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2015 Draft Preview Six: Stuck in the Middle (Infield) With You, High School Edition

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A trio of up-the-middle players of the prep variety.

That...is one of the most sinister player photos I think I've ever seen.
That...is one of the most sinister player photos I think I've ever seen.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

I'm writing this ahead of time, so as always, I hope you'll forgive me if the end of the world (or a Jason Heyward extension), comes along and makes this post seem almost irrelevant by the time Wednesday gets here.

I'm also writing this on the second of March, which is the birthday of Dr. Seuss, whom you may recall I aped last year at this time for a post about three middle infield prospects. i thought of doing it again today, seeing as how I'm weirdly writing up the same demographic of players (I didn't plan it that way ahead of time; I just decided to do high school middle infielders today and then decided to look at the one from last year, not realising it was almost the exact same date), but then decided against it. Felt a little gimmicky to me to do it again. Or maybe you would all prefer that and I'm really missing the boat here.

I have to also cop to not being in the mood to try my hand at jolly poetry at the moment, feeling rather grumpy and put-upon myself. Not that I'm actually put upon in any way, mind you; rather, I'm paying for my own foolishness and feeling extra sour there's no one else to blame it on. I was doing abdominal work at the gym yesterday morning, and overdid it in a big way. There's a special sort of misery to sore abs that goes well beyond most other areas one can overwork; if you push a little too hard doing squats you probably groan getting up out of bed or anytime you have to bend or squat down to pick something up, but in general just walking around even isn't too bad. Come up with a sore arm or pec, and it will hurt whenever you pick anything up to move it, but you barely even notice it when you're not using the muscle in question. Abs, though...abs are different. Overwork an ab muscle -- or worse yet, strain one -- and you know it. Constantly. It just hurts all the damned time. Sitting on your ass doing nothing is still shitty. Moving hurts. Not moving hurts. Breathing hurts. Ugh. It's like a constant stomach ache you can't do anything about. And worst of all, of course, is the knowledge it's completely my own fault and I should really know better.

Alright, enough whining. I do have something else to vent my spleen about, though, before we get to the scouting reports for the day.

Back at the very beginning of these draft reports, in early January to be exact, I wrote up my three favourite (at the time), pitching prospects for 2015. There were two high school arms, Kyle Molnar and Kolby Allard, and one collegian in Tyler Jay, a former reliever for the University of Illinois I considered ripe for a transition to starting, given his sound mechanics and three above-average pitches. (I also now see, looking back at the post, that something is weird with the first paragraph under Jay's heading. I don't know if something went wrong while I was moving text around or if I deleted something by mistake or what, but a big chunk of that doesn't make any sense. Apologies for not noticing at the time; I think I was in a hurry to try and get that post finished up and must have messed it up trying to finish in a rush.)

Well, apparently the coaching staff at U of I agrees with me, as Jay has been moved to the rotation this season. Which is good, both for the player's development and his future value in the draft. Not to mention the boost the team gets by having its best pitcher on the mound for more than just the handful of innings he would pitch closing out games all year.

But there's where the problem comes in. The pitching coach at Illinois, Drew Dickinson, a former Oakland Athletic farmhand, has opined quite correctly that the team will get more value out of more innings for Jay. However, a couple weeks ago, on the opening weekend of the college baseball season, Jay came on in relief to close out a game on Saturday afternoon. Not a big deal, one would think. The problem is he was scheduled to start on Sunday. And did.

Now, the pitch counts weren't outrageous, by any means, so I'll give the Illinois coaches some credit on that front; this isn't Carlos Rodon throwing 140 pitches early in the season last year. But even working on modest pitch counts, throwing a pitcher on back to back days, with one of those outings a start, is just flat-out irresponsible, and showcases the huge problem I have with top shelf pitching prospects going to college. College coaches are just there to win games, and have absolutely no long-term investment in the players under their charge. It's the same for all collegiate athletics, of course, and it rarely is a huge issue beyond feeling like the players are being used for profit with only a scholarship (which is no small thing in itself, mind you), as compensation. But for pitchers, this is a health issue. College pitchers are risking their arms and their futures every time they take the mound for one of these coaches who is really only interested in what the player can possibly give him for the next two years, and then he's someone else's problem. There is no incentive for college coaches to prioritise the long-term health and viability of the players under the charge, and they don't. It doesn't much matter for position players, of course; you don't use up the bullets in your swing by using it, so far as I know. But for pitchers, the rampant abuse of arms in many college programs is just absurd.

If my son was in a position to possibly be drafted at any reasonable slot, there's no way in hell I would counsel him to go to college. That's sad to say, as I'm essentially saying I would send my own flesh and blood off to a thankless life of riding buses for low pay in the minor leagues rather than send him to the wonderland of coeds and boundary expansion that is a college campus (particularly for those of an athletic bent), but it's exactly what I mean. If you're serious about being a professional athlete, and potentially have the talent to make that happen, then your body is your number one asset in life. You have to care for it. And sending a seventeen or eighteen year old pitcher to a college coach who is only trying to squeeze a few years of value from the arm of your child so he can keep his job is a recipe for abuse and potential disaster. A player as talented as a guy like J.B. Bukauskas, the ultra-talented righthander who opted to attend UNC last year rather than sign a pro contract, is risking his dreams and future livelihood to prop up a system that cares absolutely nothing for what he could be. I certainly respect his decision to go to college, but I still think it's an enormous mistake to risk your entire future in a situation where you're a short-term bet at best.

Bottom line: life in the minor leagues may be shitty, but at least the coaches there actually care where you're going to be in five years. They have to. It's part of their job. No college coach is ever incentivized to look beyond the next three years with a player. And that's why you end up with potential first-round draft pick pitchers working relief and starting on back-to-back days on the first weekend of the college season to try and win a series in fucking February.

Rant over. Scouting reports to follow.

Cornelius Randolph, SS, Griffin High School (Georgia)

6'1", 190 lbs

Bats: Left

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

Well, his name's Cornelius, for one. Is that enough to draft a guy on alone? I feel like it really should be.

However, if one were disinclined to simply draft all possessors of awesome names -- a policy which would have kept you from drafting Stryker Trahan, which may very well be a good thing at this point, sadly -- then there are other qualities Cornelius Randolph Vanderbilt Baltimore III possesses which might still make him an attractive choice.

Randolph has more pop in his bat than your typical high school middle infielder; only Brendan Rodgers has more consistent power in his swing than Randolph among that draft demographic, and that's largely based on Rodgers making unbelievable contact, rather than simply possessing more actual power. When Randolph connects with a ball, he's capable of giving it a ride not a ton of prep players can.

He also possesses the tools to play a premium infield position long term, though likely not shortstop. He already isn't the fleetest of foot, which limits his range and may doom his chances at short right out of the gate, and may slow down more as he fills out. He's a bigger, thicker athlete than most shortstops, and while body type can certainly be deceiving -- after all, Jhonny Peralta is maybe the most un-shortstop looking individual one could imagine, and yet he's also one of the best shortstops in baseball -- players built like Randolph rarely have the kind of extreme mobility short requires. He's quick enough in short bursts, but lacks footspeed. He does have a big arm, though, so third base is probably his best fit for a future home. Second is an option as well, but would seem a bit of a waste of arm strength. He has very good hands in the field, so should have no problem turning himself into an asset at whatever position he ultimately moves to.

The hit tool for Randolph is a bit above-average, as he has a solid approach at the plate and doesn't have to sell out to the pull side to get to that power in his bat. For me, though, he seems to reach an awful lot in his swing, and I'm not convinced that's going to translate once he's facing advanced pitching.

Physically, Randolph reminds me a bit of current Cardinal dreamboat farmhand Malik Collymore, both in terms of his body and future potential, though I actually think Collymore has even better power in the bat. The questions for Randolph will be where he ends up playing on the diamond and whether he makes enough contact to tap into his power potential. If he maintains that short-range quickness and can take advantage of his arm strength, he could be a very good third baseman in pro ball. If he ends up slowing down more than that and is forced to move to an outfield corner, his value takes a big hit.

I'm going to say it right now: I think Randolph might be a potential catcher conversion project, a la Carson Kelly. He has similar defensive tools as Kelly, including the soft hands and nimble but not so fast movements (and the requisite rifle for an arm), and seems to possess the kind of baseball IQ that could make such a move possible. But that's strictly me blue-skying something I see as a potential idea. I doubt highly any teams are looking at him in that way right now.

via Jheremy Brown:

Alonzo Jones, SS, Columbus High School (Georgia)

5'10", 190 lbs

Bats: Switch

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

Speed.

Lots of speed. Raw, unadulterated speed. That's what Alonzo Jones brings to the table.

Of course, it's a bit reductive to reduce (see how reduce is almost right in the word reductive? There's proof!), a player's entire toolset and potential and talent to just one quality, but in the case of Jones it's almost unavoidable. The speed is so notable, so overwhelmingly loud, that everything else he offers is filtered through the lens of that one carrying tool.

The comp that keeps popping up for Jones is Billy Hamilton, and that's not a terrible one. He has that kind of pure speed, a true 80 runner, and because of it that SS next to his name is already being talked about as possibly becoming a CF down the line, both to take advantage of the range Jones's wheels should provide and to take some pressure off him in terms of development, to hopefully accelerate his bat. Which is all well and good, I suppose, but here's my objection to that: I think Alonzo Jones could play a pretty good shortstop.

He's got plenty of range for the position, and the arm is solid-average if not a straight plus. I can't say I've seen enough of him to really know how well his feet work in the field, but the athleticism is off the charts in general, so I'll just go out on a limb and say he's probably got pretty good feet. But, it's not a given.

At the plate, Jones offers a switch-hitting package of below-average power but solid contact ability, and has shown an ability to hold his own against plus velocity thanks to very solid bat speed. He's geared to be more of a line drive and ground ball hitter at this point, and given his relatively modest stature and ability to generate with his wheels, that isn't the worst thing in the world. You never want to limit a hitter's ceiling by trying to put them in a box of slapping the ball or chopping the ball or otherwise compromising their ability to put the head of the bat on the ball as effectively as possible, but when you consider what is likely to be a fairly limited power ceiling and the on-base problems he could create, simply putting the ball in play as sharply as he is capable of is far from the worst approach a hitter like Jones could go for. The Lou Brown mandate of pushups every time he hits one in the air is probably a bridge too far, but a Jon Jay-like batted ball profile for a player with Jones's speed is....very intriguing.

There are questions about both Jones's potential with the bat and his position in the field in spite of the remarkable athleticism he showcases any time he's on the baseball diamond. While he's not a complete rail in terms of build, there's still a definite lack of functional strength right now, and the concern is always that a player who falls under a certain threshold for potential damage will simply get the bat knocked out of his hands at higher levels as pitchers challenge him completely sans fear. Call it the Dee Gordon Problem. Personally, I think Jones will be fine on that front; he's never going to hit for much power, but his pure hitting ability is good enough, and his speed so intimidating when he does make contact, that I don't think pitchers will be able to attack him over the plate with impunity. Developing a real approach at the plate will go a long ways toward forcing that respect out of pitchers, as well.

As for the position, that's a more complicated question. I believe Jones can stick at shortstop long term, but that's certainly still an open query at the moment. If he does move to center field, his speed should make him an immediate impact defender, and that would be just fine. If he moves down to second base, though -- where he's already played quite a bit in high school -- then perhaps he doesn't add as much value as I expected. I don't think he has the arm to play third, so I really think he's going to fit in at one of the middle positions on the field. The question is just which one.

For now, I'm a fan of Alonzo Jones. He isn't a favourite of mine at this point, but I think there's a chance for a real impact kind of talent to come out here. His swing is good from both sides of the plate, he has at least a chance to stick at the toughest defensive position on the diamond, and he can absolutely fly, both on the bases and in the field. Billy Hamilton is a good comp. I'll give you another: Jose Reyes. Jones could end up in that kind of company if some things break right for him. Of course, if a few things don't break so right, he could end up overpowered at the plate and playing a mediocre second base and failing to contribute meaningful value. The potential is big enough, though, to make Alonzo Jones the kind of bet you can't help but want to make.

via The Prospect Pipeline:

Kyler Murray, SS, Allen High School (Texas)

5'11", 180 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

Kyler Murray is one of the top dual-threat quarterback recruits in the county. For those of you unfamiliar with the lingo of football, a dual-threat quarterback is one who can contribute equally well with both his throwing arm and his feet, in the form of running all over the opposing defense. Think Steve Young. Or Michael Vick. Or Robert Griffin III, before RG3 ran into the meat grinder that is the NFL and discovered bodies don't hold up especially well against marauding defensive lineman unless the body in question happens to be preternaturally durable. In other words, a dual-threat quarterback is an absolutely supreme athlete who can affect a game in multiple ways. In other other words, a five-tool player.

(I'm now writing this in real time, Wednesday morning, as something went wonky with the editor and the rest of this post was lost somehow. Perhaps I counted on the auto-save when I shouldn't have. I don't know.)

And that's exactly what Murray is: the prototype for the five-tool athlete, at least the kind you're likely to find on an infield. He's twitchy and fast, with speed that's probably only a single grade behind Alonzo Jones and the kind of bat speed that can't be taught. He's not big -- and while he's not nearly as undersized for the baseball diamond as he is the gridiron, he's still normal human sized, as opposed to Athlete Sized -- but he's capable of putting on a show in batting practice as he turns that plus bat speed loose in a big way.

The arm is fitting for a quarterback (or shortstop), as well; of the players on this list, Murray is the one guy I think is the most likely to stay at short long term. That is, if he makes it at all, which is probably even less of a sure thing than the other players here. By which I mean I can see him not hitting, failing to translate the raw athleticism into production, and washing out of the league entirely faster than I can him making it but ending up a lesser athlete at an easier position.

And that's the story for Murray, really: he's as boom-or-bust as they come, simply due to the type of player he currently is. As a two-sport athlete, he's far more raw than most baseball players his age, simply due to a lack of playing time and focus. The approach at the plate needs a ton of work. He has the arm and range, but isn't a great fielder at short just yet. He has great speed, but virtually nothing in the way of current stolen base acumen. Make no mistake: the payoff for picking Kyler Murray could be an All-Star level player at shortstop for the next decade, but there's also the very real chance he just fails to develop and never makes it out of Low-A ball.

At this point, Kyler Murray is very much a lottery ticket. He could very well be worth nothing, failing to develop anything resembling a real plate approach or discipline or instincts in the field. He could also be worth all the moneys as a true five-tool shortstop capable of anchoring a championship-calibre club for a decade. Only time will tell, really.

Murray is committed to Texas A&M, and there's a very real chance whatever team goes out on a limb to select himin June will have to contend with him possibly heading off to College Station to be Johnny Manziel for a few years. Then again, looking at the injury and attrition rate in football at both the collegiate and professional levels, perhaps Murray will take the long view and decide baseball is a much better road to take, at least until it proves not to be. After all, given the choice, with health and earning potential all thrown in, wouldn't you go for baseball?

Publicly available video of Kyler Murray playing baseball is difficult to come by, so instead I'll leave you with this highlight reel of him doing his man-among-boys act on the gridiron.

via Student Sports:

I like all three of these players, which is somewhat unusual for me to say. There are aspects to each's game I find very exciting, and, in general, adding big time athleticism in the middle of the diamond is a draft strategy I can very much get behind. I know I'm barking up the wrong tree with this one and it's probably dumb to even float the idea, but I have to say, the longer I think about it, the more intriguing I find the idea of a conversion of Randolph to catcher. The raw materials are there for such a transition, and he would immediately become one of the most athletic catching prospects in the game. The bat isn't so advanced you would feel the need to rush him up to the big leagues, while still offering the kind of upside you very rarely see in a backstop. Oh, well. I'm sure it will never happen.

And that's that for another Wednesday. I'll see you all next week, by which time we will have seen actual, real-life baseball being played by our Cardinals, if I'm not mistaken.

It's hard to believe, but baseball is back again.