San Diego's Brian Matusz and Missouri's Aaron Crow are decidedly the cream of the crop, and both should be gone in the early stages of the first round. There are others who will undoubtedly go in the opening frame of the June 5 Draft -- college closers appear to be particularly strong this year -- but how much of that is due to teams reaching for an advanced pitcher, and how much of it is because the picks are legitimate first-round talents is in the eye of the beholder.
"There are two legitimate first-rounders and the rest of them are on the outside looking in, based on injury and performance," one Major League scouting director said.
Injuries have played a large role in shaping this group, both early and late. Pepperdine's Brett Hunter was a sure-fire first-rounder heading into the season, but he hasn't pitched since the early stages of spring due to elbow soreness. More recently, Fresno State's Tanner Scheppers went down with a stress fracture in his right shoulder, an injury that has left many scouts scratching their heads.
"It's unprecedented," the scouting director said of the injury. "We're used to Tommy John surgery, a labrum or a rotator cuff, but a broken shoulder? I don't know. It's an impact-type injury."
It certainly will have an impact on draft boards, as Scheppers was considered a top 10 pick candidate. Who'll step up to fill the void as early draftees from the college pitching ranks? Here are some names to consider.
Andrew Cashner, RHP, Texas Christian: One of several strong-armed relievers who have been rising up draft charts this spring, Cashner has taken off as TCU's closer. He's been cranking it up to 98 mph, and has a plus slider at times to go along with it. He's walked a few too many, and has come out of nowhere in terms of the jump in velocity, but has maintained it all spring. The righty has started in the past and his draft status could depend on which teams in the first round think he could be moved back into a rotation.
Aaron Crow, RHP, Missouri: After reeling off 43 consecutive scoreless innings, Crow hit a bit of a slump, causing some to worry about his draft stock. But even with a small flaw in his mechanics, his electric arsenal -- fastball, slider, changeup -- is sure to get him off the board in a hurry.
Josh Fields, RHP, Georgia: Never underestimate the value of an extra year of education. After a subpar junior season, Fields was drafted in the second round by the Braves but opted to return to campus for his senior season. It's looking like the move will pay off, as Fields has been perhaps the top closer in the college ranks, with a .092 batting average against, a 1.52 ERA and 16 saves for the Bulldogs.
Christian Friedrich, LHP, Eastern Kentucky: Behind Matusz, he's the best college lefty in the class and there's a lot to like about him. He's not a command and feel lefty, though he won't be bad in that regard, and he's got the chance to have an impressive four-pitch arsenal. He may not have the ceiling of some arms in this draft, but the finished product isn't bad, either.
Shooter Hunt, RHP, Tulane: The pitcher who might be helped the most by Scheppers' injury, Hunt was considered by many scouts to be next in line among college arms. With Scheppers on the shelf, teams looking for a college righty might go with the Tulane ace instead. He's got good stuff, with a fastball, curve (a plus pitch) and a feel for a changeup. While some have expressed concern about his command, others have seen him just fine. His bad start in the Conference USA Tournament shouldn't hurt him too much.
Brian Matusz, LHP, San Diego: After a slow start, the southpaw has cemented his place as the best college arm in the draft class by going 10-2 with a 2.05 ERA. He's struck out 122 and walked just 20 over 88 innings. He's got four pitches he can throw for strikes and has the potential to be much more than a pitchability lefty.
Ryan Perry, RHP, Arizona: Perry's been a little tough to figure out at times. His stuff is off-the-charts good, but he hasn't always been as unhittable as he should be, given the repertoire. He may have gotten hot at the right time though: in front of scores of scouts, he went lights out in a recent series against Stanford. Like with Cashner, the team that likes his live arm in a starting role may be the one that takes him early.
Bryan Price, RHP, Rice: Another reliever a club might want to try as a starter because of a potential three-pitch mix, Price isn't even Rice's primary closer. Despite that, scouts like his size and stuff, though it has been inconsistent at times. When he's on, he's got first-round stuff, and there are teams at the back end considering him as an option.
Tyson Ross, RHP, California: Early on in the season, it seemed a cinch that Ross would be an early first rounder, a guy to be talked about with the Shooter Hunts and Tanner Scheppers of the world. But he has since hit some bumps, and a loss in velocity has had many concerned he's pitching hurt. He's got a bit of an unorthodox delivery, causing some to see him as a reliever, but he's got the pitches -- when healthy -- to be a front-line starter. It will be interesting to see if his recent bounce-back start against Stanford can carry over to his final starts and help him rebuild his draft stock.
Daniel Schlereth, LHP, Arizona: He's been on the radar screen for a while, having been selected last year in the eighth round. He very likely would have gotten some looks as a lefty setup man this year, with a fastball usually sitting in the 93-94 mph range. When he came out against Stanford and was blowing 97-98 mph consistently last weekend, interest in him obviously increased. If clubs can be convinced he can crank it up like that more consistently -- he'll get the chance with a few more outings before draft day -- he'll be looked at as a lefty closer and could position himself for first-round consideration.