Next June's draft class does not appear to be as deep as last year's crop. There are fewer blue chip prospects overall and fewer high-ceiling prep pitchers. Or are there?
One thing I have learned in eight years covering the scouting and player development world is that high school players change more between the ages of 16 and 20 than at any other time in their athletics lives. What this could mean is that a second-division talent gets bigger, faster and stronger and hones them into further advanced baseball skills that were not necessarily on display the previous spring or summer.
This is how the class of 2012 could make up some ground on its brethren of previous years, and that burden is likely on the backs of an intriguing crop of prep pitchers. Added velocity, the development of a breaking ball or changeup, significantly improved command or a combination of these attributes can change the profile of a pitching prospect and shoot him up the charts.
Right-handers Lucas Giolito (Harvard-Westlake HS, Calif.), Lucas Sims (Brookwood HS, Ga.) and Lance McCullers, Jr. (Jesuit HS, Fla.) offer big upside and project as first-round selections, but there are several additional prospects that could take a momentous step forward before draft day.
Max Fried, LHP -- Harvard-Westlake (North Hollywood, Calif.)
Fried, who transferred from Montclair Prep (Van Nuys, Calif.) to join forces with Giolito, offers a fastball in the 89-92 mph range and a potentially plus curveball and changeup. He stays over the rubber well and is a good athlete, running sub seven-second 60 times over the summer. He's hit 94 on the gun in the past and his 6-foot-4, 175-pound frame offers plenty of projection to suggest he could sit in the 93-96 mph range down the road. Fried is committed to UCLA, but could perform his way into the Top 10 where the bonus money exceeds $2 million.
Taylore Cherry, RHP -- Butler (Vandalia, Ohio)
Cherry checks in at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds and sits 92-94 mph with his four-seam fastball. The pitch generates sink, as does his plus changeup. He commands his pitches well, including a below-average curveball that tends to flatten out at times. His size may scare off some clubs and it could ultimately dictate his role, but there are no present red flags with his mechanics that would push him to the bullpen. He's committed to North Carolina but there's likely more velocity in the chamber and he may not be able to pass up first-round money.
Walter Weickel, RHP -- Olympia (Orlando, Fla.)
The Orlando product is one of the better athletes in the class, posting times in the 6.6 range in the 60-yard run, in addition to his potential for a top-of-the-rotation arsenal. Weickel pitches at 89-92 mph, but has threatened the mid-90s and with downhill plane. He also employs a below-average change (78-81 mph) and a curveball of varied speeds (69-75 mph) that shows some depth. He offers terrific arm speed which bodes well for the changeup. The University of Miami has received a verbal commitment from Weickel, but he appears to be well on his way to becoming a first-round pick, and a strong spring could land in the top half.
Hunter Virant, LHP -- Camarillo (Camarillo, Calif.)
Virant, like Fried and Giolito, has committed to UCLA but like his potential future college teammates could be a first-round pick come June. The southpaw sits in the 88-91 mph range but has visited the 94 mph neighborhood and offers projectability at 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds. He has a good feel for a mid-70s curveball and turns over a changeup for strikes. There is a bit of concern with his arm action -- it's a bit short -- but it's not likely to impact his future role and if it's mended he could add velocity.
Matt Smoral, LHP -- Solon (Solon, Ohio)
Smoral may be the pitching prospect with the most room to climb up the charts thanks to his 6-foot-8, 230-pound frame and low-90s fastball. Scouts believe there is more in the tank in terms of velocity and he also uses a fringe-average slider and is becoming more comfortable with his changeup. Smoral, a North Carolina commit, isn't likely to see Chapel Hill since left-handers with plus heaters and projectable bodies don't last long in the draft. Smoral could land in the top 10.
Giolito has No. 1 stuff, including a fastball that has touched 97 mph and power curveball. He's big and projectable at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds and has shown an average changeup. The velocity is easy and the delivery is clean. He'a also a UCLA signee, but he could end up as the No. 1 overall pick which means the chances the Bruins get him on campus are somewhere between slim and absolutely not.
Sims, who signed with Clemson, has also touched the mid-90s, but his best pitch may be his 81-83 mph curveball that draws "plus" grades from scouts. He's a first-round talent with a chance at the top 10.
McCullers, the son of former big leaguer Lance McCullers, has hit 99 mph on the radar gun and also offers a hard-breaking curveball with some slider traits. His delivery and lack of a promising third pitch suggest to some talent evaluators that the bullpen is in his future, which very likely keeps him out of the top 10-15 of the draft. He has next spring to change that assessment.
Freddy Avis of Menlo (Palo Alto, Calif.) is also a first-round caliber arm, but his strong commitment to Stanford could prevent a first-round selection. Avis sits in the 90-93 mph range and his smooth and easy delivery bode well for his future. His curveball is among the better offspeed pitches in the prep class and he shows good arm action on a changeup with fading action.
Others: Kayden Porter, RHP (Spanish Fork HS, Utah); Carson Fulmer, RHP (Lakeland HS, Fla.); Tyler Hensly, RHP (Santa Fe HS, Okla.); Cody Poteet, RHP (Christian HS, Calif.); Trevor Megill, RHP (Marina HS, Calif.); Shane Watson, RHP (Lakewood HS, Calif.); Ryan McNeil, RHP (Nipomo HS, Calif.); Felipe Perez, RHP (Fairmont Prep, Calif.); Michael Rucker, RHP (Auburn-Riverside HS, Wash.); Ryan Burr, RHP (Highlands Ranch HS, Colo.).
Jason A. Churchill covers scouting, player development and the MLB Draft for ESPN Insider, as well as Prospect Insider where he's the founder and executive editor. He's served in similar roles for numerous publications since 2003, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. You can find Jason's ESPN archives here and follow him on Twitter here.