The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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May 26, 2014

Thoma column: Feeling a draft: Velocity, elbows and a shortstop

Baseball’s entry draft is coming up, and the heat is on.

Heat as in velocity. Heat as in pressure.

Amateur pitchers — at least the upper-echelon guys — are posting radar-gun numbers unseen in previous years. They are also undergoing Tommy John surgery at frightening rates.

The two trends are related. The chronic issue of high school and college coaches overtasking immature arms (a prep pitcher in Washington state threw 194 pitches in an extra-inning tournament game a couple weeks ago) has combined with those immature arms heaving baseballs at excessive speeds to create a wave of significant injuries.

Baseball America this month listed 25 high school pitchers known to have hit 95 mph or higher this spring, led by Texas righty Tyler Kolek, who has repeatedly topped 100 mph and reportedly has thrown a 97-mph heater as his first warmup pitch.

No high school right-hander has ever been the first overall pick in the draft, but no amateur pitcher in the draft era — not even Nolan Ryan, who was part of the first draft field in 1965 — has shown Kolek’s speed.

Scouting directors are confronted with this irony: The very velocity that makes these pitchers so attractive also means that they are, almost universally, already physically compromised. What can they do?

Pick and pray, for the most part — and hustle those arms to the majors so the team (and the player) gets something out of the investment before the elbow (or worse, the shoulder) gives way.

The Twins may dodge that issue this year. Several prominent mock drafts out in recent weeks (from Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law and MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis) all agreed that the Twins would take high school shortstop Nick Gordon with the fifth overall pick.

But late last week a pair of those mock drafters broke that pattern and had Kolek going to the Twins. Most of the informed mocks had projected Kolek going in the top three picks.

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