Carlos Rodon has been "the guy" atop the 2014 First-Year Player Draft class for some time now.
It might actually date back to before the lefty threw a pitch for North Carolina State Wolfpack. Rodon was a pretty well thought of high school prospect in North Carolina, one whom the Brewers had the presence of mind to take in the 16th round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. They made a run at signing Rodon, but he opted to head to college instead.
"It goes back to the point when the Brewers didn't sign him out of high school," one scouting director said. "He made the jump and hasn't quit yet. He hasn't done anything to not warrant consideration up at the top of the Draft."
MLB.com's No. 1 Draft prospect for 2014, Rodon has spent his first two years of college ball building a very strong case to be the No. 1 pick in June, a selection once again held by the Houston Astros. Rodon, having just finished his fall work in preparation for his very important junior campaign, knows his name is out there on this list and others, but he tries to not let it affect him too much.
"You see it, but the best thing to do is to overlook it, to keep on working hard," Rodon said. "It's motivation to try and stay at the top, but I try not to look at it. It's just a ranking, and you don't know what's going to happen until the Draft."
If people weren't on the Rodon Watch right after Milwaukee didn't sign him, they certainly jumped aboard after his freshman season. Rodon was one of the best college pitchers in the nation in 2012, and he was named a Golden Spikes Award finalist -- with Mark Appel and winner Mike Zunino -- after going 9-0 with a 1.57 ERA and striking out 135 in 114 2/3 innings.
It was hard to imagine what Rodon could possibly do for an encore. Statistically, he couldn't possibly duplicate his freshman year, but he was still pretty darn good, finishing 10-3 as a sophomore, with a 2.99 ERA and 184 strikeouts in 132 1/3 innings. Building on that in 2014 could put Rodon on a very short list of the greatest collegiate pitchers, but just like he did after his stellar freshman season, he's not trying to one up himself.
"Last year was last year," Rodon said about his attitude heading into his sophomore year. "Now it's the same thing. It's going to be a whole new year. Anything can happen. I could go 0-12, I could go 12-0. You have to put the good and bad behind you."
One of the keys to Rodon's development has been the time he's spent with USA Baseball for the past two summers. As much as Rodon credits the N.C. State coaching staff, especially assistant head coach Tom Holliday (Matt's father), getting feedback and insight from other coaches has helped him become a much more complete pitcher.
"It helps to get out there in the summer," said Rodon, who has allowed just three earned runs over 36 innings (0.75 ERA) while striking out 42 for Team USA over the past two summers. "It's different working with different coaches."
Case in point -- and this should send shudders up the spines of ACC hitters -- Rodon spent this last summer working with Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco on his changeup. It certainly didn't seem to hurt his results any -- the lefty didn't allow a run in 17 innings of work.
"He let me throw it whenever I wanted," Rodon said. "It helped me get a feel for it. I'm excited to add that to the arsenal this spring. I didn't think it would happen this way, that fast. Obviously, I've been working on it for a while, but had a big breakthrough this summer. It should be factor."
Rodon will add that to a fastball in the upper-90s and a killer slider. Those two pitches alone had him atop nearly every Draft board. Add in a third outstanding option and it becomes an even bigger no-brainer to have Rodon No. 1 on any current ranking.
"He has a proven track record, with continued success and continued development," one national scout said. "He's a left-handed pitcher that is physical with three plus pitches, including a fastball that reaches 97 mph. He's dominated competition since he was a freshman at N.C. State and has had success playing against the best competition in the country."
Rodon is hoping he gets to face even more of that competition in 2014. He and his N.C. State teammates made it to the College World Series last year, but after Rodon pitched the Wolfpack to an 8-1 win in the opener against North Carolina, they lost two straight to get bounced from the tournament. Keeping an eye on going further will certainly help Rodon keep from getting too Draft-focused.
So will teammate Trea Turner. The leadoff hitter and shortstop is also a top prospect, also a potential choice in the top half of the first round. The two N.C. State teammates know they are going through the same process and will help each other, and the team, stay focused on postseason play instead of the heightened Draft-related attention.
"It's great to have Trea on the same path; he's my roommate," Rodon said. "It makes it a lot easier. You don't want to the only guy they're talking about. We're worried about getting our team back to Omaha. We're worried about the present."