No long, snappy -- or sappy -- intro today, folks. Actually, I'm writing this well ahead of time (and hopefully am actually finishing it well ahead of time, rather than simply starting it early and then frantically trying to finish it up Wednesday morning in between other things, and ending up publishing it just as tardilly as most of my other columns), and so have very little to say about anything that may have changed in the last day or two. Luckily, with an off day Tuesday, it's doubtful there is any particularly revelatory news that I'm missing today, barring a possible Nick Ahmed pickup, I suppose, which I'm not particularly excited about the prospect of. If he hit left-handed, I might be a bit more sanguine, but even then, you're essentially talking about picking up another Cesar Izturis type, and I don't think that's much, if any, better than the in-house options. Not the end of the world if it happens, though; I cannot offer anything more than lukewarm take here.
Anyhow, what we have here this morning is three high school outfielders, all of whom boast ceilings as high as any player you're likely to find in this -- or any other, really -- draft. This also continues the mini-trend of this draft being unusually heavy on left-handed hitters, it seems to me. But anyway, on to the players themselves.
Blake Rutherford, OF, Chaminade Prep (CA)
6'2", 190 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Rutherford has been on the radar as long as any high school player in the draft, which is perhaps unsurprising considering he is both precociously talented and also from one of those areas of the country rightly (and constantly), referred to as a 'baseball hotbed' in Southern California. He doesn't have the kind of hype following him around we saw with a kid like Bryce Harper, of course, but then, Blake Rutherford is a very intriguing, very exciting amateur baseball talent, not a generational beast capable of essentially breaking the mold of how high schoolers get to the draft because he's just that good.
Still, Rutherford is currently the high schooler for 2016 whose name you're most likely to hear between now and June via non-draft coverage sorts of sources, and there is a chance, if he takes another step forward this spring, that he could be a consideration for the first overall pick in the draft. He is most likely a ways short of that level right now, particularly considering the absurd depth of pitching near the top of this class, but if a team picking in the top five were simply set against taking a pitcher on principle for one reason or another, there's a decent chance Rutherford might be the direction to which they turn.
It's easy to see why Rutherford is as highly thought of as he is, as well; this is a player with no real weakness in his game, despite his youth. He is both polished and toolsy, looks to contribute on both offense and defense, and his tears have the power to heal the sick. Two of those three statements are true; I'll allow you to decide which two you believe.
At the plate, Rutherford has one of the more natural strokes you'll see, and it produces hard line drives, with plenty of power potential on driveable pitches, and a whole lot less swing and miss than you see from many other kids with premium pop. Tremendous balance in the swing, and while there are times he'll bar the front arm a bit -- that fairly common issue you see with many lefty swingers who throw right-handed and can lead to trouble with velocity and inside pitches -- he possesses the hand speed to make up for it, and it isn't a consistent issue, either. He's a classic high back elbow hitter and utilises a leg kick in practice, but tends to tone it down in games. To my eye, he has better rhythm in his swing when he gets his foot up and off the ground, but I also understand the reasons why coaches try to steer players away from it.
In the field, Rutherford shows above-average speed (though not elite, burner-type speed), and plays a solid center field for now. If one wanted to come up with a real question about his future potential, it might be whether, as he fills out and gets bigger, he might not also lose a step and end up moving to a corner outfield spot. If he does, he has plenty of arm for right field, but for now I don't see much reason not to project him in center for the foreseeable future.
If everything comes together for Rutherford, it's possible to look at him and project a player with 55s or better across the board on his scouting card. Something like a 55/60/55/55/55 hit/power/run/glove/throw combination is not only out of the question, but seems reasonable watching him play at times. If he hits his 90th percentile level, in terms of talent, you could maybe even bump the hit and glove tools to 60. At that point, you're edging into Jim Edmonds territory, though, and while the body, area of the country, and wide base of tools and skills would suggest Edmonds might not be a terrible comp, I very much don't like using such a sacred figure from my own baseball fandom as a point of reference for a kid.
Of course, the downside of all this talk about Blake Rutherford perhaps going in the top five of the draft is the obvious caveat that, as always, the Cardinals are not picking in the top five, and so will have almost no shot at him. Which I concede; however, we've seen enough players over the years slip in the draft due to injuries, poor performances, or simple nebulous concerns that crop up in their draft springs that I try not to rule players out unequivocally anymore. After all, I thought there was a very good chance Shelby Miller would be a top 5-7 pick back in 2009, and the Cards snagged him at 19, which I found shocking. (And also left me without a proper scouting report for him, since I saw very little chance he slipped.) So no, I don't expect Rutherford to get anywhere near the Cardinals. But, for the sake of both completeness of info and because sometimes things just happen, I wanted to get him on the record, so to speak.
via The Prospect Pipeline:
Avery Tuck, OF, Steele Canyon High (CA)
6'5", 195 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Part of what makes Blake Rutherford so remarkably attractive at the top of the draft is the fact he not only possesses above-average tools in nearly every facet of the game, he also brings a level of polish to the field you don't often see in a high school player. In contrast, Avery Tuck, perhaps an even more gifted athlete overall, falls into a much more recognisable and familiar category: that of the tools monster in need of significant refinement before he reaches anything near his final shape.
For Tuck, the questions all revolve around consistency and polish, which isn't at all surprising for a high schooler. It's why I personally am not all that concerned with how his abilities will transfer to pro ball, with the possible exception of what is, unfortunately, probably the most important tool: the bat.
To be more specific, Tuck's ability to make contact is an open question at the moment, in much the same way a guy like Kep Brown, the high school outfielder the Cards took in the tenth round last year, had more swing and miss in his game than you want to see. To my eye, however, Tuck has one important factor working in his favour that Brown did not, and that's an already-present ability to use the opposite field, with power. Kep Brown had huge raw power, but it was all to the pull side, and it was easy to see he was at least somewhat selling out for that power. You hope a player like that can learn to stay back, use the big part of the field, and let his natural strength take care of the rest, rather than jumping out early and cheating on fastballs, leaving him vulnerable to offspeed stuff. Tuck, on the other hand, has shown big-time pop to left field already, often in top showcases where he's facing elite pitching prospects, and generates absolute top of the line bat speed, both of which I've become more and more convinced over the years tend to translate unusually well into future success.
However, I do worry about his pitch recognition, as Tuck seems extremely vulnerable to pitchers able to change speeds. To be fair, many high school players have similar issues; every time you hear me talk about a high school pitcher's changeup and how it barely exists, keep in mind there is a corresponding high school hitter who has never seen anything better than those barely-existent changeups. For Tuck, though, the issue seems especially acute, as the number of times I've seen him hopelessly out on his front foot just in a few showcase viewings feels very notable. Hopefully, the issue is simply one of repetition, and playing time will solve it. However, I worry that there are players who just lack the capacity for pitch recognition, and end up as endlessly tantalising failures because of it. (Tyler Greene, I'm looking at you.)
Beyond the power potential, Tuck possesses the tools to be a plus outfielder, probably in a corner, with above-average speed underway and a strong arm suited for right. He's slow out of the box, and doesn't seem to have a great first step in general (he runs a very good 60, but the 10 yard split isn't good, if you take my meaning), so I wonder if the speed will translate to offensive contributions as well as it does in the field, but it's possible he could improve in that arena as well. He's capable of covering enough ground to play center for now, but he appears likely destined to move as he develops.
The power is the most notable tool, but the rest of Tuck's game is nothing to sneeze at. Physically, both in terms of his stature/build and his physical tools, Tuck has a legitimate similarity to Darryl Strawberry. What made Strawberry most notable as an offensive force, however, was his patience and understanding of the strike zone, in an era where that was less prioritised than it is now, and how that patience allowed him to impact the game with his power so significantly. There was plenty of swing and miss in Strawberry's game, evidenced by elevated strikeout rates even in his best years, but his ability to wait for his pitch and punish mistakes made him one of the most feared hitters of his era. I have definite doubts about whether Avery Tuck will develop the same kind of discipline, the same kind of patience. If he does, though, he could be an offensive force for years to come.
via Skillshow Videos:
William Benson, OF, The Westminster Schools (GA)
6'6", 220 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Okay, so let's just get the elephant in the room, the really obvious one, out of the way right up front. Will Benson looks like Jason Heyward.
And I don't mean like, a little. I don't mean because they're both big, physical specimens from Georgia with the same skin colour they kind of look alike. No, I mean they play the game the same way. They move the same way. They have eerily similar tools. And, much like Heyward, Will Benson doesn't have anything approaching a natural, or attractive, swing. Also much like Heyward, though, he seems capable of getting the job done in his own way all the same.
Even stacked up against the other two extremely toolsy guys covered here today, Benson's raw physical attributes stand out. He's a legit 6'5" or 6'6", yet was clocked as fast as 6.6 seconds in the 60 at an event last year. He's incredibly strong, as well; he looks much older than his actual age due to simple size and muscle definition. Linebackers don't often come as tall as Benson, but he fits the part all the same. If MLB had a scouting combine, Will Benson would be the talk of the event.
The downside for Benson is a seeming lack of feel for hitting. Blake Rutherford has a natural, repeatable stroke that brings the barrel of his bat into contact with the ball with a consistency that belies his youth. Avery Tuck, when he's staying back and balanced, generates easy natural loft and carry with a swing that can look positively silky smooth at times. Will Benson, by contrast, attacks the ball with a hard, slashing line-drive swing that can create absurdly hard contact at times, but lacks any of the natural ease or repeatability of his contemporaries.
Which isn't to say there isn't something inherently charming about the violence of Benson's hacks; he is fun to watch hit for the sheer anger with which he seems to go after fastballs, and the sound the ball makes when he properly connects. What is perhaps most impressive of all is the fact Benson, in spite of the way he looks swinging and a still-developing approach at the plate, actually has above-average contact skills. He doesn't swing and miss much, again in a somewhat Heywardian way, despite appearing to only have a 110% swing in his toolbox currently. The hand-eye coordination, in fact, appears to be pretty elite even by high school prospect standards. As it stands now, he's almost a dead pull hitter, the result of incredible bat speed and an aggressive approach on pitches in the middle of the plate. I have hopes that plus-plus bat speed will allow him to adjust and let pitches get deeper, using more of the field, as he matures and learns and improves, but it's not a guarantee that will happen.
There's another interesting parallel to Heyward, in that Benson seems much more able to create screaming line drives than booming fly balls with his swing and approach, and so it seems fair to also wonder if he'll be able to generate the kind of power his size and obvious strength would suggest are possible. One would expect, looking at him, that Benson would eventually develop into a true slugger, but I also have to say it wouldn't shock me if his contact and extra-base skills always outpaced his over-the-fence power.
In the field, Benson's speed could allow him to become a plus outfielder, though he faces the same size-related prejudice in terms of playing center that a certain Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinal flycatcher had to deal with. Benson has actually also taken a fair amount of playing time at first base, I suppose because he does have the huge stature to consider, and what little I've seen of him there I like. The footwork is surprisingly good for a player who is both so big and so young, and he has better hands than I would expect to see from a most-of-the-time outfielder.
Of all the players here today, Benson's tools stand out the most. Rutherford could have 55s across the board; Benson could have 60s or better. He is maybe the most raw of all the players here as well. If you're drafting Will Benson, you're betting that the total sum of all his tools will make him something special. Me, I'm taking that bet every day of the week.
via Baseball America:
and via MLB.com (note the significantly different batting stance, but also watch the speed around the bases):
One last thing before I call this column good: the ages of the players. It's notable that Blake Rutherford will be nineteen on draft day, as he will have had a birthday just over a month before, while Will Benson will still be seventeen for a week or so after the draft. Rutherford was born in May of 1997, while Benson was born in June of '98. (Which is a month after I graduated from high school, which is beyond depressing.) Avery Tuck, meanwhile, splits the difference between them, with a December of '97 birthday. It's not the biggest thing in the world, of course, but it is worth noting that Benson will have a full year following the draft before he hits the age Rutherford will be, which puts their relative levels of polish in a slightly different light. Think of the age difference between, say, Nick Plummer and Bryce Denton from last year's draft, and what that means for them as players, if anything. Again, it's not the biggest thing, but I thought it was at least worth pointing out here.