The last several weeks, the Tampa Bay Rays have been primarily connected to two players for their first pick in the 2015 MLB Draft: Missouri State right-hander Jon Harris and Niskayuna High School outfielder Garrett Whitley. There is still a real chance that one of those two players will still be the Rays’ selection, with Harris the more likely choice. However, several sources have Harris being selected before the Rays’ pick, and if that is the case, three more options for them are James Kaprielian, Walker Buehler, and Kyle Funkhouser.
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Keith Law reports that the Rays are looking for an advanced player out of college who would not need much minor league seasoning. As we discussed exactly a week ago, the player they really want is Arkansas outfielder Andrew Benintendi, but if he is off the board as expected, they will likely end up taking a college arm. Harris sounds like their preference as a college pitcher with more promise than most thanks to remaining projection and three secondary pitches (curveball, changeup, and slider) that have flashed plus. Of course, the issue so many times in the draft is that exactly the reasons that make a player stick out to a team are the same reasons why a team a few picks ahead of them decides to take him.
The good news for the Rays, though, is that you can certainly make the argument for James Kaprielian over Harris. Kaprielian, a 6’4″, 200 right-hander out of UCLA, doesn’t quite have Harris’ pure stuff, but he makes up for it with increased polish. It’s really a matter of preference–Kaprielian is a relatively safe bet to be a big league starter and could be ready for the majors by the end of 2017 while Harris has more upside on the one hand, but more risk and likely more development time on the other. The Rays usually take the upside, but they don’t have to every single time.
Kaprielian’s lower upside stems from the fact that his fastball is mostly in 89 to 91 MPH range as a starter and doesn’t have a ton of movement. However, he commands it quite well down in the zone and does a nice job using it to set up his curveball and changeup. The curveball is arguably the best curveball in the draft (or second to Carson Fulmer) because he can use it in every way you could hope for. He can spot it for first-pitch strikes or use it to finish hitters, and he has enough confidence in it than he will throw it when he is behind in the count.
The way Kaprielian uses his curveball sounds a little bit like the way Chris Archer uses his slider, but the more obvious Tampa Bay Rays pitch in his arsenal in his changeup. To be specific, it’s a split-change. Kaprielian has not needed it much so far as his fastball, curveball, and the occasional slider have been enough, but scouts have seen its potential and you know that the Rays will refine it more. Not only is Kaprielian a relatively safe pick, but he also has the type of profile with which we have seen the Rays help pitchers exceed expectations time and again.
Buehler, meanwhile, is a 6’2″, 175 right-hander out of Vanderbilt that throws harder than Kaprielian but hasn’t shown the same level of promise with his secondary pitches. He will hit the mid-90’s more often with his relatively straight fastball and does a nice job repeating his delivery. On the other hand, his command has lapses and he has yet to find a put-away offering between his curveball, slider, and changeup. The breaking balls both get slurvy while he simply hasn’t thrown the changeup enough.
Another factor is that Buehler has missed some time with elbow soreness earlier this year as his motion also comes with some effort. He has been completely healthy for the last couple of months, but it certainly doesn’t help him to have any whiff of an injury on team’s minds. Buehler was considered a top-10 pick at one point and has the intriguing combination of being a relatively sure bet to remain a starter and the velocity to be a frontline pitcher with sufficient work. However, he has enough question marks that Kaprelian is a safer bet to be a number three starter or better.
Finally, we have Louisville right-hander Kyle Funkhouser, who is essentially the next logical step after our progression from Kaprielian to Buehler. He has even better stuff, touching 97 MPH with his fastball to go along with a promising slider, but he drives people crazy with serious command issues and inconsistency with all of his pitches. He was considered a top-5 pick at one point and still may end up being an excellent pitcher, but he comes with as much risk as any player in the draft. He is still interesting and his problems may be overblown, but it sounds like the Rays want a less variable player.
Based on what we know right now, Jon Harris is still the college pitcher than the Tampa bay Rays like the most, but James Kaprelian is an excellent fallback. Either of them would constitute a strong addition to the Rays’ system and help fix their pitching depth problem before too long. It’s great for the Rays to have two starting pitching prospects that interest them significantly, at least one of whom is likely to make it to their selection at 13th overall in the first round.