N.C. State’s top-rated prospect Rodon looks to shake rough start

N.C. State pitcher Carlos Rodon is likely going to be a top-three pick in June's MLB Draft, but will his struggles this season hurt him long-term?

Baseball has never gotten quite as caught up in the bad stretches of a prospect like some of its counterparts, like, say, basketball and football.

A bad stretch of games from a college football or basketball prospect could be enough to drop them substantially in their drafts. The same doesn’€™t go for baseball. In the other pro sports, those young players are often expected to make much more of an immediate impact — baseball scouts know their respective teams have the luxury of time. Following that line of thinking, N.C. State junior pitcher Carlos Rodon is almost certainly still going to be a top-three pick in this year’s MLB Draft.

At 6-foot-3, 234 pounds, the 21-year-old lefty Rodon has all the makings of a top pitching prospect — his fastball tops out in the mid-90s while his slider is absolutely unhittable, and he’€™s working on adding a changeup and a curve to his repertoire. The slider alone, though, is special enough on its own.

He entered into this season with a 19-3 overall record in his first two seasons and as a favorite to become the draft’s No. 1 overall pick.

But this season hasn’€™t gone exactly as planned.

Rodon has a 2-5 record in eight appearances in 2014. As everyone in baseball knows, a number of factors contribute to a player’€™s overall record — run support and defense, to name a few — but it’s definitely not something Rodon is used to.

He actually has a lower ERA (2.44) than he did last season (2.99), so obviously run support has been a factor. And just a cursory glance at the numbers would indicate as much — in Rodon’€™s five losses, his team has provided a grand total of two runs. Two. In his last 13 starts dating back to last season, he has a 4-6 record and in the six losses (and three no-decisions), N.C. State has scored a total of seven runs.  His team has given him just 28 runs total over that 13-game span. And eight of them came in one game, an 8-1 win over UNC in the College World Series last year.

That’s not going to be enough for almost any pitcher, even Rodon.

Defense has been a factor, too. Of the 30 runs allowed during Rodon’s time on the mound in 2014, just 15 of them have been earned. Those 15 unearned runs equal the total unearned runs the defense allowed in his first two seasons combined.

He’€™s already allowed nearly as many hits this year as he did all of last season, but that was kind of a statistical oddity as he let up just four doubles, no triples and eight home runs. This year, he’€™s allowed seven doubles, one triple and one homer. In his 55 1/3 innings this year, he’s struck out 60 batters. On average, it’s not as dominant as his 184 strikeouts in 132 1/3 innings last season — or 135 strikeouts in 114 2/3 innings as a freshman — but it’s still nothing to sneeze at.

Projecting ahead to the MLB level, if you’€™re a National League team, the fact that Rodon can hit has to be a positive. While coach Elliott Avent wanted to protect his most valuable commodity and he had a total of 29 at-bats in his first two seasons, he promised Rodon he would let him bat when he signed with the Wolfpack, and he has come through on that promise. Rodon has too, hitting .323 this year in 31 plate appearances.

One scout told Sports Illustrated recently that the only real concern right now is Rodon’€™s fastball, which has fallen from the mid-90€™s (occasionally touching the upper 90s) to the low-90™s more often than not. That scout also mentioned Rodon’€™s body of work speaking for itself — which, of course, it does. His numbers so far this season likely aren’€™t enough of a drop-off to mean he’€™ll fall significantly in the draft. Not yet, anyway.

There’s also this to consider: it took Rodon some time to get rolling from a win-loss perspective last season, too.

He started last year with a 3-2 record through mid-April and had allowed 37 hits and 28 earned runs through his first nine starts, striking out 85 while walking 27. Then he won five starts in a row, going 7-1 in his final 10 starts, allowing a total of 16 earned runs and stiking out 99 batters.

Oh, and what’€™s perhaps the most important stat of all of those — certainly to Rodon, as fiery a competitor as you’ll find in college baseball — is that he came through for his team when they needed him the most last year. And even as his team behind him has faltered at times, or failed to provide him much run support, he has seemingly always been able to find an extra gear during the latter half of the season.

For the Wolfpack, a preseason top-five team that has fallen out of the top-25 altogether with a 19-12 record (5-10 in the ACC), it’s now or never if they want to return to the College World Series — and they still have their ace to help make such a run.