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I grew up less than twenty miles from City Hall in downtown Philadelphia. After a college detour in Boston, I returned to my hometown where I have now lived a ten minute subway ride from Citizens Bank Park the better part of the past decade. I’d say a good 80% of my friends and family who are into baseball would call themselves Phillies fans. So it’s probably no stunner that the Phillies having the first overall pick in next month’s MLB Draft has been a go-to topic of discussion of late. It’s not as though people are stopping me on the street frantically asking about PUK OR GROOME, but I have gotten emails and texts from people I haven’t talked to in months curious if I knew anything about which way the Phillies are leaning. Those messages back where always “off the record,” but it occurred to me that there’s really no point in being secretive. I’m not a journalist. I’m not a reporter. Integrity? What’s that? And there’s always the distinct possibility that I’m making stuff up to get sweet sweet page views on the website I haven’t made a single penny off of in eight years. So I’ll lay out a little bit of what I’ve heard and deduced from talking to some of my friends in the game. I should note that said friends are largely in low places; the highest ranking sources I can count on aren’t particularly high up on the decision-making chain. I think they are reliable contacts all the same, but I think that’s something worth keeping in mind. Here we go…
I think that the Phillies are far less enamored with AJ Puk than the national media would have you believe. While it’s true that their preference since last October has been to use their first pick on a quick-moving college starting pitcher, the idea that they zeroed in on Puk has been blown way out of proportion. While I’m not personally sure what to make of this — as far as I know, Pat Gillick’s one and only fall ball appearance was in Gainesville, and that has to mean something, right? — it does make some sense in the larger draft context. The odds of any team focusing so intently on one player so early in the process is a little hard to believe. Of course, the obvious question then becomes if not Puk then which college pitcher might they prefer? I legitimately have no idea. My own two cents says there’s no college pitcher with the kind of upside worth spending the first overall pick on. This class has lots of depth, lots of relatively high floor mid-rotation types, and a few young guys with number two starter ceilings, but you need to be greedier than that when you’re picking first. Which brings me to…
I think Jay Groome is still very much in the mix for Philadelphia at 1-1. There’s a lot to unpack with this one, but I’m 100% not buying the Phillies not having serious interest in Groome. Common sense alone says they are at least doing their due diligence, independent sources confirm real interest in the young lefty, and my own two eyes have seen high-ranking Phillies front office personnel every single time Groome has touched a mound this spring. The Phillies may not want to take a high school pitcher with their first pick, but if Groome or one of his 2016 HS peers can separate themselves from the pack between now and June then it might just force their hand.
I think a lot of the perceived uncertainty at the top of the draft is something that the Phillies are trying their best to work to their advantage, especially as it pertains to contract negotiations. I think they have been very vocal in a private public way (i.e., well-placed leaks to the industry’s biggest draft writers) about their preference for a college arm. I think that’s being done strategically. Long story short, I think the Phillies have a vested financial interest in making the number one pick as big a mystery for as long as they can. That may not be a particularly revelatory observation, but I think many are taking the reported rumors about which way the Phillies are leaning as facts rather than messaging straight from the front office.
I think this would have been a lot more controversial before so many started to turn on him these last few weeks, but I think the internet — myself included — likes Groome a lot more as a prospect than many actual scouting departments. Not one team source I spoke to was willing to claim Groome as the clear number one high school pitching prospect on their current “board.” A few said that he was in the top spot but it was still too close to call (there are no actual boards stacked up just yet, but teams are getting closer by the day to setting some meaningful albeit flexible rankings) while others said he was part of a larger mix of prospects that includes Riley Pint, Ian Anderson, Braxton Garrett, and Charles King. I’ve heard that Groome’s draft floor is much lower than many on the outside think. I think this is something to keep in mind if/when the Phillies pass on Groome; doing so is a perfectly legitimate baseball decision, even if some of the louder internet voices (again, potentially even a dope like me) disagree. There’s no consensus at the top this year, so it’s hard to make a “bad” pick in terms of process. Results…we’ll have to wait and see. I’d still take Groome if the decision was mine, but I’ve admittedly softened on the idea that it’s him or bust at this point.
I think that a disproportionate amount of attention — I’m guilty of this as well, clearly — has been spent on the pitchers the Phillies are considering at the top of the draft. Prep outfielders Blake Rutherford (a favorite of some of the older brass) and Mickey Moniak (for those who want a do-over of 2010 when Christian Yelich was taken before they had their shot at him) are both very much in play for the top spot while college outfielders Kyle Lewis and Corey Ray are long shots at best. The two high school guys are in the midst of a huge week for them as certain members of the Phillies brass — perhaps a former manager known for his ability to identify and develop hitters — are getting some extended up close and personal looks. Interestingly enough, I’ve heard no buzz — like, seriously none at all — about Delvin Perez. Could be that he’s far enough off the radar that his name doesn’t even realistically come up. Could be that the Phillies are running the ultimate smokescreen. Odd to not hear his name come up at all, though.
I think the possibility of an underslot first overall pick out of left field (though likely not literally a left fielder…) is real. Zack Collins is a name that came up more than once to help get this plan rolling. High school prospects Josh Lowe (Almaraz Georgia connection) and Nolan Jones (fair amount of Phillies heat throughout the spring and very strategic in their deployment) were also mentioned. My personal take here is that I’m more excited about the players mentioned — all guys who should be in the 1-1 mix, but aren’t for whatever reason — than the strategy behind it. My hunch is that take is likely the opposite view of many Phillies fans, an endearingly anxious bunch when it comes to the draft. I’d generally like the money saving strategy (the more lottery tickets the better), but for such a plan to work you need overslot guys to pay later. That’s almost impossible to predict in real time. It’s a great approach in theory, but far too risky a strategy in practice. I don’t think the first overall pick in a year like this is the time to play games. Get the best guy and go from there.
I think in thirty days in beautiful Secaucus, the Phillies are most likely to take Blake Rutherford with the first overall pick than any other player. I think I’d put his odds at 30%, Moniak’s at 20%, Puk’s at 15%, Groome’s at 10%, and the field at 25%. I think I’m not at all confident about those predictions, but they’re the best I’ve got.
I really like Zack Collins, Will Craig, Pete Alonso, Nick Senzel, Bryan Reynolds, and Jake Fraley. Garrett Williams, Eric Lauer, Mike Shawaryn, Daulton Jefferies, Bailey Clark, and the Kyle’s (Funkhouser, Serrano, and Cody) are all pretty great, too. Delvin Perez, Josh Lowe, Nolan Jones, Mickey Moniak, and Blake Rutherford all could be high school hitters that realistically enter the 1-1 conversation. Ian Anderson, Kevin Gowdy, Alex Speas, and Forrest Whitley, among others, could join the race as well. All, however, are a tier below the group of players I feel currently have the best shot to go 1-1 to the Philadelphia Phillies this June. With apologies to all the aforementioned names — one of those guys is going to fall to the second round or later, by the way…that’s crazy! — the focus here is on the early front-runners to go 1-1 . Let’s see what they’ve been up to lately…
Jay Groome has been my stated preference since last summer. Performance-wise, I’m not sure if Groome can lose the top spot between now and June. He looked great during his workout at Maplezone in beautiful Garnet Valley — located a very convenient 21 miles from my apartment — and figures to show the premium stuff (mid-90s FB, plus mid-70s kCB, rapidly improving CU) and “extras” (beautiful delivery/command/frame) all spring. That leaves major injury (Brady Aiken 2.0) or the ascent of one of the players listed on this very page (or somebody unlisted, but if that’s the case then I really haven’t done my job here) being the realistic avenues to knock Groome off the 1-1 perch.
Groome’s co-headliner in the high school class is Riley Pint for me. I know there are questions about a prep righthander going first overall (silliness, I think) and questions about his delivery and command making an eventual move to the bullpen a necessity (fair, but up for debate yet), but there’s still so much to like about him that I can’t see him leaving the potential 1-1 tier any time soon.
I have a hard time separating the three top college outfielders, so spring performances will weigh heavy on on evaluators minds as they decide on nailing down a proper order of Kyle Lewis, Buddy Reed, and Corey Ray. My semi-fearless prediction: for as much hype — deservedly — as those three outfielders have gotten to date, they won’t wind up as the first three outfielders drafted this June. Maybe that’s not particularly bold considering we’re talking three high variance outcome prospects, but I can see a future where one blows up this spring (Lewis or Reed), one struggles relative to expectations (Reed?), and one remains more or less where he was in the eyes of most teams when the season started.
Kyle Lewis had a very good weekend. Buddy Reed had a less good weekend. Corey Ray was on an different planet altogether. In a whopping three-game sample, Ray hit .667/.714/1.444. I keep mistyping his SLG for the weekend because I’m not used to typing anything with a digit in front of the decimal. If his performance with the bat wasn’t enough, Ray chipped in with six (six!) stolen bases in six tries. We won’t get carried away with one weekend’s worth of games, but that’s not a bad way to get things started, especially for the guy with the most to prove on-field out of the three. That last bit is obviously debatable, but there’s a school of thought that says Ray should be the best present performer out of the three considering he has the most limited physical projection of the trio. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair — punishing Ray by expecting more now seems a bit counterproductive if the aim is projecting his future — but maybe there’s something to it. Either way, I think the jumble of guys in contention for 1-1 leaves things wide open enough for any of these three to rise up to that level; for now, Ray’s loud opening weekend helps him takes the lead.
If Ray’s opening weekend was loud, then what does that make Alec Hansen‘s? The less said about Hansen’s hushed debut, the better. His 22 ball/14 strike performance included four walks, one wild pitch, and one poor plunked hitter. One bad start wouldn’t be too concerning in the big picture (still isn’t, really), but on the heels of a fall season marred by a sore forearm…I don’t know. Maybe we laugh about this come June when a healthy Hansen is the top ten pick his talent warrants…or maybe he’s this year’s Michael Matuella.
Matt Krook and AJ Puk are the top two lefties in this college class, so it works out quite nicely that the two of them had such similar 2016 debuts. My non-scout view on Puk hasn’t changed much since he’s debuted as a Gator: he’s an excellent prospect who has always left me wanting after seeing him pitch up close. I wasn’t up close this past weekend, but I did check out his start against Florida Gulf Coast via the magic of the internet. Again, for all of Puk’s strengths he’s still not the kind of college prospect that gives off that 1-1 vibe when watching him. Even when he was cruising — 11 pitch first inning, 19 total pitches through two (15 strikes), and a 1-2-3 swinging strikeout to end the second that went slider, fastball, change — it was still on a very fastball-heavy approach with little evident feel for his offspeed stuff. His slider picked up from there and he mixed in a few nice changeups, but neither offering looked like a potential big league out-pitch.
In the third inning his defense let him down — literally and figuratively, as he made one of the two errors in the inning — but what really hurt him was his command falling apart. These are all players learning on the job so I don’t want to sound too negative, but he failed to locate an 0-2 pitch and that was what really led to his undoing. On the plus side, his velocity was good for a first start (90-94, 96 peak), his delivery looks better, the aforementioned handful of nice changeups were encouraging, and he responded really well in the fourth inning after losing his way in the third. I still struggle with his underdeveloped offspeed stuff, inconsistent command, and puzzling lack of athleticism (where did it go from HS?), but 6-7, 225 pound lefthanders who can hit 96 (98 at times last year) are worth being patient with.
With Pat Gillick, Johnny Almaraz, and two other scouts in attendance, the Phillies, owners of the first pick in this year’s draft, were well-represented in Gainesville over the weekend. Much has been made of this and rightly so as the Gators are stacked, obviously, though I’m sure it didn’t hurt that they only had to ride 2.5 hours north from Clearwater. They obviously have heavy interest in Puk and will have plenty of opportunities to get to know him inside and out as the spring progresses.
Meanwhile, Krook matched Puk in innings (4), hits (4), and strikeouts (6). While shaky glovework and command did Puk in, Krook’s issue was iffy control. Three walks, two wild pitches, and one hit batter ended his day early, but some rust was to be expected as he continues the comeback path from Tommy John surgery. No worries here.
Speaking of returning from Tommy John surgery, Cal Quantrill is still on the way back from his procedure. I really think he could pitch his way into the 1-1 conversation once healthy.
The two best 1-1 candidate performances came from Connor Jones and Robert Tyler. Both young righthanders faced only one batter over the minimum in their respective seven and five inning debuts. Tyler stole most of the headlines with his dominant performance on Friday. His win came against a weak Georgia Southern lineup — I like Ryan Cleveland, but there’s not a ton there otherwise — but striking out the last ten batters you face in a given outing is something. I’m 100% buying what Connor Jones — the Virginia one, not Tyler’s lefthanded Georgia teammate — is selling. I’ve mentioned it before, but I get an unusually high number of comps on him from enthusiastic scouts. My hunch is that it has something to do with his exciting mix of ceiling (number two starter?) and certainty (very polished, very professional) that gets those guys going. I still love the cross-cultural Masahiro Tanaka comp for him.
Dakota Hudson quietly pitched well in his debut. Matt Crohan did the same, but with an interesting fly ball tendency that could be worth tracking. Both are longer shots to crash the 1-1 party, but I have them on the board for a reason. One guy who might need to move off the board is Zach Jackson. His slip has nothing to do with talent — I’ve said it before, but his curve might be the best singular pitch in this class — but more about the logistics of trying to scout him this spring. As the only present college reliever on this list, it’s a guessing game as to whether or not you’ll see him in any given outing. That’s a damn shame because developmentally Jackson could really use innings to improve both his delivery and command, but Arkansas has to do what Arkansas has to do, I suppose. It could wind up costing Jackson a pretty penny, unfortunately. For now, I think he’s not a realistic 1-1 candidate due to the (rightful) fear of the unknown.
Everything written above is based largely on what my board would look like if I was holding the first pick in June. Below is my best guess — remember, I know nothing — as to what the Phillies could be thinking about that first pick as of now. Players are separated into four potential tiers…
Pint – Puk – Hansen – Ray
Jones – Quantrill – Lewis
Tyler – Reed
I think Groome is the lean as of today with Pint, Puk, and Ray all close behind. Hansen is right there, but it’ll take a clean bill of health to solidify that spot. Jones is an interesting case as a prospect who has been on the radar nationally for years, but still entered his college draft year underrated by many. The Phillies have only drafted one player from the University of Virginia since 2010 (Neal Davis), but they have leaned on their area guys in that part of the country more recently, especially when picking out of Virginia Tech. I certainly wouldn’t rule him out right now, especially if you buy the talk — I don’t — that the Phillies want a quick-mover to help accelerate their rebuild timeline. If Puk doesn’t dominate and Hansen remains injured/ineffective, then somebody will have to rise up as a potential college threat to the Groome’s and Pint’s of the world, right? If not Jones, maybe it’ll be Quantrill, son of former Phillie Paul, once he gets right. Should be fun.