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2016 MLB Draft – SEC Hitting 2.0

There are a lot of prospects in the SEC. Let’s spend 4,000 words talking about them. For more on some of the top outfielders, go here. For the complete list of 2016 SEC hitting prospects, go here. And for a little more detail…stay here. We’ll go position by position and try to hit on as many of the top guys as possible. Let’s do it…

C

There are no standout catching prospects in the SEC this year – at least if we limit our search to 2016 prospects only; I see you, JJ Schwarz – but there are a lot of solid ones who could be big league contributors in time. Jack Kruger, the best of the bunch, is an advance bat and consistently reliable defender behind the plate. He’s got the best shot at playing regularly in the big leagues, especially if you’re buying into his hit tool and power both playing average or better. I think I do, but his “newness” as a prospect works against him some. Of course, like almost all real draft prospects, Kruger isn’t new. Here was his quick report written on this very site back in 2013…

C Jack Kruger (Oaks Christian HS, California): outstanding defensive tools, very strong presently; gap power

For area guys covering him this spring, however, he’s “new.” From limited at bats as a freshman at Oregon to solid but unspectacular junior college numbers at Orange Coast to his solid and borderline spectacular start to 2016 at Mississippi State, there’s not the kind of extended track record that some teams want to see in a potential top ten round college bat. Maybe I’m overstating that concern – he was a big HS prospect, Orange Coast College is a juco that gets lots of scout coverage, he played well last summer in the California Collegiate League, and both Oregon and Mississippi State are big-time programs – but players have slipped on draft day for sillier reasons. Any potential fall – no matter the reason — could make Kruger one of the draft’s better catching value picks.

After Kruger, the SEC has a lot of rock solid potential big league backup types. Henri Lartigue is extremely well-rounded and steady defensively. Jordan Romero has a big arm and intriguing defensive upside. Jason Delay is a highly respected catch and throw guy, but is limited as a hitter with a highly aggressive approach. Gavin Collins has played third base the bulk of the season – very well, I should note – but still profiles best as a potential above-average defender as a professional catcher. My notes on him include one of the better lines I’ve gotten this year: “big arm, loves to show it off.” How can you not like a catcher like that? I’ve liked Blake Logan since his freshman season at Auburn. He controls the strike zone as a hitter and can be counted on to do what’s asked defensively. Benito Santiago is a boom/bust option as a draft-eligible sophomore. His notes from HS…

C Benito Santiago (Coral Springs Christian Academy, Florida): good behind plate; strong arm; good athlete; average speed; don’t think he hits; 5-9, 165 pounds

He has hit for more power than I would have guessed, but his approach is still a mess and contact will always be an issue. If he’s willing to sign, I could see a pro team taking a gamble on him with the logic being they’d grab him a year before a potential college breakout season moves him up ten rounds or so in the eyes of the rest of the league. Better to draft a player like this a year early than a year too late. Or something like that. Michael Barash is a borderline prospect, but he’s been a reliable senior who has produced some both at the plate and behind it over the years. Karl Ellison intrigues me just enough defensively to get the nod here as the last real potential SEC catcher with 2016 draft aspirations.

1B

On Pete Alonso back in October…

The Gators have so much talent that it’s inevitable that even a top guy or three can lay claim to getting overlooked by the national media. Alonso, with plus bat speed and power to match, is that guy for me. The burgeoning plate discipline is the cherry on top. I’m not in the national media, but maybe I’ll look back and see how I overlooked him as he rises up boards next spring.

His ranking in the ten spot might be an example of a chump like me still finding a way to overlook Alonso. All the guy does is hit. Working against him is his handedness: nobody gets excited for a righthanded hitting prospect limited to first base, fair or not. Working for him is everybody’s desire – think it peaked last year, but I still hear about it from time to time – to find the next Paul Goldschmidt. Alonso isn’t the runner or athlete that Goldschmidt has proven to be nor is it likely he’ll ever hit like the Arizona superstar. It’s still nice that we now live in a baseball universe where Goldschmidt has made it cool to be a righthanded hitting power bat again.

(Wasn’t sure where to wedge this in, so parenthetical reference it is: Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Edwin Encarnacion, Chris Colabello, Jose Abreu, and Jason Rogers [!?!] were the six righthanded hitting first basemen to rank in the top twenty wRC+ [100 PA minimum] in the big leagues last year. That’s technically six of the top eighteen. Not quite half, but a third isn’t too shabby. I’m not sure what this means exactly, if anything meaningful at all.)

Nathaniel Lowe is a legitimate FAVORITE who has exceeded my lofty hopes for his 2016 re-entry to major college ball. Lowe and the aforementioned Jack Kruger might just be brothers from different mothers. Lowe, like Kruger, spent a year at a D1 program (Mercer), transferred to a well-regarded junior college (St. Johns River), and then hit the ground running back in D1 at Mississippi State. I know I just published these rankings a few days ago, but he’s too low already. Lowe is an exciting power bat in a class that needs them.

Niko Buentello can join the Lowe/Kruger family as well. His path: Oklahoma to Grayson to Auburn. His approach is a little bit behind Lowe’s and his age is a little ahead, but he’s still a decent mid-round power prospect. Gunnar McNeill (Florida International to Chipola to Kentucky) joins the brotherhood. I knew a lot of these prospects were incoming transfers, but had no idea how many there were until I started writing. It’s kind of crazy, right? Anyway, McNeill has some pop and a decent if inconsistent approach, so his righty stick getting him some late-round love on draft day would not be a surprise. That came out way dirtier than intended, but I’m keeping it. As a transfer from North Carolina to Kentucky with no junior college stop in between, Joe Dudek might be a part of the growing Lowe/Kruger/McNeill family but only as a distant cousin. I like his bat a lot, but the odds of him leaving Kentucky before ever playing a game for them seem long. I’d hope my area guy did a lot of research on that before finalizing my board in either direction.

Turns out I don’t have a hook for Hunter Melton, so we’ll focus on his interesting power, positional versatility (some think he could still play some 3B if need be), and intriguing track record with wood. In the late rounds, it all could be worth investigating.

2B

I still think Nick Senzel can play second base in the pros. Let’s get that out of the way first. Everybody has already locked him in to third base and I’ll begrudgingly go along with it, but the range I’ve seen out of Senzel up the middle trumps letting his impressive arm do more damage (the good kind of damage) at third. With that out of the way, let’s talk second base prospects.

JaVon Shelby is a good prospect who might suffer some from the expectation that he’d finish the year as a great prospect. His physical gifts – above-average to plus speed, ample bat speed, impressive arm strength, athleticism that has allowed him to play third, the outfield, and improve every game at second – and scorching junior year start were great, but now he’s settled more into a good range. Good is still good, of course…it just isn’t great. Maybe the heightened expectations and failure to live up to them says more about us – me, specifically – than him. I still like Shelby quite a bit, but the red flag that is his approach remains. He checks every other box, so I’d still give him a chance sooner rather than later on draft day to see if the pro staff could work with him to figure things out.

A lot of what was written about Shelby could apply to Ryne Birk, at least in a poor man’s version kind of way. Birk might be a little ahead in terms of power and approach, but Shelby beats him everywhere else. I’ve gotten positive reviews on his glove at second this year, but there are still a few who maintain that his speed (good not great) and arm (neither good nor great) will force him to left field in the pros. For those reasons and more, I’ve gotten a fun and somewhat obscure Andrew Pullin comp for him this spring.

Kramer Robertson keeps getting better and better. I think this ranking will look too low by June. It’s probably too low already. Robertson doesn’t have a clear carrying tool, but he can run some, he’s got pop, he’s steady in the field, and his swing is geared towards making a ton of solid contact. Throw in some plus athleticism and you’ve got yourself a player.

Both Arkansas infielders, Rick Nomura and Mike Bernal, could be well-rounded enough to make it as utility infielders. The fact both guys have experience on the left side of the infield is a big point in their favor. Cole Freeman is a good fielder with speed. He’s a guy I’d like to get to know more about between now and June. Damon Haecker and John Holland are both versatile defenders with my kind of plate discipline but not quite enough power to give much confidence they’ll keep getting on base enough to make it all work professionally. Melvin Gray’s easy plus speed could give him a late round shot.

SS

The shortstops in the SEC this year are a decent microcosm for what’s going on across college baseball this year. Certain positions ebb and flow, and this year’s definitely a low-water mark for the six-spot. Ryan Howard is a nice prospect, but not the kind of guy who would crack the top five at short in a major college conference in most years. He does most everything fairly well – solid hitter, average raw power, dependable at short – but nothing so well that you’re pumped to call his name on draft day. Part of my reticence in buying in to Howard comes from what may be a silly place. There is far more to the position than speed, but Howard’s below-average foot speed has always struck me as a potential red flag when assessing his long-term defensive outlook. Maybe that’s being lazy by haphazardly using speed as a proxy for athleticism, but the solid yet unsexy profile that I seem to like at other positions doesn’t grab me the same way at shortstop.

The two Mississippi shortstop prospects grab me, but for very different reasons. Robinson’s relatively low ranking here is for the exact opposite reason of what I just dinged Howard for. He’s a really good athlete with lots of upside defensively, more than enough speed, and sneaky pop packed into his 5-11, 180 pound frame, but at the end of the day I’m not all that confident he’ll hit enough to profile as a big league regular. Howard could get there, but I’d question his defense along the way. Robinson’s defense is up to the task, but I don’t love the bat. Put the two together and you’d really have something. As it is, I think bat-first utility guy (Howard) and glove/speed focused utility guy (Robinson) represent the most likely paths for the two prospects. Draft-eligible sophomore Tate Blackman, Robinson’s teammate at Ole Miss, could potentially be the combination of Howard and Robinson I’m looking for. I stress potentially because, quite honestly, I don’t yet know enough about Blackman to say one way or another. For now I know I like his athleticism, speed, and power upside, all of which give him the best of both Howard and Robinson. I’m not sure how his defense would look at short everyday – his range and arm would both be tested, to be sure – but I’d be intrigued enough by his other abilities to find out. My lack of knowledge about the finer details of Blackman’s game had me hedging with his ranking somewhat, but my gut instinct says he could be a big riser by the time my final board hits in June.

3B

Nick Senzel is really good. I’ve compared him to Anthony Rendon in the past – the exact phrasing from my notes is “Rendon lite?” – and I think he’ll have a good long career as an above-average big league player. He also reminds me a little bit of this guy…

.338/.452/.561 – 31 BB/14 K – 16/17 SB – 148 AB
.393/.487/.592 – 45 BB/38 K – 13/14 SB – 262 AB

Top is Senzel, bottom is Kyle Seager. I’ve used the Seager comp a few (too many) times over the years, most recently on Max Schrock last season. Speaking of Schrock, how did he fall as far as he did last year? That one still blows my mind. Anyway, in an attempt to move away from the tired Seager comp, another name popped up…

.338/.452/.561 – 31 BB/14 K – 16/17 SB – 148 AB
.351/.479/.530 – 46 BB/26 K – 11/14 SB – 185 AB

Top is still Senzel. Mystery bottom guy was written up like so by Baseball America after his pro debut…

“He has a short, compact swing and hits the ball to all fields, and he handles breaking pitches well because of strong balance. Though he’s a physical 6-foot-1 and has good strength, [REDACTED] has a line-drive swing that doesn’t produce natural loft, leading some to project him to have below-average power. He earns high marks for his defense, with good feet and hands to go with an above-average arm at third base. He’s also versatile enough to have played second base, shortstop and left field for Team USA. He’s a good athlete and a solid-average runner.”

I would have linked his pre-draft report from BA, but they have the absolute worst log-in page on the entire internet. Anyway, the passage above was typed up from the 2009 Prospect Handbook. We’re talking about a guy who once played infield in the SEC. He had a similar draft year statistically. And he’s really broken out in his late-20s. Any guesses? When I’ve done mystery comps like this in the past I wouldn’t reveal the player. Then I’d search my site about a different player years later, come across the mystery comp post, and have no idea myself who I was talking about. So, yeah, it’s Logan Forsythe. My future self thanks my present self. I like Senzel to hit the big leagues running a bit more easily than Forsythe (i.e., I don’t think Senzel will enter his age-28 season with an OPS+ of 85), so maybe that would bump Senzel up over Forsythe as a guy with a higher floor. A couple of peak years like Forsythe’s seems like a reasonable ceiling projection. That’s a damn fine player. Supports the original claim: Nick Senzel is really good.

(I typed the following up before realizing it doesn’t quite apply to Senzel in the way I first thought it might, but damned if I’m going to spend time on a paragraph and let it go to waste. Here it is: If we’re being fair, then it’s worth pointing out that some of the same team-based criticisms levelled at Corey Ray apply to Nick Senzel as well. If you recall, we knocked Ray’s outstanding 2016 performance some [just some] by pointing out that he had teammates who outdid him in just about every offensive category. Senzel has been great as well, but he’s only fourth on his own team in qualified batting average, second in on-base percentage, and first in slugging. It’s a weird and arguably unnecessary bar to hold college prospects to, but it’s a small point to potentially consider, at least in terms of player dominance and potentially enhanced hitting environments and/or scheduling softness.)

Let’s talk about Greg Deichmann. This is me from the past…

“If he’s not a star for this team, I’m quitting the internet draft game” – January 6, 2015. I said that about SO 3B/2B Greg Deichmann last year and I stand by it today. His first year at LSU didn’t end in stardom and as an older sophomore he’s able to leave after this year, so this could be do-or-die time for my sterling reputation as a prospect soothsayer. Of course, if Deichmann leaves LSU after this year then that almost certainly would mean he had a huge season that positioned himself to be drafted high enough to make turning pro a smart decision. If not, then I’ll at least get another year to tout him as the great prospect that I think he is. Deichmann completely won me over as a hitter in the year or so before he enrolled at LSU. Loved the swing, hands, bat speed, everything. His red flag during his prep days was his age, but that’s no longer a concern as a draft-eligible sophomore playing in the SEC. The new worry — or the old worry, if you weren’t sold on Deichmann as a hitter as I once was — is his approach. If said approach can move from “swing at anything that moves” to something slightly more refined, then he’ll take off as a hitter. That’s what I’m banking on in 2016.

.276/.329/.497 with 9 BB/23 K and 4/8 SB in 145 AB is not a star quality turn for Deichmann. I might just barely be off the hook thanks to his power – his slugging is second on the team, which makes up for his ninth place standing in terms of batting average – but the approach is still terrifying. I won’t rule out Deichmann turning things around in a hurry, but I suppose the teeny tiny possibility that I might have overrated him as a hitter once upon a time could exist.

I don’t look too deeply at positions when I rank players, so it was a fun surprise to see that I had unknowingly put five consecutive third basemen together in the rankings. Ronnie Gideon, Will Toffey, Carson Shaddy, Colby Bortles, and Boomer White are all very, very different players, but each guy does enough well to warrant serious draft consideration at the hot corner all the same. Gideon has the massive raw power and arm strength befitting a man his size (6-3, 240 pounds) who once made his bones as a catching prospect. I know next to nothing about his glove at third other than some scout rumblings that indicate he’s better than you’d think for a guy his size. That doesn’t mean he’s good (or bad) at third, just more nimble than one might expect. Toffey might be the weirdest player in all of college baseball. It’s not every day you see a player with 5 extra base hits (all doubles) and 42 walks. It makes his 2016 pretty easy to distill into one quick pithy remark: love the approach, don’t love the power. Thankfully, Toffey has shown power in the past (.420 SLG as a freshman) and is generally considered to have around average raw power, so the down draft season shouldn’t drop him as far as one might otherwise believe. The bigger draft question surrounding Toffey will be his willingness (or lack thereof) to leave Nashville after just two seasons. Deichmann seems slightly more likely to sign than Toffey, but that’s just one man making an educated guess on the internet.

Shaddy, yet another draft-eligible sophomore at third base (not for age, but for a year missed due to Tommy John), is a special defensive player. That’s a big statement, but I feel comfortable saying it about a guy who can legitimately play catcher, third, and center field. That’s a unique skill set. His approach, power, and athleticism are all average or better, so Shaddy should hear his name called early enough on draft day to have a tough decision about where he’ll play ball next year. Bortles is a big man with big power that is hard to imagine holding his own at third. He’s not entirely dissimilar to Gideon in that way. White is fascinating for his power/speed combination and ability to play multiple spots on the diamond. I had assumed he’d be a left fielder all the way in the pros, but some pretty persuasive friends in the game convinced me that most teams see him as an infielder first and foremost. Fine by me.

Jeff Moberg wasn’t ranked with those five, but he’s not too far off the pack. He’s had a checkered at best college career, but a breakout final season has many – myself included – scrambling to see if there’s more to his game than first meets the eye. The interesting bat combined with the well-known strength in his glovework make him a sneaky utility infielder prospect at the next level.

OF

The big names were more or less covered, so let’s look at a few outfield prospects a bit further down the line. I really liked Jordan Ebert heading into last season…

The surest bet in the Auburn lineup is JR OF/2B Jordan Ebert. Ebert doesn’t get enough love as one of the college game’s best pure hitters. That above-average or better hit tool combined with enough pop and speed allow him to potentially profile as an above-average regular offensively. I think his glove will play at any of the spots he’s tried — 2B, 3B, OF — but think his value will likely lie in his ability to play multiple spots — especially those where he can show off his plus arm — well. If you only knew what I just wrote about Ebert, you’d surely think he’s a big-time 2015 draft prospect, but, at least for now, an overly aggressive approach at the plate (31 BB/54 K) holds back his appeal to a degree. I still like him quite a bit; quite simply, guys with hit tools like his are not to be dismissed. If Ebert can settle in to a spot defensively (likely a corner OF spot), flash a touch more power, and clean up his approach a bit, he’ll become a prime candidate to become one of college ball’s fastest risers in 2015. I still think a pro team will try to keep him in the dirt for as long as humanly possible after signing. As an outfielder, he profiles as a high-level backup, especially if he can hang in center a bit. As an infielder, however, he’s a potential everyday contributor.

That didn’t work out. I still think backup outfielder is a solid potential outcome for him. There’s a gigantic gap between what Keith Holcombe is and what he could be, but the upside is tantalizing. It’s not a stretch to call him one of the best athletes at any position in this class. JB Moss is one of about fifty Aggies prospects that could hear his name called on draft day. He can really run and throw. Ro Coleman has always been an underdog due to his diminutive stature; he seems likely to wind up back at Vanderbilt for a senior year after a down junior season. I still think there’s a role in pro ball for a high character guy like him. We’ll see.

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