Marcus Stroman likes to keep his options open. That's why he decided to attend Duke three years ago instead of signing after he'd been selected in the 18th round of the Draft by the Washington Nationals.
"Ultimately, I wanted to get an education," said Stroman. "My parents have always been big on me achieving in the classroom, and Duke is a great place to do that and develop my baseball career."
Now, with the June 4-6 First-Year Player Draft approaching, Stroman has turned himself into one of the best available pitchers. And, as usual, he has options. Scouts who have tracked his performances over the past three or four years say the right-hander could either start or pitch in relief.
"It's just going to depend on the needs of the organization that drafts him," said Duke pitching coach Sean Snedeker. "I think he could be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter, and I certainly think he's capable of pitching in the late innings. Organizations just have to look past his size."
Stroman does not have a typical pitcher's build. He stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 185 pounds, which has prompted questions about whether he can get outs at the professional level with pitches lacking the steep downward plane that taller pitchers create. Stroman doesn't shy away from the question.
"I can locate with the best of them," he said. "I feel like I can stay in the low-to-mid-90s like anyone who's taller can. My delivery is small and compact and easy to repeat, and I rely on my legs to propel me toward the plate."
Stroman's delivery includes a short-arm motion that makes his fastball sneak up on hitters. Add to that a sharp slider and a circle changeup that has come a long way in the past year and Stroman has three big league-ready pitches. His arsenal is part of the reason several scouts have said he could pitch in the big leagues as soon as this year.
Snedeker, who spent 12 seasons as a pitching coach in the Chicago White Sox organization and a year in the Los Angeles Dodgers system, agreed.
"A lot of high Draft picks will give you plus arm strength, but they lack command," Snedeker said. "Or they might have a plus fastball but have no secondary pitches. Marcus lacks nothing. He commands a plus fastball and has exceptional secondary pitches to go along with it."
And, added Snedeker, Stroman makes adjustments quickly, a prerequisite for any big league pitcher.
"You ask him to change a grip or technique, and he immediately applies it," said Snedeker. "The development of his changeup is a perfect example. We left his grip alone but talked about staying over the pitch longer. He understood it, applied it, and now his changeup is a viable Major League-average pitch."
If Stroman does reach the big leagues this season, most scouts agree it will be as a reliever. That is how Stroman made his name. In the summer of 2010, he was the closer for the Orleans Firebirds in the Cape Cod League, where he was a perfect 11-for-11 in save opportunities and did not allow a run in 27 innings.
"I didn't feel any pressure," said Stroman. "I just went out there and proved I could pitch well against some of the best hitters in the country. And I felt like I've been able to improve from then on."
Closing on the Cape was the first time he had a definite role. He had been a part-time closer, starter and position player in his freshman year at Duke and at Patchogue-Medford High School on Long Island.
"I think having a specific role helped because I fell into a routine and was able to focus on pitching," said Stroman. "I didn't have to worry about playing the field. Every day I went to the ballpark, I knew what my job was."
It was no surprise he had success again this spring. Duke head coach Sean McNally told him not to worry about filling any other role than that of the coveted Friday-night starter. Stroman finished the regular season with a 2.39 ERA and 136 strikeouts and 26 walks in 98 innings.
He said his naturally fading changeup has helped him pile up the strikeouts.
"This year, a point of emphasis was throwing that pitch to get teams off my fastball," he said. "It's been huge, especially against lefties. It forces hitters to stay back and not cheat."
It also fools the unfortunate hitters who decide to sit on the fastball. So now he has three options to get strikeouts. And Stroman likes to have options.
In fact, when asked whether he'd prefer to be a starter or reliever in the pros, Stroman said he'd love to do both.
"But ultimately, my goal is to play in the big leagues, and whatever gets me there I'll do," he said.
The First-Year Player Draft will take place on June 4-6, beginning with the first round and Compensation Round A on Monday, June 4, at 7 p.m. ET. The first night of the event will be broadcast live on MLB Network and streamed live on MLB.com. Rounds 2-40 will also be streamed live on MLB.com, on June 5-6.
MLB.com's coverage, sponsored by CenturyLink, will include Draft Central, the Top 100 Draft Prospects list, Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of Draft-eligible players. You can also keep up to date by following @MLBDraft on Twitter. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.