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I still have a few weeks left to finalize things, so don’t consider the following statement set in stone just yet. However, I feel pretty good about this particular 2016 MLB Draft take: the top two high school third base prospects are better than the top two high school outfield prospects. I’ll take Josh Lowe and Nolan Jones over Mickey Moniak and Blake Rutherford. I’m not quite plugged in enough to know if that’s a bold statement or not, but it feels at least a little out there. Allow me to explain.
First off, I’m incredibly biased when it comes to Jones. I’m pleased to admit that out front because said admission of bias was well worth getting to watch him play a bunch this spring at Holy Ghost Prep. Getting the chance to see a young man with his kind of talent thirty minutes play his home games thirty minutes from the office was an incredible experience. Jones is an electrifying player who really can do it all as a prospect. In about twenty minutes of game time in his most recent appearance, he was able to hit a homer (one of two on the day), swipe a bag, and turn a slick double play at short. That run was topped only by an earlier game when he smoked the ball every time up before ending the game in extras with an opposite field rocket that cleared the fence in left. He’s outstanding. I think the sky is the limit for him as a professional ballplayer. I’ve seen him more frequently than any other top prospect in this class, which gives me a little more insight to his strengths and weaknesses as a player (whether or not said insight should be trusted is up to the reader) but also presents a challenge in fighting human nature. It’s only natural to want to see a player you’ve come to watch and appreciate throughout the past year succeed going forward. My assessment of him as a player won’t help him or hurt him in any conceivable way, but there’s definitely some subconscious work going on that pushes players we’re more familiar with up the board.
Of course, all of those firsthand observations can be a double-edged sword when it comes down to doing what I attempt to accomplish with this site. My process for evaluating players here includes all kinds of inputs, the least critical of which being what I see with my own two eyes. It’s not that I lack confidence my own personal evaluations; quite the opposite, really, so realizing that my ego needs to be in check brings me to not wanting to fall into the trap that has led to more botched first round picks than any other singular mistake. The easiest way to ruin all the hard work of so many is to have one supposed “expert” come in and make decisions with little regard to the opinions of the group. When a general manager overrules the collective decision of the scouting staff to select a first round player that he has fallen in love with after just a few short views, the resulting pick is almost always a disaster. It’s admittedly a rare occurrence – there’s a reason real analysis of a team’s drafting record gets pinned on the scouting director and not the general manager – but it does happen. Whether it’s ego, pressure to find a quick-mover to potentially save jobs (including his own), or actual conviction in the prospect (the most palatable option for sure, but still tough to stomach when dealing with small firsthand scouting samples), it happens.
Long story short: I don’t want to be like one of those GM’s. I like trusting what I read and hear, both publicly and privately, because those are the closest analogues to a “scouting staff” that any one outsider like me can hope to assemble. That will never stop me from going to games and showcases to form my own opinions, but I’d prefer to use those to supplement the larger scouting dossier assembled than to make up the basis of it. In many ways I consider what I see up close as a tie-breaker and not much more.
It is, however, quite nice when what I’ve heard is backed up by what I’ve seen. That’s exactly what has happened with Jones this spring. The total package is awfully enticing: chance for a legit plus hit tool (lightning fast hands, advanced pitch recognition, consistent hard contact), plus arm strength (confirmed via the eye and the low-90s fastballs on the gun) that is also uncannily accurate, average or better run times, prodigious raw power (have seen him go deep to all fields this spring), and loads of athleticism. I’d even go so far as to suggest he’s shown enough in the way of shortstop actions to at least get certain teams thinking about letting him try to stay up the middle for a bit, but that might be pushing it. Recent big shortstops like Carlos Correa and Corey Seager have reversed the trend somewhat, but I still think Jones would be best served getting third base down pat as a pro.
Finding reasonable comps for a lefthanded hitting third baseman – which, naturally, just so happens to be what our top three prospects here happen to be – is unreasonably challenging. I’ll start with the WHOA (not to be confused with wOBA, BTW) comp and work backwards.
One older fan – not a scout, not a Holy Ghost Prep booster, but just a fan of the game – was at frequent games this spring. I got friendly enough with the gentleman, around the same age (late-60s) as my father if I had to guess, over the course of the spring that he felt good about dropping an Eddie Mathews comp on Jones as an all-around player. Now that’s a name that gets your attention. My dad raves about Mathews’s physical tools to this day. All of the numbers suggest that he’s on the very short list of best lefthanded third basemen ever to play the game, so that’s not a comparison to be taken lightly. I’ll repeat that it was coming from a fan – though, again, not one with a vested interest in the team or the player, only the sport – and I’m nowhere near qualified to say whether or not he was on the right path with such a lofty comp, but, hey, Hall of Fame comps are fun, so there you go.
Two additional names that came up that I think fit the lefthanded hitting third base profile pretty well were Hank Blalock (strictly as a hitter, though I think the raw power difference between the two makes this one questionable) and Corey Koskie. The Koskie comparison is one I find particularly intriguing. Koskie, a criminally underrated player during his time, was good for a career 162 game average of .275/.367/.458 with 20 HR, 12 SB, and 75 BB/130 K. We’re totally pulling numbers out of thin air with any amateur prospect projection – doubly so with teenagers – but that seems like a reasonable hope based on what I’ve seen out of Jones. Offense like that combined with plus defense at third would make one heck of a player in today’s game. For reference’s sake, that’s almost like a better version of late-career Adrian Beltre. Of course, the mention of Beltre is not meant to serve as a direct comparison but rather a potential production comp.
Now if I wanted to drop a righthanded hitting third baseman comparison on Jones that wasn’t Beltre, I think I’d go with a young Ryan Zimmerman. His 162 game average to date: .282/.347/.473 with 25 HR, 5 SB, and 64 BB/124 K. Not entirely dissimilar to Koskie, right? A young Zimmerman/Koskie type is a tremendously valuable player, with those two each clocking in right around 4.0 fWAR average (Zimmerman a bit more, Koskie a hair less) during years of club control. Going back to our lefthanded third base comp in Koskie brings us to this final “hey, maybe Jones should be a top five pick in this class” moment of the day. Koskie, the 715th overall pick in 1994, finished his career with 24.6 rWAR. That total would have placed him fourth behind only Javier Vazquez (46.0), Nomar Garciaparra (44.2), and Paul Konerko (27.6) in his draft class. He’s just ahead of Jason Varitek (24.3) and AJ Pierzynski (24.0). My non-comprehensive look on the Fangraphs leaderboards has him ahead of all but Vazquez and Garciaparra. We live in a world where Corey Koskie ranked in the top three (or four) in a given draft class, so why not Nolan Jones?
Jones really is that good. Believe the hype. And yet I have him second to Josh Lowe. That should tell you a good bit about what I think about Lowe as a player. He’s a little bit of a higher variance prospect than Jones – more upside if it all clicks, but less certainty he turns into a solid professional than I’d put on Jones – so if I was a real scouting director with real future earnings on the line, I’m not sure I’d take him quite as high as he could wind up on my final rankings. The possibility, however, that he winds up as the best player to come out of this class is very real. He reminds me just a little bit of an opposite-hand version of this guy…
Bryant entered the summer with lofty expectations, but he often looked overmatched at the plate during the showcase circuit last summer. When he’s on, he’s a treat to watch. He has a lean, 6-foot-5, 195-pound frame and light-tower power that draws comparisons to a young Troy Glaus. The power, however, mostly shows up during batting practice or when he has a metal bat in his hands. There are a lot of moving parts to his swing and he has trouble barreling balls up with wood, so how much usable power he ends up having is a big question. He has a long, loopy swing and he never changes his approach when he’s struggling. He’s athletic for a big guy and may be able to handle third base. He has the arm for it, and some scouts said they wouldn’t be shocked if he eventually ended up on the mound. Some scouts love Bryant’s power enough to take him in the back half of the first round, while others turned him in as a token gesture and have little interest in him–especially for the price it will take to lure him away from his San Diego commitment.
I really, really like Josh Lowe, if that’s not already clear. I mean, I did once kind of compare him to Babe Ruth. I think a team would be justified taking either Lowe or Jones in the top ten…and quite possibly the top five…or maybe even top three. Let me stop now before I really get too far ahead of myself.
Drew Mendoza is a third potential first round high school third baseman with the kind of physical tools to project a long-term above-average regular at the hot corner. Opinions about his hit tool run the gamut from “love” (above-average to plus) to “wait, what’s the opposite of love again?” (too much swing-and-miss with exploitable holes against more advanced pitching), but I tend to side more with those who really liked him over the summer than those who have cooled on him some this spring. That again shows a little bit of the bias that I’d ideally eliminate from these evaluations – summer showcase performances are still generally given too much weight by many, myself included – but figuring out the right balance of so many informational inputs is the ongoing challenge of any talent evaluator. One interesting head-to-head prospect comparison I’ve had scouts debate over the past few months is Mendoza vs Carter Kieboom; I prefer the latter by a healthy margin, but there was little consensus among people I’ve talked to. My hunch is that Kieboom will be off the board first, but if the chatter I’ve heard is any indication, it’ll be very close.
Andres Sosa is neither built like Pope, Jones, nor Mendoz and he does not quite match any of those young lefthanders in the power department, but the righthander from Texas has a sweet stroke, a mature beyond his years approach to hitting, average or better speed, and high level defensive tools. He comes by it differently, but there are some similarities that I can see between Sosa, potential future Longhorn, and CJ Hinojosa, former Longhorn and current Giants prospect.
It’s easy to ignore high school statistics for top draft prospects. There are way too many complicating factors that make relying on performance indicators little more than a waste of time at that level, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun with some of the outstanding efforts put forth by some of this country’s best hitters. Take Bo Bichette, for example. All he’s done as a high school ballplayer is hit .545/.650/1.272 in 200 HS PA since his sophomore season. That line includes fifty extra base hits (almost half of which being home runs) with 52 BB and just 18 K. When you’re flirting with an OPS that begins with 2.something, you’re doing something right. It’s hard to put up such monster numbers in a competitive baseball state like Florida without having some pretty intriguing physical abilities to match. Interestingly enough, one of his physical traits that seems to have talked about the most is something that not all agree is a good thing. Bichette’s “weird back elbow thing” has been brought up by multiple contacts as a potential point of concern going forward; others, however, aren’t bothered by it in the least. I suppose like any unique swing setup, it’s only an issue for those who don’t believe in him as a hitter in the first place. If you like him, it’s a fun quirk that will either work as a pro or be smoothed out just enough to keep working after getting in the cage a few dozen times with pro coaching.
If you don’t like him, then it’s hard to get past. This is far from a one-to-one comparison, but the never-ending discussion among scouts about Bichette’s mechanics at the plate reminds me of the internet’s incessant chatter about Maikel Franco’s “arm-bar swing.” Breaking down players’ mechanics to the point that no pro team ever does makes you stand out as super smart on the internet, you see. Less cynically, I’d acknowledge that young hitters are hard to judge, so it’s hard to blame a neutral observer tasked with making a long-term assessment on a prospect’s future for being concerned with a hitter who does something different at the plate. Different can get you fired in this business, after all.
My own stance on hitting/pitching mechanics hasn’t changed much over the years: if it works for the individual and he is comfortable repeating it consistently, let it ride. I get that there are instances where guys can get away with mechanical quirks against lesser competition that need to be noted and potentially tweaked as they advance, but, for the most part, positive results beget positive results. If a kid can hit, let them do what they do until they stop hitting. Then and only then do you swoop in and start making peripheral changes to the approach. Of course, this makes me sound like a caveman: results over process is a terrible way to analyze anything, especially if we’re trying to make any kind of predictive critical assessments. Process is critical, no doubt, but I’m open to all kinds of processes that get results; it should go without saying but just in case, there’s no “right” way to swing a bat. Open-mindedness about the process is as important as any other factor when scouting.
I guess my positive spin on players with unique mechanics is simple: if a guy like Bichette can hit the ball hard consistently with a “wrong” swing, then, as a scout confident in my team’s minor league coaching and development staff, I’d be pretty excited to get him signed to a contract to see what he could do once they “fix” him. Said fix would ideally be a tweak more than a total reconstruction – why completely tear down a productive player’s swing when you don’t have to? – but drafting a player you plan on drastically altering mechanically doesn’t make a ton of sense in the first place anyway.
Draft Bichette for his electric bat speed, above-average to plus raw power, and drastically improved whole-fields approach as a hitter. Draft him because he’s a solid runner who has flashed enough defensive tools to profile at multiple spots (3B, 2B, corner OF) on the diamond. Draft him because you believe that his “weird back elbow thing” can be channeled in a positive direction and turned into a helpful trigger when facing off against high-caliber arms. Don’t draft him to reinvent him as something he’s not.
3B Austin Shenton (Bellingham HS, Washington)
3B Blake Berry (Casa Grande HS, California)
3B Braden Shewmake (Wylie East HS, Texas)
3B Brett Esau (Foothills Composite SS, Saskatchewan)
3B Chad McClanahan (Brophy College Prep, Arizona)
3B Cole Henderson (Valhalla HS, California)
3B Colin Ludwig (Chandler HS, Arizona)
3B Jake Slaughter (Ouachita Christian HS, Louisiana)
3B Joey Polak (Quincy Notre Dame HS, Illinois)
3B Joey Rose (Toms River North HS, New Jersey)
3B Kyle Johnson (Jackson Memorial HS, New Jersey)
3B Laney Orr (Reynolds HS, North Carolina)
3B Mason Templet (St. Thomas More HS, Louisiana)
3B Matthew Miller (Paintsville HS, Kentucky)
3B Mitchell Caskey (Westside HS, Texas)
3B Peyton Russoniello (Quaker Valley HS, Pennsylvania)
3B Riley Hogan (Edgewater HS, Florida)
3B Spencer Steer (Millikan HS, California)
3B William Matthiessen (West Linn HS, Oregon)
3B Zach Weller (Coronado HS, California)
3B/2B Bo Bichette (Lakewood HS, Florida)
3B/OF Anthony Gonnella (Riverside HS, Florida)
3B/RHP Grant Judkins (Pella HS, Iowa)
3B/RHP Josh Lowe (Pope HS, Georgia)
3B/RHP Mason Studstill (Rockledge HS, Florida)
3B/RHP Matt Mervis (Georgetown Prep, Maryland)
3B/RHP Rylan Thomas (Windermere Prep, Florida)
3B/SS Andres Sosa (Reagan HS, Texas)
3B/SS Colton Welker (Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS, Florida)
3B/SS Daniel Bakst (Poly Prep Country Day School, New York)
3B/SS Drew Mendoza (Lake Minneola HS, Florida)
3B/SS Kevin Brophy (Morristown-Beard School, New Jersey)
3B/SS Luis Curbelo (Cocoa HS, Florida)
3B/SS Matt Burkart (Eaton HS, Colorado)
3B/SS Nolan Jones (Holy Ghost Prep, Pennsylvania)