I've spoken already, both in print and podcast form, about how the demographics of this particular draft class are shaping up as we head into the spring. The college pitching is excellent all the way through, the high school hitting is incredibly deep and talented, and the high school pitching is equally talented, if largely problematic for various reasons.
And then there's the hitters on the college side.
Actually, I should say the position players on the college side, rather than just 'hitters'; in general, hitters are also fielders, and so should not be reduced to only the value they produce with a bat in their hands. It's an especially pertinent distinction to make this year, as there are several college position players near the top of the draft who could be multi-dimensional contributors, capable of creating value across a spectrum of actions. There are probably three players, outfielders, who I expect to go in the top ten or so that could produce meaningful value in all three phases of the game. However, when we transition from talking about position players to literally talking just hitters, things start to look very, very dark.
That's not to say, however, there are no intriguing bats to speak of whatsoever. I've already spoken of my fondness for Zack Collins, the Miami catcher most likely destined for first base in pro ball, whose power and plate discipline both point toward potential future stardom. And there are a few others, here and there. It's just that most have a few more warts than is typical, and it takes a bit more weighing to determine how you feel about those warts in relation to the potential. And, for the record, as I said, there is a class of position player at the very top of this draft that could be very, very good, in that all-around excellent sort of way.
But bats? Well, bats are thin on the ground this year. Here are three of them.
Bobby Dalbec, 3B/1B/DH, University of Arizona
6'4", 219 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
If one were to sit down and make an ordered list of all the bats available in this year's draft class, based solely on their raw power potential, it's very likely that Bobby Dalbec's name would be the one sitting atop said list. Bobby Dalbec does not simply hit home runs; he hits bona fide moon shots that leave observers somewhat breathless, watching the ball take flight.
The trouble for Dalbec is, well, most of the other stuff baseball players are asked to do.
The power is absolutely real, and indisputable, as anyone who has ever watched Dalbec launch a hanging breaking ball into the stratosphere can attest. Unfortunately for Dalbec and aeronautics enthusiasts everywhere is the simple fact he doesn't tap into that massive power nearly as often as one would hope, due to an extreme tendency to swing and miss. To wit, he's struck out nearly 25% of the time he's come to the plate in college so far, and that's hitting with non-wood bats, against college-level pitching. Those sorts of numbers rarely translate into any kind of success in professional baseball, much less the major league level.
When Dalbec has had a chance to hit with wood, the results have been mixed, to say the least. He actually played in the Cape Cod League in both his freshman and sophomore years (2014 and '15), and his numbers were just fine each time. In fact, his numbers his second go-round in college baseball's biggest proving ground were downright unreal, as he put up a .315/.432/.728 line that far outpaced the .742 OPS he posted his freshman season. So, considering this is a kid who absolutely massacred the toughest wood bat league in college, why would I still have reservations?
Because Dalbec, in putting up that rather amazing batting line, did so almost entirely by hitting lots of home runs. He put twelve over the boards, in fact, in just 111 trips to the plate. Which, hey, is admittedly awesome. The problem? We already knew he can hit home runs. We also know he strikes out a lot. So what did his strikeout numbers look like while destroying the Cape?
He whiffed 46 times in those 111 plate appearances. That's a 41.4% K rate. Yes, with wood bats. But still, against college pitching.
Dalbec is perhaps the ultimate boom or bust hitter available this year, and one of the more extreme examples of his type we've seen in awhile. He's patient enough to get on base, yes, and the power plays anywhere, but the contact issues are so pronounced I have a difficult time seeing his offensive game translate well up the ladder. It's possible he walks enough to keep his OBP above .300, and the power is just crazy to the point of overriding other concerns, but this is a player who could easily strike out 40%+ of the time in pro ball. Whiffing at that level makes it nearly impossible to maintain any kind of batting average at all, even with a large number of fly balls going over the wall.
Beyond the bat, Dalbec is a fairly limited player. He's played mostly third base in college, but will probably end up across the diamond at first in pro ball, because he just flat-out isn't very good defensively. He does have a very strong arm, but lacks mobility on the infield and doesn't run all that well that the outfield looks like a good option. This is a player who will likely end up down at the bad end of the defensive spectrum, perhaps even playing DH a good chunk of the time.
Given the serious limitations on Dalbec's game, I can't see my way to drafting him early on, even in light of the tremendous power he brings to the table. As thin as this class is I could see some team desperate to draft a bat taking him on the first day, but I could also see that decision turning out very poorly for said team.
Troy Glaus has been bandied about as a popular comp for Dalbec, and it's fairly easy to see why, given the physical similarities and light-tower power. However, where Glaus was an above-average defender at the hot corner who mitigated his swing-and-miss issues with quality in most other aspects of the game, Dalbec simply doesn't have that kind of all-around potential. Rather, I think I see him more in the mold of Kyle Russell, the Texas outfielder the Cardinals drafted and failed to sign back in 2007, who then signed with the Dodgers the next year, then proceeded to knock around the minors until 2013, more often than not fighting 30%+ strikeout rates that kept his huge raw power from ever fully manifesting.
via George Bianchi:
Nick Banks, OF, Texas A&M
6'0", 200 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
In a lot of ways, Nick Banks is almost the polar opposite of Bobby Dalbec. Where Dalbec is a defensively-limited, strikeout-prone power monster, Banks plays (at least for now), a premium position, offers a well-rounded game, and is known for getting on base at a high clip but lacking real over the fence thump.
In another way, though, Banks is very similar to Dalbec, in that both are going to receive a lot of attention for possessing premium potential with the bat in a year when that skill is in high demand. And while Banks plays center field for now, I think it's likely he moves to a corner down the road, and the pressure on his bat will increase significantly.
Luckily for Banks, there's a very good chance he possesses the kind of bat capable of bearing that pressure, albeit in a very different way from the kind of prototypical slugger one might be envisioning. Banks is what is typically described as a Pure Hitter, with both capital letters clearly audible in the pronouncement, and that label is as apt as any you're likely to hear. He hits everything with authority, sending screaming line drives toward the big part of the field with great regularity, and his crazily high BABIPs (it was .454 his sophomore season), are, in a very real way, the product of his superiority to much of the competition, rather than a simple reflection of good fortune. Think of the way Oscar Taveras put up crazy BABIP numbers in the low minors, and the debates about his true talent level that took place at the time. With distance and reflection, of course, we can realise Oscar's batted-ball profile was simply that of a player dominating inferior competition with superior contact, and at least at the college level, Banks is in a similar sort of category.
In his freshman season, Banks took a pure line drive approach, using all fields consistently and making as much contact as possible, but last year he began swinging more aggressively, driving the ball more often, and being more selective with what he attacked as well. His walk and strikeout rates both went up, though the ratio actually improved, and his power numbers took a substantial jump as well, from a .101 ISO in 2014 to a .172 in 2015. Still not elite territory, but a far sight better. He has outstanding bat speed in general, and so there's some reason to believe further power could still be in the offing. I think of the various permutations we've seen Matt Carpenter go through with his offensive profile the past few years, and how each season he seems to have adjusted his approach to try and achieve some specific result. I'm not sure Nick Banks is so deliberate in his adjustments, nor so remarkably flexible, but there is certainly a push-pull dynamic easily seen in how he chooses to tackle his plate appearances.
On the other side of the ball, Banks is a solid fielder, though probably a bit short of a center field profile long term. He's an average sort of runner, perhaps a tick better, and moves well in the field, but to my eye is likely destined for a corner spot. He does, however, have an absolutely tremendous throwing arm, dictating he should probably end up in right field over left. As a corner outfielder, Banks will face the standard positional penalty, and his value will take a hit. He just might, however, turn out to be a very good corner outfielder, and combined with his bat, that could make him a hugely valuable player overall. Something like what Alex Gordon has turned out to be the last few years, though hopefully without such a circuitous route to arrive there, seems entirely within the realm of possibility.
It's also possible Banks could end up a tweener, without enough thump in the bat (however one wishes to define thump), to overcome his non-premium defensive spot, and not enough glove to move back to center where the bat plays better. I think he's too good a hitter on the whole for that, but there's also a comp to be made between Banks and James Ramsey, the former Florida State star and Cardinal draftee (sadly traded for Justin Masterson), who has, at various times in his career, found himself in a no-man's land of attempting to hit for more power, struggling to make contact, backing off the power to try and bring his average up, and then repeating the cycle all over again as he tries to push his offensive profile to a point he's seen as a premium prospect in spite of what is a decidedly mediocre glove.
In the end, if Banks were on the board when the Cardinals make their first selection, I think they would jump at the chance to add such a polished, potent bat, even if it comes at a position at which they still possess a large amount of depth through the organisation. The biggest obstacle to such an outcome, unfortunately, will likely be the simple fact of Banks being selected well ahead of the Redbirds, I would think. In a draft class so brutally lacking in the area of polished, productive college hitters, Banks stands out as one of the very best, and some team looking for a high floor with the possibility of a fairly high ceiling as well will likely snatch him up very early indeed.
via Jheremy Brown:
Will Craig, 1B/3B/RHP, Wake Forest
6'3", 225 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Of the players I've covered here today, we have one I don't believe in, one I very much do believe in but can't see falling to the team I care most about, and one who vies quite seriously for the title of my favourite bat in the entire draft class, or at least favourite college bat. If forced to choose between Zack Collins and Will Craig, I would likely go with Collins, for a few reasons, but it would be very, very close.
There's a decent chance Will Craig, if he lacked the bat he possesses, might be drafted somewhere in the top five rounds as a power-armed right-handed pitcher, probably destined for 'pen duty, but with enough stuff to potentially close or perhaps hold his own toward the back of a professional rotation. Considering the bat....well, let's say in three years absolutely no one is going to remember Will Craig ever took a mound anywhere, particularly since Vin Scully won't be around by then to dig up pitching anecdotes from Wake Forest to relay to his audience.
Craig is, in many ways, the right-handed counterpart to all the things I like so much about Zack Collins, in that both are big, strong hitters with easy power and remarkably patient, intelligent, disciplined approaches to hitting. Where Collins shows tremendous patience and a willingness to hit in deep counts that leads to huge walk totals and moderate strikeout totals, though, Craig's plate approach lends itself to nearly as huge walk totals, but with a twist: Will Craig doesn't strike out.
Consider that Collins, whose plate approach is so rave-worthy, in my ever so humble opinion, in his sophomore season, playing in the very competitive ACC, posted a walk rate of 18.4% and a strikeout rate of 20.6%. The walks, along with simply watching him play, tells us there are lots and lots of deep counts when Collins steps in the batters' box, and while he does a very good job of making contact and avoiding automatic outs, all those deep counts inevitably lead to a higher K rate than, say, some slap-hitting middle infielder who can carry a ~10% strikeout rate.
Now look at Craig, who plays in the same Atlantic Coast Conference, and played his sophomore season in 2015, same as Collins. (It should be pointed out, however, that Collins is close to a full year younger, due to the vagaries of birthdates and cutoffs and the like.) Craig's walk rate came in at 17.2%, nearly as impressive as that of Collins, and indicative of a similar penchant for working deep counts, likely leading to more punchouts as a result.
Will Craig's strikeout rate in 2015 was 10% on the nose.
That incredible command of the strike zone and outstanding plate coverage come along with well above-average power, as he's capable of crushing baseballs anytime a pitcher wanders into his preferred zone. He shows tremendous power to the opposite field, as well, which I personally believe is a huge marker for future success. He doesn't need to sell out to the pull side for power, and in fact waits on the ball at an elite level, rarely getting himself out in the way hitters so often do when they need to try and make something happen at the plate, rather than having the tools and skills to take what's given and do damage with it naturally.
Craig has played a fair amount of third base in college, but he's not a third baseman. He doesn't run well at all, and the image of him patrolling an outfield corner is...not particularly pretty. It's a not-so-great body overall, in fact, and the questions about his athleticism are really the only questions Craig presents. He's going to play first base in pro ball, and there is some question just how much appetite teams have for drafting the kind of bat-only value proposition he presents. Back in 2008, the first round saw multiple players of that type drafted, including Brett Wallace, Ike Davis, Justin Smoak, and the rare high school first-base only guy in Eric Hosmer. In the years since, however, we've seen teams largely shying away from those kinds of players, it seems, even as those same teams are desperate to create offense. A.J. Reed absolutely destroyed college baseball in 2014, and still couldn't get into the top 40 picks. Now he's already reached Double A, seen Arizona Fall League action, and is making the Astros look like geniuses for something that, in retrospect, maybe should have been the simplest thing in the world.
Will Craig could very well present an extremely similar opportunity for clubs in June, with many of the same pitfalls. The value is going to come almost entirely from the bat, and clubs seem hesitant to invest in that sort of player these days.
When the bat is potentially as elite as that of Craig, though, I think you might have to be a fool not to invest in it.
via Wake Forest Athletics:
And here, also, is a video showing Craig getting the better of Eric Lauer, a pitcher I've already written up as one of my favourites in the draft, on the Cape last year. This is a potential top half of the first round pitcher, and he can't figure out how to beat Craig. I have a feeling lots of pitchers are going to be in the same boat in the years to come.
via Wilson Karaman: