As the Rule IV draft looms ever closer, we have begun to hear names associated with the teams that are focused on them as possible selections in the first round. And more than any other player, the Orioles have been linked to Kevin Gausman, a draft-eligible sophomore from Louisiana State University.
A 6'4" righthander out of Colorado, Gausman has been on the national radar for quite some time due to his prototypical pitcher's frame and his electric fastball, which has hit triple digits at times and sits at 94 with excellent late life. His frame still has room to add strength, and he has the projection to still potentially add velocity. He complements his plus heater with a curveball that has the potential to be major league average and an above average changeup with arm side fade and sink. In the past, Gausman has struggled some with his command, but has shown better polish this season, with a K/BB ratio of 125/24 in 107 2/3 innings in a very competitive SEC.
Compared to the other candidates in the top of the round, Gausman is probably as safe of a pick as anyone but Florida catcher Mike Zunino. He has a long track record of holding the velocity on his plus fastball, setting himself apart from USF's Kyle Zimmer and the life on his fastball and his command of it is superior to that of Stanford's Mark Appel. The knock on Gausman is his mediocre curve, which doesn't have the projection of more than an average pitch and that limits his ceiling to that of a #2 starter. Some believe that Gausman might be better suited to throwing a slider, and the Orioles might very well have him change from a curve to a slider, but having to learn an entirely new breaking ball would certainly slow down Gausman's path to the majors.
The question of Gausman's pro breaking ball is one that divides evaluators, with Keith Law considering him the top pitching prospect in the draft class and others putting him below both Appel and Zimmer. I think that the argument for Gausman over the other two top college righthanders is that he has shown the most consistently excellent fastball of the three, and the second-best changeup, and that those are the two pitches that generally seem to benefit the least from professional instruction. Gausman has a better chance, in my opinion, of developing a better breaking ball than Appel does in gaining movement on his four seamer or Zimmer discovering consistent plus velocity and a plus change.
That said, I do have reservations about Gausman being the Orioles selection. For a college product, he lacks a long track record of polished performance as a draft-eligible sophomore. And the lack of a third above-average pitch or a second truly plus pitch is also not what I what to see in a college arm this high in the draft. In a perfect world where Lucas Giolito is healthy, one of Giolito, Buxton and Appel should be available with the fourth pick, and all of them are higher on my own board than Gausman. I also think very highly of two prep bats that are expected to go in the top ten picks, Albert Almora and Carlos Correa, and personally favor their upside to Gausman's.
That said, should the Orioles select Gausman, it would be a very solid pick, and one that has a decent chance of providing the Orioles with the best pitching prospect of the 2012 class, and a pick that has as little risk of producing a dud as any selection of a pitcher in the draft can. Gausman may not set hearts aflutter like Dylan Bundy, but he'd be the jewel of most farm systems in baseball.