The 2014 First-Year Player Draft won't start for another four weeks, but it still made headlines on Wednesday. First came word that Virginia high school right-hander J.B. Bukauskas, who has hit 100 mph with his fastball, has asked teams not to draft him because he wants to attend North Carolina. A couple of hours later, East Carolina announced that righty Jeff Hoffman, a candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick, would have Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of the season.
The MLBPipeline crew is busy bringing you news like that and much more. We're currently working on expanding our Draft Top 100 to a Draft Top 200, complete with the usual scouting grades, reports and video. We'll also have several Draft-related features and first-round projections over the next month.
The Draft must be on your mind as well, because it provided most of the fodder for this week's edition of the Pipeline Inbox. Let's get to your questions …
With Jeff Hoffman's most recent setback and White Sox general manager Rick Hahn's stated desire to draft a college pitcher, what does Chicago do with its No. 3 overall pick? I can't imagine the White Sox passing on whomever of California high school left-hander Brady Aiken, North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon or Texas prep righty Tyler Kolek falls into their lap.
-- Nick D., Chicago
With Hoffman out of the running, there are three clear candidates to go at the top of the Draft: Aiken, Rodon and Kolek. The White Sox might prefer a college arm, but I haven't seen where Hahn has said anything that makes it seem like he's set on one. I agree with Nick that they'll just take whichever of the big three remains on the board.
If Rodon goes to the Astros at No. 1 or the Marlins at No. 2 -- and I think he probably will -- that would leave righties Aaron Nola (Louisiana State) and Tyler Beede (Vanderbilt) and lefties Kyle Freeland (Evansville), Brandon Finnegan (Texas Christian) and Sean Newcomb (Hartford) as the top college arms available. And while all of those guys are talented, and Nola likely will be the first starting pitcher from this Draft to reach the Major Leagues, I also can't imagine the White Sox ignoring the higher upsides of Aiken and/or Kolek.
Chicago has a history of drafting high-ceiling players in the early rounds and hasn't had much success taking college pitchers in the first round in the past decade. The White Sox scored big when Chris Sale unexpectedly dropped to them at No. 13 in 2010, but they missed badly on Lance Broadway ('05), Kyle McCullough ('06) and Aaron Poreda ('07).
Does Nola have the ability to be more than what Mike Leake has been?
-- Cameron K., Naperville, Ill.
There are some obvious similarities between Leake and Nola. Neither is extremely physical, and both stand out for their ability to command their pitches rather than any particular plus offering. Leake was the eight overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, and Nola will go in the same range this year. Leake was the first player from his Draft class to get to the big leagues, and Nola is a good bet to do the same.
Leake, the most recent player to begin his professional career in the Majors, has been steady in four-plus seasons with the Reds. He has gone 44-32 with a 3.95 ERA in 121 games (116 starts) and won a career-high 14 games in 2013. Leake is a quality No. 4-caliber starter.
Nola has more upside than that. Leake doesn't have a consistently above-average pitch, while Nola has two potential plus offerings in his fastball and changeup. He has what it take to be a good No. 3 starter, a notch above what Leake is.
It's hard to contain my excitement when I look at the line Reds right-hander Ben Lively has put up: 6-0, 0.63 ERA, 42 2/3 innings, 23 hits, three walks and 54 strikeouts -- and in the California League, no less. Will he stay as a starter? And what kind of upside does he possess?
-- Tim B., Cincinnati
Lively won his first six outings and threw seven scoreless innings Wednesday night, only to see his bullpen blow a 4-0 lead. He fashioned 31 consecutive shutout innings at one point and leads the Minors in victories and strikeouts, and he ranks second in ERA, K/BB ratio and WHIP (0.61). Lively's incredible start is even more impressive considering that this is his first full year in pro ball, he had one previous start in a full-season league and the high Class A Cal League is extremely hitter-friendly.
A fourth-round pick out of Central Florida in 2013, Lively definitely has what it takes to remain a starter. He has tremendous command of four average-or-better pitches: a low-90s fastball, a solid slider and a decent curveball and changeup. Lively doesn't have a true out pitch, but his offerings play up because of his ability to locate them, and he projects as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
Where do you see Oregon State outfielder Michael Conforto being drafted? Is he slated to be a fourth outfielder rather that a full-time player?
-- Doug C., Bowling Green, Ohio
Conforto should fit in the middle of the first round, somewhere in the 11-20 range. He's one of the best bats available from the college ranks, and he's hitting .407/.552/.627 with more walks (41) than strikeouts (26) as a junior. Conforto's best tool is his plus left-handed power -- he led the U.S. national collegiate team with three homers last summer -- and he also could hit for a solid average.
Conforto's athleticism isn't bad for a 6-foot-2, 217-pounder, though his below-average speed, range and arm make him a left fielder. He definitely has the bat to profile as not only an everyday player, but also a middle-of-the-order hitter. If not, Conforto wouldn't go nearly as high in the Draft as he will.
Conforto has some of the most interesting bloodlines in the 2014 Draft. His father Mike played linebacker at Penn State, and his mother Tracie (Ruiz) won two gold medals in synchronized swimming at the 1984 Olympics. Michael starred as a quarterback and safety in high school, drawing interest from college football programs, before deciding to focus on baseball with the Beavers.