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1B/RHP Rylan Thomas can flat mash. He swings and misses too much, he comes with the dreaded R/R first base only profile, and his size (5-11, 235) isn’t what some evaluators have come to expect out of a potential thumper in the middle of the lineup, but, boy, can he mash. Thomas is a plus power hitter with a much better feel for hitting than most sluggers typecast for the role. He’s not for everybody, but it’s worth noting that he’s made serious improvements in his approach in his two years at Central Florida. Last year, Thomas did this: 33.2 K% and 5.8 BB%. This year, his K% is down to a high but manageable 21.3 and his BB% is up to a much more comforting 14.7. If those gains are real — or, better yet, part of a larger trend to come — then Thomas could be of those sleeper R/R first basemen that everybody has been hunting for since the big Paul Goldschmidt breakout. I could see him being viewed as a shorter, righthanded draft prospect equivalent to Darick Hall, fourteenth round pick of the Phillies in 2016. With a little more perceived upside than Hall — Thomas was a pretty big deal as a high school star at Windermere Prep — he could go even higher than that. Signability could play in, however, as Thomas has two years of college remaining if he decides to opt in. He’s a really tough yet fun evaluation this year.
OF/SS Ray Alejo, a transfer from Mississippi, would have been one of my breakout picks coming into the year if I was the type to actually have things done on time. It might be for the best that I didn’t because Alejo’s 2018 has been a mixed bat so far. His speed, athleticism, and defense up the middle have all been as promised. His limited pop (for now) paired with a power hitter’s whiff rate (29.3%) hurt. I’d say the good outweighs the bad because where Alejo wins (speed, athleticism, defense…if you have already forgotten) tends to translate well to pro ball. Like Thomas, he’ll be another challenging evaluation for scouts this spring/summer.
2B Matthew Mika is a plus runner who goes into at bats with a solid plan in place. I like guys like that. Limited power and the unknowns about his defensive versatility hold him back. If those unknowns are known by those who know more than me, then Mika could work himself into a late-round potential utility player place in this draft. For now, I have him as a primary second baseman and that’s a tough path to the pros.
Much was expected of OF/1B Brody Wofford as a prospect going back to his high school days. Minus one good but not great year at junior college, there’s not a ton to show for all his promise. C Logan Heiser could get a look for his defense by a team badly in need of a late round catcher. I don’t see the bat as pro-quality, but reasonable minds may differ. I don’t have a ton on OF/3B Tyler Osik, but he’s hit enough this season to at least enter the draft conversation. SS Brandon Hernandez had the chance to do the same with a solid junior season, but will now probably have to wait until 2019 to rebuild his draft stock. He’s a good enough defender to be a late pick, so if the bat comes around that’s where he’ll likely go.
The five year mystery of RHP Cre Finfrock‘s name continues to beguile me. As far as I can tell, Cre isn’t short for anything. It’s just Cre. Just this morning I realized that all this time I’ve been thinking about his first name when his last name is unlike any I have ever heard either. Finfrock is a great last name. Cre Finfrock altogether is just perfect. Making this even better is the fact that Finfrock is really good when healthy. So far so good on that front this year after missing his 2017 season due to injury. At his best (and healthiest), Finfrock can run it up to the mid-90s (97 peak) while sitting anywhere from 88-94 with serious sink. He’s also shown flashes of a quality breaking ball (77-84) and change (79-81), both potential average or better pitches in time. If you can get past his shorter build (6-1, 200) and give him a break on his 2018 wildness (expected, I’d think, after a year away), then I think a strong case could be made for Finfrock to get a shot as a starting pitcher in pro ball. The stuff and pitchability are there. If not, he could move really quickly as a reliever. That would hardly be a bad thing, especially considering the way modern relievers are being used by certain teams. Finfrock could make his make in the pros as a starter, a one-inning reliever who goes all out, or a multi-inning relief ace. None of the above would surprise me. I’m a fan.
LHP Bryce Tucker had an eye-popping junior sophomore season. Look at his 2017: 13.03 K/9 and 2.84 BB/9 in 38.0 IP of 1.66 ERA ball. That’s about as good as it gets on the college level. He hasn’t bee as good in any area so far in 2018, but that’s hardly a concern considering his numbers (outside of an inflated walk rate) have all only dropped from great to very good. Tucker’s most logical fit in the pro game will be to continue as a lefthanded weapon out of the bullpen. His raw stuff may not blow you away, but his overall repertoire is one that works for him. Tucker can command an average or better fastball (86-92, 94 peak), a quality low-80s changeup, and an emerging 79-83 slider that will flash above-average. On top of that, his deceptiveness and fearlessness of throwing any of his three pitches in any count help everything play up. Tucker would be an easy player to miss in a class filled with fun college pitching, but he’s a good one.
RHP Jordan Spicer was really high on my preseason intrigue list. Billed as an athletic righty with a chance for a plus sinker (87-92, 94 peak) and slider (80-82) mix, Spicer was expected to hit the ground running at Central Florida from day one. That hasn’t exactly been the case from a run prevention point of view (his 5.04 ERA is second highest on the team), but he’s managed to miss bats and limit free passes at more than acceptable rates. That’s all a long way of saying that I’m still buying what Spicer’s selling.
RHP JJ Montgomery‘s fastball is enough to get him selected pretty high. That’s what you get when you can run it up to 97 MPH while also managing to live between 90-94 with plus sink. That’s a really nice start for any relief prospect. RHP Thad Ward has a touch less velocity (sits 88-92, hits 94-95), but similar movement and command of the pitch. Ward’s offspeed stuff (82-85 SL, 81 CU) is a little further along, but, like Montgomery, it’ll be his ability to pitch off that fastball that gets a team excited on draft day.
RHP Eric Hepple may not be a household draft name, but any pitcher with pro stuff (90-92 fastball, 76-80 breaking ball, 88-89 cutter) and a double-digit strikeout rate (11.67 K/9 as of this writing) is worth knowing. The senior’s ERA has spiked a bit from his crazy junior year success (0.87 ERA in 20.2 IP), but the peripherals remain strong.
RHP Garrett Westberg and LHP Luis Ferrer both have good numbers and names that sound like those you’d find in a pro bullpen near you. RHP Nick McCoy has bounced around a bit and seen some tough times from an injury standpoint (most notably Tommy John surgery), but the soon-to-be 25-year-old (in July) has worked his way back to the mound for five really good senior year innings this year. Future pro or not, that’s cool.
I get a lot of questions about projection versus production. Specifically, I’m asked to what degree should a college player’s production be weighed with a professional ball projection in mind. I tend to factor it in more heavily than most real BASEBALL KNOWERS probably like, but there natural limits to scouting the box score. RHP Chris Williams has done nothing but produce since stepping foot on Central Florida’s campus. His ERA’s by year: 2.30, 2.65, 2.14. As of this writing, he’s closing in on a career high in innings with 71.1 (also a team high). Williams is a great college pitcher. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily make him a great pro prospect. Depending on who you talk to, he may not be a pro prospect at all. The good news here is that we’ll all likely have another season to figure this out — Williams is a redshirt-junior — so hopefully the undersized righthander will keep dominating the competition and wind up making us look bad for doubting him.
JR LHP Bryce Tucker (2018)
JR RHP Jordan Spicer (2018)
rJR RHP Cre Finfrock (2018):
rJR RHP Chris Williams (2018)
SR RHP Eric Hepple (2018)
SO RHP Thad Ward (2018)
JR RHP JJ Montgomery (2018)
rSR RHP Nick McCoy (2018)
JR RHP Garrett Westberg (2018)
rJR LHP Luis Ferrer (2018)
SO 1B/RHP Rylan Thomas (2018)
rSO OF/SS Ray Alejo (2018)
JR 2B Matthew Mika (2018)
SR OF Max Wood (2018)
JR OF/1B Brody Wofford (2018)
SR C Logan Heiser (2018)
rJR OF/3B Tyler Osik (2018)
JR SS Brandon Hernandez (2018)
JR C/1B Anthony George (2018)
rJR C Michael Higgins (2018)
rSO 3B Jackson Webb (2018)
SO LHP Joe Sheridan (2019)
SO RHP Daniel Litchfield (2019)
SO C/1B Dallas Beaver (2019)
FR RHP Jack Sinclair (2020)
FR 3B Griffin Bernardo (2020)
FR OF Dalton Wingo (2020)
1B/OF Seth Beer is the obvious headliner. Lost in the all the nitpicking about his game in recent months is the fact that he’s a really, really good hitter. His “down” sophomore season was when he hit .298/.478/.606 with 64 BB/35 K in 218 AB. I think taking a step back and appreciating the fact that a year like that can in any way be considered disappointing is necessary to fully understand where Beer stands as a prospect. I’ve mentioned this before, but it feels as if there’s some backlash about Beer among draft writers for reasons that go beyond what occurs on the field. Beer is a popular name for baseball fans who typically don’t worry much about amateur ball, and I think certain segments of the draft writing world don’t like it when their corner of the internet gets exposed to mainstream fans. Scoffing at those who really only name Beer on name value — “he’s a nice college slugger, but nothing special as a pro prospect,” they say — gives them some of the gatekeeping credibility that so many baseball prospect types seem to crave.
Of course, the possibility that the narrative outlined above exists only in my head is real. If we pretend the premise above is totally wrong, then we can at least get back to talking about Beer as a baseball prospect only. That might be for the best as I probably should try to avoid burning any more bridges than I already have. The criticisms about Beer’s game come in two forms. There are the knocks on him as a hitter and athlete coming from those who don’t think he has the physical traits needed to continue to hit at a high level as he advances against better pitching. There are also those who focus on his limited utility as a fielder. Many look at him as either a bad first baseman or a bad left fielder with not a whole lot of hope of ever improving on that side of the ball. As with all criticism, I find that such remarks tend to reveal more about the critic than the subject.
It’s true that Beer may not be able to keep this up against better pitching. I’d argue that’s true of any amateur, but that’s something nobody wants to hear. I’ll also concede that the scouting points made against him (ordinary bat speed, more passive than patient, less than ideal swing mechanics, lack of athleticism) are all at least arguable in their own right. HOWEVER, I’d also argue — sacrilege alert! — that a lot of those factors are so overwhelmingly subjective in nature that separating one’s personal biases from what one sees on the field in real time is almost impossible. If you are predisposed to liking Beer, his bat speed is fine. If you’re not a fan, then it could be his fatal flaw. Same with his swing mechanics; most, but not all, of the scouts I know (admittedly younger and more pragmatic than the majority, at least in my view) subscribe to the belief that if the swing gets results, then it’s pretty enough. Some, however, can watch a guy hit .800 over a weekend series against three future pro starting pitchers and still walk away complaining about something he saw that he didn’t like. There’s obvious value in those who look at the finer points of the game and see patterns that help them make judgments on micro-level issues that have macro-level ramifications. But there’s also value in stepping back and looking at the big picture body of work a player has produced, and using that data to inform larger decisions. I don’t mean to say that only facets of the game that can be quantified have worth, but rather that the opinions of scouts and internet draft writing wannabes (like me!) should not be taken as gospel when the larger body of work suggests something different.
If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m a big fan of Beer as an offensive talent. Ultimately, it’s important to realize that Beer isn’t a 17-year-old high school kid facing low-80s (at best) pitching on all-dirt infields at parks without fences. He’s a mature 21-year-old college star who has dominated all comers for two full seasons (and counting) while playing for one of the best programs in the country in an ultra-competitive conference. I can understand why Beer freaks some people out. The very livelihood of scouts depends on projection. With Beer, there’s a lot less to project than most early round draft prospects. He’s done it. He’s doing it now. And there’s little to suggest he won’t keep doing it in the pros. The extent to which he does it remains a fun open question, but I’m buying him as a strong enough all-around hitter (contact, power, and patience all grade out high, with no qualms at all about his quick bat and well-balanced swing) to profile as a regular (at least) at whatever position he settles in at. Speaking of…
The defensive issues are harder to defend. Best case scenario puts him as a playable left fielder. Medium case scenario gives you an average or so defensive first baseman. Worst case scenario leaves you with a below-average first baseman that you’d probably rather stick at designated hitter. When the good outcome is just okay and the bad outcome is extremely concerning, you’re in a tough spot. We all know how high the bar is for any hitter who lives on that end of the defensive spectrum. If you have any of the doubts about his bat as outlined above, then passing on Beer early in the draft is justifiable. I don’t, though I can admit that I’m more sure about his hopeful floor (average regular) than his ceiling.
Not for nothing, but I really like the Perfect Game comparison of Beer to Ben Grieve. I’ve sat here for an embarrassing amount of time trying to think of a better name, but I’ve got nothing. Leaner Lucas Duda? Lefty Jason Bay? Less athletic (and hopefully less allergic to lefties) Matt Joyce? Logan Morrison? As for his draft standing, well, if Brent Rooker could go 35th in last year’s draft, why can’t Beer do the same? I like Beer as a high-probability future regular with a better than average shot at being an above-average overall player with an outside chance at offensive stardom. The all-around package comes built in with a nice mix of certainty (in as much as any prospect is certain, so not really at all) and upside.
C/1B Chris Williams has long been a player where the scouting reports have outpaced his on-field production. I was guilty of buying in last year with the expectation being he’d show some signs of maturity as a hitter and continue to develop into a reliable defender behind the dish. The two things more or less happened as Williams cut down on his strikeouts (but didn’t exactly bump up his BB%) and cemented himself as a steady enough presence defensively to remain a catcher through the early part of his pro career. It’s early in the process, but it’s hard to imagine too many senior-sign catchers more attractive than Williams. One fun comp I recently got for Williams: Chase Vallot.
SS/2B Grayson Byrd still has some utility infielder possibility, though I admit that last year’s underwhelming output has those odds slipping. A slow start to his 2018 season certainly doesn’t help. On the other end of the spectrum there’s 3B Patrick Cromwell. Cromwell didn’t do much in his first shot at college draft eligibility, but now finds himself off to a scorching start as a senior. I really like him from a scouting standpoint as a true third base prospect in a class lacking in that area. Cromwell may not have a carrying tool, but he’s so damn well-rounded that it’s hard to find a reason not to like him. OF Drew Wharton is a similar player in that vein — above-average speed and arm, solid athlete, pro size — who had yet to do much as a collegiate player coming into this season. Like Cromwell, he’s off to a strong start in 2018 that could be enough to get him a shot as a senior-sign even without the type of track record of success typically associated with the type. It’s early, but I’m buying.
OF/C Robert Jolly is my kind of college hitter (53 BB/49 K and counting), but is limited enough otherwise (notably in the power department) that he’ll likely need to convince a team he can still catch to be a viable draft prospect. I’ve heard similar chatter surrounding OF/2B Jordan Greene, another versatile, athletic, and undersized college utility player who could benefit greatly from being thought as a primary catcher as a professional. If nothing else, I’d like to see Greene tried as a catcher because he’d instantly be one of the fastest backstops in pro ball. 3B/1B Justin Hawkins would see his stock rise if teams buy into him at the hot corner. He certainly has the arm and athleticism for it, so it becomes more of a matter of gaining consistency through repetition.
I love Ryley Gilliam, one of the draft’s clear top relief prospects. He’s always had a quality heater (88-94, up to 96) and a plus breaking ball (77-81 curve), and he’s now added a hard upper-80s cutter with legitimate plus upside. Two fun names have come up when talking Gilliam: Will Clinard from Vanderbilt and Scott Bittle from Ole Miss. Bittle is one of my all-time favorite draft prospects and a really intriguing recent “what if” among prospect obsessives, so hearing that named tied to Gilliam is pretty damn exciting.
RHP/1B Brooks Crawford has been a standout performer in his two plus years at Clemson. He’ll give you great size (6-5, 220), a solid fastball (87-92, 94 peak), and a pair of quality offspeed pitches (average 77-82 breaking ball with plus upside, above-average 80-85 changeup). Crawford also gets really high marks for his raw power dating back to his high school days. The overall package of stuff, size, and athleticism is easy to fall for, though I admit I have no feel whatsoever how Crawford is viewed within the industry. As appealing as he is to me, there’s been little to no buzz about him so far this spring. Maybe I’m off, but there seem to be a lot of ingredients for a backend starter/good middle reliever here.
LHP Jake Higginbotham may not be for every team as an small lefthander without premium velocity, but his breaking ball is good enough that some will overlook the rest. LHP Mitchell Miller needs innings, but the flashes of quality stuff (88-94 heat, 78-81 breaking ball with above-average upside, burgeoning 84-86 changeup) make him a name to know. Florida Atlantic transfer and Tommy John surgery survivor RHP Ryan Miller is a solid middle relief prospect who can hit the mid-90s with his fastball.
Looking ahead to future years is more exciting at some schools than others. There’s plenty to like at Clemson for 2018, but the next two classes are at least as much fun. Beyond the super obvious love for top prospect SS Logan Davidson everybody feels (myself included), I’m really excited about RHP Owen Griffith next year. Even beyond that, the 2020 class looks stacked. LHP/OF Sam Weatherly, RHP Spencer Strider, OF Kier Meredith, and OF Bryce Teodosio all have early round upside.
I love what Clemson does when building their starting staff. Charlie Barnes represents this Clemson ideal as well as anybody. His velocity is hardly overwhelming at 85-90 MPH, but he’s deceptive, crafty as hell, and can put any one of his three average or better offspeed pitches anywhere he wants in any count. It’s a profile that I personally love, though I can’t help but wonder how it translates to the upper-levels of pro ball. Somebody remind me in the offseason to do a a quick study about highly successful mid-to upper-80s college arms fare in the pros. In the meantime I’m left to ponder whether or not I’m falling too much in love with Barnes as a college pitcher and forgetting the ultimate aim here is projecting skill sets to pro ball?
I hope that’s not the case, but I’d be lying if I said I knew it wasn’t with any real certainty. My half-assed attempt at “research” while we wait for a less busy time of year (LOL) to come: per Fangraphs, only 12 of the 73 (16%) qualified starting pitchers last season averaged fastballs under 90 MPH. The only sub-90 MPH lefty out of that twelve, surprisingly enough, was Dallas Keuchel. Is Barnes a candidate to be the next Kuechel? I’m not saying that because, as we all know and Keuchel’s path demonstrates, player development is a funny game. Still, there’s at least some precedent, outlier or not, that suggests making it with a fastball that barely clips ninety is possible if you’ve got enough else going for you. If the Keuchel non-comparison comparison doesn’t work for you, then maybe you can be talked into Barnes following a path reminiscent of late-career Jeff Francis, Mark Buehrle, Ted Lilly, Doug Davis, and, the patron saints of lefties doing big things with (relatively) small fastballs, Tom Glavine and Jamie Moyer.
Again, we’re not actually comparing Barnes to any of those specific guys — a more sensible comparison both in terms of draft stock and pro upside might be Tommy Milone (or, if you’re into peer to peer comps, Josh Reagan of South Carolina, Jared Poche’ of LSU, and Gunner Leger of Louisiana…really, there’s a ton of college lefties like this in this year’s class) — but merely highlighting of a few of the success stories over the years. Barnes is Barnes, a guy good enough in other areas (plus 76-77 CU, average 71-75 CB, 77-82 cut-slider) to excel even without major heat. Tricky long-term player to project or not, I’m currently buying Barnes as a real draft talent. If he falls to the same range as Milone, a tenth rounder in 2008, then I’m really buying.
Clemson has other pitchers to write about, too. Exhaustive research was not done, but I believe Pat Krall is the last remaining Temple baseball prospect still bouncing around college ball. That could be wrong, so don’t go out trying to win any bar bets with that fact. What is right (I think), is that Krall is the best Temple guy remaining by a healthy margin. He’s like a slightly less exciting version of Barnes: similar velocity (mid-80s), similarly nasty changeup (mid-70s), and enough of a breaking ball to tie it all together. The stuff may not blow you away, but he’s got the makeup, size (6-6, 200), and track record of success to get on the draft boards of smart teams out there. Plus, his changeup is really good, and who doesn’t love a great changeup? There are worse mid- to late-round matchup lefties to gamble on, so I heartily endorse Krall as a draft-worthy player…and it’s not just my own Philadelphia/Temple bias kicking in.
It’s really hard not to like Alex Eubanks as well. He’s been consistently good to great on the bump, and his stuff more than holds up. What he lacks in big velocity — he is a Tiger, after all — he makes up for in movement (86-93 with serious sink), command, and quality offspeed offerings (81-84 changeup, 83-88 cutter, 80-84 slider, 77-78 curve). That’ll play.
Tyler Jackson has good stuff (88-92 FB, good 80-82 CU, low-80s SL) and flat knows how to miss bats. He did it at USC Upstate and he’s doing it at Clemson. There’s a place in pro ball for a guy like him. I know nothing (yet) of Patrick Andrews‘s stuff, but he’s another guy who just plain gets results. Ryan Miller, like Jackson an incoming transfer (in Miller’s case from FAU), has come back from TJ surgery armed with a big fastball up to 96 MPH. I’m intrigued. Jake Higginbotham, draft-eligible as a sophomore but still on the way back from a 2016 arm injury, has flashed really impressive stuff from the left side at his best. I’d be trying to pin down his potential willingness to sign all spring if he was in my scouting backyard. Jeremy Beasley and Paul Campbell are currently (as of 3/27) eighth and tenth in innings for this year’s Clemson’s team respectively. Beasley stands 6-4, 215 pounds and lives in the low-90s with a plus split-change. Campbell lives 90-94 (hits 96) and throws a decent curve. Both are draft-worthy talents who are barely seeing the field at this point. The short version of everything I’ve written so far: Clemson has some serious depth on the mound. Let’s take a look at the other side of the ball and see how the Tiger hitters stack up.
Personal favorite — but not quite FAVORITE — Chase Pinder seems to have the fourth outfielder profile going for him with a chance to play regularly if he can ever find a way to more consistently tap into his above-average raw power. It’s very easy to like his defense in center, arm, and speed, all average or better tools, otherwise. It also doesn’t hurt that Pinder has what might be one of the five to ten best pure hit tools in all of college baseball right now. That’s exciting. Relatively high-floor player with sneaky starter ceiling.
Reed Rohlman doesn’t have quite the same athletic profile as Pinder, but he’s certainly no slouch at the plate. With similar offensive strengths (loads of hard contact) and questions (over the fence power), he’s a solid mid-round prospect. Pinder being a surer early-round prospect goes to show the importance of positional value, athleticism, and speed. Presbyterian transfer Weston Jackson has some work to do before quieting critics — like me — wondering how his offensive game would adjust from moving from the Big South to the ACC. I was really excited to see what Grayson Byrd and KJ Bryant would do this spring, but both are off to relatively slow starts. At their best, both can run, defend, and throw at premium defensive spots. I also thought Patrick Cromwell would hit the ground running — or, more accurately, just plain hit — but he’s been slow to get going as well. All four names are worth watching as the spring continues to unfold.
Chris Williams got his shot to follow Chris Okey and he’s taken full advantage. He’s athletic enough to have spent time at both first and third while waiting Okey out. Now that he’s getting steady time behind the dish, he’s proven to be a solid all-around defender with an average arm. His calling card has been and will continue to be his raw power and physicality at the plate. When he struggled last year, he still hit for power. Now that he’s rolling, watch out. I’m more or less in on Williams and think he’s got a shot to close the gap between himself and Pinder as Clemson’s top 2017 position player prospect. It’s not a great year for college catching as I see it, so the opportunity to rise way up the board is in play. I’m still not all the way there with him — the approach still leaves plenty to be desired — but his strengths (power bat with a strong likelihood to remain a catcher) tend to fit the wishlist of certain drafting teams more than others.
You can’t write about Clemson without mentioning the big guy, so here goes: Seth Beer is a star and deserves all the hype he’s gotten since first stepping on campus. He’s great. His long-term defensive forecast scares me, but any doubts about his bat qualify as the definition of nitpicks. In what might be a slightly spicy take, I think Logan Davidson is arguably on the same tier. Defense matters, after all. In any event, it’s hard to adequately describe how much I enjoy watching each player do what they do best. Great college players and outstanding pro prospects, both.
rSR RHP Tyler Jackson (2017)
rSR RHP Patrick Andrews (2017)
JR LHP Charlie Barnes (2017)
SR LHP Pat Krall (2017)
JR LHP Alex Schnell (2017)
JR RHP Ryan Miller (2017)
SO LHP Jake Higginbotham (2017)
rSO RHP Alex Eubanks (2017)
JR RHP Jeremy Beasley (2017)
JR RHP Paul Campbell (2017)
rSR OF Weston Jackson (2017)
JR OF Chase Pinder (2017)
JR C/1B Chris Williams (2017)
JR 3B/2B Adam Renwick (2017)
rJR OF/1B Reed Rohlman (2017)
rSR 1B/OF Andrew Cox (2017)
rSO SS/2B Grayson Byrd (2017)
rSO OF KJ Bryant (2017)
JR 3B Patrick Cromwell (2017)
JR OF Drew Wharton (2017)
JR C Robert Jolly (2017)
SO RHP Ryley Gilliam (2018)
SO RHP/1B Brooks Crawford (2018)
SO 1B/OF Seth Beer (2018)
SO SS/2B Grant Cox (2018)
SO 2B/C Jordan Greene (2018)
FR LHP Mitchell Miller (2019)
FR RHP Blake Holliday (2019)
FR LHP Jacob Hennessy (2019)
FR RHP Travis Marr (2019)
FR RHP Owen Griffith (2019)
FR LHP Ron Huggins (2019)
FR SS Logan Davidson (2019)
FR C Kyle Wilkie (2019)
I feel a little unprepared to do definitive top __ lists, but, as a self-proclaimed man of the people, I’ll do my best to deliver. That’s my (hopefully) not too weaselly way of making it clear that these lists are somehow both technically only good for the day they are published yet still well-researched enough (again, hopefully) to be useful all the way through June. If that sounds like an impossible contradiction, then, well, maybe it is. I’m a little rusty when it comes to the whole writing thing, so bear with me. Speaking of writing, the rankings you’ll read over the next few days are a bit more off the cuff than how I usually like to do things around here. Maybe more writing and less thinking will somehow magically equal a better product. If nothing else it’ll be closer to what many of the mainstream outlets put out, so at least there’s that. ZING!
Typically lists published here are ones that don’t change day-to-day, week-to-week, or even month-to-month. For better or worse, I’m a stubborn ranker. That stubbornness kicks into high gear when dealing with college players with multiple seasons of scouting reports (many going back to high school) and data from which meaningful conclusions can be drawn. The tails of the bell curve are noticed — seasons of A+ ascensions and D- disappointments are hard to ignore, after all — but most college guys are what we think they are at this point in the game. It’s one of the reasons I’ve shied away from pre-season rankings in the past; there wouldn’t be a ton of changes between them and my final lists in June, so the whole thing would be far more repetitive than instructive.
That’s a long-ish way of saying that these rankings were largely formulated before the start of the college year despite the fact that we are already six weekends worth of action into the season. And despite the fact that these rankings will be over two months old by the time the draft rolls around in June, I consider them more concrete than maybe I should. There’s always going to be some built-in fluidity with any ranking, but I think there’s less in mine than you’ll find elsewhere on the internet. Changes to my rankings going forward will be based more on what I see and hear — whether that’s new info coming in or merely sources and/or public information confirming/disputing existing notes — than whether or not a player goes 7-12 in a given weekend.
Players underrepresented on these lists include both current junior college and non-D1 prospects and past junior college players who have transferred into D1 schools this spring. I should have a better read on both groups by June, so bear with me if I’m missing a favorite of yours at this time. These lists are works in progress, so I’m always willing to hear how stupid I am for leaving so-and-so off. It’s how we learn.
Rambling mess of an introduction finally out of the way, let’s talk college baseball. Today the focus is on what might be my favorite position…let’s talk catchers.
- Oral Roberts JR C Matt Whatley
- St. Joseph’s JR C Deon Stafford
- San Diego JR C Riley Adams
- Wisconsin-Milwaukee JR C Daulton Varsho
- Houston JR C/SS Connor Wong
- Hartford JR C Erik Ostberg
- Dallas Baptist JR C Matt Duce
- Kennesaw State JR C Griffin Helms
- UNC Wilmington JR C Nick Feight
- Clemson JR C/1B Chris Williams
I love this top four to perhaps an uncomfortable degree. Back when I first started thinking about this year’s college class, Matt Whatley stood out as the type of prospect who’d be slept on until being a June pop-up guy, a little bit like a non-power conference version of Will Smith last season. WRONG. Whatley’s name has been at or near the top of the list of every single contact I’ve communicated with this spring. For me, it’s the profile as much as the player that is incredibly appealing. A catcher with outrageous athleticism, legit plus speed (for now), well above-average defensive tools (including an easy above-average arm), and real deal above-average power is pretty much the dream at the position.
Putting him on top of the list should have been a no-brainer, but it took a last minute change to knock Deon Stafford out of the top spot. I can’t get enough of Stafford. That’s a bold (and maybe weird) claim unto itself made even bolder (and definitely weirder) considering my proximity (less than ten minutes) from St. Joseph’s campus. I’ve seen plenty of Stafford over the past three years with multiple dates lined up to see him between now and the draft. My #notascout observations on him are fairly straightforward: fantastic athlete, average or better speed (timed him above-average to first on a single last weekend), above-average to plus arm strength (though I haven’t gotten a clean in-game pop from him yet this season to update this), at least above-average raw power, average or better hit tool, patient yet aggressive approach, great build/physical strength, clear leadership skills and passion for the game (as noted by my wife, who’s far more into that type of thing, on multiple occasions), and an overall plus package of defensive tools (mobility, hands, release, fearlessness).
The following paragraph got away from me a bit, so feel free to skip ahead to our third-ranked college catching prospect one paragraph down if so inclined. My feelings won’t be hurt.
I’ve long held the belief that there are two brands of successful catcher archetypes: there are small(er), athletic, hit/approach over power prospects on one side and bigger, stronger, power over hit players on the other. Put another way, it’s disciplined hitting athletes versus plus raw power/plus arm strength big men. The former group is in fashion these days while the latter, though perhaps a dying breed as front offices reemphasize defense at defensive positions in the post-PED era, still seems to hold a special place in the hearts (for good reason) of old-timers around the game. I was born in Philadelphia in 1985 and I’m a big fan of talking about myself, so indulge me as I relate my own personal experiences with catchers as it relates to the two archetype theory. This year is the first year in my 31 years on the planet where the Phillies will have a season without Darren Daulton, Mike Lieberthal, or Carlos Ruiz behind the plate. Blowing past how wild that catcher transition has been, the fact is relevant to our discussion because it shows a bit of the ebbs and flows of the two styles of catchers. Lieberthal and Ruiz were athletes who caught. Daulton felt more like a catcher by birth. Current Phillies starting catcher, Cameron Rupp, definitely fits more in that power/arm strength/size group. This may be interesting only to me, but I think there’s something there. If nothing else, it’s proof that one’s own worldview, baseball or otherwise, is dramatically shaped by one’s narrow view of what’s directly ahead of him. Maybe my entire catcher belief system would be different if I had only grown up a fan of one of the 29 other teams. ANYWAY…
The preceding paragraph was meant to set up the fact that Riley Adams is a bit of a throwback to the big (6-4, 225) strong (above-average to plus raw power and arm strength) catchers of yesteryear. Interestingly enough, that height/weight combo, depending on the source, puts him right in between Matt Wieters (a frequent point of comparison used for Adams as a prospect) and Stephen Vogt (listed at 6-3 some places, 6-0 in others…so that’s super helpful). Perhaps expecting a type of player in that Wieters/Vogt universe gives you some context as to what Adams could be. Or maybe, given the disappointing nature of Wieters’s MLB career (made all the more tough to swallow juxtaposed to the memories of how sensational he looked at Georgia Tech) and circuitous route Vogt took to get where he is today, linking Adams to those guys offers little substance beyond “hey, these guys were all big so they must be similar.” Though I hinted at the comparison, my take on Adams leans towards the latter position. He’s a big catcher, yes, but he’s also pretty damn athletic with a reasonable clue at the plate (i.e., he’s smart enough to make adjustments beyond straight fastball hunting every AB). I guess what I’m saying is don’t be fooled by those who spend too many words trying to frame Adams as a big catcher and big catcher only. It’s a lazy thought that I’ve been guilty of in the past — the very recent past, depending on your reading of what I wrote above — and something that is ill-suited for the actual player being discussed. Adams ought not to be pigeonholed as any one type of prospect archetype; he has the raw talent to potentially transcend the two and wind up the first catcher drafted this June.
If you opted to read the eminently skippable paragraph above, you should remember the seemingly gratuitous Darren Daulton reference. Hopefully you enjoyed it because here’s another: Daulton Varsho, son of former Phillies player, bench coach, and interim manager Gary Varsho, pretty much had to have been named after Darren Daulton. It’s possible the Varsho’s just liked the name, but I have to believe there’s a somewhat deeper connection there. I hope that’s the case, as it’s a much more interesting story. Anyway, Daulton Varsho is really good. He takes professional at bats, defends the position like a veteran, and gets high marks for his makeup. Sense a pattern there? He’s also yet another great athlete we can add to this class of great athletes, though unlike a few of his top of the class peers he has some questions about his arm strength that will need to be vetted before some teams go all-in on him as a long-term option behind the dish. “Average at best” sums up most of the feedback I’ve received to date; if that’s the consensus, different teams will value him accordingly based on organizational priorities at the position. I love a big flashy arm as much as the next guy, but, as many on the internet seem now believe, consider arm strength to be a bit overrated in the larger picture of what makes a quality defensive catcher. If the blocking, framing, and pitch-calling are there, then I can live with an adequate arm. And if we’re literally talking arm strength and not taking into account footwork and release (my notes are unclear on the specifics of “average at best arm” for Varsho at this time), so much the better.
Rounding out the top five is Connor Wong from Houston. You may want to sit down for this, but Wong’s athleticism and plan of attack at the plate are what separates him from many otherwise similarly skilled contemporaries. Shocking that an athlete with patience would rank high on this list, yet here we are. In Wong’s case, there’s really no denying his chops. He has the fluidity behind the plate you’d expect from a former shortstop, a position some think he could still handle in a pinch, and occasional outfielder. Wong has been a little slow to pick up on some of the finer points of catching technique since making the switch — his feet are fine, but his hands still can get him in trouble — so it’s fair to wonder if a multi-position utility future could be his most useful long-term defensive deployment. I’m not completely sold on Wong’s power coming around enough to make him an impact starter at the next level, but the offensive strengths, including average to above-average speed and a knack for consistent hard contact against quality pitching, outweigh the weaknesses at this time.
I believe in Erik Ostberg’s bat perhaps more than I should, and I’m hopeful his defense comes around a bit between now and June. Matt Duce is an underappreciated hitter who I’ll stump for multiple times this spring. As a plus athlete with real speed and size, Griffin Helms is a big bet on tools becoming skills in a hurry. Nick Feight is a more compact version of the big catcher archetype described above. He’s solid at 5-11, 200 pounds with monster power and his fair share of defensive questions. I should point out that I misspell his name as Freight 98% of the time (as I originally did both here and in my notes), so if you ever notice me doing so feel free to call me out. Chris Williams is similar, but with a touch less perfect world offensive upside and a bit more defensive certainty; he’s been one of my few concessions to a 2017 college season “riser” as the buzz on him so far this spring has been hard to ignore.
Proof that these lists were a bit rushed comes in the form of the teams that were late to get their updated rosters up this winter and were punished by being the last group of schools entered into my database. Looking at you Louisville, North Carolina, Connecticut, Michigan, Rutgers, Kansas, UC Davis, Western Kentucky, New Mexico, San Jose State, Oregon State, Washington, Auburn, Mississippi State, South Alabama, and North Dakota. Prospects from those teams weren’t included in my initial draft of this post, so let me scramble really quickly past my bedtime here to make the proper additions…
Colby Fitch from Louisville is a legitimate FAVORITE who would rank somewhere in the top five if I was willing to take the thirty seconds to make the edit official. As it is, he sits here as 3.5 (behind Adams, just a hair ahead of Varsho) thanks to his athleticism (what else?), approach (shocker!), strong arm, and impressive if somewhat short track record with the bat. I actually recently wrote about him for a team profile project that I might just be sick enough in the head to try on the site, so here goes…
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.
The choppy writing should make more sense in the context of the overall piece…coming soon! Probably. We’ll see. Quicker, shorter, more sloppily edited work seemed to be the consensus of the many who wrote in with suggestions — return emails should all be sent by the end of the day, BTW — so that’s what I’m going to attempt to do in between working on some longer form stuff. Back to our regularly scheduled catcher talk…
Joey Morgan (Washington), Jared Barnes (South Alabama), and, big personal favorite, Nelson Mompierre (Missouri) can join the honorable mentions along with these catchers who also just missed the cut…
- Arizona SO C Cesar Salazar
- East Tennessee State JR C/1B Hagen Owenby
- Florida JR C Michael Rivera
- LSU JR C Mike Papierski
- LSU SR C Jordan Romero
- Mercer SR C Charlie Madden
- Murray State SR C Tyler Lawrence
- Oregon JR C Tim Susnara
- San Jacinto JC FR C/1B Herbert Iser
- San Jacinto JC SO C Wyatt Cross
- Stanford JR C Bryce Carter
- TCU JR C Evan Skoug
- Texas-Arlington SR C Brady Cox
- UMBC SR C Hunter Dolshun