There are four right handed prep pitchers who currently seem like they could reasonably end up the Orioles' selection with the third pick of the upcoming amateur draft: Jameson Taillon, Karsten Whitson, Dylan Covey and A.J. Cole. In a year with excellent right handed prep talent, Taillon's is the giant, both literally (6'7", 230 pounds) and figuratively. His upside rivals that of Bryce Harper, and his pricetag will probably be a record for a prep pitcher.
For those reasons, despite the hopes of many Orioles fans, Taillon is no lock for the club, both because he could conceivably end up being selected by Washington or Pittsburgh, or because the O's choose not to spend what it would take on Taillon. But they could still end up selecting a prep righthander for the second consecutive year, choosing Whitson, Covey, or Cole.
Jameson Taillon, The Woodlands HS (Texas): Like I said, Taillon is the clear frontrunner among these three. He's shown a fastball consistently in the mid-90s going up to 98, he's got strong sink, and a curveball that projects as an out pitch. He's still growing, too, having gone from 6'6" to 6'7" in the last year. For his size, his mechanics are considered to be good, and he's a good athlete as well, which may help him stay healthy. He's a Rice commit, which will make him expensive to sign, but it seems unlikely that he will end up going to school unless the team that selects him lowballs him. But he's a sure thing for the top five.
The downside is that it doesn't get much riskier than prep pitching. The first prep pitcher taken in 2008, Ethan Martin, hasn't emerged as a top prospect, for example. The top three prep arms from 2007 were Jarrod Parker, Madison Bumgarner, and Phillipe Aumont. Parker looked extremely promising but is currently sidelined after Tommy John surgery, Bumgarner's velocity has dropped while his secondary offering have stagnated, and Aumont has been shuttled between starting and relief. We have to go back to 2006 and Clayton Kershaw to see a top prep arm who has had unreserved success so far. Of course, the next two prep arms taken, Kasey Kiker and Jeremy Jeffress, haven't been so lucky.
All of these are reasons why the Orioles, even if they get the opportunity, might end up passing on Taillon with the third pick. But the top of the draft board will still be loaded with prep righthanders, like....
Karsten Whitson, Chipley HS (Florida): Whitson's name may not yet be as famous as Taillon's, but he's probably a lock for a top ten selection. Here's what John Sickels recently had to say about Whitson:
Committed to the University of Florida, Whitson has ideal size and some remaining projectability at 6-4, 190 pounds. He has a 90-94 MPH fastball, hitting 95 at times, and an advanced slider for a high school kid. He is polished for his age, throws strikes, and has a good balance of current skill, remaining projection, safety, and risk as high school pitchers go. He is likely go to somewhere in the Top Ten, and certainly won't make it past 15 unless his bonus demands are outrageous.
Whitson has solidified his place as the top prep righty behind Taillon in the draft, and was recently named the fourth best prospect in this year's draft by Baseball America. However, that Whitson is the second-best prep righty in his class doesn't make him just a touch less good than Taillon; there is a significant gap there. However, Whitson offers a nice combination of current stuff, polish, and projectablity, and does so for millions less than Taillon. What Whitson doesn't have is a huge fastball, which some feel is the key in a prep righty. Which might lead the Orioles to instead pursue...
A.J. Cole, Oviedo HS (Florida): Cole's name is a lot more familiar. Cole developed a low-90s fastball two years ago, and because of it has been familiar to draft watchers for a long time. Andy Seiler recently did a smackdown piece between Cole and Whitson, and here's what he had to say about Cole:
Cole has matured, and he's now able to touch 97-98 on the radar gun, but there's still the feeling that his actual pitching skill hasn't developed at the same pace as his pure arm strength has. However, since that feeling isn't necessarily communicated well in the public sphere, Cole continues to be thought of largely as the second-best pitching prospect in the class behind Jameson Taillon... His ceiling is almost certainly higher than Whitson's, and he's been more of a proven product on the prospect scene. However, I just want to say that the highest-rated pitchers in a class years before their draft year aren't necessarily the best pitchers when the draft year comes around.
People are rating Cole all over the place, with some still having him in the top three while for Baseball America he's behind Taillon, Whitson and Covey and not in their top five. This is one where I have a hard time evaluating. Prep pitchers with huge fastballs often don't show tons of pitching skill because they can't be challenged by the hitters they face. But my inclination is to go for the pitcher who has demonstrated skill as long as they still have great stuff. Does the difference in ceiling outweigh the difference in floor? Or do you go another direction entirely, and select...
Dylan Covey, Maranatha HS (California): The knock on Covey is his size - he's not tall enough. At 6'2", 200 pounds, Covey brings two plus pitches to the table - a low 90s fastball and a hammer curve that is Covey's signature pitch. But he lacks the size to project much added velocity to his arsenal. But Covey is a hard worker, his fastball has good movement, and his breaking ball should be a major league out pitch.
Simply put, Covey is my leading candidate for this year's Matt Hobgood; a consensus mid first round pick who most analysts think tops out as a #2 starter who a team like the Orioles could fall in love with and decide to draft earlier than his projected position. Already we can see a bit of a divide in where people see Covey; Baseball America has him fifth on their draft board, while Andy Seiler has him going 18th overall in his latest mock draft. Covey is a long shot for the Orioles at #3, but I wouldn't be too surprised to hear his name start to creep either up or down draft boards over the next month.