Left-hander Jacob Lindgren helped pitch Mississippi State to a College World Series runner-up finish last year as a starter, and he really found his niche this spring as a reliever. He went 6-1 with a 0.81 ERA and three saves in 26 appearances as the Bulldogs reached the NCAA regional finals. Opponents hit just .124 with one extra-base hit and struck out 100 times in 185 at-bats against him.
A finalist for the National College Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Award and for College Baseball Lineup's Gregg Olson Award (breakout player of the year), Lindgren saw his stuff take a step forward in shorter stints. After working with an 87-91 mph fastball as a starter, he operated at 91-95 as a reliever. His slider became nastier as well, a true wipeout pitch with late bite at 82-84 mph.
"He's got two big league pitches right now," said an area scout who monitored Lindgren. "His slider is a plus pitch right now, a 60 or a 65 [on the 20-80 scouting scale]. He's a setup guy who can move quickly. He doesn't have to stay in the Minors for very long at all. If you need a left-hander in the Majors, he could probably help you in September and get outs."
How well Lindgren throws strikes may be the determining factor in how long it takes him to arrive at Yankee Stadium. He walked 25 batters, hit eight others and uncorked 18 wild pitches in 55 1/3 innings this spring. But his to-do list as a professional includes little more than doing a better job of harnessing his stuff.
The easy pick for the quickest 2014 draftee to the Majors is Louisiana State right-hander Aaron Nola, the No. 7 overall pick by the Phillies. He's the most polished starter in this year's Draft and Philadelphia does need rotation help, as Jonathan Mayo details.
But if recent history is any indication, the first 2014 Draft pick to the big leagues will be a reliever on a contending team. That was true in 2010 (Chris Sale with the White Sox that August), 2012 (Paco Rodriguez with the Dodgers that September) and 2013 (Kyle Crockett with the Indians the following May). The only exception in the previous four Drafts came in 2011 (Trevor Bauer, Diamondbacks).
Lindgren is in position to continue the trend. Once he's ready, he'll double the number of reliable left-handers in the Yankees bullpen, which currently has only Matt Thornton from the left side.
If Lindgren or Nola isn't the first big leaguer from this year's Draft, here are five other candidates (listed in the order they were drafted):
Brady Aiken, LHP, Astros (first round, No. 1 overall): A high schooler probably won't beat all the collegians to the Majors, but it's not an impossible task for the top prospect and the top pick in the Draft. Aiken is a polished left-hander who throws three quality pitches for strikes, and he has handled pressure pitching big games for the U.S. national team.
Carlos Rodon, LHP, White Sox (first round, No. 3 overall): He may not have lived up to the great expectations he carried with him into the spring, but Rodon still owns the best pitch, a wicked slider, among this year's draftees. His fastball velocity should tick up once he relies less on his slider, and he still has the look of a front-line starter.
Kyle Schwarber, C-OF, Cubs (first round, No. 4 overall): Though Chicago may have drafted Schwarber earlier then expected to stockpile some cash for some later-round pitchers, he still was the best all-around college hitter available. Assuming that he moves from catcher to left field, his ability to barrel balls, hit for power and control the strike zone should take him through the Minors in a hurry. If he stays behind the plate, he'll obviously need more time to develop.
Kyle Freeland, LHP, Rockies (first round, No. 8 overall): Concerns about Freeland's elbow, related to a medical report from five years ago, affected his stock as the Draft approached, yet outside of Nola no college pitcher dominated as consistently as Freeland this spring. He ranked third in Division I with a 128/12 K/BB ratio, which testifies to his ability to fill the strike zone and generate swings and misses with his heavy fastball and slider.
Nick Burdi, RHP, Twins (second round, No. 46 overall): One of several relievers selected by Minnesota, Burdi lit up radar guns like no other college pitcher in this Draft. He doesn't have the prettiest delivery, but he can hit 100 mph with his fastball and 90 mph with his slider. It won't be long before he's pitching in the late innings for the Twins.