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2018 MLB Draft – Top College Talent

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Feels like as good a time as any to revisit this piece from back in October to see what the top of this year’s college class looks like…

Casey Mize is fantastic. Names I’ve gotten back as comparable (for different reasons and with the disclaimer that Mize is fairly unique in terms of his power stuff/plus-plus control combination) include Sam Carlson, Corbin Burnes, Masahiro Tanaka, Kevin Gausman, and, wait for it, Shohei Ohtani. Going to go out on a limb and say that last one is more about similarities with their splitters (still high praise, of course) and less about the chance Mize turns into a modern day Babe Ruth. Of those comps, I find the Gausman one particularly instructive. The LSU star went fourth overall in 2012 behind Carlos Correa (!), Byron Buxton (!), and Mike Zunino (…), and moved so quickly through the O’s farm system that he made his big league debut less than one year after being drafted. That could be Mize. I know there’s some concern with him being physically maxed out and more of an injury risk than most. It’s impossible to speak to the injury concerns from the outside looking in, but the first point, fair as it may be, doesn’t particularly concern me when the present version of Mize is so dominating. To get his kind of power stuff paired with that best control of any amateur in the county put into a player who is so advanced he could pick up a new pitch (87-91 cut-slider, easy plus upside) seemingly on the fly is special. With two plus pitches (splitter, cutter) and two above-average pitches (fastball, slider), Mize is a force to be reckoned with.

I still believe in Logan Gilbert, though his diminished fastball velocity and stalled development of his offspeed stuff (more good than great this year) are enough to give some when locking him in to the draft’s top ten. He’s certainly been passed by Mize and there are fun arguments to be made for up to a half-dozen other pitchers over him as well. Of course, Gilbert’s argument (best combination of high strikeouts/low walks this side of Mize, still able to pitch off of that excellent fastball even without big velo, extension/deception/frame all pro-ready) is pretty strong in its own right.

If not Gilbert, then maybe it’s Brady Singer for the top spot after Mize. The internet sure seems like it has turned on him this year and it is tough to figure out why. Singer has been really good both statistically (more strikeouts and fewer walks for the second straight year) and from a scouting standpoint (fastball up to 95, change and breaking ball both sharp). The old Aaron Nola comps remain relevant. I’ve also since heard a young, healthy Zack Wheeler. Nola went seventh, Wheeler went sixth, and Kevin Brown, the name mentioned by Brett Myers as a comp for Singer during last year’s postseason, went fourth. That seems like a realistic if somewhat generous draft range for Singer, though my own appreciation for him would have him in the mix as early as three to the Phillies…unlikely as that may be in reality.

Shane McClanahan is missing a crazy amount of bats (15.21 K/9!) and showing his typical premium fastball velocity. He’s starting to give off a little bit of a lefthanded JB Bukauskas (15th overall pick last year) vibe, but with a good shot to go higher than that. His fiercest competition for top college lefty is draft-eligible sophomore Ryan Rolison, a more conventionally strong lefty pitching prospect. We’re talking big velo, monster breaking ball, enough changeup, and superior command. There’s little not to like.

Those five — or arguably the four after Mize if you want to put the big guy from Auburn in his own tier altogether — are all so closely lumped together that I don’t think there’s a wrong way of sorting them. Personal preferences kick in at this point as each player has pretty clear pros and cons to their game.

I mentioned Mize and Gilbert being one and two among the best strikeout/walk statistical types in this class, but the real king in that area might be off the board a bit. Nick Sandlin of Southern Mississippi has posted an eye-popping 13.86 K/9 with only 1.14 BB/9. He’ll go well outside the first round because he’s a sinker/slider sidearmer who stands six feet tall on his best day, but his college dominance should in no way be downplayed. Other guys with big numbers (but better stuff/projection) include Griffin Roberts and Tim Cate. Kyle Brandish and Jason Bilous are personal favorites with great stuff and no control. The next tier down includes guys on the preseason list like Konnor Pilkington, Blaine Knight, and Jackson Kowar plus pitchers like Sean Hjelle and Tristan Beck. In other words, there’s a ton of quality pitching to go around even after the first few big names go off the board.

Nick Fortes, Ryan Jeffers, Nick Meyer, and Cal Raleigh were the four catchers identified before the season on this very site as being potential first round party crashers. Turns out none of that group will do so (still love them all, BTW), but Joey Bart, who wasn’t even mentioned with the “others” (13 total) at the position before the season, is likely the man for the job. I really like Bart, but the love for him that I keep hearing about — I’ve legitimately been in my own draft bubble this spring due to having no extra time beyond work/baby/my own writing, but I have just enough friends who read Fangraphs/Baseball America that I get fun questions about certain guys as they shoot up rankings — seems a little over the top to me. Here’s a couple of draft season lines for you…

.322/.394/.669 with 31 BB/47 K in 245 AB
.347/.457/.612 with 30 BB/40 K in 170 AB

Top was Mike Zunino in 2012, bottom is Bart so far in 2018. Not exactly twins, but there’s some family resemblance there, right? Maybe distant cousins or something. From a draft argument, this works out really well for Bart. Zunino went third overall in his draft, so why can’t Bart do something similar this year? I have no answer for that. I do know that I wouldn’t be the one to pick him at the top of the draft — warm take coming: maybe not even in the first round at all — and Zunino’s pro start would actually be a small strike against Bart for me. Zunino has had his ups and downs in his career with a case to be made he’s trending in the right direction, but he’s still a guy entering his age-27 season with a 90 career wRC+ though 1700 PA. No two players are the same and the disappointment of one outcome shouldn’t directly impact how we feel about a different individual, BUT I think there’s something to be gleaned from looking at what style of players succeed in making the transition to pro ball to find what particular traits and skills work best at the highest level. Bart is a really gifted hitter who deserves a ton of credit for the massive strides he’s made defensively this spring, but the amount of swing-and-miss in his game scares me enough to keep him from being one of the draft’s elite college hitting prospects. It seems like that’s a minority view at this point. I can live with that.

A few weeks ago I would have used this space to gear up for the forthcoming “Alec Bohm – Number One Overall Prospect in 2018″ post. Bohm’s bat has cooled just enough since then to officially put my Kris Bryant 2.0 takes on ice, but it bears repeating that I did mention Rhys Hoskins as a potential comp for Bohm before his breakout junior season began. That’s not me trying to say I called Bohm’s meteoric rise up the board this spring (I very much did not), but rather to point out Bohm’s success is hardly out of nowhere. He’s really, really good. The increasing likelihood he’ll be able to hang at third for at least a few years into his pro career has helped raise his stock as much as anything he’s done offensively. First baseman Alec Bohm was a mid-first round type. Third baseman Alec Bohm rightly belongs in the 1-1 mix.

Nick Madrigal has yet to strike out in 55 at bats this year. He’s incredible. If the worst thing you say about a baseball player is that he’s not as tall as you’d like, then he might be pretty good. Mize, Madrigal, Bohm, and the next guy are the four college players with the most obvious claims to the top overall pick. I’m not sure any one of them would be a bad choice.

Jonathan India was listed with the “others” in the potential first round third base prospect bin before the season. That would have put him with guys like Brendan Donovan, Romy Gonzalez, Kyle Datres, and Jordan Verdon. All but Gonzalez is having at least a solid season of that group, but India is on a whole other planet. I love Alec Bohm. I love the hype he’s apparently been getting this spring. I’m also not sure he’s clearly the better prospect when matched up head to head with Jonathan India. There may be a few too many strikeouts and I’d be open to arguments there’s no clear carrying tool, but India’s been able to pile up the walks at the same time and he’s loaded with legit above-average tools (hit, power, speed, arm, defense…literally all five tools!). Bohm’s awesome power may ultimately win the day, but India’s athleticism and well-roundedness are pretty damn appealing. He’s “better than [Dansby] Swanson” is something I’ve both heard and agree with.

I’ve finally come around to the idea that college shortstops aren’t as good an investment as I once believed. The hit rate on these guys sticking at the position in the pros ain’t great. That doesn’t mean they aren’t without value, of course. Johnny Eierman, likely a future third baseman, is like the Joey Bart of college middle infielders. Cadyn Grenier is as steady as they come defensively, but the bat feels a bit short for regular work. I continue to like Ford Proctor, Jax Biggers, and especially Richard Palacios, an all-around talent with enough of a shot to stick at short that he’s my early favorite to rank as my college shortstop…if I wind up ranking Eierman at third base. If not, that’ll be a fun debate that I’m guessing only I will be making.

The college outfielders in this class are kind of a mess. Griffin Conine is sliding. Travis Swaggerty is climbing. Greyson Jenista is holding on. Slight dips for Tristan Pompey and Alex McKenna. Trevor Larnach is trending up. The four outfielders (Alfonso Rivas, Brock Hale, Carlos Cortes, Lars Nootbaar) I tabbed from big-time conferences as potential first round candidates have all more or less flopped while the mid-major quartet of DJ Artis, Andrew Moritz, Jameson Hannah, and Ashton Bardzell have all done quite well for themselves. Swaggerty’s rise up the board has closely mimicked what Adam Haseley did in last year’s class. A slightly better Haseley, the eighth overall pick last year, feels like a more than fair comparison for Swaggerty, who has a chance to go slightly better than Haseley in this year’s draft. After Swaggerty gets selected, it’s anybody’s guess who is next out of this group. Could be Jenista, could be Larnach, could even be a team still after Conine. Interesting to note the strength of this group is in corner guys with power rather than true center fielders with speed.

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