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No pitcher in the 2018 class at North Carolina has an upside that can match RHP Austin Bergner‘s. Upside is what you get when you come equipped with a big fastball (87-95, up to 97), an inconsistent yet very promising 83-89 MPH changeup, and a solid if unspectacular mid- to upper-70s breaking ball. The ceiling of two plus pitches (and an average one) with the floor of three average ones makes the athletic, deceptive draft-eligible sophomore one of the most intriguing starting pitching prospects in this class. I’ll admit that I’ve long had a strange intuitive feel on Bergner that has warned me away from building up his draft stock too much, but the early jump in strikeout stuff in 2018 (12.52 K/9) has me trying to fight off that pesky gut feeling. Still, his control needs serious fine-tuning and he needs to show that he can handle a starter’s workload over a full season.
RHP Rodney Hutchison has exciting stuff, but has had some difficulties over the years keeping runs off the board. I’ll admit that I’m honestly not so sure how much that last part matters when projecting prospects; in fact, I typically care so little about ERA that I don’t even check it when quickly scanning the college player stat pages. That said, there’s something about Hutchison’s career 4.65 ERA, mostly out of the bullpen, that makes me a little uneasy. The weirdest part here is that a 4.65 ERA isn’t even THAT bad! So what does it bother me here when it wouldn’t for other prospects? It could have something to do with Hutchison lacking dominating peripherals to go with the less than ideal ERA. His 7.94 K/9 and 3.01 BB/9 career numbers are fine enough, but hardly the mark of an elite college relief prospect. Anyway, I know most don’t come here to read about me talking in circles about stats. Hutchison’s stuff is quality. His low-90s fastball (94 peak) moves, his changeup is a clear out pitch (flashes plus), and he’ll mix in an average low-80s slider. Those three pitches were enough to convince North Carolina to shift Hutchison to the rotation last month. And wouldn’t you know that his ERA in his first three starts is 1.84? What does it all mean? I have no idea. But Hutchison is a solid mid-round prospect likely best suited to relief…though if his last two starts are the beginning of a run of success as a starter then who knows.
I don’t follow college ball closely enough to know this for sure, but it certainly seems that North Carolina targets undersized righthanders during recruiting because they know the odds those players will eventually make it to campus is high. Listed at 5-11, 190 pounds, RHP Josh Hiatt is one example. RHP Taylor Sugg (6-1, 175) is another. Same with RHP Hansen Butler (5-11, 180) and RHP Brett Daniels (6-0, 200). This strategy — if it is actually a strategy at all — has worked out for Carolina. Hiatt’s ERA last year was 1.90. Sugg’s was 1.95. Butler missed last season, but had a 2.00 ERA in 2016. Daniels put up a 2.68 ERA in 2017. Of course, college production is one thing but we’re here to talk about what kind of pro prospects these players have. Of that group, I really REALLY like RHP Josh Hiatt. A compelling case could be made for his plus 82-88 split-change as the singular best pitch in college baseball. His fastball won’t blow anybody away at 88-93 MPH, but, again, that changeup is just so damn good. Hiatt also has an average 77-81 MPH slider with more upside than that, but, really, all he needs is that split-change. It’s a true offspeed difference-maker and enough to make him one of this draft’s best relief prospects. Just have to be sure he doesn’t face off against any Seminoles once he reaches pro ball…
RHP Taylor Sugg is a sinker/slider type who also comes with a decent changeup because he’s a pitcher at North Carolina and by rule that means you have to throw at least an average changeup. RHP Hansen Butler needs innings and to get less wild. That was what I originally wrote as a placeholder for Butler before I was going to go back and add something more substantive, but I think it works pretty well without much else. Also, “get less wild” makes me laugh for some reason. Butler’s stuff is really good, so the impetus to get him those innings and improve his control is even greater than if he was just a short righthander with pedestrian talent. At his best, Butler can reach the mid-90s (94-95 mostly) with a pair of offspeed pitches that will show above-average (78-80 slider, 79-82 change). Stop me if you’ve heard this already, but RHP Brett Daniels makes up for his decent heat (87-92) with an above-average 79-84 changeup that flashes plus. He also throws two distinct breaking balls (71-75 CB, 80-81 SL) well enough that the odds are good at least one is working on any given day. As the only senior on the list below, Daniels has an outside shot to get drafted sooner than the rest as a money-saving top ten round senior-sign, though the mid- to late-rounds feels like a more realistic landing spot.
Neither RHP Jason Morgan nor RHP Cooper Criswell has stepped foot on the mound so far in 2018. Morgan’s stuff fits in nicely with all of the short righthanders profiled above, but comes with a 6-6, 215 pound frame and three years of underwhelming peripherals. Criswell is another big guy (6-6, 200) who does the sinker/slider thing well. My quick research into what’s up with both pitchers revealed nothing on Morgan — I think he’s injured, but Google only wants to tell me about a character on General Hospital so I’m getting nowhere fast — and that I somehow missed Criswell pitching 18.2 innings and counting so far in 2018. Whoops. Can we chalk that up to only getting a chance to write these up on the small breaks I get from chasing around a suddenly very mobile ten-month-old? The good news is that Criswell’s 18.2 innings have been super. He’s a draft-worthy arm for sure.
RHP Trevor Gay is not listed on the North Carolina roster. He is featured in the team photo. He’s listed on the UNC stats page as having thrown 2.2 innings this year, but when you click on his name for more information the screen just loads and loads and loads. After an exhaustive thirty second search, I found this tweet…
So there you go. Mystery solved. I like Gay as a sinker/slider relief prospect with loads of deception as he comes at you from a funky sidearm delivery. The Charlotte transfer was good (12.33 K/9) but wild (6.16 BB/9) in his short stint as a Tar Heel (14.2 IP). Assuming the reason for his dismissal isn’t all that serious, I’d take a shot on him.
I’m sure there is a more eloquent way to put this, but I’m a huge sucker for C/RHP Cody Roberts. Logic goes a bit out the window when it comes to his prospect stock because I enjoy watching him play so damn much. Roberts has arguably the best arm strength in this entire class of any position player, flirts with above-average raw power, and is as athletic as any catcher you’d hope to find.
There’s an obvious big league backup catcher floor here that feels to me like almost a sure thing. I know he’s not a sure thing to be a big league backup because there’s truly no such thing as a sure thing in this line of work, but catchers with his kind of arm/athleticism combination are hard to deny. This sent me down a rabbit hole to find some catching prospects of recent drafts with similar defensive tools. The first name that came to mind was a poor man’s Taylor Ward…
.288/.384/.437 – 13.7 K% and 12.1 BB% – 652 PA
.271/.361/.356 – 14.0 K% and 9.9 BB% – 537 PA
Top is Ward at Fresno State, bottom is Roberts at Carolina to date. Ward is clearly ahead, but there are enough similarities between the two that I don’t think the comparison is nuts. Plus, the stats are park/schedule neutral, so you’d have to think the gap would close some once those factors were taken into account. In any event, the comparison was originally based on tools and projection, and I think it holds up. Other names to come up were Sean Murphy, Cooper Johnson, Brent Gibbs, Reese McGuire, Austin Hedges, and Jacob Stallings. If we focus on just the college guys who signed, that leaves us with Ward, Murphy, Gibbs, and Stallings. There was also Garrett Custons and Michael Williams, though those two players were profiled on the site back when I was a little more generous with tool grades. The rounds those players were drafted in: one, three, seven, seven, ten, and thirty. That comes out to an average round of about 9.5. It moves way up to 5.5 if we toss out the outlier in Williams. That feels like a fair range (rounds 5-9) to project Roberts. I’d personally be very happy to get a high-floor, solid-ceiling (plus the pitching fallback with his low- to mid-90s fastball) talent like Roberts at that point in the draft.
Both 2B/3B Zack Gahagan and 2B/3B Kyle Datres feel like they’ve been prospects forever. Datres is a legitimate FAVORITE due to his defensive versatility (in addition to being pretty good at second and third, he can also play a credible shortstop), average or better power and speed, and elite athleticism. I think he has an honest floor as a bat-first utility infielder with the shot to hit himself into a larger role in pro ball. Gahagan has many of the same strengths, but without the same feel for hitting.
As of this writing, OF Brandon Riley has a truly bizarre .202/.385/.393 line through 84 AB. It would be easy to knock him for the low batting average, but the fact that the overall triple slash is about one hundred points off across the board from his full season 2017 line probably says something about his luck with balls in play. As it turns out, The Baseball Cube keeps track of such things. Wouldn’t you know it but Riley’s BABIP last year finished at .340. His current BABIP? .240. I swear I didn’t plan to bring that up when I started this paragraph. In fact, I was only on Riley’s Baseball Cube page in the first place because I wanted to compare his college production to his predecessor in center field for the Tar Heels. Here’s what we’ve got…
.322/.419/.453 – .121 ISO – 10.8 K% and 12.3 BB% – 55/68 SB
.290/.384/.450 – .160 ISO – 14.3 K% and 13.6 BB% – 15/21 SB
That’s Brian Miller, 36th overall pick in last year’s draft, on top. Riley is on bottom. Miller is better, yes, but by how much? Riley lacks Miller’s speed and center field range, but has managed to perform at a similarly high level offensively over the years. Of course, when you’re built up as a speed and defense prospect first and foremost — as both Riley and Miller are — then I suppose glossing over a full grade or more difference in each area is a tad disingenuous. Still, Riley can hit. Feedback on his draft stock has been pretty lukewarm, but I’d be pleased to scoop up the store brand version of Miller ten rounds later than the original this June. Maybe you’re not getting starter upside, but a good backup outfielder ain’t nothing.
OF/1B Jackson Hesterlee has the size, power, and early season production (super small sample size alert!) to at least get him on the “hey, I’d love to know more about this guy” radar. Same with 2B/OF Dylan Enwiller, an above-average to plus runner who is solid at both second and center, if you subtract the part about early season production. Both seem like 2019 senior-signs at this point, though you never know what can happen if they are caught by the right person on the right day.
RHP Luca Dalatri is a great college pitcher and a good pro prospect. RHP Tyler Baum is a good college pitcher and a great pro prospect. Figure that one out. The hype on OF/1B Ashton McGee winding up as one of 2019’s top college bats was really loud all offseason. Twenty games into his sophomore year and that talk has quieted way down. I still believe, though it’s admittedly a tough path to the top of the draft when you’re billed as a bat-first player and your bat refuses to cooperate. The good news for the Tar Heels is that the buzz about a sophomore hitting his way into the early rounds of 2019 may still apply. 1B Michael Busch had a much better freshman season than his .215 batting average suggests, and so far in 2018 all he’s done is hit.
SO RHP Austin Bergner (2018)
rSO RHP Josh Hiatt (2018)
JR RHP Rodney Hutchison (2018)
JR RHP Taylor Sugg (2018)
rJR RHP Hansen Butler (2018)
rJR RHP Jason Morgan (2018)
JR RHP Cooper Criswell (2018)
SR RHP Brett Daniels (2018)
JR C/RHP Cody Roberts (2018)
SR 2B/3B Zack Gahagan (2018)
JR 2B/3B Kyle Datres (2018)
JR OF Brandon Riley (2018)
JR OF/1B Jackson Hesterlee (2018)
JR 2B/OF Dylan Enwiller (2018)
rSO SS/2B Dallas Tessar (2018)
JR C Brendan Illies (2018)
JR OF Josh Ladowski (2018)
SO RHP Luca Dalatri (2019)
SO RHP Tyler Baum (2019)
SO RHP Bo Weiss (2019)
SO OF/1B Ashton McGee (2019)
SO OF/1B Kip Brandenburg (2019)
SO 2B/SS Ike Freeman (2019)
SO C/OF Brandon Martorano (2019)
SO 1B Michael Busch (2019)
FR RHP Joe Lancelotti (2020)
FR RHP/3B Ben Casparius (2020)
FR OF/LHP Angel Zarate (2020)
FR SS Satchel Jerzembeck (2020)
FR 3B Clemente Inclan (2020)
FR OF Earl Semper (2020)