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Brendan McKay, Adam Haseley, Pavin Smith, and Drew Ellis are the four clear top tier ACC hitting prospects in the 2017 MLB Draft. I’m not sure anybody would quibble with the first three — though you’re free to do so, of course — so that leaves Ellis as the only somewhat controversial pick. I’d like to think my love for him is pretty well established by now, so I won’t go into too much detail why I think the present .405/.500/.759 hitter with plus raw power and more walks than strikeouts deserves serious first round consideration. Some clarity on his long-term defensive home would be nice, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily needed with how he’s hitting. As a third baseman, he’s a potential star. Same for a corner outfield spot. At first base, the bar is raised high enough that you’d have to knock him down the board just a bit, but not all that far considering the confidence I have in him continuing to hit past the necessary threshold to start in the big leagues there. There’s more to player evaluation than college production (duh), but worth pointing out that Ellis and McKay, more likely to go out as a hitter with every passing four homer day, have very similar 2017 numbers. If the latter is a slam dunk starter at first at the next level, then why couldn’t Ellis do the same if that’s what it comes down to?
Beyond that foursome, things are wide open. I’d be willing to hear arguments on any of the following seven players being tier one prospects: Taylor Walls, Brian Miller, Colby Fitch, Gavin Sheets, Stuart Fairchild, Logan Warmoth, and Devin Hairston. That’s six up-the-middle prospects plus the seemingly unstoppable bat of Sheets. The next tier down includes too many players to even bother listing at this point. I mean, I’ll do it anyway because writing more than necessary is true to my #brand, but it’s almost too many names to derive much meaning beyond “damn, the ACC is stacked this year.” There are consensus favorites with impressive tools who have underwhelmed (note: we’re only using “underwhelmed” in the context of incredibly high expectations of on-field numbers; none of these guys are having bad years by any stretch, it’s just that they are showing one or more flaws that would need to be addressed by any interested front office) from a performance standpoint to date (Evan Mendoza, Logan Taylor, Carl Chester, Kyle Datres, Joe Dunand) as well as personal favorites like Rhett Aplin, Wade Bailey, Reed Rohlman, Trevor Craport, Cody Roberts, Ben Breazeale, Robbie Coman (who, incidentally, I’ll be very glad once he’s drafted and gone from my life since my fingers want to spell his last name “Comand” every single time), Ernie Clement, Tyler Lynn, Bruce Stell, and Charlie Cody…damn, the ACC really is stacked this year.
Here are some All-Draft Prospect Teams that I whipped up while my computer was dead last week. I’m going to try to do these for as many conferences as I can squeeze in. The depth of the ACC let me go three teams deep. Here’s the first team…
C – Colby Fitch
1B – Pavin Smith
2B – Taylor Walls
SS – Logan Warmoth
3B – Drew Ellis
OF – Adam Haseley, Brian Miller, Stuart Fairchild
I think every one of these guys has been covered by now with the exception of Stuart Fairchild. The Wake Forest center fielder has one of this year’s most well-rounded skill sets. Averages dot his card with above-averages within range (perhaps a plus for speed) depending on how much you like him. Fairchild is also one of this class’s “great approach, hasn’t really shown it” types. Everybody who has seen him has raved to me about his pitch recognition, ability to spoil good pitchers’s pitches, and general knowledge of the strike zone, but his BB/K ratios have been up (39/42 last year) and down (18/40 as a freshman, 22/37 so far this year) throughout his college career. Count me in as a believer that the results will catch up to his talent in pro ball. Fairchild has the ceiling of a first-division regular in center with a mature enough present skill set that seems too strong across the board to result in a complete flame out. In English, I like both his ceiling and floor quite a bit.
What you think about Taylor Walls‘s defense should dictate how high you’re willing to run him up your board. Indecisive internet draft writer that I am, I vacillate between shortstop and second base on him far more often than I’d like to admit. Case in point: when I wrote this last night, I decided on second base for him. The logic there was simple: his arm may be a bit light for short and erring on the side of caution in cases like these (i.e, if there’s debate on whether or not an amateur guy will stick at a position, chances are he won’t) often proves the smartest strategy in the long run. On the other hand, his range is great, he’s an above-average runner (a solid proxy for athleticism), and some of the mixed opinions on his arm have it closer to playing plus than anything. So…I don’t know. I’m leaning shortstop today after having him as a second baseman yesterday. Ask me again tomorrow and I might make him a free safety. Wherever he plays, he’s a keeper. Maybe you don’t see a regular when looking at him (or maybe you do), but it’s hard not to see a big league player in some capacity.
I’m still not convinced Adam Haseley isn’t a top ten player in this class. Maybe I’m nuts. I can live with that. I also don’t see why the aforementioned Drew Ellis can’t crack the top thirty. These are really good players. The feeling I get about Ellis reminds me a little bit how I felt about Edwin Rios, sixth round steal by the Dodgers in 2015. I loved Rios then (ranked 119, drafted 192) and I love Ellis even more now. The second he inevitably falls out of the first round, he’ll then become one of this draft’s best value picks.
C – Cody Roberts
1B – Brendan McKay
2B – Wade Bailey
SS – Devin Hairston
3B – Charlie Cody
OF – Tyler Lynn, Logan Taylor, Carl Chester
Happy to keep banging the drum for Charlie Cody from now until draft day. He can hit. Putting him back at his high school position of third base in the pros takes a significant leap of faith after he’s spent the past three years splitting time between DH and LF, but I’m enough of a believer in his bat that moving him to an outfield corner wouldn’t torpedo his value altogether. I like Wade Bailey a lot as well; his stock should keep rising considering the general dearth of quality middle infielders in this college class.
I’ve mentally gone back and forth between Pavin Smith and Brendan McKay a dozen times this spring with the expectation I do it another half-dozen times between now and the draft. I’m not really sure you can go wrong with either at this point. Smith feels like the better all-around hitter (by a razor thin margin), but McKay has more present functional power. Add in McKay’s ability as a pitcher and it’s hard to argue he’s the better (and safer) overall prospect. I still like Smith a bit more as a position player, so that’s what gives him the nod over McKay for this particular exercise.
Logan Taylor and Carl Chester are cut from the same cloth. We’re talking speed, defense, and minimal pop. It’s a prospect profile I’ve never been able to quit even as I see players like this get exposed in pro ball year after year. The floor makes it worth it at a certain point in the draft, but I need to stop overrating these types. Will I? Stay tuned!
C – Robbie Coman
1B – Gavin Sheets
2B – Ernie Clement
SS – Bruce Steel
3B – Joe Dunand
OF – Rhett Aplin, Reed Rohlman, Jonathan Pryor
I wrote about Wake Forest in an as yet unpublished piece that will likely never see the light of day. It was half-finished, so I didn’t get to all of the big names on this year’s Demon Deacons team…but I did get to Bruce Steel. Here’s what I wrote about him about three weeks ago…
Bruce Steel makes my head hurt as a low-average, high-OBP, shockingly high-power potential middle infielder. His limited experience as a redshirt-sophomore after tearing ligaments in his thumb in 2016 just makes it all the more confusing. I’m super intrigued by Steel and think he’s getting slept on pretty heavily within the industry. His power and makeup are both legit (first two things I hear about when asking about him), reports about his defense this year at shortstop have been far more good than bad, and he’s young for his class (turns 21 in December). Did I just talk myself into making him a rare in-season FAVORITE? You bet.
Also wrote this about Jonathan Pryor with an lead-in about Ben Breazeale, who was narrowly edged out for this third catcher spot by Robbie Coman…
Ben Breazeale’s hot start brings me great joy. I thought a big year was coming last season, but better late than never. He’s an outstanding senior-sign catcher with more than enough glove to stick behind the plate and enough offensive punch to profile as a big league backup. Jonathan Pryor could do similar things as an outfielder who can hang in center and provide a little something with the stick. It’s early yet, but his 15/20 BB/K ratio is cool to see from somebody who put up an impossibly ugly 5/40 ratio just two seasons ago.
Pryor’s BB/K is now at 23/32 for those of you scoring at home.
Then there’s Gavin Sheets. I have no idea what to do with Gavin Sheets. I think he hits enough to play regularly in the big leagues. As a first baseman, that means I think he’ll hit a whole heck of a lot. If he can do that, he’ll become only the third ever Gavin (Floyd and Cecchini beat him) to play in the majors. I’m leaning towards Sheets as the fifth best draft-eligible bat in the conference and think he’ll represent great value to teams if he winds up sliding on draft day as expected. I know teams pay a premium for up-the-middle talent, but sometimes the allure of a big bat is just too strong to ignore.
Others receiving consideration…
C – Ben Breazeale, Chris Williams, Ryan Lidge
1B – Sam Fragale, Quincy Nieporte, Justin Bellinger, Kel Johnson
2B – Jack Owens, Jake Palomaki, Johnny Ruiz, Kyle Fiala
SS – Justin Novak, Liam Sabino
3B – Trevor Craport, Ryan Tufts, Jack Labosky, Evan Mendoza, Kyle Datres, Dylan Busby, Zack Gahagan
OF – Jacob Wright, Chase Pinder, Coleman Poje, Ryan Peurifoy, Hunter Tackett, Adam Pate, Josh McLain, Brock Deatherage, Mac Caples, Rahiem Cooper
I’m down on this year’s college hitting class on the whole, but you really wouldn’t know it based on the first two positions previewed. We took care of the catchers a few weeks back; that group is admittedly more of a list of personal favorites rather than guys I genuinely believe will crash the top one hundred pick party. First base, however, looks pretty damn loaded to me. A strong emphasis on up-the-middle defenders has caused fans and front office types alike to reevaluate the relative importance of big bats confined to first base. This is a pretty easy concept to grasp, but since I knew it felt familiar writing about it — pretty sure I do this every year — and took the time to look it up, here’s a true blast from the past on the topic from almost six (!) whole years ago…
What I think I’ve always been fascinated about with respect to first base prospects is the high stakes gamble that comes with taking a first baseman early on draft day. If your athletic five-tool up-the-middle draft prospect doesn’t hit as expected, you’ve still got — wait, let me get my calculator — four tools, including defense and the ancillary positional value boost, remaining. If your first base prospect doesn’t hit (and hit a ton), then you’re left with nothing but regret.
Snappy writing! Here’s a guy on the internet talking to himself again, this time from May 2013…
Taking shots on bat-first guys in those rounds [5-10] has always been a favorite draft practice of mine. All things being equal you’d rather have a toolsy, athletic prospect perched atop the defensive chain (C/SS/CF), but those guys aren’t always hanging around in the middle rounds waiting to be signed easily. Bringing in a handful of guys you know can hit in every draft seems like a smart idea as well. Drafting is such an inexact science/art that you can’t point to any one player as the model prospect for a given strategy, but I’m going to do it anyway. The Diamondbacks drafted the tenth college first baseman off the board in 2008 with pick 246 in the eighth round. Paul Goldschmidt could never hit another ball hard for the rest of his career — spoiler: that won’t happen — and they would still have gotten tremendous value for the pick. Heck, move up a few rounds and you’ll find Brandon Belt to the Giants in the fifth. There are equal and opposite examples that knock down the argument a bit — still waiting on AJ Kirby-Jones to hit — but too often college first basemen are knocked unfairly as throwaway picks outside of the first few rounds. There will always be a need for guys who can hit. These guys can hit.
Good call on Goldschmidt not immediately retiring after finishing that post. Was holding my breath on that one. Once more from March 2014…
College first basemen are some of the most difficult players to rank this early in the draft process because, of any amateur position, first base is the spot I utilize data almost as much as scouting reports. There are many things to look for in young batters when it comes to projecting the hit and power tool; for starters, you’re looking for swing mechanics (balance, rotation, gather, load, fluidity, repeatability, etc.), vision (tracking pitches), bat to ball contact (cliché or not, there is a unique sound you’re hoping to hear), bat speed, and, one of my biggest things for power, how well the hitter’s upper and lower body work together. Seeing and hearing about these things is vitally important, but, more so than any other tools (and to paraphrase national treasure Rasheed Wallace), bat don’t lie. If you can hit, your production will reflect it.
I stand by this today. Too many like to bust on people who “scout the box scores,” but, you know what, you can learn a whole heck of a lot based on information found in box scores. Those box scores reflect real world events that actually happened on a baseball field. You can’t learn everything from them, of course, but I’m not sure anybody is arguing that. I’d still bet if you found a list of most productive college hitters and adjusted for park/schedule/age, those players would stack up really well with either draft position, professional success, or both. This gets trickier the more you begin to factor in the aspects of scouting that aren’t reflected in a basic box score (i.e., this would work a lot better for one-dimensional sluggers than five-tool athletes at premium defensive spots), but I think using on-field performance indicators as a starting point (if nothing else) makes sense. ANYWAY, last one from December 2015 back when I had my act together and was posting real draft thoughts six months ahead of the big day rather than two…
(This may totally undercut the previous point, but it’s crazy enough to me that I don’t mind. You want the list of first day college first basemen taken since I started the site back in 2009? We’ve got Chris Shaw, Casey Gillaspie, CJ Cron, and…that’s it. Three guys in seven drafts. That probably shouldn’t amaze me, but it does. As we’ve repeated already, many first basemen are made and not born. College first day guys who can also handle and may eventually play 1B full-time include Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, and Stephen Piscotty. I think all can be corner outfielders at worst, but reasonable minds may disagree. If you’re feeling kind you could also add Bryce Brentz, Kyle Parker, and Michael Choice to that list. I’m not sure I see a future big league first baseman of worth out of that trio, but you never know, right? I suppose the point here is that recent historical trends point towards college first basemen lasting longer than one might think. Or maybe it’s a coincidence based on the fact that we’ve had an unusually underwhelming group of college sluggers in this time frame. Or maybe it’s an arbitrary endpoints thing. Who knows!)
Embarrassing confession time: I don’t know how many picks constitute the “first day” of the draft. Does it change year to year? It must. Do the rounds they televise change? Or is it always the first two? Does that include the supplemental second round? After an exhausting thirty seconds of trying my best to remember, I still wasn’t 100% sure. Thankfully, it’s 2017 and Google exists, so SB Nation to the rescue. I am glad I double-checked rather than just relying on memory — probably would have gone first round and comp picks only — because we can now add 2016 second rounder Pete Alonso to the list. That’s four guys in eight drafts. Will Craig could be the fifth guy, but Baseball Reference has him listed as a 3B on their draft page so that’s that. If I expand my list to Top 100 picks, then we can add AJ Reed, Sam Travis, Daniel Palka, Alex Dickerson, Rich Poythress, Tyler Townsend, and Ben Paulsen to the list. Those last three, all taken in the top 100 — top 90 if you want to be precise — in 2009, my first year doing this for the site, are probably the reason why I didn’t use Top 100 as a cutoff in the first place. So that’s eleven college first basemen in eight drafts taken within the first 100 picks. Wording it that way doesn’t give it quite the same punch as four guys in eight drafts, but it’s still not a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.
If you’ve read this far, thank you and sorry for losing the plot. The point of everything above, if there is one at all, is fairly open-ended. I think there’s something to these recent draft trends; real big league teams would be wise to take note and set their own big boards accordingly. Ultimately, my personal hypothesis is that college first basemen remain undervalued draft day assets. Nobody following the modern game will tell you the recent movement towards athleticism and defense is anything but brilliant, lest they get made fun of Twitter for having an opinion that breaks from consensus. I like athletes and premium defenders as much as they next guy. BUT…you need players who can hit, too. And if we’re trying to apply a lesson to any of the rambling mess that preceded this, then maybe all it takes to “win” on draft day is a general awareness of the larger trends going on across baseball. Pick a bat or two you like and wait it out. If you believe there’s any predictive power in yesterday’s post, then at least one or two of the players listed in this top ten will fall outside of the draft’s top ten rounds. That’s wild to me. These are good players! If all of baseball is zigging towards one type of player, then maybe consider zagging towards the big bats. Just a thought.
Hey, 2017 college first basemen! Almost forget about them. Here’s a list…
- Virginia JR 1B/OF Pavin Smith
- Louisville JR 1B/LHP Brendan McKay
- Kentucky JR 1B/OF Evan White
- Wake Forest JR 1B Gavin Sheets
- Michigan State rSO 1B/LHP Alex Troop
- Oregon State JR 1B/C KJ Harrison
- Binghamton rSO 1B/3B Justin Yurchak
- BYU JR 1B/C Colton Shaver
- Florida JR 1B/C JJ Schwarz
- UCLA JR 1B/3B Sean Bouchard
And here are some 2016 lines to kick things off…
.329/.410/.513 with 36 BB/23 K in 228 AB
.333/.414/.513 with 24 BB/33 K in 228 AB
That’s freaky, right? Nearly identical triple-slash lines, same number of at bats, and almost perfectly inverted BB/K ratios. Top is Pavin Smith, bottom is Brendan McKay. There’s been some divergence in their numbers so far in 2017…
.328/.394/.597 – 16 BB/5 K – 134 AB
.388/.508/.633 – 24 BB/16 K – 98 AB
…but not so significantly that any pre-season beliefs should be tossed out. McKay is a really great prospect. When you factor in his ability as a pitcher — and likelihood that he remains a pitcher rendering everything written below little more than a potential backup plan — I’d give him an edge over Smith as an overall prospect. As a hitter and hitter only, I lean Smith. Before we get to him, the skinny on McKay as a hitter…
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.
As for Smith, I’m still not really sure what he doesn’t do well. It’s a true plus hit tool with a picture perfect swing, outstanding plate coverage, and standout pitch recognition. His raw power is above-average to plus and already showing up in games. He’s a well above-average glove at first with enough athleticism and arm strength (88-93 FB pre-TJ surgery) to at least give some teams pause when considering his long-term defensive position. Seriously, what’s not to like about him as an offensive player?
If we wanted to nitpick — and we DO — then it’s worth pointing out that there have been some whispers about less than ideal bat speed. Fine, I guess. I struggle with identifying bat speed outside of the extremes, so I’m happy to tip my cap to anybody who can tag a guy with an above- or below-average swing of the bat using only the naked eye. I can’t, so I try not to judge. Can’t say I’ve noticed anything all that remarkable — good or bad — about Smith’s bat speed, and at some point his outstanding three years of hitting high-level amateur pitching should win out anyway. It’s the current Rowdy Tellez argument manifesting itself in college ball. I like Tellez. I like Smith.
I’ve also heard some BASEBALL MEN chatter about Virginia hitters struggling to adjust to pro ball. Can’t say I really buy that one, though I suppose the murderer’s row of Phil Gosselin, Jarrett Parker, John Hicks, and Chris Taylor haven’t exactly lit the world on fire in the pros. Brandon Guyer, Ryan Zimmerman, and Mark Reynolds give the Cavaliers a little more clout, but that’s going way back. I remember liking guys like Tyler Cannon, Dan Grovatt, Steve Proscia, Stephen Bruno, and Reed Gragnani with little to nothing to show for it in terms of pro success. Mike Papi, Derek Fisher, and Daniel Pinero seem primed to turn the reputation around…if you think the reputation needed turning around in the first place. And then there’s this guy…
.338/.427/.518 with 74 BB/55 K and 4/5 SB in 554 AB
.323/.394/.515 with 78 BB/68 K and 5/12 SB in 637 AB
Top is Matt Thaiss’s career numbers at Virginia. Those were good enough to get him selected sixteenth overall last year. Bottom is what Smith has done so far. Feels like there’s a comparison to be made between the two hitters in there somewhere. Like Thaiss last year, mid-first round feels like a fair landing spot for Smith as of now.
Pumping Evan White up as a potential regular at first base takes a little more of a leap of faith considering his underwhelming plate discipline (29 BB/75 K) through two seasons at Kentucky. Despite the ugly numbers, however, scouts who have seen a lot of White up close have maintained that his approach isn’t that of a hacker who will never get it but a far more mature hitter who shows the kinds of flashes of pitch recognition and patience that give them confidence he’ll wind up with a manageable or better BB/K ratio in the long run. Those two sentences were written before the season, believe it or not. This is absolutely not a comp, but the feedback I got on White over the offseason reminded me a bit about what I was consistently told about Kyle Lewis last winter. The approach looks bad on the stat sheet for now, but all scouting signs point to better days ahead. They were right on Lewis and they seem to be right on White so far.
Smith and McKay are both clearly great prospects, but White, while not the best (yet) of this group, is my favorite. He has such a funky profile that is unlike almost anybody I’ve ever covered. How into White am I? I was at a bachelor party this past weekend boring my brother and the father of the groom-to-be about “this freaky athletic first baseman at Kentucky who could seamlessly make the move to center field.” White is a fantastic athlete who is an easy plus defender at first. He’s got the above-average to plus arm and above-average foot speed to handle the outfield, a move that would make perfect sense if the prospect of him playing transcendent defense at first didn’t exist. George Horton, via D1 Baseball, compared him to JT Snow. In addition to Snow, I heard a really good comp for White recently…and I have one of my own to offer. I’ll let you decide which is which: Jeff King (on the lower end) and Derrek Lee (on the upper end). A spectrum from King to Snow (if you can forgive the handedness) to Lee seems like a fair range of big league outcomes for White.
Reading up on Alex Troop this past offseason, the same thought kept occurring to me over and over: Troop is the cold weather version of Brendan McKay. Hyperbolic? Sure, but only a little. Troop is really good and not nearly discussed enough as one of the college game’s best two-way prospects. Most smart people I’ve checked in with prefer him on the mound. I get it. He’s 86-92 with his fastball with an easy plus 77-80 CU (one of my favorites of its kind in this entire class) and a usable 79-80 breaking ball. Still, I can’t shake the thought of what a 6-5, 210 pound present hit over power type (with power coming on fast) and a seasoned veteran’s approach at the plate could do once dedicated to hitting full time.
If you’re not buying the Troop/McKay parallels, let me try another prospect to prospect comparison. There’s a lot about Gavin Sheets, mainly as a hitter, that reminds me of Evan White. Both are hit over power types with lots of athleticism. Wake Forest is a great place to hit, but I’m buying Sheets’s bat in a big way right now.
It’s only natural to lump KJ Harrison, Colton Shaver, and JJ Schwarz together as prospects. All three have experience behind the plate, but, as their presence on this list suggests, are likely to move full-time to first base in the pros. I’m typically slower to move prospects down the defensive spectrum if I can help it, but sometimes the most likely outcome is exactly how things play out. “It’s always the person you least suspect” is nonsense, after all. It’s almost always the person you most suspect! So maybe it’s time to stop overthinking things here and start buying into the defensive groupthink a little more freely. We’ll see.
Harrison is the most likely of the three to remain a catcher, so he gets bonus points for that. He also gets bonus points for really knowing how to hit. Most of the feedback I had on this group of players had some combination of McKay, Smith, and Harrison as the top trio of hitters. Watching Harrison work is a joy. He takes some of the most professional amateur at bats around. He can hit it anywhere on the field, deftly taking what the pitchers give him and willing to shoot the ball the other way or up the middle when necessary. I think pro scouts and coaches are really going to love Harrison in a way that us amateur chumps don’t quite appreciate just yet.
Shaver is the least likely of the three to remain a catcher. Power bats from Shaver’s part of the country are a little scary due to park factors inflating offense, but the BYU slugger’s power is prodigious enough to play in any park in the country. That power coupled with a mature approach make him a bat to watch, slow offensive start to 2017 or not. Speaking of slow starts…
I brag a lot about not overreacting to small samples, but when those small samples cease to be all that small…well, that’s a different beast altogether. JJ Schwarz’s dip in production and increasingly tepid scouting reports are tough to ignore. “Defense and body took major step back in 2016” is a line taken directly from my notes that scares me every single time I read it. His athletic profile fascinates me. Schwarz improved a lot in both areas as a freshman, took that aforementioned step back in 2016 as a sophomore, and then took a small step ahead on the Cape this past summer. Through it all I never really considered his bat to be anything but a weapon going forward — major bat speed (I know, I know…I’m a hypocrite), serious power, and a freshman season so good you could always point to as proof that he can do it — but this spring has been undeniably underwhelming. I started the season thinking we’d be having the same debates we had last year about Zack Collins, but now think Schwarz’s closest college comparison might be Matt LaPorta. Read into that what you will.
ACC bats make up three of the top four prospects on this list. Number seven on the list comes from Binghamton by way of another ACC school (Wake Forest). Justin Yurchak hit in 2015. He’s hit in 2017. It’s not a huge sample, but sometimes spotting a hitter who can hit isn’t exactly rocket science. My only question with Yurchak right now is about his defense. It’s a happy question, too. Is Yurchak miscast with the first basemen here? Can he play a good enough third base to stick there in the pros? I don’t know the answers to those questions yet — if you do, let me know — but I’m excited to find out more about him over the next two months. I know he can hit, and that’s more than enough for now.
Sean Bouchard is still a little too aggressive for his own good, but his power, arm, and athleticism will check a lot of boxes for teams. Bouchard isn’t really my type, but finding a tenth guy for this list was a bigger challenge than anticipated. My hunch is that will change by June when I have a little more time to dig deeper and find bats more to my liking. But if Bouchard keeps up his .300/.400/.600 pace then he’ll be tough to push out ugly BB/K or not…
A few other names of note are listed below. It’s hardly an exhaustive list…we have to save something for June, right?
Chipola JC SO 1B/OF Reynaldo Rivera
Duke JR 1B Justin Bellinger
Georgia Tech JR 1B/OF Kel Johnson
Hartford SR 1B/3B David MacKinnon
Hawaii JR 1B Eric Ramirez
Michigan JR 1B/3B Drew Lugbauer
Seattle JR 1B Sean Sutton
Southern Illinois Edwardsville SR 1B Keaton Wright
UNC Wilmington JR 1B Mason Berne
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)
JR RHP Kyle Funkhouser (2015)
rSO LHP Josh Rogers (2015)
rSO LHP Robert Strader (2015)
JR RHP/1B Anthony Kidston (2015)
SR 2B/SS Zach Lucas (2015)
JR 1B/3B Dan Rosenbaum (2015)
SR OF Michael White (2015)
SR 2B/SS Sutton Whiting (2015)
SO RHP Zack Burdi (2016)
SO LHP Drew Harrington (2016)
SO RHP Jake Sparger (2016)
SO OF Corey Ray (2016)
SO 2B/OF Nick Solak (2016)
rFR 3B/SS Blake Tiberi (2016)
rFR OF/C Ryan Summers (2016)
SO OF Colin Lyman (2016)
SO C Will Smith (2016)
FR LHP/1B Brendan McKay (2017)
FR SS/2B Devin Hairston (2017)
FR RHP Lincoln Henzman (2017)
FR RHP Kade McClure (2017)
FR C/1B Colby Fritch (2017)
JR RHP Kyle Funkhouser is going to be covered tomorrow. I went from having nothing to say about him — he’s a very what you see is what you get prospect for me, which makes him really good but tough to personally write about — to writing close to 4,000 words. That’ll be up tomorrow morning.
I’ve got nothing but love for SR 2B/SS Sutton Whiting, one of college ball’s foremost examples of how good things can happen if you keep grinding and play within yourself. Whiting can run, throw (though his arm is more accurate than strong), and spoil pitchers’ pitches. Ignore what you’re about to read about Zach Lucas (I really should plan these things better and stop skipping around…) because Whiting is the far better example of a senior sign that you can draft and develop with a clearly designed path to get him to (at least) the upper-minors. He’s a ready-made potential utility player right out of the box with almost all of the standard pluses (speed, patience, glove, arm accuracy) and minuses (power, requisite strikeouts that come with working deep counts, raw arm strength) that you’d expect. I can dig it.
SR 2B/SS Zach Lucas (told you we’d get to him) doesn’t have the power to profile as anything but a defense-first utility player (if that), but he’s a scrappy college player with plus defensive tools and instincts and that’s worth mentioning even if he never makes his mark on pro ball. That’s one type of college senior sign prospect, albeit not exactly the perfect player (Lucas is hitting .208/.310/.309…so just pretend I used Whiting to illustrate this point instead) to use as the archetype: defined role, limited upside, reasonable expectations of reaching/maintaining floor value. A different type of college senior sign prospect is SR OF Michael White. White fits the model of underexposed but physically gifted prospect with as yet untapped (for a variety of reasons) upside. I can’t make any bold proclamation on White’s future, except to t say he’s a really intriguing under the radar name to know in the event your goal is to look smarter (or more annoying) than 99.99% of the world’s baseball loving population. He’s a great athlete with monster raw power and enough speed and instincts for center. He’s never been able to get steady playing time in the Cardinals lineup, so there’s really no telling how good (or not so good) he’d be in an extended look. I hope he gets the chance in pro ball.
rSO LHP Josh Rogers gets swallowed up by the FUNKHOUSER hype, a perfectly understandable yet unfortunate matter of fact that happens when you share a the top of a rotation with a potential top ten pick and one of the nation’s top freshmen (LHP/1B Brendan McKay). Rogers, a Tommy John surgery survivor, has decent velocity for a lefty (85-90, has been up to 92-93 in the past) and a workable breaking ball. He’s always gotten results when called upon (8.13 K/9 and 2.08 BB/9 last year, 7.65 K/9 and 2.18 BB/9 this year), so, if signable (non-stars with two remaining years of eligibility don’t always jump at the first pro offer they get) there’s really no reason why he shouldn’t be drafted and tried as a pro starter this summer. I don’t know anything about fellow rSO LHP Robert Strader except for the fact that he’s a lefty with a quality name (baseball needs more Robert’s) and good size (6-5, 210), but he’s kept guys from scoring the past two seasons (1.93 ERA last year, 1.20 ERA so far this year) and that’s a good thing. He is missing more bats this year (still walking too many guys though), so consider him a name to keep on eye on as we get closer to June until I find more out about him.
JR RHP/1B Anthony Kidston hasn’t hit since 6 AB his freshman year, yet I still list him as a RHP/1B. Some things in life can’t be explained. Or they can be explained very easily: I’m lazy. On the mound, Kidston has struck out over a batter per nine in his career so far (9.43 K/9 to be exact), so you can overlook his ugly 2015 ERA. His stuff doesn’t blow you away, which is a phrase you almost always when a guy doesn’t have a big fastball. Rarely if ever do you hear that with any attention paid to a player’s offspeed stuff. I’m guilty of doing exactly that here as Kidston actually has a pair of solid secondary pitches (CB and CU), but falls short with his heater (86-90). The overall package is draftable for me because of Kidston’s track record, athleticism, and reasonably enticing stuff.
I know college baseball fans have noticed, but I’m not sure how much casual fans of the game realize how Louisville has turned into a professional producing machine in recent years. Next year’s draft will feature Cardinals like SO RHP Zack Burdi (like him a little less as a reliever than his brother, but think he has the higher likelihood of starting as a pro, which could ultimately make him the better prospect), SO OF Corey Ray (one of 2016’s best power/speed athletes who could really take off with a jump in plate discipline), and SO 2B/OF Nick Solak (personal favorite who wins with a great approach and underrated pop and speed). Then there is SO LHP Drew Harrington (commands three pitches and has a 0.30 ERA in 30 IP this year with outstanding peripherals) and rFR 3B/SS Blake Tiberi (another personal favorite who can really, really hit), plus the aforementioned 2017 early round candidate freshman two-way sensation McKay.