2014 Draft Preview Number Eighteen: Educated Positions

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

With just over two weeks left until the 2014 MLB Draft, we've come almost to the end of preview season.

Coming down to the wire now, folks; one week and one day from today we'll all get to see who the Cardinals place their bet on to be part of this franchise's future. I don't know about you, but I'l all kinds of excited.

Of course, coming down to the end also means I'm running out of time and space to cover players, and even as many as I've done this year, it seems as if there are at least a dozen I planned on getting to who just aren't going to get the RB scouting treatment this year. Which, of course, means we can almost surely look forward to the Cardinals drafting one of those players, just to ruin my day.

Anyhow, on to the write-ups. I've got four players today (bonus content!), all of the collegiate variety, all position players. It's a draft demographic typically thought to be a bit less risky than many others, as most of the players are closer to finished products than equivalent players at the high school level, and there's less attrition than pitchers of any age. Given where the Cardinals are picking, at the very tail end of the first round, don't be surprised if low-risk and low upside may end up the direction they go. Myself, I'm shooting higher with my sights, but I'm not out any money if the player I pick crashes and burns, either.

Casey Gillaspie, 1B, Wichita State

DOB: 25th January, 1993

6'4", 230 lbs

Bats: Switch

Throws: Left

So, what's so great about this guy?

I briefly mentioned Gillaspie in my post covering players whose draft stocks had risen or fallen substantially last week, and while I remembered his older brother Conor was drafted by the Giants, I did not recall him being traded to the White Sox, where he's currently playing third base.

Casey is not the athlete his older brother is, being limited to first base by a serious lack of range and speed. The good news on that front, though, is that while he may be stuck at first, he is a very strong defender there, with outstanding hands that allow him to save his fielders plenty of errors. He's not the rangiest of individuals even at first, but he catches what he gets to and has a strong enough arm to make any throw asked of him.

But enough about his defense. If you're drafting Casey Gillaspie, chances are you don't give two shits about his glove. You're drafting a bat. And it is quite a bat.

Gillaspie has steadily improved as a hitter each of his three seasons playing for the Shockers, and his numbers this year have been astounding: a .398/.523/.706 line that would have looked far more normal coming from an elite college bat five years ago before the NCAA went to the new BBCOR bats that have dramatically altered the offensive landscape of college baseball. His home runs have increased each year, from 8 to 11 to 15 so far this season, and his plate discipline has improved to a remarkable degree. This season, Gillaspie is walking over twice as often (53 BBs in 256 PAs), as he has struck out (23 Ks).

Gillaspie hits nearly equally well from both sides of the plate, although he tends to show more in-game power from the left side. He hit extremely well in the Cape Cod League last summer, leading the circuit with eight home runs, so there's little concern over his ability to hit with wood. He doesn't strike out. He walks a ton. He hits for average. He hits for power. He hits to all fields. In short, Casey Gillaspie is as good a hitter, as complete an offensive player, as you're likely to find in the draft this year. Kyle Schwarber of Indiana started the year much more highly ranked, and still sits above Gillaspie in the rankings, largely due to the fact he might have a bit more positional flexibility (though I still believe there is absolutely zero chance Schwarber plays catcher in pro ball), but if I was being asked to bet on which guy I felt more confident would end up an offensive force at the next level, i think my money would be on Gillaspie.

Taylor Sparks, 3B, UC Irvine

DOB: 3rd April, 1993

6'4", 210 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

There is a fairly remarkable dearth of third basemen in the draft this year, which is kind of a shame, seeing as how thin the Cardinals happen to be at that position in the minors. Not that I would advocate drafting based strictly on positional need, of course, but it's always nice when it lines up so you might be able to address a position of weakness pretty easily.

Sparks is a big, strong guy, and he shows plenty of power potential at the plate. Actually, he shows plenty of power at the plate; I really don't know why I felt the need to still categorise it as 'power potential". He's capable of driving the ball with authority to all fields, after coming into college as more of an all-or-nothing slugger who tried to pull everything. He has solid balance in his swing, though he's a bit busier at the plate than I really like.

There is one limit on Sparks's offensive game, and it's a doozy: an almost shocking lack of plate discipline (or at least patience), that makes me seriously question his future impact. To wit: while batting .360 in 239 plate appearances in 2013, Sparks drew exactly six walks. Read that sentence again. I assure you, that number six is not, in fact, a typo. Now, to be fair, he did still manage to hit .360, and I fully understand the idea that walks are not an end unto and of themselves if you're hitting the holy hell out of the ball, Oscar Taveras style. Even so, a walk rate below three percent gives me real pause when examining a player. A hitter that aggressive is going to get chewed up in pro ball, I believe.

Defensively, Sparks is a solid enough defender, but not much better than that. He has a strong arm, but his range is just adequate. His speed is below average, as well, though he isn't such a poor runner as to be notable for it.

In case you can't tell, I'm not a huge fan of Sparks. While he has good contact ability and the strength to hit for above-average power, his approach at the plate is so aggressive I wonder if even minor league pitchers aren't going to exploit him long before he ever gets near the big leagues. He's a player who does a lot of things pretty well, nothing spectacularly, and has one very big deficiency in his game. I tend to gravitate toward guys who do at least one thing extremely well, and that's not Sparks. He's not my cup of tea, though I'm sure some team will like him well enough on draft day to pop him in the first 30-40 picks.

Bradley Zimmer, OF, University of San Francisco

DOB: 27th November, 1992

6'4", 185 lbs

Bats: Left

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

The second player covered here today to already have a sibling in professional baseball, Zimmer is the younger brother of Kyle Zimmer, the former USF ace and current monster pitching prospect in the Royals' farm system.

Remember a moment ago, when I said while talking about Taylor Sparks, that I tend to prefer players who do at least one thing really, really well? Well, Brad Zimmer does one thing really well, and that one thing is hit. He's cut very much from the David DeJesus mold of hitter, with a flat left-handed swing that produces line drives to all fields but only occasionally lends itself to any kind of over-the-fence power. Zimmer commands the strike zone well, maintaining a walk-to-strikeout ratio close to 1:1 the past two seasons. His power is not elite, though that's more a function of his swing, I believe, than it is a lack of the functional strength to drive the ball over the wall.

Zimmer's speed is above-average, though probably a little short of a plus grade, and he plays center field at a solid level right now. There's some thought he might move over to right field as he fills out and slow down, but I think there's a good chance he stays in center long term. His arm is strong enough to play right if need be, and gives him a real weapon against overagressive runners on the basepaths.

Aside from power, there really isn't anything Zimmer doesn't contribute consistently to his team's chances of success. His hit tool stands out as one of the best in the draft, he plays a premium defensive position at a more than acceptable level, and he's capable of swiping the occasional base to boot. There really isn't much not to like about him, particularly if you happen to be of the mind that teams may start valuing contact ability and bat control more as strikeout numbers continue to skyrocket and defensive shifts become ever more prevalent.

I compared Zimmer to David DeJesus earlier, at least in terms of his hitting abilities and approach, but I think I've got a better comp for his game overall: Ryan Sweeney, the former White Sox super-prospect who currently plays in the outfield for the Cubs and never quite lived up to the hype he received early in his career. Similar size, both play a solid center field, neither has the kind of power you might expect from a player who goes 6'4" with long levers. Of course, one would hope Zimmer might come closer to fulfilling his promise than Sweeney, who, outside of his 2009 season with the Athletics when he amassed 3.9 WAR (much of that fueled by what looks to be an outlier UZR number), has never been the guy he was forecasted to be on his way up through the Chicago system. Of course, injuries have had a big part in Sweeney's failure to launch, so there's really no telling what his career would look like if it hadn't been interrupted so often.

Mike Papi, OF/1B, Virginia

DOB: 19th September, 1992

6'3", 210 lbs

Bats: Left

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

I purposely put Mike Papi and Bradley Zimmer together in this preview, because they are very, very similar players.

Both are outfielders who hit from the left side, though Papi profiles better in right than center (although he's capable of playing center). Both have excellent hit tools, with plus contact ability but mediocre power production. Both have plus arm strength, more than enough to make runner think twice before challenging them on the bases.

Overall, though, while Zimmer is the more highly rate prospect, I actually prefer Papi by a slight margin. Let me tell you why.

First, while neither player has hit for a ton of power to date, I think Papi's swing is a bit better suited to projecting more power in the future. While Zimmer has better speed, Papi is still fast enough, and actually has a bit stronger arm. Most importantly, while Zimmer has the better strikeout rate, Papi is a much, much more patient hitter, with a walk rate almost double that of Zimmer. (10.9% for Zimmer vs 20.2%[!] for Papi.) I can't help but be enamoured of the contact ability of Zimmer in particular, but give me the player who takes more walks and drives the ball for power more often.

Oh, one other, final thing about Papi: he plays for Virginia, which features one of the toughest home parks (and toughest conferences overall), for hitters in college baseball. We know the Cardinals have tended to focus on park factors to a certain extent when picking college hitters, most notably with Kolten Wong and Matt Adams, both of whom played in parks that tended to tamp down offensive numbers. Just something to think about with Papi, that his bat could actually play quite a bit better once he escapes Virginia's home field.

While I wouldn't necessarily put Papi quite in the league of those high-end bat-first players like Schwarber, Gillaspie, or Braxton Davidson, the high school slugger I actually like as well as (or better than), either, he's a much more well-rounder player while having offensive upside I don't see as being all that far off what those guys have to offer. Definitely a player I would feel very good about drafting in the supplemental or early second round.

I'll wrap this up here so as not to be any later than I already am. I'll see you again soon, everyone, as we count down the final days until the draft. Take care.

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