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2017 MLB Draft Report – Louisville

The system for writing up team reports is pretty simple. I copy all the team information I have directly from my notes into a Gmail draft, separate the pitchers from the hitters, and start pecking away at the keyboard. The presence of Brendan McKay on the Louisville roster breaks my system. I now need a third group because he’s just too damn good at both pitching and hitting to make any definitive call about his professional spot just yet. My personal lean sends him out as a hitter first. The reasons are mostly general — in almost all 50/50 situations like this, I prefer starting prospects out as hitters because I think the day-to-day development for a young hitter is more important over the long haul than that of a pitcher. Hitters need reps to keep growing. Pitchers, at a certain point in their development, are more or less what they’ll be. This is the logic some teams use when “rushing” raw minor league pitchers with big arms; every body only has X amount of bullets in the chamber, so “wasting” them anywhere but the big leagues doesn’t make sense. Put it another way, I think it’s a lot easier to pick pitching back up after years away from doing it than it is to reacclimate yourself as a hitter.

(4/8/2017 EDIT: Keith Law recently mentioned the idea of Hunter Greene starting out his pro career as a hitter before transitioning to the mound in his first full season. He’d give his arm a break this summer while also giving his drafting team a firsthand look at what he can do [or can’t do] at the plate. Thought this was pretty brilliant and I’m annoyed I didn’t throw it out there first. I think a similar idea can apply to McKay. Let him hit this summer to rest his arm. If he’s great, maybe let him keep hitting. If he’s not so great, begin gearing him up to start next year as a pitcher again. If he’s neither great nor not so great…well, I guess that might make things a little complicated. No more than when deciding on draft day, though.)

As for McKay specifically, well, I think he’s just a more appealing hitting prospect than a pitcher. As you’ll read below, this isn’t an opinion that I can justify objectively as much as a weird hunch I’ve had while watching him over the years. McKay’s hit tool (above-average to plus), power (above-average to plus), and approach (SHOCKER – above-average to plus) all fit the bill for a middle of the order big league first baseman. The excellent Sam Monroy dropped Logan Morrison’s name when discussing McKay; I’ll go a little richer and say he reminds me of Eric Hosmer. Keeping in mind both guys are still active and at different points in their respective careers, it should be noted that my “rich” comparison (106 career wRC+) has only outhit Morrison (105 wRC+) by a whole point to date. Anyway, the good version of Hosmer (.300/.360/.460) is a really damn good hitter and exactly the type of prospect I’d deem worth using a first round pick on. The not so good version, unfortunately, is just a guy. That’s a bummer, but there’s still hope. If you’re seeing “bad Hosmer” after a predetermined increment of time passes (two full seasons?), then the plan to get McKay back on the mound and pitching again should be rolled out posthaste. I don’t think this is what will happen — I’d bet tonight’s pizza money that he gets drafted and signed as a pitcher — and I’m not yet entirely convinced it’s what should happen, but, as I’ve said, it’s my current lean as of April 5, 2017. I kind of talked myself into starting him on the mound below, but we’ll pretend I didn’t for the sake of not wanting to delete these last two paragraphs. Instead, let’s use this as means of highlighting how damn amazing McKay is as both a pitcher and a hitter right now. It’s really hard to choose which way to go with him. Even hardscrabble BASEBALL MEN paid to have strong opinions are currently straddling the fence. The fact that we can even have this discussion speaks to McKay’s unique gifts on both sides of the ball. All right, moving on…

The depth of the Louisville pitching staff is simply incredible. My pretend editor says that “simply incredible” is bad writing, but I don’t care. That’s the first thing that came to mind when checking out this staff. Every pitcher strikes out a batter per inning. Every pitcher not coming off of major surgery has demonstrated above-average control. Damn near every pitcher hits 92 MPH or better with at least one average or better secondary. It’s the kind of pitching staff that could step right into AA next week and hold its own as a unit. If there are three better pitching staffs top to bottom in college baseball, I’d be surprised.

It’s tough to pick between Kade McClure and Lincoln Henzman as the surer bet — in as much as any young pitcher is a “sure bet” — professionally. The output has been similar, the velocity is similar (88-92, 94 peak), the breaking balls are similar (average 76-83 hybrid pitch for McClure, average 83-87 cut-slider for Henzman)…there’s not a whole lot of separation here. McClure has the size advantage (6-7, 230 to Henzman’s 6-2, 200) while Henzman, my preference by the slimmest of margins, shows the better present changeup at 84-87 MPH with splitter action. I think both wind up as big league contributors within a few years. If it’s upside you seek, then Riley Thompson could very well leapfrog both juniors. Thompson, a draft-eligible redshirt-freshman coming off Tommy John surgery, flashes monster stuff (mid-90s fastball that can touch 98, quality 78-82 breaking ball, low-80s change) when everything is working.

Then there’s Brendan McKay. It always comes back to McKay. He’s so good that I bolded his name twice. As a pitcher there is a lot to like; perhaps more appropriately, there’s little to nothing not to like about him as a pitching prospect. On the days he has his best fastball going — more 90-94 than 87-91 — he’s a legitimate three above-average offering pitcher with little to no projection needed. That’s a good thing for McKay as there isn’t a ton of physical projection left from a body standpoint. Fortunately, with three above-average present pitches there’s not a ton of need for more. If anything, you could draft him as a pitcher with some degree of expectation that devoting 100% of his time and energy on throwing would make him an even more dangerous all-around pitcher. He’s firmed up the low end velocity of his fastball so far this year and now largely pitches from 89-94 MPH, a positive development considering how heavily he’ll learn on the pitch when he’s commanding it (a frequent occurrence). He pairs the heat with what is now a steady plus 82-84 MPH changeup (up from average or a tick above his first two seasons) and his usual above-average to plus 77-84 MPH curve. Three pitches, ample athleticism, and standout command make him one of the draft’s closest to the big league talents. Obvious comps have been made to two-way stars of the past like Danny Hultzen, Sean Doolittle (tough to top this one), and Brian Johnson (this one is my own). One contact mentioned that McKay reminded him of a young Al Leiter. I like that. Outside of the frequent mentions of him being a finalist for the award in his name, I’m not sure I’ve seen John Olerud mentioned as an offensive comp yet — I know this is the pitching portion, humor me — but I think that makes a ton of sense, too. Just had to slip that in there since the mention of Leiter reminded me of his Mets days playing with Olerud. I really want to write “moving on…” again, but I’ve already used that. I’m terrible at transitions. Let’s just get on with it.

For as much as I like McKay as a pitcher, the sum of his parts falls a just bit short of what I personally envision the whole could be. I can admit that this is kind of a BS reason to knock McKay down the board a few spots as a pitcher, but sometimes a guy can look REALLY good on paper and just be really good in real life. If scouting is some part science and some part art, I guess it’s the latter that’s keeping me from loving McKay as much as the former suggests I should. I still really like him, both as a pitcher and a hitter, but not quite on the level where I’d be considering him with the first overall pick. Probably not with a top five pick, though that’s a take that’s far from set in stone.

If I had to make imaginary odds for McKay’s big league outcome, I’d put him at 50% mid-rotation starter, 20% legit number two, 20% bust (sixth starter, middle relief, never makes it past AA…however you choose to define it), and 10% ace. Offensively, I’d go 50% “good Hosmer,” 40% “underwhelming Hosmer,” and 10% bust (bench bat, platoon guy, never make it past AA…again, whatever). I debated long and hard about deleting this whole paragraph, but I trust you enough as an audience to not get too hung up on my entirely improvised odds here.

Beyond the big four of McClure, Henzman, Thompson, and McKay, there’s plenty of other interesting draft-worthy depth on staff. Jake Sparger does the sinker/slider thing with imposing size (6-5, 200), Rabon Martin could have a future as a matchup lefty, and Shane Hummel‘s mid-70s changeup should be enough to get him some senior-sign attention.

Lost somewhat in McKay Mania is a loaded lineup of returning position player prospects poised to be picked early. There are two FAVORITE’s among the Cardinals 2017 hitting prospects and that’s not counting everybody’s favorite McKay and star shortstop Devin Hairston. Both FAVORITE’s have some questions defensively that need answering, but are strong enough with the bat in their hands to put those queries on the back burner for now. FAVORITE #1 is Drew Ellis, a draft-eligible sophomore who can really hit. Ellis’s potential above-average hit tool, plus raw power, and mature beyond his years approach at the plate make him one of this class’s top overall bats. The lack of attention the physical (a strong 6-3, 210 pounder), versatile (experience at 3B, 1B, and in the OF) masher gets on the national prospect stage confuses me. If a team believes in him defensively at the hot corner — I see no reason not to at this point, but who knows — then I don’t think a first day draft grade is out of line for Ellis. Hitters hit and Ellis hits like a hitter. Or something like that. I like his bat as much as McKay’s and he has a shot to play a more demanding defensive spot, so I don’t think an eventual home in the first round, if not in reality than on my personal board, is out of line. From FAVORITE to first day to first round…now that’s how you talk yourself into a prospect.

FAVORITE #2 is Colby Fitch, 2016 thirty-second overall pick Will Smith’s “backup” last season behind the plate. I love Will Smith and there’s more to talent evaluation than the numbers, but go ahead and check to see what the two guys did head-to-head the very year Smith went to the Dodgers with the third-to-last pick of the first round. Fitch is every bit the hitter Smith is with enough arm and athleticism to make it work in an outfield corner in the event you’re not sold on him long-term as a catcher. I am, but time will tell. Either way, he’s a FAVORITE.

I could definitely see a team talking themselves into Logan Taylor earlier than the consensus might anticipate; his range in center is special and he offers more with the bat than most senior-sign glove-first types. I’m in on him as one of this year’s most appealing draft seniors. A step or two below is Colin Lyman, another senior who should have enough speed, arm, athleticism, and contact ability to get himself in the pro ball fifth outfielder mix. Though I like him as a prospect, I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about Ryan Summers. He has a nice power/speed going on and I know some teams are open to the idea of shifting him back to catcher in pro ball. The aforementioned Devin Hairston gets buried at the end here (and, like McKay, gets the double-bold treatment for his troubles) despite being arguably a top three college shortstop in this class. He does everything well — though arguably nothing spectacularly — on both sides of the ball with a 99.99% chance of remaining at shortstop through his first MLB contract. You don’t have to be a conventional star offensive talent to provide star value if you can stay up the middle, and Hairston could end up that kind of player in the long run.

*****

JR RHP Kade McClure (2017)
rJR RHP Lincoln Henzman (2017)
rFR RHP Riley Thompson (2017)
SR RHP Jake Sparger (2017)
JR LHP Rabon Martin (2017)
SR RHP Shane Hummel (2017)
JR 1B/LHP Brendan McKay (2017)
JR SS/2B Devin Hairston (2017)
SO 3B/OF Drew Ellis (2017)
JR C/1B Colby Fitch (2017)
SR OF Colin Lyman (2017)
rJR OF/C Ryan Summers (2017)
SR OF Logan Taylor (2017)
rFR RHP Bryan Hoeing (2018)
rFR RHP Noah Burkholder (2018)
SO RHP Sam Bordner (2018)
SO LHP Adam Wolf (2018)
SO 2B Devin Mann (2018)
SO OF Josh Stowers (2018)
SO C Zeke Pinkham (2018)
FR LHP Nick Bennett (2019)
FR RHP Michael McAvene (2019)
FR LHP/OF Adam Elliott (2019)
FR SS Tyler Fitzgerald (2019)
FR 3B/SS Justin Lavey (2019)
FR OF Dan Oriente (2019)
FR INF Logan Wyatt (2019)

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