On Wednesday, for the first time this spring, Brady Aiken looked merely mortal at times. The left-hander from San Diego's Central Cathedral High School gave up four runs, doubling his total from his previous five starts, and couldn't hold a 5-0 lead as Granite Hills (El Cajon, Calif.) rallied for a 6-5 victory on a walk-off error.
Evaluators from the eight teams at the top of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft were on hand, including Astros scouting director Mike Elias, whose club owns the top selection. Though on paper it may have been Aiken's least-dominant performance of the year, he did nothing to damage his standing as a potential No. 1 overall pick.
"Aiken is really good," a national crosschecker said. "His curveball looks like a fastball coming [to] the plate, and then it just dives. It's a tremendous pitch. His fastball was 92-94 mph for the first three or four innings, and he pitched right at 90 in the fifth."
Though Granite Hills took some quality swings against Aiken, his defense did him no favors by committing five errors. Only one of the runs he allowed was earned, and while he surrendered three hits and a season-high two walks, he also struck out 11 of the 23 batters he faced in 4 2/3 innings.
A 6-foot-4, 205-pounder, Aiken entered 2014 as a possible top-10 choice with the upside of a lefty who could develop three above-average pitches. He's well on his way to doing that, as he has added velocity to a previously average fastball that now tops out at 97 mph and features good life while also showing more depth and power to his curveball. Aiken's circle changeup is deceptive and has some tumbling action.
Besides pure stuff, Aiken also has advanced command for a high school pitcher and wows scouts with his makeup. The UCLA recruit led Team USA to the championship at the 18-and-under World Cup in Taiwan last September, beating Japan in the gold medal game by allowing one run and fanning 10 in seven innings. So it's no surprise that Aiken has held up well under the increase scrutiny he has faced this spring.
"There's a ton of pressure on him, and he goes out and performs every time he pitches," the crosschecker said. "He stands up well to it. He's a real focused kid, a real good competitor. He didn't let anybody down Wednesday. A high school left-hander with two plus pitches and the ability to control them, that's a pretty good start."
Pentecost best true catcher in 2014 Draft class
Rancho Bernardo (Calif.) High School catcher Alex Jackson projects to be the first position player drafted in June, and perhaps the only one taken in the first eight to 10 picks. Indiana backstop Kyle Schwarber will be one of the first college bats taken, likely going off the board in the 11-20 range.
Jackson's bat is so enticing, however, that the club that selects him may move him to right field to expedite his development, just as the Nationals did with Bryce Harper and the Royals did with Wil Myers. Many scouts believe Schwarber will eventually wind up in left field.
That leaves Kennesaw State's Max Pentecost as the top prospect in the 2014 Draft who's a sure bet to stay behind the plate. He figures to go in the second half of the first round, and he could challenge Chad Jenkins (No. 20 overall to the Blue Jays in 2009) as the highest pick in school history.
"The best true catcher is probably Pentecost," a club executive said. "He's going in the first round for sure. He doesn't have a lot of power, it's more alley and extra-base hits than pure power, but he's a good hitter, a good athlete and he can run. He can throw and he will get better as a receiver. I think it's a solid overall player at a tough position to find."
Though Pentecost needed surgery for a stress fracture in his throwing arm as a Winder-Barrow High (Winder, Ga.) senior, the Rangers nearly signed him as a seventh-round pick in 2011. He turned in solid freshman and sophomore seasons for Kennesaw State, but he didn't truly break out until he arrived in the Cape Cod League last summer.
Pentecost won MVP Award honors in the premier summer college circuit, leading the Cape with a .962 OPS. He has continued to excel this spring, batting .382/.440/.571 with five homers and 11 steals in his first 40 games while throwing out 33 percent of would-be basestealers.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Pentecost may not have a true plus tool, but he also doesn't have a glaring weakness either. A right-handed hitter, he has bat speed and controls the strike zone. While Pentecost's hitting skills stand out more than his pure power, he did hit six homers on the Cape while using a wood bat.
Extremely athletic for a catcher, Pentecost is an average runner and moves very well behind the plate. His arm strength is solid and he continues to improve as a receiver.
Connaughton a two-sport talent at Notre Dame
In 2006, Notre Dame had the top collegiate two-sport prospect in the First-Year Player Draft in wide receiver/right-hander Jeff Samardzija. He lasted until the fifth round of the Draft because of signability questions, but turned pro with the Cubs for $250,000 that June and landed a $10 million big league contract seven months later after playing one more season of football for the Fighting Irish.
Eight years later, Notre Dame again has the top two-sport college talent in the Draft. A three-year starter as a guard/forward for the basketball team, Pat Connaughton ranked second on the Irish in scoring (13.8 per game), rebounding (7.1) and assists (3.0) in 2013-14. Yet his future is brighter as a right-handed pitcher.
The Padres took a flier on Connaughton in the 38th round in 2011, but the St. John's Prep (Danvers, Mass.) product opted to play two sports in college. NCAA rules would permit him to play professional baseball while returning to Notre Dame for his senior basketball season.
Connaughton puts his 6-foot-5, 214-pound build to good use on the mound, creating an angle and plane that make his pitches more difficult to hit. The leverage in his frame helps him deliver fastballs up to 95 mph, and his athleticism endears him to scouts. Connaughton's upside could make him a top-three-rounds pick, though he didn't pitch like one in his first four starts this season.
Connaughton's late arrival from basketball and terrible weather were legitimate excuses, but it was still hard to reconcile his upside with his 6.89 ERA, 11-18 K-BB ratio and .349 opponent batting average in 15 2/3 innings. He took a huge positive step forward last weekend, when he beat Boston College with a complete-game six-hitter. Connaughton fanned six and walked only one while delivering 75 of his 116 pitches for strikes.
"Last Saturday, he was up to 94 mph, pitched at 92-93, spun some better breaking balls and threw more strikes," an area scout said. "He's intriguing because of the makeup and the athleticism and the velocity. He needs a better breaking ball, but I could see him in the first three or four rounds if he continues to perform."
Connaughton should draw plenty of high-level scouting officials to his next start. Notre Dame scheduled its weekend series against Miami around Good Friday, so he'll take the mound on Monday -- the hardest day of the week to find quality players to evaluate. Another strong outing would go a long way toward pushing Connaughton up Draft boards.