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2015 MLB Draft Prospects: Tennessee

JR OF Christin Stewart (2015)
JR OF Vincent Jackson (2015)
SR OF Jonathan Youngblood (2015)
JR OF Derek Lance (2015)
JR SS AJ Simcox (2015)
SR C Tyler Schultz (2015)
JR C David Houser (2015)
SR 1B/OF Parker Wormsley (2015)
JR RHP/1B Andrew Lee (2015)
JR LHP Drake Owenby (2015)
JR RHP Steven Kane (2015)
SR RHP Bret Marks (2015)
SR RHP Peter Lenstrohm (2015)
SR RHP Eric Martin (2015)
JR LHP Andy Cox (2015)
SO RHP Kyle Serrano (2016)
SO 1B/C Nathaniel Maggio (2016)
SO RHP Hunter Martin (2016)
SO 3B Jordan Rodgers (2016)
SO 2B/3B Nick Senzel (2016)
FR C Benito Santiago (2016)
FR LHP Zach Warren (2017)
FR SS/2B Brett Langhorne (2017)

Of all the teams profiled so far, none have a 1-2 outfield punch of 2015 draft prospects quite like Tennessee’s duo of JR OFs Christin Stewart and Vincent Jackson. Neither are likely first round prospects, so there are imperfections in their respective games that will be watched closely this spring. Stewart betrayed his patient, pro-ready approach last season in an effort to produce gaudier power numbers. It’s hard to blame him what with power being the most coveted singular tool in baseball these days, but the cost might prove to be greater than what it winds up being worth. On one hand, the change in approach worked as Stewart’s slugging percentage jumped about one hundred points from his freshman season. Unfortunately, the major dip in plate discipline — Stewart’s K/BB almost doubled from his first season to his sophomore year (1.48 to 2.80) — now creates a new question in his game that will need to be answered on the field before June. If all of that sounds overly negative, well, it’s not supposed to. Consider it more of a reality check for a really strong prospect than anything else. I’m still very much a believer in Stewart’s raw power (legitimately plus), hit tool (solidly above-average), and overall approach to hitting, past year production be damned.

South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M haven’t posted 2015 rosters as of this writing, so I can’t say the following with absolute certainty but I’m 99% sure Stewart will finish as the SEC’s top outfield prospect heading into the season. An interesting head-to-head comparison based solely from a scouting standpoint (i.e. ignoring collegiate production to date) in the larger college baseball world would be with Florida State’s DJ Stewart. DJ is ahead, but that’s not a knock on Christin. Another slightly less positive comparison would be to former Volunteer outfielder Kentrail Davis, who has flopped as a pro but still showed enough as a college prospect to go 39th overall in 2009. His wood bat experience has me excited about his upside with the stick, so, at the moment, I’m a believer. He’s pretty good.

The current number two to the top ranked Stewart is Vincent Jackson. Jackson is an outstanding athlete with considerable tools — in particular, his power stacks up quite well with Stewart’s and his plus speed blows him away — who has yet to blow scouts away at Tennessee. Inconsistent performance or not, his size and skill set evoke comparisons to two-time All-Star Alex Rios, a lofty comp at first blush but a little more palatable when you remember Rios’ earliest scouting reports and slow to manifest power as a young professional. Jackson’s blend of size, speed, raw power, athleticism, and defensive upside (above-average arm and range at present) combine to make a pretty enticing prospect. In other words, he’s also pretty good.

Stewart and Jackson are joined in an all-prospect outfield by SR OF Jonathan Youngblood. Youngblood checks off all my boxes in what has become on my favorite draft prospect archetypes, the shockingly raw yet scarily toolsy college outfielder. These are the guys that might as well be high school prospects when it come to the risk/reward calculus that comes into scouting them, to say nothing of the lack of track record that makes no sense from a player that has spent three to four years playing ball after the age of 18. Youngblood is fast (check) and athletic (check) with a strong arm (check) and the natural ability to roam center field (check…in fact, “patrols CF like a veteran” is written explicitly about Youngblood in my notes). He’s also very raw as a hitter with interesting raw power that is still likely a few years and some added muscle (he’s currently listed at 6-3, 185 pounds) away from showing up, if it does so at all (check and check). On top of all, his name is Youngblood. If that’s not the perfect name for our raw yet toolsy college outfield archetype, I’m not sure what is. I guess Jonathan Rawtool would be tough to beat, but Youngblood is a close second.

JR SS AJ Simcox isn’t part of that stacked outfield, but, like Stewart and Jackson before him, he’s pretty good. Though he hasn’t shown the kind of hitting acumen expected of him to date, all those I talked to can’t stop raving about his breakout potential for 2015 and professional upside. His defense is legit — range, hands, and arm are all average or better — and his as yet untapped offensive upside (above-average hit tool, average raw power, above-average speed, decent approach) is enough to give him a real chance to emerge as one of this class’ many shortstops that profile as regular players at the big league level. I write it often, but it bears repeating: I have no allegiance when it comes to college athletics, so I have no reason to prop up any particular program or prospect. Still, I find myself unusually bullish on all of these Volunteers and even I am curious if there’s some unknown reason why. Might as well keep the love-fest going with my appreciation of a pitcher I consider to be one of college baseball’s under-the-radar gems. JR LHP Drake Owenby, the owner of one of the sport’s most difficult to scout fastballs, will need to reign in his serious control issues if he wants to get himself selected in a draft range commiserate with his considerable raw stuff. At his best, he’s got a big league fastball (more on that in a second), a well above-average mid-70s curve that flashes plus, and an underdeveloped but plenty intriguing changeup. His walks have been out of hand to date, but he’s missed bats along the way (8.53 K/9 in 25.1 IP last year) and he’s the kind of athlete you believe will figure out some of his mechanical issues (and corresponding control woes) along the way. As for that aforementioned confounding fastball: at least in my looks, Owenby has added and subtracted from his heater to a degree that I can’t recall an honest to goodness amateur prospect doing so before. My notes have his fastball at literally anywhere between 85-95 (most often 88-92ish, like about 95% of the pitchers I see), and there doesn’t appear to be any external cause (e.g. injury, game situation, weather conditions) for the fluctuations. Owenby is a weird, fun prospect who also just so happens to be, you guessed it, pretty good. JR RHP/1B Andrew Lee has a good arm, lots of size (6-5, 220), and two-way talent. JR RHP Steven Kane, SR RHP Bret Marks, and SR RHP Peter Lenstrohm all feature above-average or better changeups and solid heat (88-92ish range). I don’t know much about JR LHP Andy Cox, but I like what I do know and his 2014 season (8.15 K/9, 3.84 BB/9, and 2.44 ERA in 77.1 IP) portends good things to come.

For as impressive as the Volunteers’ 2015 talent appears, literally all of the conversations I’ve had with those in the know about Tennessee baseball — seriously, every single one — can be summed up with the following phrase: “just you wait.” There is a ton of excitement around the game from otherwise impartial observers about the kind of program that is being built in Knoxville. There are plenty of solid underclassmen to watch like the big (6-5, 250 pound) athletic SO 1B/C Nathaniel Maggio, SO RHP Hunter Martin (nice changeup), FR LHP Zach Warren, and personal favorite SO 2B/3B Nick Senzel. The crown jewel, however, is unquestionably SO RHP Kyle Serrano. I’m fairly certain that this site was the highest on Serrano out there coming out of high school — I should check before making such claims, even when I try to cover myself with the lame “fairly certain” caveat: well, turns out he was 20th here, which was only one spot ahead of where Keith Law him him (so, maybe I wasn’t that much higher on him than everybody…) and a good bit ahead of where he landed at Baseball America (35th) — and nothing he did his freshman season has changed any minds about his long-term upside. His changeup stood out as a potential plus pitch in high school and the pitch remains a high upside offering that flashes plus at present. His velocity has ticked up just a bit (96 peak) and remains more consistently in the low- to mid-90s deeper into starts. The curve, like his changeup, flashes plus at times, and his control, while scary from the outside looking in (more walks than strikeouts this past year), isn’t a major concern going forward. All told, the profile reminds me quite a bit of a young version of Jarrod Parker, the ninth overall pick back in 2007. Sounds like a decent draft/upside parallel to me, but Serrano has two more years to make it a reality. Pretty good chance he does exactly that.

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