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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)