectoral muscle and perhaps that was the reason for his velocity drop. Both the team and player claimed it wasn't a major concern and that it was fairly certain he'd make his start on Friday at Alabama. Pomeranz has a long track record of success in a very good conference, but when it comes to the Draft, teams often can have a short memory and Pomeranz might have to show everyone he's just fine starting this Friday. If he can throw down the stretch the way he did during the first chunk of the season, he'll be just fine.
On the shelf
Perhaps no one helped himself more in the early part of the season than Virginia Tech's Jesse Hahn. The junior built on a strong Cape League showing last summer and began to show that he could be a real pitcher and not just a guy who could rear back and light up radar guns. Over nine starts, he had a 2.81 ERA and 64 strikeouts (against 14 walks) in 57 2/3 innings.
But Hahn hasn't pitched since April 18 against Virginia, missing the last three weeks of action. There were varying reports on what the issue was that forced him out of action, but it appears that it was some forearm pain. That will always concern scouts because forearm issues are often a precursor of a larger elbow problem. Those worries might be alleviated this weekend. Hahn had an MRI and it showed no damage and he will take the ball for the Hokies on Sunday against Duke.
Where to be: Miami at Georgia Tech
Perhaps the temptation will be to head to the SEC to see the aforementioned Ranaudo or Pomeranz. That wouldn't be a bad call, but to see the most college Draft talent in one place, Atlanta should be on the itinerary.
The Miami-Georgia Tech series not only is a big ACC matchup, it will allow scouts and fans alike to see one of the better college pitchers, Tech's Deck McGuire, take on one of the best college position players, Miami catcher Yasmani Grandal, on Friday.
But that's not all. A weekend in Georgia will also provide long looks at Georgia Tech third baseman Derek Dietrich, right-hander Kevin Jacob and catcher Cole Leonida. Grandal's the key draw for the Hurricanes, but there are also lefties Chris Hernandez and Eric Erickson to evaluate.