It only makes sense to start at the top, so let’s get right to it. If you’re confused, check out these rankings from yesterday and things should begin to make a little bit more sense.
At this point, I personally see a clear line of demarcation separating the top four with the rest of the class. We’ll get to the fourth guy in due time, though you might have already guessed that based on the title above. The big three at the top should be no surprise since all have the chance to be above-average hitters at up-the-middle defensive positions. I don’t think there is a bad way to order Ian Happ, Dansby Swanson, and Alex Bregman at this time. You can parse out the numbers, read every scouting report that hits the web, and see them as often as you’d like up close and personal (or on the tube), but ultimately picking a favorite from that trio comes down to personal preference (or bias, if willing to go down that road). The relative merits for each prospect are pretty clear and clean, though, as always, there is some overlap in each guy’s pros and cons. Happ is the tooliest and most physically gifted natural hitter, all of which adds up to giving him the most offensive upside of the three. Swanson is the surest bet to stay at the king of all defensive positions – well, prince might be more accurate since catchers still hold the highest throne* — and should hit enough to give you an above-average regular at shortstop. Bregman is the guy who will not be outworked – I’m always hesitant to cite makeup as a particularly meaningful selling point, but Bregman is a unique case – with the chance to play a really solid second base while consistently ranking in the top five at his position in OBP. The overlap for the three is considerable, as Swanson is plenty toolsy in his own right, Bregman has a well-earned above-average to plus hit tool, and nobody has a bad thing to say about Happ and Swanson’s work ethic, willing acceptance of coaching, and overarching desire to be great. Like all prospects, there are questions that will need surer answers before we start talking top ten lock for any of these players. Happ will have to convince a team he’ll be a trustworthy glove somewhere worthwhile (2B or CF), Swanson has plenty to prove with only one full college season under his belt and even less time actually manning shortstop, and Bregman needs to show that last year’s dip in production was more about bad BABIP luck in a small sample than anything more ominous that could create some doubt about his upside with the stick.
I’ve written and comped both Happ and Bregman already this season. I’ll try not to make a habit of quoting myself, but since Happ is currently in the top spot and I have to imagine that many missed my Cincinnati Bearcats preview published just three days before Christmas…
A switch-hitting Michael Brantley with the chance to stick in the dirt. That’s one of the ways JR OF/2B Ian Happ was described to me recently. I like it. Happ is a really well-rounded player with no tool worse than average who is quick, strong, and athletic. He controls the strike zone well (career 79 BB/67 K), swipes bags at a high success rate (44 SB at 81% success), and has exposure to a variety of different positions on the diamond. That last point is a little bit of a spin job by me, but I think he’s a talented enough player to figure things out defensively at whatever spot his pro teams wishes to play him. That’s the biggest — only? — question surrounding Happ’s game. A guy with the upside to hit .280+ with strong on-base skills, pop to hit double-digit homers regularly (20ish as a ceiling?), and the speed to swipe 25+ bases every season through his prime strikes me as a very valuable offensive player at any position on the diamond. I’d trot him out at second base for as long as possible because I think he’s got the hands, instincts, and athleticism to stay up the middle. If that doesn’t work, my next stop for him would be center. Others think he could work at third, an outfield corner (why there and not center doesn’t make sense to me, but what do I know), or even shortstop if given enough reps. That kind of positional versatility (or uncertainty if you’re the negative sort) brings to mind a fairly obvious comp: Ben Zobrist. Zobrist’s unusual place in today’s game — players capable of playing well at so many different defensive spots are a rarity, plus he’s a really late-bloomer who has exceeded even the loftiest expectations scouts may have once had for him — make him a hard player to comp anybody to, but here we are. Feel free to stick with Brantley as a possible outcome if you find Zobrist objectionable.
As for Bregman, my comp on him was a better pro version of Aaron Hill. That’s potentially a very valuable player. A new one that I’ve heard from somebody smarter than myself in the game since publishing the original piece containing the Hill 2.0 comp is Howie Kendrick. My Swanson comp is the one I have the least amount of confidence in, but I’ll repeat it anyway: the shortstop version of Brett Gardner. Just going off those comparisons alone, it’s pretty obvious why Happ, Swanson, and Bregman are all battling back and forth to be the first position player off the board this June.
One of the best reasons I have for keeping up the site year after year is the enjoyment I get out of building a larger scouting database that allows for player comparisons over the years that highlight individual growth and development. I have the terrible memory of a man twice my age or whatever animal is the opposite of an elephant (a bee hummingbird?), so I often forget that I’ve seen a player before unless I consult my notes first. This upcoming draft will be the seventh I’ve covered with this site, so you’ll forgive me if things start to blend in just a bit by now. This is all a long way of saying that both Bregman and Swanson have been on the radar for years, so it’s worth checking to see what kind of prospects they were once upon a time. Unsurprisingly, the two were ranked very, very closely here as high school seniors. Bregman, the “gifted natural hitter” out of New Mexico who was “talented at all defensive spots” who “wowed me with his hitting ability,” ranked as the 2012 MLB Draft’s 62nd best hitting prospect according to this very site. Swanson, the “good athlete” with “good defensive tools” out of Georgia, ranked 75th. The only HS hitters that fell in between the two of them are familiar names: Bralin Jackson, Ty Moore, Skye Bolt, Brett Phillips, and AJ Simcox. Jackson and Phillips have both flashed ability at the pro level (especially Phillips), and Moore, Bolt, and Simcox all will be in the top ten round mix this summer. The highest ranked hitters before getting to Bregman on that list still in school, by the way: CJ Hinojosa (7), David Thompson (26), Braden Bishop (51), and Rhett Wiseman (55).
(I’m not sure where else to put this in this already too-long missive, but re-reading my notes on Bregman as a high school prospect makes me really want to see him tried at catcher again. I honestly think it could work. It’s doubtful any team would have the guts to take him as high as you’d need to and then risk losing his bat with a position switch, but if he falls to the late first round or beyond then I think the risk/reward of such a move could be worth it. What I wish more than anything would be for LSU to throw him back there for a few games this year, but the odds of that happening are even less than Jonathan Papelbon getting a poem published in the New Yorker. I can’t help but think that Bregman was tried as a catcher sooner rather than later as a college player in an alternate universe somewhere and everything worked out as he became Buster Posey 2.0 and almost all of this post would have been rendered irrelevant as there’d be no doubt that Bregman would be the odds-on favorite to go 1-1 this June…)
Happ is the obvious omission from the high school tangent above. I completely missed on him, a fact that would bother me even if he didn’t play his high school ball just a few short hours across the state of Pennsylvania from where I currently sit. Not happy about being late to a guy in my own backyard, though I take some solace in the fact that there doesn’t appear to be much public evidence of anybody liking him all that much back then. I really like the Brantley comparison and can see the argument for wanting to make him into a next generation model of Ben Zobrist. The Zobrist comp got me thinking, which is always a dangerous thing, so then I began trying to imagine a Cincinnati player who can play multiple positions and all of a sudden these numbers emerged from out of thin air…
.330/.451/.511 – 81 BB/70 K – 45/56 SB – 489 PA
.358/.439/.533 – 80 BB/56 K – 63/74 SB – 831 PA
Top is Happ to date. Bottom is current Pirate and former Bearcat Josh Harrison’s career numbers while at Cincinnati. I chalk the similarities here up more to coincidence than anything, but you have to admit the similarities are striking. Happ is bigger, stronger, faster, and more disciplined as a hitter. His offensive upside is still considerably more impressive than Harrison’s, outstanding 2014 season (which may or may not be an outlier when it’s all said and done) notwithstanding. Defensively, the comparison might have some merit has Harrison has defied the expectations of many by working himself into a solid second/third baseman and a passable corner outfielder. That’s clearly something for the athletic and, in my view, more than capable Happ to aspire towards.
Now for a quick recess that demonstrates why I don’t post nearly as often as I’d like. I tend to think of myself as being a fairly focused individual, but once I get going down a baseball-related rabbit hole there’s really no coming back until I’ve at least fired off an email about my findings to my always patient brother. I wouldn’t say I’m easily distracted, but it all started with Happ, then Harrison, then another Cincinnati great…
.352/.491/.717 – 63 BB/27 K – 285 PA
That’s what Kevin Youkilis did as a junior at Cincinnati in 2000. That June he went UNDRAFTED. It took basically doing the whole thing again (.405/.529/.714 with 59 BB/21 K in 273 PA) to get taken with the 243rd overall pick after his senior year. He got $12,000 to sign. What’s craziest to me is that, bad body and an acknowledgement that less emphasis was placed on plate discipline back then aside, a guy could hit 37 homers in his last two combined years of college and still not crack the top 200 picks. I know the offensive climate was different, both professionally and in college ball, but a guy could be four hundred pounds and hit with the bat wedged in between his legs and I’d still advocate taking him awfully high if he showed power like that. Youkilis hit a homer in every 11.6 at bat those last two years at Cincinnati. That’s positively Ruthian…literally. It’s an apples and oranges comparison, but, as a big leaguer, Ruth hit a home run every 11.76 AB. Mark McGwire is tops on the big league career list at 10.61. That’s wild. Even wilder were McGwire’s junior season numbers at USC. Good gravy. The man hit .387/.488/.871 with 32 home runs in 67 games. He socked a dinger once every 7.8 AB. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Barry Bonds hit .368/.447/.713 with 23 homers in 62 games (10.7 HR/AB) as a junior. Finally, because I’m a native Philadelphian and I couldn’t find Ryan Howard’s college power numbers in my exhaustive three minutes of frantic Google searching, in three years at UCLA, Chase Utley hit .342/.401/.620 with a home run every 14.1 at bat. His junior year was pretty nasty: .382/.430/.689 with 27 BB/35 K (and 10 HBP) and 15/16 SB.
I know I said finally already, but, I’m a native Philadelphia and therefore required to subject myself to one of the city’s all time “what if” scenarios, let’s look at Mr. JD Drew. His junior season…
.455/.599/.961 – 84 BB/37 K – 32/42 SB – 317 PA
That’s a home run every 7.5 at bat. Eric Valent, the guy the Phillies got the next year with the comp pick for not signing Drew, hit .336/.430/.800 (36 BB/37 K) his junior year. That’s 30 homers in 57 games. One home run for every 7.3 at bats. For ERIC VALENT. College baseball used to be so weird.
Last one of these (I think): .463/.555/.879 with 57 BB and 29 K in 317 PA (9.9 AB/HR). That’s Buster Posey’s junior year. As a ridiculously athletic catcher (he played a solid shortstop in the series I saw him as a freshman) with minimal wear and tear on his knees. And Tampa still took Tim Beckham with the first overall pick. Alvarez, Hosmer, and Matusz were all defensible at the time, but Beckham was a reach then that has obviously grown into a massive disaster in hindsightWe know all too well that stats aren’t everything and Alvarez was a hugely hyped (deservedly so) power bat from a scouting standpoint, but his. junior line of .317/.415/.593 with 28 BB/28 K in 195 PA is dwarfed by Posey’s. A little nuts that in that head-to-head comparison there really wasn’t a ton of pro-Posey buzz at the time. Says more about what kind of player people believed Alvarez was going to be than anything else, I think. Wish my site had been around back then so that I could have Posey as the clear number one overall prospect. Alvarez and Posey weren’t the only head-to-head college hitting comparables you could have pointed to that season. Yonder Alonso hit .370/.527/.777 with 76 BB/35 K in 292 AB (8.8 AB/HR). Justin Smoak hit .383/.498/.757 with 57 BB/28 K in 295 PA (10.2 AB/HR). I’d love to watch a 30 for 30 on the 2008 MLB Draft. If they need a tighter focus then they could just keep in on that year’s class of college first basemen. Three in the first thirteen, five in the first eighteen, and six in the first twenty-three: Alonso, Smoak, Wallace, Cooper, Davis, Dykstra.
Last one for real (probably): Anthony Rendon got on base 51% of the time as a college player at Rice. A .510 OBP in 886 PA. Insane. He’s the only player listed to experience life in the BBCOR and bad ball era, and even then it was only for his final season. I’ll repeat: college baseball used to be weird.
* I’m not an endnote guy, but I really wanted to get back to this without further cluttering up what already figured to be a meandering train of thought kind of piece. All things otherwise equal, I think I’d actually argue that a shortstop prospect holds more value than a catching prospect, despite what we know about positional adjustments and scarcity. The logic is fairly straightforward: unless you’re 100% sure the prospect will stick behind the plate, you have to be prepared for a switch to a position that will almost certainly end up on the negative side of the positional adjustment ledger. Most (not all, but most) former catchers move to first base or a corner outfield spot. Most former shortstops, however, move, well, wherever they darn well please. Major League Baseball as we know it is a game of former shortstops. If you’re not able to hack it at short, the first moves are often to other positive value positions such as second base, third base, and center field. Given the choice of two otherwise equally talented big league shortstop and catcher, I’d take the catcher. Given the choice of two otherwise equally talented amateur shortstop and catcher, I’ll roll the dice on the shortstop. Goes back to the personal preference thing I mentioned earlier.