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2018 MLB Draft: Five pitchers to watch

In a pitching-heavy draft, these five starters are primed to be taken during the early part of the first round.

2017 Division I Men's College World Series - LSU v Florida - Game 1 Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

While there have been plenty of position players since the turn of the decade who have been taken early in the draft and quickly turned into impactful major-leaguers, talented starting pitchers are still very highly-valued at the top of the draft, whether they’re high-schoolers with sky-high ceilings or polished college arms who can skyrocket through the minors and contribute in the majors quickly. This draft seems to be particularly deep on talented pitchers, so let’s take a look at five who figure to be taken early in the first round:

Casey Mize, RHP, Auburn

The 21-year-old Mize is the overwhelming favorite to be taken by the Tigers with the first-overall pick, currently being projected there by ESPN, MLB.com, and Baseball America. He’s thrived since his freshman year at Auburn and has posted a solid 2.94 ERA with an 0.79 WHIP and 133 strikeouts over 95 innings this season. He has a tall, sturdy frame and casts an imposing presence on the mound, much like Justin Verlander; Mize is listed at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds but even looks a little bit bigger than that.

Mize, who has a smooth, polished delivery, possesses an impressive repertoire, throwing a mid-90s fastball, low-to-mid-80s slider, and a cutter and splitter that both clock in the mid-to-high 80s. Though he’s done a good job of keeping runners off the bases, he needs to do a better job of limiting hard contact, as he’s allowed nine home runs this season. Among the pitchers at the top of the draft class, he certainly seems to be the closest to being a finished product.

Matthew Liberatore, LHP, Mountain Ridge High School, Peoria, Arizona

Nearly all prep pitchers need several years of minor-league seasoning, but Liberatore — a 6-foot-5, 200-pound 18-year-old — looks to be the most polished high-school pitcher in the draft. He has a tall frame and is still kind of lanky, but it’s safe to assume he’ll grow into his body and add strength and velocity in the coming years.

He’s occasionally touched the mid-to-high 90s with his fastball but usually works in the low 90s, also mixing in a low-70s curveball and low-80s changeup. He’s been working on a slider and has displayed above-average command. The big lefty has a quick, powerful delivery with a three-quarters release that doesn’t look like it’ll need to be tweaked much, if at all. Because of his handedness, size, lack of spectacular velocity, and unusually polished command, it’s easy to see Liberatore developing into a Madison Bumgarner-like pitcher that reaches the majors quickly despite turning pro straight out of high school. He appears to be a bit polarizing among evaluators but is likely to be selected within the top 10.

Brady Singer, RHP, Florida

The 21-year-old Singer comes from a Florida baseball program that perennially produces first-round pitchers, and the fact that he has a 6-foot-5 frame with room for more growth only enhances his value. Though he struggled a bit out of the gates, Singer has enjoyed a very good junior season at Florida, posting a 10-1 record with a 2.25 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP and 92 strikeouts over 88 innings.

Singer has a solid arsenal of pitches, throwing a mid-90s fastball, a mid-80s change, and a low-80s slider. His command is by no means terrible, but he could do a better job locating his fastball.

Singer certainly doesn’t have a generic persona on the mound; he has an unusual delivery during which he starts by stepping backward with his front foot, and he throws with a nearly-sidearm motion. He’s slightly hunched over when he pitches out of the stretch. It’ll be interesting to see if his mechanics need to be adjusted after he turns pro, but the physical skills are all there, so while Singer might require a bit more minor-league seasoning than a typical early-first-round college starter, he still figures to be taken somewhere in the top 10.

Carter Stewart, RHP, Eau Gallie High School, Melbourne, Florida

Quite a few evaluators consider the 6-foot-6, 200-pound Stewart to be the top high-school pitcher in the draft. While he obviously hasn’t reached his full potential yet, there’s certainly some hope that he can eventually turn into a Noah Syndergaard or Justin Verlander-type flamethrower, as he consistently sits in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball and has gotten up to 98 MPH at just 18 years old. He’s also got a nasty high-70s curveball, though he has yet to develop an effective third pitch — a task that will be crucial if he’s eventually going to develop into a dominant major-league starter.

Stewart has a smooth delivery with a big leg kick but awkward arm action that will probably need to be tweaked after he turns pro. It seems to be a near-guarantee that he’ll go in the top 10, and he’s got a decent chance to go within the top five.

Shane McClanahan, LHP, South Florida

McClanahan is pretty clearly the biggest enigma among this group. He’s only in his second collegiate season after sitting out his true freshman year due to Tommy John surgery, and while he’s done a great job of striking hitters out — he’s got 215 punchouts in 142.1 college innings — he hasn’t really been dominant, posting a 3.20 ERA and 1.11 WHIP as a redshirt freshman, then a 3.53 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over 12 starts so far this year.

Especially because he’s a lefty with a smooth delivery, scouts appear to be very attracted to McClanahan’s elite fastball velocity; he consistently throws in the high 90s and has touched 100 MPH. The 21-year-old also throws an above-average changeup and can mix in a slider to keep hitters guessing.

While he can light up a radar gun, McClanahan has some fairly obvious weaknesses. At 6-foot-2 and a slender 188 pounds, durability could be an issue for the lefty, especially when he relies so heavily on velocity. His command is also a major question mark. He’s walked 39 hitters in 66.1 innings this season, and he doesn’t really locate his fastball well. It seems as if he might need to find a more consistent release point.

While his left-handedness and elite velocity are unbelievably intriguing, the uncertainty surrounding McClanahan is likely to push him to the back end of the top 10 or into the teens.