Evansville left-hander Kyle Freeland made waves last summer when he led the Cape Cod League with a 48-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40 innings, and he has picked up right where he left off this season. In his first six starts this spring, Freeland posted a nearly identical 45-to-3 ratio in 40 innings for the Purple Aces.
Ranked No. 24 on MLB.com's Top 50 Draft prospects, Freeland continued his excellent pitching on Friday afternoon, tossing a 15-strikeout complete game at Charlotte. He allowed two runs on four hits and a walk while throwing just 97 pitches.
Freeland attacks hitters with a heavy low-90s fastball, as well as a slider and changeup. His fastball and slider are both above-average offerings, but the key to his success is his plus command and deceptive delivery.
"There's some deception there," one area scout said. "He has a good slider and gets a lot of swings and misses on balls off the plate with it."
Despite his glittering statistics, scouts say Freeland has been somewhat inconsistent this season. Part of that is likely attributable to the poor weather he encounters in Evansville, Ind., and he should be able improve as the conditions improve this spring.
"I still think he's a first-round talent," the scout said. "His last couple starts, he's done very well."
Top Draft prospects to square off in Houston
Entering the season, East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman was on a short list of prospects the Astros were expected to consider with the first pick of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. The club won't have to go far to scout him this weekend, as he starts Friday night against Rice in Houston.
Though Hoffman, ranked No. 2 on MLB.com's Top 50 Draft prospects list, hasn't been as sharp this season as he has been in the past -- especially last summer in the Cape Cod League -- he is still expected to be picked early in the first round. Hoffman's opponent Friday night hopes to join him.
Rice right-hander Zech Lemond was an All-American closer in 2013 and broke the Owls single-season saves record, which had been held by David Aardsma and Tony Cingrani. He opened this season in the same role, but moved to the front of the rotation in early March when right-hander Jordan Stephens underwent Tommy John surgery and was lost for the season.
Lemond has thrived as a starter, posting a 1.23 ERA and 32-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29 1/3 innings. He attacks hitters with a fastball that reaches 95 mph, as well as a power curveball and solid changeup. Though Lemond's still getting used to starting, he said the transition has been relatively easy.
"What I think about when I'm pitching, I just think about going out there to get outs," Lemond said. "It wasn't that big of a jump, except for the higher pitch counts. I still go out there with the same mentality."
This weekend's three-game series is also important for both team's title aspirations in Conference USA. When the two teams met last year in Greenville, N.C., Hoffman struck out nine batters in eight shutout innings, before giving up three unearned runs in the ninth to lose the game. Lemond earned the win in relief and said he remembers that game well.
"He threw a gem, really," Lemond said. "He's a good pitcher, obviously. He's been dominant when I've seen him.
"If we can win on Friday, we'll have the momentum going into the rest of the series."
This year's meeting is likely to be well attended by scouts, cross checkers and executives. That will give Lemond an opportunity to make a strong impression as he attempts to climb Draft boards into the first round.
"I'm trying to go on the first day [of the Draft], just like everyone else in the country," Lemond said. "Just keep working, keep pushing, so I can do as well as I can."
Oklahoma high school powers to play this weekend
Two of Oklahoma's premier high school programs will meet this weekend when Owasso and Jenks play a home-and-home series, beginning Friday at Jenks at 7 p.m., and continuing Saturday at Owasso at 7 p.m. Owasso is the defending state champion and Jenks enters the weekend undefeated and ranked No. 8 in the country in the latest Baseball America Top 25.
The two schools are also known for producing professional prospects. Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy and Cardinals infielder Pete Kozma both graduated from Owasso, while Padres right-hander Josh Johnson is a Jenks alumnus. The two schools produced three players selected in last year's First-Year Player Draft, led by Jenks third baseman Trey Michalczewski, whom the White Sox picked in the third round.
There will once again be plenty of talent on the field this weekend. The two teams have a combined seven seniors who are committed to Division I schools, including all four starting pitchers. Owasso will start right-hander Braden Webb (South Carolina) and left-hander Jeb Bargfeldt (Wichita State). Jenks will counter with right-handers Cale Tims (Oral Roberts) and Allan Beer (Bradley). The other players headed to Division I next fall are Jenks right-hander Bryce Ward (Kansas State) and outfielder Cadon Owens (Oral Roberts), as well as Owasso first baseman Mason O'Brien. The Oklahoma State recruit won't be in action, however, as he continues to recover from a torn left ACL he suffered in February.
Scouts consider Webb to be the best prospect of the bunch. His fastball has reached 93 mph this spring and his curveball and changeup both show promise. Webb has the kind of strong, projectable frame scouts look for in high school pitchers. He began the season in peak form, throwing no-hitters in his first two starts.