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2016 Draft Preview No. 4: A Talented Trio at the Top

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Three outfielders, of the college variety, all of whom will likely be long gone by the time the Cardinals get their shot at the draft board in June.

Corey Ray, of the Louisville (not St. Louis), Cardinals.
Corey Ray, of the Louisville (not St. Louis), Cardinals.
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

In writing about the particular, peculiar demographics of the 2016 draft class as it's shaping up so far, I've said on at least a couple occasions how thin the class is in the realm of college hitters. Specifically, when writing up the few truly talented college bats I see as possibilities in the early going last week, I made reference to how few true bat-first prospects I saw. However, in doing so I also alluded to a trio of players likely to go near the very top of the draft, probably well beyond the range of the Cardinals and their late-round draft pick, and the fact that all three were outfielders, all three could end up true impact players, but all three were very much of the all-around talent types, rather than big hairy monsters you could plug into the middle of a lineup and count on them to produce big numbers.

It's that particular trio of players I'm planning on covering today, to give you an idea of what the very top of the draft might look like, with these three potential star outfielders sucking up much of the position player air available in the room, even as the absurd crop of pitching threatens to crowd out everything else.

In doing this, though, I'm going to violate one of the principles I've held to in doing these draft previews over the years, in that I don't expect any of these players to even come close to where the Cardinals are going to pick. Given that this is a Cardinal-centric blog for which I write, I have always endeavoured to make the players I cover at least close to relevant. Of course, there have always been exceptions here and there, players I expected to be off the board well before the Redbirds get to make a pick, with the caveat that things happen, players slip, and very few of the players I write up are that far out of range, aside from the occasional Stephen Strasburg writeup just because or that sort of thing.

These three, however, I think are likely locks to go, if not in the top ten, then at least the top half of the first round. But, here's the thing: given that I now have two posts per week, and can stick an extra draft preview on a Sunday any time I need if I feel like I'm running out of time or space, I would like to cover some of these players who are likely out of reach, to give everyone a better idea of what the overall draft landscape this year looks like, so that when draft day rolls around, and you happen to flip on MLB Network just to see how the draft is coming, you'll have at least some idea who those guys having their names called by the Braves and Phillies and Mariners are. I'm well aware for many of you the MLB draft is not a priority, and these writeups are probably the most attention you'll pay to it beyond wondering who the Cards are going to pick. Therefore, I would like to be as informative as possible, which means, to me, covering an intriguing trio of players likely to go at the very top of the draft, because they're incredibly interesting, even if likely only of passing interest to Cardinal fans.

Also, having watched a player like Shelby Miller fall out of the top ten, where I expected him to go, all the way to nineteen, or Michael Wacha seemingly cement his spot in the top half of the round, only to slip back down to where he was before a strong junior season, or any of the dozen other guys to see their draft position seemingly not reflect their talent, it's never a bad idea to be prepared. Thus, I will cover these three, with virtually no hope of any slipping even close to the Cardinals down in the 'we're awesome every year' portion of the first round, but knowing that crazy things happen every year.

Just...you know, not this crazy. So don't get your hopes up.

Corey Ray, OF, Louisville

5'11", 185 lbs

Bats: Left

Throws: Left

So, what's so great about this guy?

Corey Ray is dynamic. Capital D Dynamic, in fact.

Of the three prospects I'm covering here today, Ray is the closest to a finished product, and will likely be the first chosen, barring steps forward from either of the others. I would say he's very much in the conversation to go first overall, but there's just enough prejudice against players under six feet tall, even when they show the kind of remarkable tools Ray displays, that I have a feeling he'll be on the outside looking in when the first name is called in June. I could be wrong, though.

The other day, in the comments section, someone asked if Carl Crawford was a good comp for what Nick Plummer could turn into. For my money, Crawford is a very different kind of player than Plummer, more athleticism and reliant on the combination of speed and power, as opposed to the kind of already-cerebral, athletic but not a tools monster type player I think Plummer could turn into. It's easy to see why the comp would be made, though; Plummer and Crawford are very similar physically, and both fall into the multi-talented category of outfield, even if the specific multiple talents each displays are actually quite different.

Corey Ray, on the other hand, is very much in line with the Carl Crawford comparison.

It's the same kind of left/left profile, a combination of extra-base power and speed that adds additional bases, as well as offering center field range on defense. Ray played right field his first two seasons at Louisville, in deference to an incumbent in center, but going forward he'll likely get plenty of opportunities to prove he fits up the middle. Personally, I think he fits fine there, but if a club has a center field option they like already Ray could quite possibly become the kind of dominant defensive force in a corner that Crawford was for much of his career.

The only real question for Ray is one of plate discipline. He's shaky in that department, and even the increased power he showed his sophomore season didn't force pitchers far enough out of the zone for him to take advantage in terms of walks. He's aggressive both in the zone and on its edges, capable of making contact on a wide variety of pitches, but might be better off letting some of those pitches go to wait for an offering he can handle a bit better. It's concerning he struck out more than twice as often as he walked his sophomore campaign, even as he was slashing line drives all over the field.

Ray is probably always going to be reliant on batted-ball luck to carry good on-base numbers, which makes him susceptible to the vagaries of the BABIP gods. However, he has plus speed and consistently hits the ball hard to all fields, which should translate to higher BABIPs than many other players are capable of mustering. I'm not sure he has the kind of power to post 20/20 seasons, but he should be able to collect 10-15, along with plenty of doubles and triples, and closer to 30-40 stolen bases a year.

The floor for Ray is reasonably high, given his potential to play a solid-average or better center field; his offensive profile gives him a ceiling as a dynamic, above-average regular. I don't know that he has the kind of ceiling you would think of as a potential franchise cornerstone type player, but still, as part of a three- or four-player core, Corey Ray is very much the kind of player you could build around.

Side note: did you know that Carl Crawford is officially listed at 6'2"? I mean, I know baseball player heights are not expected to really be accurate, but come the fuck on.

via prospectjunkies' channel:

Kyle Lewis, OF, Mercer University

6'4", 200 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

Kyle Lewis, at this point in his collegiate career, is further along on his developmental path than Austin Wilson was on his at Stanford, with similar tools and less swing and miss to his game. That sounds like a premium prospect to me; what about you?

Lewis was a multi-sport athlete in high school, and really only focused his energies on baseball his senior season. As a result, he didn't have much hype, wasn't heavily recruited, and very much fell into that bucket of 'toolsy lotto ticket who should really probably go to college'. So he went to college, and lo and behold, he's turned those tools into skills and production, and looks like a lock for the top part of the draft come June.

The profile is almost prototypically that of a right fielder, with a big, rangy build, 60 grade or even better raw power, and an above-average throwing arm. He runs well enough right now that he might be able to hold down center at an acceptable level, but that 200 pound figure is going to be 220 or more by the time he gets to the big leagues, I'll bet, and he probably slows down as a result. Still, even if he slows down a tick or two, he has the wheels to be an above-average defender in a corner, if maybe not an elite one the way Corey Ray might be.

It's the power that really stands out with Lewis; he's capable of hitting some remarkable moonshots, and is beginning to turn those long home runs into often home runs, if you get what I'm saying. There's a whole lot of movement in the swing, with an exaggerated load and leg kick that puts one in mind of a Brandon Phillips or even Javier Baez, but similarly plus bat speed as well. I don't mind the leg kick and all, personally, but it might behoove Lewis to tone it down just slightly, as he seems to have trouble keeping his timing together consistently.

Beyond the power, Lewis shows at least average tools across the board, with a chance to have 55s or better in all categories before all is said and done. Like Corey Ray, though, his plate discipline is an issue for now, as he's extremely aggressive and prefers to attack, rather than wait for a good pitch to drive. There's also a question of level of competition, as Lewis isn't facing the best college baseball has to offer playing for Mercer. Still, he played well on the Cape last summer (.844 OPS), so there is some reason for optimism there.

For me, I'm actually the least optimistic about Lewis of any of the three outfielders covered here. There's enough swing and miss to his game I don't feel confident projecting him to hit for a high average, and the approach is too aggressive to predict high OBPs without the batting average. He should be a solid defender in a corner outfield spot, but I don't know that he'll be a true impact glove guy, and I'm doubtful he retains the speed to play center. The power is the one thing I have no real questions about, but the contact issues could keep him from tapping into the pop as fully as he needs to in order to reach his ceiling.

Lewis fits the bill of a slugging corner outfielder, as well as being able to do a bunch of other things well, and he's as big a helium guy coming into the spring as any player in the draft. I would be delighted if he fell to the Cardinals, though paradoxically, if he fell that far, it would likely mean some of the negatives about him have come to the fore his junior season, at which point I would be concerned about his ability to ever come close to that lofty ceiling.

Funny how that works, isn't it?

via George Bianchi:

Buddy Reed, OF, University of Florida

6'4", 185 lbs

Bats: Switch

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

And now we come finally to my favourite of this bunch. A player whose ceiling is so very lofty that I covet him, even given how tremendously raw he still is in so many ways for a big-conference college player.

I'm going to try not to be hyperbolic when speaking of Buddy Reed, but I can't guarantee anything. And so, when I say he runs down balls in center field a bit like a young Ken Griffey Jr., take that with as many grains of salt as you feel may be necessary. Then go down and watch the video(s) at the bottom, and concede that I may be only slightly exaggerating.

It isn't often you see a player who stands 6'4" and probably deserves a 70 grade on his speed, but that's exactly where Reed is. He possesses a surprisingly quick first step for such a big man, but it's his closing speed that's really remarkable. There is only one outfielder in this entire draft class I think possesses better top-end speed, and Stephen Wrenn, whom I'll get to down the road a bit, doesn't bring that speed in nearly such an impressive physical package.

In fact, there isn't another college player in this draft class who brings quite such impressive athletic tools together in one personage than Reed, who probably doesn't grade out less than a 60 in arm, glove, or speed. He's at least a plus defender in center, to my eye even better than that, and the defensive capability alone should make him an extremely attractive commodity on draft day.

Which is good, because while the potential he possesses on the offensive side is nearly as impressive as that of his glove, he has a much longer way to go to get there than most college juniors, particularly those who have played their collegiate ball in the SEC.

Reed was a multi-sport athlete in a cold weather state (Rhode Island, of all places), which put him double behind the eight ball coming out of high school in terms of his developmental curve. Much like Kyle Lewis, he only began focusing exclusively on baseball late in his career -- in fact, I believe he participated in track and field his freshman year at Florida, though don't hold me to that -- and it shows in the rawness of his offensive toolset. He's a switch hitter, and shows tremendous strength from both sides of the plate, but needs work and repetition on both his swings, and the plate approach is very raw as well. There are times he'll go up to the plate with a clear plan (particularly from the left side, where he seems to get  somewhat better looks overall), and focus in on an area of the plate, and wait for a pitch to attack. At other times, he'll expand his zone, go fishing for offspeed stuff, and just generally look like a player who has very little idea what he's doing against high-calibre college competition. He made huge strides from his freshman to sophomore seasons, but it will take another, similarly large jump to really look like the kind of player who belongs in the top ten of a loaded draft.

Even without another huge jump, though, there's every reason to believe Reed will likely go very early on draft day. His defensive chops alone give him a much higher floor than you would expect from a player with such a checkered history with the bat, and the natural strength and bat speed he's shown from a still-skinny 6'4" frame hints at not just offensive competence, but potential breakout ability. If I were looking for a player to comp his ceiling to, Carlos Beltran comes to mind. If things come together for Reed, he might actually have even bigger talent than Beltran, honestly. Again, I'm trying not to be hyperbolic, but this is the kind of player it's very difficult not to go off the deep end when speaking of.

The thing is, for all that talent, Reed is still very much an unpolished gem, very different from the majority of his contemporaries among the ranks of four-year college juniors. By the time draft day rolls around, he will have played three years at an SEC powerhouse, and yet if asked to give an ETA, I might still say he probably needs at least three years in the minors, and probably more like four, if he's ever going to reach his ceiling. I don't know that the distance from what he could be will be enough to knock Reed down draft boards very far, given that his glove alone could prove a carrying tool, but it's also a question whether a team would be willing to invest the kind of high draft pick in him one might usually associate with a quicker return, with a safer bet, with a more finished product. For my money, though, even if I was picking in the top five, I wouldn't hesitate to bet on Buddy Reed's ceiling. It might cost me my cushy scouting director's job, but I can't help betting with my gut as much as my head on this one.

via 2080 Baseball:

via Florida Gators:

and via Florida Gators:

and via Florida Gators again: