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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
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)
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