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2016 Draft Preview Episode 0.1: Second Bites at Various Apples

Officially kicking off the 2016 draft season, with some generalities and a look at three players returning to the draft board from just this past June.

Tommy Pham, a draft success story nearly a decade in the making.
Tommy Pham, a draft success story nearly a decade in the making.
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

That's right, ladies and gentlemen; it's that special time of year again. No, not Christmas. Nope, not Hannukah either. Or Kwanzaa. I mean, sure , if you really want to celebrate those things, I suppose you could, but I am here for a much higher purpose.

Draft season is here again.

Okay, so the draft doesn't actually happen until June. And yes, that's roughly six months away. Nonetheless, it's time for me to kick off my annual draft coverage series, seeing as how those six months from now until the draft only comprise roughly 25 weeks or so, and I would like to get close to 100 players with full writeups again this year. At a pace of three per week (which is the pace I feel I do my best work), with a couple Players of Interest posts thrown in there which usually run double the number of reports, and maybe an extra piece thrown in from time to time, I need to get cracking if I'm going to get as much done as I would like.

For this week, I thought we would start with a bit of a general overview, and then take a look at three players who fall into a demographic that, for me, represents at least a bit of a micro-trend: that of the junior college player, taken reasonably high out of high school the previous year but who failed to sign.

Juco players are not a new thing, of course; plenty of high-schoolers who didn't quite get the draft slot or signing bonus they were hoping for over the years have chosen to go the junior college route. The benefit, of course, is that once a player enrolls in a four-year college, he's usually locked in for three years, or two if his birthday happens to fall into the draft-eligible sophomore classification. By attending junior college, however, the player can immediately reenter the draft after his first season, and hopefully boost his stock closer to where he feels it should be.

The last couple years, however, we've seen an interesting, if very limited, trend of more highly-drafted guys trying out this same route. Not players in the first round of two, mind you; those players still, for the most part, get their money and join the pro club who drafted them. But there have been several examples recently of players taken in the early-middle rounds who, in years past, may or may not have signed, but had big-time college commitments you would normally expect players to honour. Those are the interesting edge cases; players foregoing power-conference schools to bet on themselves with a year of junior college, then taking a second shot at the draft before possibly deciding to get that college education they might reasonably have accepted straight out of high school in years past.

The sample size is far too small to determine if this is a real or meaningful trend in any way; the number of players who fall into this category in a give year can be counted in the dozens, and very few of those really represent those edge cases I'm talking about here. But anecdotally, it seems to me there have been a few extra players the last couple drafts who fell through the cracks slightly for whatever reason, and took to the juco ranks rather than head off to full universities than we may have seen before. Only time will tell, I suppose, whether this represents an avenue more players think of as a viable option -- and if so, I wonder if the high-profile circuitous juco route Bryce Harper took to pro ball might have anything to do with that perception -- or if it's a momentary blip. Or even less meaningful, not a blip at all, but an illusory piece of data I noticed but isn't really real.

Anyhow, first, some generalities.

The 2016 draft is, to put it lightly, loaded.

I think the 2015 class was probably better than many gave it credit for at the time, and will prove out to be a bit deeper than was the opinion going in. That being said, it's easy to see why that would be the perception; there was a real lack of truly elite, can't-miss talent at the very top of the draft. There was no Harper, no David Price, not even a Brady Aiken, who had truly separated himself as the class of the class before the Astros got back his medicals and found out his elbow was some sort of space-time anomaly. Instead, there was a small group of players who were a half-step better than a long plateau of nearly indistinguishable talents that covered close to three rounds. It wasn't a terrible draft class, I don't believe; however, the lack of slam-dunk talents at the top, and the fact the tenth overall player taken and the 50th were not all that different, lent the class a perception of being worse than it perhaps actually was.

That is not to say, however, that 2015 was actually a really good class; only that it was, I think, a fair bit better than many thought. It was still fairly weak, on the whole.

Not so with the 2016 class, which is shaping up to be an historically deep one. If you read the national publications as we head into the draft season proper, you're going to see a lot written about how the pitching is easily the biggest strength of this class, and the main reason for the difference in quality between 2015 and 2016. Overall most of the demographics are not that much better, but the pitching, particularly on the college side, is light years beyond what '15 offered, and therein lies nearly the entire divide between the two drafts.

I don't necessarily disagree with that assessment, to a point. The college pitching is far better this year than last, with the caveat the 2015 draft was a weirdly awful college pitching crop, but if you're asking me for my opinion -- and you probably aren't, but by choosing to click on this article you've pretty much doomed yourself to it -- I think the stealth demographic to pay attention to in this year's draft class is actually high school position players. It's an extraordinarily deep and talented bunch of hitters coming out of high school this year, including an odd little mini-bubble of young catching talent I'll get to at some point down the road. If ever you were looking for a year to invest a couple high draft picks, say, two or three within the first 40 or so selections, into high-ceiling position talent, this just might be the year.

That being said, for the second year in a row, the number one guy on my Cardinal wish list is a college pitcher. Last year it was Tyler Jay, the Illinois closer who was drafted like an Illinois starter, and is currently playing his trade for the Minnesota Twins. This year, it's....well, maybe I'll just save that for a later post.

The high school pitching, in contrast to the players on the hitting side, feels dire to me this year. There are some extraordinarily talented arms, don't get me wrong, but nearly every one of them has something in their profile I feel limits their ceiling pretty severely. Lots and lots of deliveries I nearly cry when I watch, tons of one- and two-pitch no-feel velocity hounds. In other words, there might be a dozen or more future closers coming out this year, but barely a soul I would feel comfortable betting on at the front of a rotation. That's not to say there aren't arms I would be willing to bet on; it's always possible something could change for a pitcher and his future outlook improves. But, overall, I'm not very excited about the high school pitching crop this year.

On the college side for position players, it's kind of a mixed bag early on. Last year's crazy bumper crop of college middle infielders appears to have, unsurprisingly, left us with very little of that particular demographic this following year. College infielders in general, in fact, are almost completely nonexistent at the top of this class. There are some outfielders, including a couple premium athletes who could go early as center fielders with average bats, but there isn't a college third baseman, middle infielder, or even first base/DH slugger type who I expect to go in the top ~20 picks this year. Maybe not even a single college IF in the first round, though I have to believe that will change by draft day, if only because someone in the college ranks will play well, and simple supply and demand will dictate a team with a perceived need will go there. Overall, though, this is a very bad batch of college hitters; one of the worst I think I've ever seen, in fact.

Actually, I should say there is one college bat I like a whole lot, and he falls into the 'likely first base' bin as a slugger with limited defensive ability. I'll cover him soon; probably next week, in fact, as he is a returning favourite of my draft previews from three years ago. But on the whole, this is a fairly brutal crop of college hitters. If you're picking in the top ten, you might snag a high-calibre athlete with a chance to hit a little and stay in center. Beyond that, you're probably best waiting until the second or even third round before really considering many of the other college bats available.

Overall, I think the real strengths of this draft are on the college pitching and high school position side. As much as the high school pitching crop will get plenty of love -- and I understand why -- as I said earlier, there are very few prep arms this year I feel I could actually get behind without serious reservations. And unless you're looking for a center fielder, college bats are nearly nonexistent, at least in the early going.

All that being said, things could certainly change between now and June. I'm sure a college bat or two will jump up the rankings, simply by dint of feeling safer than some other draft demographics, and there will be the inevitable attrition among pitching prospects as arm issues pop up in at least a few of them. But for now at least, that's how I view the 2016 draft class as a whole.

To jump into the specifics, we're going to look today at three returning players from just this past year. Two high school draftees last year who failed to sign and headed off to junior college in order to get another crack at the draft just one year on, and one college player, now a senior, who lost a good chunk of his junior season and headed back to school, hoping to stay healthy and solidify himself closer to the top of the draft than the 23rd round, where he was chosen in 2015.

The most interesting note of all: two of these three players just happen to have been drafted by the Cardinals last year.

Kep Brown, OF, Spartanburg Methodist Junior College (South Carolina)

6'5", 205 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

You might remember the name Kep Brown, if you are a longtime reader of my draft previews; he was a relatively hot topic around these parts in June. Brown was the tenth round pick of the Cardinals, a high school slugger of the highest order, and really only lasted as long as he did because of an Achilles injury he suffered early in the spring. There was a bit of consternation over the pick; specifically, the fact the Redbirds selected Brown with a pick in the top ten rounds meant that when they failed to sign him, they lost the portion of their bonus pool connected to his draft slot. In the end, it was only a small portion, as befits a tenth round pick slot value, but still, it felt at the time as if that pick could have been used in a more efficient way, that wouldn't have led to the Cardinals forfeiting even a modest portion of their bonus pool.

Given the Cardinals' obvious interest in Brown this past year, I have to wonder if they would be intrigued by a second shot at him. At the very least, having drafted him last time around means the organisation has dealt with Brown and his agen-- ahem, advisor, and has some feel for what he might be looking for.

On the field, power is the name of the game for Brown; he's a big, imposing physical presence in the batter's box, and is capable of hitting the ball in a manner that's mighty big and imposing as well. His setup and swing feel stiff to me, but when he connects, he can send a ball out to any part of the field in a hurry. He still has room to fill out, as well; his frame is huge and can handle plenty more weight than his current lanky 200 pounds or so.

There are legitimate questions about Brown's ability to make enough contact for his huge raw power to play in pro ball; it's not tough to see him ending up as a five o' clock superstar, hitting bombs left and right in batting practice but struggling when the pitchers aren't trying to groove the ball for him. That being said, it's rare to find the type of power potential Brown possesses; the Cardinals tried for a similarly huge power profile in 2014 with Justin Bellinger in the eleventh round, and it's easy to see why a club would be pushing for power in the current offensive climate.

Beyond the bat, Brown has the big arm and average speed to play right field, but is not the kind of athlete that will probably ever make an impact with his glove. In other words, with Kep Brown, you're betting on a somewhat one-dimensional player, but that one dimension is pretty extraordinary. Think of what signing Chris Davis would mean; Kep Brown is very much the draftable version of that idea. Limited defensive value, contact issues, and really only one above-average tool, but that one above-average tool is way, way above average, to the point it could carry the rest of the profile along for a good long while.

I wrote about Brown moving to Spartanburg back in August, when he left Miami to be closer to home in South Carolina. I have no clue what, if any, schools have approached him about transferring out if he doesn't get what he wants in the draft this year. I'll try to keep an eye out for any info that pops up between now and June.

Overall, my stance on Brown hasn't really changed all that much since I initially scouted him this past spring; the power is so loud I can't say I would hate seeing the Cards take him again, but he's a pretty limited player overall, and for where you would probably have to select him in order to have a shot, I think a club could do better, particularly considering the depth and strength of this draft class.

via Fangraphs:

Gio Brusa, 1B/OF, Azusa Pacific

6'3", 220 lbs

Bats: Switch

Throws: Left

So, what's so great about this guy?

Brusa is the other player I'm covering here today who was drafted by the Cardinals in 2015; he missed much of his junior year of college with an injury to his throwing arm, a partially torn UCL that, at least in my mind, calls into question his ability to return to duty in right field so long as the arm is a concern. Before the elbow injury, Brusa played a solid-average right field with a plus throwing arm; if his ability to throw is compromised, he may fit better long-term at first base, particularly if a team wanted to limit his exposure in hopes of avoiding surgery and an extended rehab process.

Much like Kep Brown, though, at the plate is where Brusa is going to make his money. He offers well above-average power from the left side, as well as enough extra-base pop (though not nearly so much over-the-fence ability), from the right that he can avoid being platooned to death.

After two seasons of middling production for Pacific, Brusa exploded in his junior season, putting up a .927 OPS in a pitcher-friendly park and conference. Small sample size, unfortunately, as the elbow injury took away much of his season, but it wasn't as if an offensive breakout for the switch-hitting slugger was exactly unexpected. He's always had the power and a patient, disciplined approach that could very well serve him better in pro ball, where better umpiring should actually benefit him. In the past, his patience at the plate manifested less as walks and more as deep counts and strikeouts, but his overall improvements his junior season included a newfound ability to actually control the strike zone, rather than simply taking lots of pitches without being able to translate that into on-base numbers.

Contact is definitely an issue for Brusa, much as it is for Kep Brown. He seems to struggle to adjust to offspeed stuff, particularly late in counts, showing very little in the way of a two-strike approach. He'll wait for his pitch, but if he misses it, he's prone to striking out, in a specifically Adam Dunn-ish sort of way.

Interestingly, Brusa has put up much better offensive numbers with wood bats over the years than he has with metal, lighting up the Cape Cod League two seasons in a row in spite of facing higher level competition than he ever has in school. Some players are simply better hitters with the weight of wood; I feel like Brusa just might be one of those guys.

If the arm is completely healthy for Brusa, he could probably move back to the outfield, where he's an average to slightly above defender in right, but for my money he fits best at first base. He has very good hands, showing an ability to dig throws out of the dirt consistently, and his throwing, while rarely a factor, does allow him to make the occasional double-play start or a throw home that might not be made by a first basemen with a lesser arm.

Mark Teixeira is the easy comp to make for Brusa; they're very similar physically, and offer similarly powerful profiles as switch hitters. However, Teixeira has, for most of his career, been better than average at making contact with the ball, while Brusa is much more of an all-or-nothing, high swing and miss slugger type. He does generally show the kind of elite patience at the plate to put him in that Teixeira range, but there's probably going to be a whole lot more swinging and missing in his game, unfortunately.

Brusa is an extremely interesting draft candidate this year, since as a college senior he possesses little leverage and could represent a solid value signing should a club need to try and move some money around. He's too good to go for a rock-bottom price, but for a team with a bunch of extra picks that might be trying to shoot for the moon and nab a coupe of above-slot guys, redrafting a player they clearly had some interest in this year as a power bat bet with a reasonable price tag would make a ton of sense.

via The Prospect Pipeline:

Nicholas Shumpert, San Jacinto Community College (Texas)

6'0", 180 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

In a word, everything.

Well, mostly everything, is what's so great about Nick Shumpert; he was one of my very favourite players in the draft last year, and he remains a guy I'm extremely high on coming into his second straight year of draft eligibility.

I'll be honest, seeing Shumpert fall as far as he did in the draft this past year was kind of shocking to me. I look at him, and I see a dynamic player who should be able to stay at shortstop, has above-average speed, and shows big-time raw power potential at the plate. What it is I'm seeing that the industry as a whole didn't is really kind of puzzling to me.

Honestly, I wonder if there wasn't simply a bit of prospect fatigue with Shumpert in this past draft; as the son of a former big-leaguer, Shumpert has been on the radar for a number of years now, and there are times a player who pops up early simply falls due to scouts being tired of seeing him, or at least just used to what he is. Maybe that's the case, maybe it's not. Whatever the situation, though, I'm having a hard time understanding what there is not to like about Shumpert's profile.

He moves well at shortstop, showing at least average range for the position, and his hands are very good. He's built along the lines of Rafael Furcal or a younger, much less rotund Juan Uribe, rather than the long, lean shortstop prototype put forth by the Manny Machados and Carlos Correas of the world, but there's a ton of explosive athleticism built in to his compact, muscular frame. He has a big-time arm, more than enough to make all the throws from the left side of the infield, and would be a plus turning the double play from second, as well, if a team had a need for him at the keystone.

With the bat in his hands, Shumpert shows well-above average bat speed, and there are times he's capable of launching balls out of any park. He's still a work in progress offensively, but the raw tools are certainly there for him to do big things. As a lifelong baseball rat, his instincts are better than the average player his age, which should only help him. He's a cold-weather kid originally, having grown up in Colorado, so perhaps there was some bias built in against him due to questionable competition in high school, but other than that I really don't see much to take issue with.

Actually, I suppose I should say that I doubt his listed height of six foot even. He's probably more in the 5'10" range, if I'm being honest. Then again, that's the case with a whole lot of major leaguers, in terms of their listed heights, and I think the skills and athleticism translate regardless of what the height line on Shumpert's driver's license says.

After turning down the Tigers as a seventh-round pick this past summer, Shumpert will be reentering the draft next June out of a baseball powerhouse of sorts in San Jacinto CC. Perhaps playing at a highly thought of junior college will push his stock closer to where I feel it should be. I would love to see the Cardinals come away with Shumpert in this year's draft; either of their supplemental round picks would be a fine place to select, but the possibility of nabbing him with a second round pick is even more enticing. Considering his stock was pretty modest in 2015, it's possible he might not move all the way up to a sandwich pick grade in 2016, in which case I would give one of my eyes to see his name called by the Redbirds at the end of the second.

Here is my 2015 scouting report on Shumpert, done at the very beginning of the process; I'm going to pretend the intro to said article doesn't exist. It's just too upsetting now.

via Willie Shumpert (who I assume is a relative, and the little bit of voiced commentary in the video feels like a proud uncle or something, but still, it's good look at the swing, and the batspeed):

And there you have it, folks. The draft previews have now been officially kicked off, and I will bringing you draft coverage most Wednesdays from here on through June, in an attempt to get as many players written up as possible. It seems a long way off now, but it always comes up faster than you expect, and considering the Cardinals look to be facing an uphill battle in the NL Central this year, to a degree they haven't in quite some time, we may all be looking forward to the draft a bit more than usual in 2016.

Now, I just have to hope the Cards hang on to those extra picks they have, if only because it makes it much more fun for me to write about the draft....