The inaugural Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge in Arizona was the college tournament destination of the weekend. Indiana and Oregon State were two of the six teams on stage at Surprise Stadium (the Spring Training home of the Rangers and Royals) and Goodyear Ballpark (the Cactus League base of the Indians and Reds), giving scouts a chance to see three of the better college hitters in this year's Draft in good weather.
Beavers outfielders Michael Conforto and Dylan Davis never really got untracked, combining to go 4-for-20, though Davis did homer against Michigan State. Neither made as strong an impression as Hoosiers catcher Kyle Schwarber, who could be the best all-around college bat available.
Schwarber opened the tournament by going 4-for-5 with a triple and a homer against Washington. Though he cooled off, going 1-for-7 in a 15-inning loss to Utah and 1-for-4 against Oregon State, he continued to barrel the ball from the left side of the plate.
"No question, he was definitely the best bat in the tournament," an area scout said. "He swung the bat well. I know he went 1-for-7, but he made hard contact all week, hit a monster home run and also hit a triple that kept going and going. Ten of us got him as an average runner down the line on one play, too."
There are no questions about Schwarber's bat, but many about his eventual defensive home. Though he has some arm strength and moves well for a 6-foot, 240-pound player, his throwing and receiving are very much works in progress. Schwarber caught all 24 innings in the first two games and erased two of four basestealers, then played left field on Sunday.
"He was a better catcher than I've ever seen him," the scout said. "He didn't box any balls, and nobody ran on him. I wouldn't say he looked great, but he looked really good. Will he stay there? I don't know."
Virginia studs show out vs. Hoffman
February scouting opportunities don't get much better than the one that presented itself Friday afternoon in Charlottesville, Va.
East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman, the No. 2 prospect on MLBPipeline.com's First-Year Player Draft board, took the mound against what is likely the best lineup he'll face all season. Ranked No. 1 in Baseball America's Top 25, Virginia has a potential 2014 first-rounder (left fielder Derek Fisher) and three more position players (second baseman Branden Cogswell, center fielder Brandon Downes, first baseman Mike Papi) who could go in the top five rounds. As a bonus, the temperature was 60 degrees when the game started at 3 p.m.
Hoffman recorded a quality start but also took a 3-2 loss. He struck out six in 6 2/3 innings, giving up all three runs on five hits and three walks. Hoffman threw 61 of his 107 pitches for strikes, and one scouting director in attendance described the outing as good but not great.
"About 60 percent of his pitches were really good, but 40 percent weren't," the director said. "The 40 percent that weren't got hit. Certain guys, when they're throwing 95-98 mph, they make a mistake and it gets fouled back or hit weakly. It seemed like when he missed at 95-96, they squared it up."
Hoffman's fastball ranged from 92-97 mph against the Cavaliers, and he did a good job of maintaining his velocity deep into the game. His improved changeup was his best secondary pitch, just as it was in his season-opening outing against James Madison the week before. Hoffman's breaking ball had its moments, particularly when the 6-foot-4, 192-pounder stayed on top of it and threw a true curveball.
The scouting director said at times Hoffman showed three different pitches that would grade as 65s, or well above average, on the 20-80 scouting scale.
"He flashed a 65-70 fastball, the changeup was really good and the curveball was good," the director said. "The changeup was outstanding, the best I've ever seen it. He threw a curveball and a slider. The slider was bad, but the curveball at times was pretty good, and others times it was a little spinner."
While Hoffman didn't hurt his standing at all, the player who helped his stock the most was Downes. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder homered twice against Hoffman, turning on a mid-90s fastball in the second inning and punishing a changeup in the sixth.
"I'll tell you what, Downes could go in the second round," the scouting director said. "For me, the value of what you're going to have to pay Fisher to get him versus the value for what you're going to have to pay Downes to get him, it's better with Downes. I expected to walk in there and like Fisher a lot more than Downes.
"Downes has good instincts in center field, and he's a tick above-average runner. He hit two homers against a kid in the mid-90s. From a pure hitting aspect and swing path, Fisher's bat is probably a little better, but I haven't seen Downes as much. Downes is good enough to hit and have a little more juice and defensively play center field."
Fisher went 0-for-4, but he surprised scouts by displaying above-average speed, recording 4.0-second times from the left side of the plate to first base. Papi drove in Virginia's other run with an opposite-field double in the third. Scouts who struck around until the end of the game saw another Cavaliers early-round prospect, as right-hander Nick Howard worked a perfect ninth inning at 92-95 mph to earn the save.
Kolek throws serious heat in first start
No 2014 First-Year Player Draft prospect throws as hard as consistently as Shepherd (Texas) High's Tyler Kolek. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound right-hander missed most of his junior season after breaking his left arm playing first base, but he announced his return last summer by reaching 99 mph during an Area Code Games tryout. Kolek worked in the mid-90s on the showcase circuit and hit triple digits during scrimmages earlier this month.
Kolek, No. 4 on the MLBPipeline.com Top 50, was supposed to make his first official start last week, but he missed it when he came down with strep throat. His debut then was slated for Tuesday, but a forecast for rain led Shepherd to move its game against Lumberton (Texas) to Monday evening. That left scouts scrambling to see Kolek in action, and about 30 made it to the game.
As expected, Kolek's fastball was lights out -- and so was the game. When a girls track meet ended after the fourth inning, someone shut off the lights at not just the track but also the baseball field, causing a 20-minute delay.
Kolek opened the game with a 97-mph fastball that hit the backstop, and he threw 97 mph again in the sixth. He did tire toward the end, bottoming out at 90 mph, though scouts thought his breaking ball was a little better after the unexpected delay.
Kolek didn't allow a hit in six innings, striking out 11 with one walk and two hit batters. His brother Stephen, a junior who already reaches the low 90s, closed out the 3-0 win with a scoreless seventh inning.
The knock on Kolek is that he's still figuring out how to harness his premium stuff. That was the case on Monday.
"His velocity was fine, 92-98 mph for the four innings I saw, but the command was spotty," an area scout said. "Obviously, you don't find a big body throwing like that too often, but if I were picking up near the top, I'd be concerned about whether he's going to throw enough strikes. At this level, no one is going to be able to hit that fastball.
"He threw a few sliders at 84-85, a few curveballs at 79-80 and a few changeups. I [clocked] the changeup at 91. None of those pitches, I'd call plus. The curveball had better shape than the slider, which looks more like a cutter. But I'm not sure he threw any of those offspeed pitches for strikes."
No touching LSU right-hander Nola
Right-hander Aaron Nola finished 2013 on a roll, pitching Louisiana State to the College World Series and ending his sophomore season without giving up an earned run in his final 26 2/3 innings. He has extended that streak to 40 2/3 innings after a pair of scoreless seven-inning starts this year, further establishing his reputation as the most refined college pitching prospect in this year's Draft.
Nola dominated Virginia Tech on Friday, requiring just 87 pitches to cruise through seven hitless innings in a 9-0 victory. He threw 55 strikes, fanned eight and allowed just two baserunners, one on an error and one on a walk. No LSU pitcher ever has thrown a nine-inning no-hitter, but Tigers coach Paul Mainieri told reporters after the game that he wasn't going to let Nola work more than seven innings this early in the season.
Nola isn't physically imposing at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, and he doesn't light up radar guns. He operated at 90-93 mph against the Hokies, typical velocity for him. Nola's fastball plays up, however, because he locates it so well and gets a ton of sink by throwing from a low three-quarters angle.
Some scouts don't love Nola's delivery, which features a high elbow in the back and comes around into a low slot. But it works for him, giving him life and deception on his pitches without costing him command. Nola also has one of the better changeups in the Draft and can throw his breaking ball for strikes, and both offerings worked well against Virginia Tech.
"He's the same as he was last year," a national crosschecker said. "He pitches in the 90-92 range with advanced polish, pitches to both sides of the plate and gets a lot of bad contact. His breaking ball keeps guys honest and I think his changeup will be better in pro ball because he'll use it more often.
"I have a hard time imagining there's a better pitcher out there with a better combination of polish and stuff. I think he'll be a fast mover who gets to the big leagues quick."