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C – Connor Wong
1B – Ryan Noda
2B – Jake Scheiner
SS – Kevin Merrell
3B – Willy Yahn
OF – Corey Julks, Luke Hamblin, Chris Carrier
The easiest name to pencil in to this team is Kevin Merrell, a top tier prospect and potential top 100 player in this class. Merrell, a pre-season FAVORITE and the top college shortstop in the country per my as yet unpublished positional rankings, checks every box for me when searching for a potential above-average up the middle talent: he’s crazy athletic, defensively versatile (love him at second, like him at short, intrigued by him in center), an easy plus runner, and, thanks to a damn near ideal draft year power surge, a legitimate threat to pop one to the gap every time he steps to the plate. The fact he’s proven at second base with the plus to plus-plus speed to excel in center gives him two excellent fallback options in the event shortstop doesn’t work out. I see no reason why it wouldn’t — the athleticism, hands, and arm (at least average) all play — but it’s nice to know you’ve got alternatives if things do change. With no major weaknesses and a bushel of pronounced strengths (speed, defense, pop, patience), I don’t think it’s unreasonable to project star upside when it comes to Merrell’s future. He’s going to be high on my list for sure.
Jake Scheiner may not have standout tools, but his production over the years, including a first year run at Houston matched by few in college baseball this season, is too good to ignore. My only notes on him coming into the year are short and sweet: “damn good hit tool.” Defensively, I’ve heard mixed opinions on the likelihood he can stick at his college position of shortstop. There are some who think he’s just athletic enough to pull it off, but most seem to believe he’s best as an offensive second baseman and/or utility infielder. I’d have no qualms drafting him as a shortstop with the plan to develop him at second if need be (there’s no shame in playing second once you make it to pro ball) before exploring that utility option. I like Scheiner a lot.
I was ready to write how I’m cooling on Connor Wong just a bit by pointing out that maybe his best potential outcome has dipped from future big league regular behind the plate to quality backup catcher and/or multi-position chess piece. Turns out I pretty much tackled this very subject about six weeks ago…
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.
Ryan Noda is an underrated athlete with plus raw power and unique (gloveless) swing mechanics. I’ve gone back and forth about his best position in pro ball — his experience in the outfield and strong arm could give him a shot there depending on what team he lands with — but ultimately went with first base for reasons both good (he’s quite strong there defensively) and practical (physically, he looks more like a first baseman than a corner outfielder). At the other infield corner, Willy Yahn makes hard contract and controls the zone as well as any hitter in the country this side of Ernie Clement. Like Clement, Yahn is a good athlete who can defend multiple spots in the infield. I don’t know how guys with their offensive profiles (i.e., low BB%, low K%) as college hitters tend to fare in pro ball (note to self: revisit this as part of a summer research project), but I’m looking forward to finding out with our admittedly tiny sample of two. Yahn is at 7.2 K% and 4.0 BB% so far in his college career. Clement is at 4.0 K% and 3.8 BB%. The list of players who have or had single-digit K% and BB% this decade: Juan Pierre, Jeff Keppinger, Placido Polanco, Marco Scutaro, Nori Aoki, Carlos Lee (!), Andrelton Simmons, Ben Revere, and Alberto Callaspo. Of that group, only three (Scutaro, Aoki, Guerrero) have/had put up league average offensive numbers by wRC+. I don’t know what any of this means other than Yahn and Clement will bring profoundly unique offensive approaches into pro ball. Can’t wait to see how it translates…and looking forward to revisiting this next year one the Nick Madrigal debates begin.
There’s not a ton to get excited about in this outfield — to this point, I almost feel like I’m blanking on an obvious name…let me know if that’s the case, please — but that won’t stop me from mining for hidden gems all the same. Corey Julks is an above-average runner with burgeoning power and exciting bat speed. It may be more of a fourth outfielder profile once you add it all up, but there’s room in pro ball for guys with his brand of well-rounded skill set. Chris Carrier has interesting power and Luke Hamblin has solid speed. Considered fellow senior-sign possibility Jarret DeHart (power/speed guy with questionable approach) over Hamblin based on upside, so don’t be shocked if that switch is made by the final rankings. Assuming I get deep enough in the rankings to where guys like DeHart and Hamblin live. And assuming anybody will read that far down a list if I make it…
Others receiving consideration…
C – Levi Borders, Travis Watkins, Logan Heiser
1B – Lex Kaplan, Hunter Williams
2B – Charlie Yorgen, Brandon Grudzielanek, Connor Hollis
SS – Wesley Phillips
3B – Connor McVey, Kam Gellinger, Eric Tyler, Hunter Hope
OF – Jarret DeHart, RJ Thompson, Isaac Feldstein, Tyler Webb, Eli Putnam
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