Strasburg one of several coveted college pitchers

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories on players who scouts say could be selected in the first round of the first-year player draft on Tuesday.

Stephen Strasburg, you’ve heard about. Kyle Heckathorn and Chad Jenkins, probably not so much. Strasburg displayed a 100-plus mph fastball, devastating slider and impeccable control for San Diego State, making him the top prospect and certain first pick in the draft. Heckathorn and Jenkins are the best pitchers at Kennesaw State, an obscure Georgia university tied to major league baseball only because it is near Kennesaw Mountain, where a Union army physician named Abraham Landis nearly lost a leg during the Civil War. Landis named his son Kenesaw Mountain (spelling apparently wasn’t a med school requirement) and the lad grew up to become a judge and the first commissioner of baseball, famous mostly for meting out lifetime bans to the Chicago White Sox players who fixed the 1919 World Series.

So, with that, we meet the college pitchers whose name recognition will increase dramatically because they will be selected in the first round or shortly thereafter. College pitching is the strength of the 2009 draft, with a dozen or so expected to be taken in the first round. And, yes, Heckathorn and Jenkins, the double-barreled pride of Kennesaw State, should be among them.

Stephen Strasburg, RH, San Diego State: The Washington Nationals will make Strasburg the first pick unless the pitcher’s advisor, Scott Boras, has scared them off with an absolutely ridiculous contract demand. The pick will be announced at the new studio in New Jersey and in prime time, the latest developments in an ongoing attempt to make the event as enticing to fans as its NBA and NFL counterparts. Strasburg, however, will be clear across the country, holding a news conference at Boras’ Newport Beach, Calif., office a couple hours after the pick is made.

Aaron Crow, RH, Fort Worth Cats/Missouri: Crow was the Nationals’ top pick last season, going No. 9 overall, but they couldn’t agree to terms by the Aug. 15 deadline, Crow demanding $4 million and the Nationals offering $3.3 million. After a year of working out and making three one-inning appearances for the independent Fort Worth Cats, he’s considered the pitcher closest to reaching the big leagues besides Strasburg. He twists his wrist in an odd manner when drawing his arm back to throw, but so did Rick Sutcliffe and Don Drysdale. Scouts compare his stuff to that of A.J. Burnett(notes). Crow isn’t likely to last beyond Baltimore’s No. 5 pick, and could go as high as Seattle’s No. 2.

Mike Minor, LH, Vanderbilt: Another pitcher scouts say might be only a year away from pitching in the big leagues, Minor is a classic crafty left-hander, upsetting hitters’ timing by adroitly changing speeds. Nicknamed Spike, Minor’s stock dipped slightly when SEC rivals Mississippi and South Carolina shelled him late in the season. Some scouts wonder if he’s as good as he’s ever going to be. But that’s not bad, and he’s considered a safe bet to become a big league starter by 2011.

Alex White, RH, North Carolina: It wouldn’t seem like a start or two near the end of a glowing college career could make much difference in how scouts perceive a pitcher, but that might be the case with White. Good thing he followed rocky outings in the ACC tournament and NCAA regionals with an outstanding effort Saturday in the super regionals, allowing East Carolina one run in 8 1/3 innings while striking out 12. White’s command could stand improvement but his fastball and slider are big-league quality.

Tanner Scheppers, RH, St. Paul Saints/Fresno State: A shoulder injury that remains a bit mysterious caused Scheppers to miss Fresno State’s run to the College World Series title last year and dropped him in the draft to the second round, where the Pittsburgh Pirates took him but couldn’t sign him. Scheppers has thrown well in workouts and for the independent St. Paul Saints, touching 95 mph, but lingering health questions have kept some clubs from considering him. It only takes one to pick him, though, and if he lasts until the middle of the first round, the team that grabs him will consider it a steal.

Chad Jenkins, RH, Kennesaw State: A burly 6-4, 225-pounder who projects as an innings-eater for years to come, Jenkins has shot up draft boards, surpassing his teammate Heckathorn and into the middle of the first round. His fastball and slider are excellent pitches, but it’s his quality changeup that has sold several scouts on his ability to quickly become a major league pitcher. He could end up as Strasburg’s teammate because the Nationals are considering taking him with the 10th overall pick, which they received as compensation for failing to sign Crow.

Kyle Heckathorn, RH, Kennesaw State: With Jenkins and Heckathorn starting 26 games, it’s unfortunate the duo can’t be in a super regional because of Kennesaw’s transition to Division I. Scouts, of course, couldn’t care less. At 6-6, 245 pounds with a fiery disposition, Heckathorn is a fearsome presence on the mound. His 93 mph fastball is a tad straight, however, and he occasionally has inexplicably been knocked around by inferior opponents. Could break into the big leagues as a set-up reliever and eventually become a closer.

Mike Leake, RH, Arizona State: All the stats indicate a top-five pick except one. Height: 5-foot-11. A team that can get beyond that number will love these: Led the nation with a 1.23 ERA and .169 batting average against. Second to Strasburg in strikeouts. Leake has exceptional command of four pitches – including a devastating changeup – and tremendous poise. The Diamondbacks are expected to take him if he lasts until their back-to-back picks at 16 and 17.

Rex Brothers, LH, Lipscomb College: Here is the live arm scouts love. Brothers boasts a dynamic four-seam fastball and a hard breaking ball, and as his command has improved, so has his stature. He could reach the big leagues as a situational reliever within a year or as a starter in perhaps two, once he masters a changeup.

Eric Arnett, RH, Indiana: Scouts love to compare prospects to established major leaguers, and Arnett’s 6-5 stature and sinking fastball evoke names such as Derek Lowe(notes) and Josh Johnson(notes). That’s been enough to push Arnett into the middle of the first round, even though he was relatively unknown before enjoying a breakout junior season at Indiana.

Drew Storen, RH, Stanford: A draft-eligible sophomore because he’s 21, Storen could be in the big leagues by September. Reason? His light workload as a closer, coupled with his maturity, could prompt the team that signs him to put him on the fast track. Storen attacks batters with a mid-90s fastball and a hellacious curve. His outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio notwithstanding, Storen occasionally battles command issues. But he’s a low-risk pick who will soon be in a major league bullpen. And if he doesn’t make it in baseball, he can always fall back on his Stanford education in mechanical engineering.

James Paxton, LH, Kentucky: Another hard thrower whose draft value has spiked in recent weeks. Paxton complements his 95 mph fastball with a hard slider with a tight break. Areas that need improvement are similar to so many prospects: Develop a changeup, clean up his arm action and hone his command. Paxton is represented by Boras, so some teams might shy away if they don’t want to pay over slot.

Kyle Gibson, RH, Missouri: This could be Tanner Scheppers, circa 2009. Gibson, a 6-foot-6 hard thrower, was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right forearm a few days ago and will be out several weeks. That would explain why his fastball dropped from the low 90s to the low 80s in his last two starts. Before the injury, many scouts considered Gibson second behind only Strasburg among college arms. Now teams must hastily evaluate his injury, recovery time and evaluate how it bodes for the future. He could sign for significantly less money than he would have gotten before the injury, or sit out a year and go the independent team route.

Andy Oliver, LH, Oklahoma State: OK, so here is a name that might ring a bell to the casual fan. Oliver made headlines when he was suspended by the NCAA for supposedly hiring an agent. He took the case to court, won, and the NCAA reversed its decision just before the season started. Oliver, projected as an early first-rounder after an outstanding 2008 season, saw his performance slip this spring. The biggest knock on him is that he’s never developed a breaking pitch, relying on a mid-90s fastball and decent changeup. But his strong build, solid track record and live arm could make him a low first-round pick.

Steve Henson is a Senior Writer and Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Sunday, Jun 7, 2009