With no real major league baseball news to speak of, at least none that pertains heavily to the Diamondbacks, I’ve turned to minor league and amateur baseball in the last week or so. We developed a cumulative top prospect list, then dived straight into 2015 MLB Draft strategies for the D-backs. With all due respect, Gerald Laird on a minor league deal is exactly why I’m writing about the draft, and not the big leagues, at the moment. And if you remember back to last week, I didn’t name prospective draft picks, instead focusing on how Arizona might manage the draft. With that out of the way, I want to take a direct look at who should be on our Watch List of potential draftees when the Diamondbacks make the first overall selection the 2015 MLB Rule 4 Draft.
But first, one more caveat because that’s kind of what we do here. It should be noted that early February is indeed early in the draft process to really identify who the “best” player is. High school and college players are just beginning their seasons and there are several months for players to gain helium or drop like a stone. Injuries, inconsistent performances or the emergence of new names can and will shake up everyone’s draft board. With that said, it would be odd to see someone come from outside the top 15 draft prospects to take the number one slot. There’s a pool of players right now who most would consider as the best bets for the beginning of the first round. Anyone from that group could emerge as the guy who goes 1.1, but that pool is currently pretty large. So rather than “rank” players, let’s take a look at a few distinct groups that could be chosen from on draft day.
A Big Three of Sorts
If you think that prospect lists vary from publication to publication, take a look at early MLB draft boards and prepare to be confused and frustrated by the lack of congruence. There’s almost no consensus. The “almost” in the previous sentence was very deliberate, however, as there appears to be at least the beginnings of consensus in the top three draft prospects. Floridian high school shortstop Brendan Rodgers is number one on just about every draft board you can find. The Florida State commit is noted for having the defensive chops to stay at short long term, but he won’t likely be a plus defender there. The hype comes from the bat where he projects to have both a plus hit tool and plus power thanks to advanced bat speed. Shortstops who can hit for both power and average are rare. Just take a look at the leaderboard for MLB shortstops last year; it’s a thin crop of offensive producers, making a guy like Rodgers a premium talent at a premium position.
The other two names you’ll find frequently in the top three are Brady Aiken and Michael Matuella. While the two share big potential upsides, that’s essentially where the comparison ends. Aiken’s story is well known as he went unsigned by the Astros last summer out of a San Diego high school when it was discovered that he had a genetically small UCL in his left elbow. He still remains a candidate for the first overall selection with potentially three plus pitches and above average command. Matuella, on the other hand, is a righty from Duke with a power fastball and potentially plus curveball. His command holds him back now, but his premium velocity keeps him in the conversation as a potential front of the rotation arm. So while Aiken is the polished lefty with injury concerns, Matuella is the power righty with big stuff and fringy command that may or may not improve dramatically. In a thin draft, this is what the top pitchers look like. No Stephen Strasburg here.
Right-Handed College Standouts
As always, the draft is chalk-full of right-handed college arms with varying stuff. Carson Fulmer, Kyle Funkhouser, Walker Buehler and Cody Ponce are all intriguing guys with a chance to climb into the top group after an excellent spring and summer. Fulmer is fairly well known as he played a big role in Vanderbilt’s College World Series title last June. There are concerns about his high-effort delivery and size, although he’s worked to clean up the mechanics. His velocity and stuff aren’t in question, however, as he’s dazzled at the highest levels of college baseball. Another big season in which he showcases better mechanics could really push him up. Funkhouser hails from Louisville and flashes a plus slider to go along with a low to mid 90’s heater and functional changeup. Right now, it’s a question of his command and whether he can be more consistent with it. If he dials it in, he could rise pretty quickly.
Walker Buehler is yet another guy from Vanderbilt, joining Fulmer in what is probably the best rotation in the country. The scouting reports suggest that he has three plus offerings already and at least average command. The knock on Buehler is physical as he’s a wiry 6’1”, 160-pounds. If he can add weight and strength, he may be able to sit more comfortably in the mid 90’s with his heat, but if he can’t, he may have to become a reliever to minimize his workload. Teams confident in their ability to maximize his projection could take him early. Cody Ponce, on the other hand, is a manly 6’6”, 240-pounds with above average velocity and breaking balls that have flashed plus. Unfortunately, he’s been inconsistent in looks but has the raw stuff and size that every team covets. Should he show more consistency this spring and summer, he could jump into the top group, but that’s a ways off at the moment.
College Shortstops and a Second Baseman, Kind Of
The top name here is Dansby Swanson, yet another player from a loaded Vanderbilt Commodores squad. He’s a physical kid for a shortstop, coming in at 6’1” and 210-pounds, with speed to burn and some feel to hit. LSU shortstop Alex Bregman isn’t far behind but lacks some of the projection that Swanson shows. His swing is simple, generates power and should translate well to the pro game. Not everyone is sold that he’ll stick at short and he may have to move to second base. Speaking of second, that’s where Ian Happ of Cincinnati plays, at least for now. He hasn’t been known for his defense but has as an advanced bat and plenty of speed. Where he settles on the diamond is to be determined, but his power/speed combination will play at higher levels and the defense thing can be worked out at a later date. A major season from either of these three could potentially put their names in the discussion for the first overall choice although the defensive projections will weigh heavily here.
Young Pitchers with Big Upsides
Right-hander Phil Bickford has had an intriguing journey back to the MLB Draft. He was popped 10th overall in the first round of the 2013 draft by Toronto, didn’t sign and instead went to Cal State Fullerton where he spent 2014. But that didn’t last as Bickford transferred out to a Nevada junior college and will be draft eligible as a sophomore. With excellent velocity and a new, effective breaking pitch, he should be considered a legitimate top choice assuming he dominates like he should and remains healthy. Two prep pitchers join him in this group in left-hander Kolby Allard, a UCLA commit, who has a plus fastball and improved slider. He has plenty of projection left and is the kind of high-upside lefty arm that teams often roll the dice on early in drafts. Justin Hooper is another lefty prep pitcher with big upside but plenty of risk. At 6’7” and 230-pounds, his command could remain an issue as mechanics at that size can be hard to master. Fortunately, he has elite velocity and could be this year’s version of Tyler Kolek.
Prep Bats of Various Shapes and Sizes
The top prep bat in the draft not name Brendan Rodgers is Georgia high school outfielder Daz Cameron (son of Mike Cameron). His stock has stalled to a degree, but the upside is still there and a big senior year for him could put him in the discussion for the top pick as he’s previously drawn comps to Justin Upton, according to FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel. Chris Betts has made his case as a potential name to watch as the California high school catcher has the size, athleticism and arm to stay behind the plate long term. The best part, however, appears to be his offensive upside as he projects to hit for average and some power, a rare combination from a high school catcher. Two high school outfielders have seen their stock soar recently thanks to strong combinations of power and speed. These would be Kentucky commit Nick Plummer and New York prep Garrett Whitley. Both are on the periphery at this point, but huge senior seasons, coupled with some disappointments closer to the top, could propel them into the discussion.
Where Do the D-back Go From Here?
There’s a non-zero chance that someone not named above gets drafted with the first overall selection, but I wouldn’t bet on it. “Pop-up” guys come out of nowhere at times, but there are enough candidates here to cover the options pretty well. It would be quite surprising to see a player jump all the way to the top of the draft board from outside of this group. That said, if the Diamondbacks are looking to explore alternative draft strategies, including drafting a player outside of the top group to save money on his bonus, then there’s a possibility that they do something off the wall.
I don’t get the feeling that the team is very happy about picking first, however, so I’d anticipate them doing something more strategically sound so as to continue building positive momentum for the future rather than completely rolling the dice. Should Brendan Rodgers hold down the top spot on the board, he’s a very legitimate candidate and would likely be expensive, but could be just the type of impact talent the organization needs. There are plenty of college arms to consider as well, although the Brady Aiken thing scares me. That fear may be somewhat irrational and I’ve probably been swayed by some of the sports media coverage of is situation, but it bothers me nonetheless. Mattuela is another legitimate contender for the 1.1 slot, likely even with the two named above. Outside of that group, a prep lefty like Allard or the JUCO righty in Bickford seem like plausible options. A risky prep bat, as in anyone other than Rodgers, would be a bit of a surprise at this point, but it shouldn’t be counted out.
The idea here is to get a feel for the names available and try to see where players stand in comparison to one another. As the spring and summer progress, we’ll begin hearing more and more about these guys: who’s hot, who’s hurt and who’s separated themselves from the pack. Rest assured, we’ll be checking back in as the world of baseball gets to churning again. Until then, don’t fret too much about who’s in a slump or who had a bad start. These are kids and a lot can change, but patience remains a virtue.
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