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2017 Draft Preview No. 0: The Origin Issue

The amazing backstory of the 2017 draft can finally be told!

MLB: General Managers Meetings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time.

Yes, that’s right; it’s time to begin the longest-running annual series of posts (and also the longest series of posts annually), to be found within the electronic pages of VEB. Returning for the tenth consecutive year, it’s the draft preview!

And once again, as has been my wont the past few years, I’m going to kick off the draft previewing with a post focusing on players who represent notable redrafts. Now, to be fair, a solid percentage of the college players taken in any give draft are, in fact, redrafts, having been selected out of high school a few years earlier, but in this post I’m going to be focusing on a few relatively high-profile draftees from the past who now return with college experience under their belts.

I’ll get around to some more generalities about this coming year’s draft a little bit at a time, diving into the strengths and weaknesses of various draft demographics for 2017. Plenty of time so that I don’t have to try and cram 1500 words of overview into this first post. (Even if, admittedly, I hit mid-May every single year and realise there are still a couple dozen players I want to cover, and one or two big subjects I want to discuss, and only three posts left in which to try and do so.) For the moment, let me simply state in regards to the 2017 draft overall: it looks loaded. Absolutely loaded. Loaded enough it would be a real shame if a team didn’t have any draft picks early on.

Just saying.

Anyhow, without further ado, let’s jump right in to our first batch of scouting reports, covering players I’ve talked about before. (Including one very familiar name to Cardinal fans. Or familiar-ish, I suppose, since we are talking about the MLB draft here.)

J.B. Bukauskas, RHP, University of North Carolina

5’11”, 200 lbs

DOB: 11 October, 1996

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

So, what’s so great about this guy?

While Bukauskas himself may be of very modest stature (by pitcher standards, that is; he’s listed the same height as me), the stuff is absolutely huge.

Coming out of high school in 2014, Bukauskas (who went by Jacob at the time), was a pure arm speed wonder, with a fastball that touched 95, occasional flashes of crazy spin, even more occasional flashes of a plus changeup, and somewhat less occasional periods of having very little idea where the ball was going.

The big fastball and intermittent command were not exceptional; plenty of high school arms get their velocity early and struggle to command it. What was unusual about Bukauskas were the flashes he would show of polish, and a potential three- or even four-pitch mix. There were outings he would showcase two distinct breaking balls, times he would drop a 60 grade change on helpless high school hitters, and outings when the delivery would smooth out and he would pepper the edges of the zone, carving off slivers of black on both sides of the plate.

Those outings were not the norm, of course; just as often, he would come out sitting 90-92, with his front shoulder flying open and everything missing up and to the arm side. Such is the way of the world with most high school pitching prospects, even the truly elite ones.

Still, while the consistency certainly wasn’t always there for Bukauskas, the stuff and pitchability he flashed at times was more than enough to guarantee him a spot in the top 50 picks of the 2014 draft. However, Bukauskas himself had other plans, and instructed teams not to pick him, as he was set on honouring a North Carolina commitment essentially no matter what. So rather than going, say, fourteenth overall, he stayed on the board until the 20th round, when the DBacks took him, in one of those ‘just in case’ draft moves teams occasionally make with players they covet but have no chance of signing. Bukauskas headed off to UNC.

It looks as if the college road will pay off just fine for J.B.

In the two years he’s pitched at North Carolina, Bukauskas has produced uneven results — though he certainly improved from his freshman to sophomore seasons — but has made huge strides in moving from high school thrower (albeit an immensely talented one), to bona fide college ace pitcher.

The delivery is much more deliberate now than it was in 2014, but while the tempo has slowed, Bukauskas also has far better balance now, and is actually able to harness the power in his arm more capably. The fastball now sits comfortably at 93-95 touching 97 occasionally, and shows a reasonable amount of armside run. He still overthrows at times, flying open and losing the ball high and to the third base side of home, but for the most part he stays within himself now.

Probably the most impressive weapon in his arsenal is his breaking ball, whether you want to call it a hard curve, a big slider, or a slurve. Whatever the name, the pitch shows tremendous spin and shape, and Bukauskas will add and subtract from it within an outing. I have a feeling a lot of big league teams drafting Bukauskas would try to clean up the breaker, force it into one category or the other, but I tend to think that would actually be a mistake. This is a pitcher with a remarkable capacity for spinning a baseball, and surprising touch for adjusting the pitch as he needs. To take that weapon away by forcing him to define it more narrowly would be a real disservice, I think. If a club were to convince him to refine the pitch one way or the other, I would guess a slider would be the more likely outcome, simply because of his 34 arm slot, which generally leans toward a more tilted breaking ball.

The changeup has made strides as well, becoming a more nuanced offering with time, and a more consistent one. The pitch shows excellent movement and good differential, coming in around 88 most of the time and dropping at the plate. Bukauskas will occasionally throw the change too firmly, pushing it to 90-91 and causing it to flatten out, and even when he’s going good with it he tends to telegraph a little. College hitters don’t do much with the changeup, but pro level competition will knock him around if he doesn’t learn to disguise the pitch a little better. Given the feel he’s shown for making adjustments and improvements, I don’t think he will have much trouble doing so.

The biggest questions for Bukauskas at this point are probably his lack of height, which I don’t worry about in terms of durability but does dictate his fastball tends to be a little flat, and a delivery that looks risky to my eye, and also still gets out of whack at times. Really, though, there aren’t many questions Bukauskas hasn’t answered in college, and there’s a very good chance he goes in the top five come June. If he takes another step forward in terms of consistency and feel this coming spring, he’s nearly a lock. If he stays right where he was, he’s probably a top ten guy still. If he backslides a little, though, or if there’s any whiff of injury, he might very well end up going the way of Jordan Sheffield from 2016, and falling further than the stuff would suggest due to the other questions being magnified by the fact Bukauskas doesn’t have the prototypical body of a big league pitcher.

via The Prospect Pipeline:

Tristan Beck, RHP, Stanford

6’4”, 175 lbs

DOB: 24 June 1996

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Tristan Beck offers an interesting contrasting case to that of J.B. Bukauskas; where Bukauskas offers outstanding stuff in a non-ideal physical package, Beck looks every bit the part of the elite pitching prospect, with a long, lean frame that could easily support 25-30 more pounds, but stuff that is still as much about projection as current wow factor.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to like about Beck’s current stuff; it’s just that where he stands right now he looks more like a #3-4 starter with a body scouts dream on, rather than a potential top of the rotation arm like Bukauskas. Still, Beck has good stuff and an ability to throw strikes at a high level, which will take you a long way in life.

The fastball for Beck in high school typically sat 88-90; it has since bumped up to 91-93. There could, of course, be more in the tank, at which point he could probably transform himself into a different kind of prospect, but I honestly wouldn’t bet on it. Then again, considering how much room he still has to add strength, and the new tactics clubs are employing to build velocity, there’s certainly a reasonable chance. Regardless of where the radar gun readings ultimately land, Beck’s fastball plays well because he locates it at the bottom of the zone consistently, and works with a steep downhill angle from a high arm slot, similar to that of Michael Wacha. It’s not a fastball with a tremendous amount of movement, mind you, but the angle and command help it play up.

Whereas Wacha complements his steep downhill fastball with a wicked changeup, however, Beck actually throws a slightly more traditional secondary pitch as his bread and butter. He throws an overhand curve from that high release point that he can put in the zone or in the dirt with equal aplomb, and it’s deceptive enough playing off the fastball to elicit some very weak swings. That being said, he has a tendency to cast the curve, to take too much off, and when that happens the pitch just sort of rolls up to the plate and hangs up there, begging to be hit. High school hitters didn’t hit it, and college bats so far haven’t done a whole lot with even the worst hangers Beck has thrown, but he’ll need to learn to throw the pitch with more consistent power and conviction if he wants to excel in the pro game. Still, even with occasional lapses, I’d feel comfortable slapping a 55 on the curve, and it could be even better down the road.

There’s a changeup here, too, but it’s more of a show pitch at this point. Beck will need to develop it if he wants to remain a starter, most likely, although the fact his breaker is a curve instead of a slider should help to mitigate any serious platoon issues. All the same, he doesn’t have the kind of dominant stuff to make it as a two-pitch cudgel, so coming up with some other wrinkle is likely going to be necessary.

There is one additional interesting twist to Tristan Beck’s profile: the fact he is a draft-eligible sophomore. Coming out of high school in 2015, he was one of the oldest potential prep draftees; coming into the 2017 draft he’ll be one of the younger collegians. Given the option to return to school for his junior year (to say nothing of a potential senior season), Beck should have some extra leverage, and might very well command an inflated price tag as a result.

I’ll be honest: I don’t love Tristan Beck. The stuff is good, but not great, I don’t like the arm action, and I’m always skeptical of potential draftees whose primary skill is an extremely low BMI. I could see the Cardinals liking him more than I do at nineteen (they did take Michael Wacha last time they had the nineteenth pick, and he’s not a dissimilar sort of bet, really), but I think this particular draft class should offer better options. The Cards snagged Zac Gallen in the fifth round this past June; I’m not sure I would take Beck over Gallen straight up, much less having to part with a top-20 overall pick.

via rkyosh007:

Justin Bellinger, 1B, Duke

6’6”, 235 lbs

DOB: 18 August 1995

Bats: Left

Throws: Left

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Remember earlier, when I made a passing comment about Cardinal fans potentially being very familiar with one of the names I’d be covering today? Well, here he is; Justin Bellinger, current Duke Blue Devil first baseman, is also Justin Bellinger, former eleventh-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals.

In 2014, when the Redbirds selected Bellinger, I had high hopes they would be able to put together an above-slot offer to entice him to forego Tobacco Road. (Remember, the eleventh is the first round not subject to loss of bonus pool allocation if a club fails to sign a drafted player; ergo, lots of guys considered to be tough signs fall out of the top ten rounds.) It seemed for awhile like the Cards might be able to get the deal done; they tried to clear money from some earlier underslot guys, and shortly after the draft Bellinger posted a photo of himself in a ‘Property of the St. Louis Cardinals’ tee shirt on Twitter, but alas, it was ultimately not to be. They went over slot to nab Jack Flaherty — which looks like a very good idea now — and were hurt by Trevor Megill, their third round pick that year, deciding to return to school even following Tommy John surgery, rather than signing the underslot deal the Cards thought they had in place with the righthander. Justin Bellinger headed off to Duke, and the Redbirds lost out on an extraordinarily intriguing power bat.

That power was Bellinger’s calling card in high school, where he routinely swatted 450’ home runs in batting practice, and it remains his most notable tool now. He’s a huge physical specimen, a legit 6’6”, with long levers, and he’s capable of generating enormous raw power. Those levers come along with some serious swing and miss, as well, and if you want to find a reason for skepticism, that’s a good place to start.

His freshman year at Duke, Bellinger struggled to make contact, sporting a rather ghastly 35% strikeout rate. He walked at a decent clip, but still whiffed almost three times as often — not a good sign at the college level. From 2015 to 2016, though, Bellinger improved markedly in his ability to command the strike zone, and the power started to play better as a result. He still struck out more often than you would like to see from an upper echelon college hitter, and the walks were only moderately improved, but he controlled the zone better all the same. He swung at better pitches, chased less often, and began to impose his will on the pitchers facing him. His freshman season, Bellinger hit only one home run and six doubles in 180 plate appearances; in 2016 he put seven balls over the wall and added ten doubles in just 163 trips to the plate.

Beyond the contact concerns, there is also the fact Bellinger isn’t playing anywhere but first base in the field. He actually moves very well around the base, and his height and long arms give him an advantage when it comes to receiving throws. Still, it’s a bad defensive profile, being limited to the far end of the defensive spectrum, and Bellinger will have to hit a ton to be a productive player. That being said, there’s a very good chance he could.

Bellinger’s stock is the most volatile of the three players here; Bukauskas has shown such great stuff and so much improvement it’s hard to see him falling out of the top 15-20, and Tristan Beck feels like such a sure bet for a middle of the road starter’s role that some club looking for a safer pick will take him in the first round. Bellinger, though, has some real questions, and some real volatility. If he takes another step forward in 2017 the way he did from 2015 to ‘16, there’s a chance he could be this year’s Zack Collins. He has that kind of offensive potential. (Though the fact Collins just might be able to catch probably keeps this from being a perfect comp.) If he remains a power-first slugger with slightly suspect on-base skills, though, Bellinger probably fits better in the late second or early third round than he does the first.

The Cardinals know Bellinger, and clearly thought a lot of him the first time he went through the draft process. He’s improved since then, and I think there’s more on the way. He’ll likely always strike out a lot, but if he can keep building his plate approach and pushing his on base numbers, he could be a big-time impact offensive contributor down the line. If he’s sitting there in the second round when the Redbirds go on the board, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear them call his name. Nineteenth overall might be just a little too high for a player whose profile has a relatively thin margin for error, but then again, the bat just might dictate that’s where he fits.

via Jeff Shaefer:

And there you have it, folks. The first draft preview for 2017, featuring players from the past. I don’t know how soon I’ll get around to doing another of these; I’ve got prospect list stuff in the works right now, and barring a lockout, the Winter Meetings will likely bring lots of news and excitement/frustration. But we’ll see.

Take care, and I’ll see you all Sunday morning.