C – Matt Byars
1B – Alex Troop
2B – Mason McCoy
SS – Kevin Smith
3B – Luke Miller
OF – Zach Jancarski, Miles Lewis, Brandon Hughes
C – Harrison Wenson
1B – Drew Lugbauer
2B – Dan Durkin
SS – Jalen Washington
3B – Micah Coffey
OF – Mike Carter, Tre’ Gantt, Logan Sowers
Matt Byars is the kind of senior-sign catching prospect I like. His is a defense forward profile (plus arm, well above-average mobility behind the plate, strong feel for the rhythms of the game) with enough offensive upside (average raw power, back-to-back solid years of production) to give you something at the plate. Harrison Wenson isn’t that far behind, but buying on him takes more of a leap of faith with both his glove and his approach. The power and arm strength are both legit. A friend compared him to a budget version of current Phillies catcher and 2010 third round pick Cameron Rupp. Their college numbers to date…
.246/.325/.439 with 27.0 K% and 8.0 BB%
.302/.385/.489 with 20.7 K% and 10.3 BB%
Wenson on top, Rupp on bottom. I’d say stylistically it holds up, but that’s about it. Both are big, strong old school catchers known more for raw power and arm strength than graceful movements or soft hands behind the dish. Rupp was and is a much better player, though. I’m not in love with this as a comparison, but it came from somebody smart so figured there’s no harming sending it along. I personally disagree with it — though, again, if you’re just trying to close your eyes and picture what Wenson looks like it’s not a terrible proxy — so feel free to do the same. Or not. It’s a free country…for now. Political hot take!
Every last person I’ve talked to this spring has told me in no uncertain terms I’m nuts for preferring Alex Troop as a hitter rather than a pitcher. I give up. While I still think Troop has a fine future as a position player — enough so that ranking him atop his position here was a no-brainer for me — at some point the consensus broke me. I don’t think it’s going with the herd just to do it; as much as I try to remain independent and unmoved by others (within reason) in my prospect views, there are occasionally times when I can admit that maybe I’ve gone a little too far. When everybody thinks you are nuts, it’s possible that they are wrong and you’re right…but it’s also possible they know things you don’t, you learn from it, and you adjust your views accordingly. That’s where I’m at with Troop. I think he’s a wonderful college hitter with the chance to be an average or better regular at first or in an outfield corner in pro ball, but his value on the mound is too great to ignore. His changeup alone makes keeping him pitching a good idea. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s got imposing size (6-5, 210 pounds), room to add to his fastball (86-92 MPH presently), a usable breaker, and a nice mix of performance (almost a strikeout per inning this year) and projection (that size, his two-way pedigree, and cold weather background all point to better days ahead).
Beyond two-way star Troop, there are plenty of truer first base options in the Big 10. The first name to jump out is Drew Lugbauer, a somewhat ironic mention considering the argument to be made about him not being a “true first base” option either. Lugbauer, experienced at both catcher and third base in addition to first, has been one of the more confounding players in this class for me. I’ve yet to get to the point where I’m comfortable locking him in to a long-term defensive spot. Some say he can catch, some think he’s a first baseman only, and others think he could hang as a four-corners style utility player. I have no idea, so, erring on the side of caution (and siding with the most vocal group of outside opinions), he slots into first base on these lists. It goes without saying that Lugbauer is a whole lot more interesting as a catcher or multi-position threat, but there’s at least a glimmer of a chance his bat plays at first as is. His plus to arguably plus-plus raw power is enough to rank him among the top handful of college players in this class and his strength to all fields is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed to teams that preach that type of hitting approach.
Right there with Lugbauer is Jake Adams. The big righty has monster raw power, above-average athleticism around the bag, and questions to answer about his propensity for swinging and missing. All in all, it’s a tantalizing mid-round profile with more than enough upside to justify the downside of a 30ish K% guy who doesn’t get out of High-A. I’m in.
Any of the first basemen beyond these three are draftable talents depending on what you like, but in the interest of time we’ll hone in on just one more. Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber is a really interesting player who could wind up a steal for a team with a long memory. Schreiber’s 2017 hasn’t been great — an admittedly odd thing to say for a guy hitting .325, but his power and approach have both gone south after a breakout sophomore season — so teams that saw him at his best previously could be rewarded by his plus raw power, strong arm, and potential positional versatility (outfield corners are both an option). He’s behind a few other guys at the moment, but with a far enough slide on draft day he could wind up a really slick value.
I’m a little surprised that I didn’t write about Mason McCoy last year. Could have something to do with him just having a decent first year at Iowa, but, regardless, he’s my kind of player. There’s nothing particularly flashy about McCoy’s game — average hit tool, average or better speed, average at best arm — but he’s, pardon the term, a gamer who gets the most out of his tools. It’s a strong utility profile that I think will play at the next level, though I’d be a little concerned about the arm being a touch short for the left side. Beyond that, McCoy can hold his own.
If you know what to make of Kevin Smith these days, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line. Scouts who know things (or think they know things, which is really all any of us can claim in this line of work) won’t shut up about the guy. Everybody seemed to love him after a great freshman season (sure, I could see that), more or less stayed on the bandwagon after a solid if concerning sophomore season (that 16 BB/49 K red flag was a bit too bright for me), and then fell back in love harder than ever after his successful (but still concerning) turn on the Cape this past summer. So what do the scouts see in Smith, a player that I have in my notes as “deeply polarizing” among those I’ve spoken to, that the numbers may not pick up? For starters, he’s a rock solid defender at shortstop with easy above-average range and sure hands that allow him to make damn near every play hit near him. He’s got enough arm to handle throws deep in the hole and athleticism to get to them in the first place. That strong defensive foundation makes him a worthwhile follow off the bat. He becomes even more interesting once you factor in his true above-average raw power, a rarity for a middle infielder at the amateur level even in the age of tool inflation (something I’m guilty of, I admit).
It’s the approach that kills me. I’ve spoken a few times about hitters that scouts believe will turn their underwhelming BB/K numbers around with continued reps. That’s Smith. His reputation as a hitter is very strong, and the vast majority of feedback I’ve received on him as been positive. “He’ll figure it out,” is a familiar refrain. Maybe. I bought into it with Kyle Lewis last year, but Smith’s track record is tough to ignore. Even his star turn on the Cape came with an overall 9 BB/39 K disclaimer.
Whenever I stumped on player like I am with Smith, I like to turn to my old familiar (unpopular) friend: Mr. Comp. Check out a couple of college lines…
.265/.333/.443 with 16.9 K% and 7.9 BB%
.310/.367/.473 with 9.5 K% and 7.2 BB%
Top is Smith (so far), bottom is Zack Cozart at Mississippi. Cozart is the name that has been mentioned by Baseball America as a point of comparison for Smith in the past. Pretty good comp, I think. Tools line up fairly well and production isn’t completely off the mark. Cozart went to Cincinnati with pick 79 in 2007. I’ll offer a potential high-end comparison for Smith that I like a lot…
.265/.333/.443 with 16.9 K% and 7.9 BB%
.285/.367/.428 with 14.8 K% and 11.3 BB%
Top is still Smith, bottom is now Marcus Semien at Cal. I think Semien is the kind of hitter that Smith can be at his best. Semien fell to to the sixth round in 2011. I think Smith has too many fans to drop that far this year, but stranger things have happened. The closest stylistic and statistical comp I found was this one…
.265/.333/.443 with 16.9 K% and 7.9 BB%
.303/.391/.458 with 17.2 K% and 8.6 BB%
Top remains Smith, bottom is this guy per Baseball America’s pre-draft scouting report…
Defensively, his range is fair and his glove work is unorthodox, but he does possess a strong arm. While he handled shortstop well for Team USA last summer, Espinosa is not a pure shortstop and may be better suited to second base or as a utility player. His intelligent and aggressive baserunning masks raw speed that is only average. A switch-hitter, Espinosa has always been stronger from his natural right side, but improved from the left this year. He takes a wicked cut at anything close, and when he squares a pitch up he can produce screaming drives to all fields. Most scouts want to see more plate discipline and patience from Espinosa, who’s considered a streak hitter. His lack of overwhelming tools will keep him out of the first two rounds, but he has a lot of attributes scouts love, including the knack to make those around him better.
I was going to redact the name and make it a big unveil here, but what’s a couple of centimeters of suspense (less on mobile, I’d assume) really worth? So the mystery guy is Danny Espinosa. I think Smith and Espinosa — the 87th overall pick in 2008, for what it’s worth — are similar ballplayers in a lot of ways. Smith gets the slim defensive edge at the same point in their respective development while Espinosa was arguably the better all-around athlete. Beyond that, I think they are close. Now sometimes comparisons are based on career outcomes and sometimes they are more closely aligned with pure physical ability; this one feels closer to the latter category as I think a team drafting Smith as early as I think it’ll take to get him will be doing so with the hope they get a more consistent offensive performer. That said, Espinosa’s 11.0 fWAR to date is nothing to be sad about; if anything, an outcome like that is a major success once you realize a college hitter selected in the draft’s top 100 picks providing greater than 10 WAR over a career is at just 6.9%. If Smith really is Espinosa, that’s a major win. If he’s Espinosa with a better bat, then he’s a potential star-caliber player in terms of overall value. If you think of Espinosa as something closer to Smith’s ceiling (with the obvious risk he never makes the big leagues at all factored in), then that changes the math yet again.
The average draft position of the three comps was 122nd overall. The fourth round feels like a fair spot for Smith at this juncture, though the dearth of collegiate middle infield talent and typical draft day shortstop inflation could push him up closer to that Cozart/Espinosa early third round range. I think that’s where he likely lands (if not earlier), but I’m still not sure if that’s where he’ll eventually be ranked here.
It should come as no surprise that I love a prospect who has played quality defense at both shortstop and catcher. Who couldn’t love a weird profile like that, right? That’s Jalen Washington, Ohio State’s current shortstop and former catcher. Washington was good at both spots with the athleticism to play just about anywhere else on the diamond. I mean, if you can play well at both short and catcher, where can’t you play? His offensive profile is a little shakier — lots of pop and good speed, but little feel for hitting and an iffy approach — so bringing him into the fold would require plenty of patience with the bat while his defensive versatility keeps him in the lineup. I don’t know what kind of upside you’re getting with Washington, but he’d sure be a fun gap-filler in the minors as he tries to figure out the whole hitting thing.
Luke Miller is an awesome athlete with a big arm (up to 94 off the mound in the past) and just as much power (whatever the power equivalent to a low-90s fastball would be, I guess). I’m intrigued as I get for an inexperienced draft-eligible sophomore who has put up ugly BB/K numbers to date. Many (but not all) of the same things can be said for Micah Coffey, another athletic power bat with less than ideal plate discipline. In a weak year for third basemen not only in the Big Ten but also across the country, imperfect players with upside like these stand out.
I don’t want to say how long I deliberated on picking six outfielders out of the Big Ten’s solid if unspectacular 2017 class. Let’s just settle on “way too long” and move on. In the end, I tried my best to balance tools/projection and skills/production. That’s kind of the whole point of what we do here anyway, so I guess that sort of goes without saying. Zach Jancarski is a gifted center fielder with above-average speed and the ability to grind out at bats as well as the best leadoff types in college baseball. Miles Lewis joins big Jake Adams as the second player here with North Dakota ties. He’s a plus athlete with easy to identify physical gifts (tons of speed and range) who keeps improving daily at some of the game’s finer points. If signable (he’s a redshirt-sophomore), I’d do what I could to talk my bosses into giving him a shot at pro ball this year before he blows up in the college ranks next season. Brandon Hughes‘s inclusion on the first team makes it clear I have a thing for Michigan State two-way talents (Hughes has been 88-91 as a lefty off the mound in the past) who seem to be wildly underrated as hitters. Like our first two outfielders mentioned, Hughes can defend in center and swipe bags with above-average to plus speed. He’s got a little more power and a little less swing-and-miss than you’d think for a prospect rarely mentioned as one of draft’s top sleepers. That changes now: Hughes is probably too good to be called a sleeper, but I’m doing it anyway. He’s a really good young player.
On the second team, the focus moved more towards finding bats at any cost. Tre’ Gantt is the exception as yet another interesting up-the-middle talent who can run. Mike Carter and Logan Sowers, however, are examples of what it looks like to bet on bats. Though they go about things very differently, the two young hitters should both hear their names called during the draft next month. Sowers is the more conventional prospect as a big (6-4, 220) powerful athlete who can thrill with a long ball just as readily as disappoint with a three strikeout night. The 5-10, 180 pound Carter can’t match Sowers’s thump, but the line drive machine from Rutgers has a hit tool that is quietly one of this class’s best.
Leaving off highly productive outfielders like Tom Marcinczyk, Jordan Smith, Johnny Slater, Joe Hoscheit, and Alex Krupa was tough. All have done enough to warrant serious draft consideration. This should be a pretty happy draft year for fans of the Big 10.
Others receiving consideration…
C – Tyler Cropley, Justin Morris
1B – Jake Adams, Zack McGuire, Toby Hanson, Scott Schreiber, Nick Cieri
2B – Jake Bivens, Jake Schleppenbach, Evan Warden, Luke Pettersen, Tony Butler, Brandon Gum
SS – Michael Brdar, Harry Shipley
3B – Matt Hoeg
OF – Tom Marcinczyk, Jordan Smith, Pat McInerney, Chris Whelan, Johnny Slater, Joe Hoscheit, Matt Hopfner, Alex Boxwell, Craig Dedelow, Dan Chmielewski, Matt Stemper, Luis Alvarado, Laren Eustace, Alex Krupa, Madison Nickens