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2016 Draft Preview No. 8: The Educated Infield

A look at one of the thinnest areas of the 2016 draft class, that of college infielders.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Way back at the very beginning of this process, when I was talking about the generalities and peculiarities of this draft class, I wrote about how bizarrely unbalanced the top of the draft looks this year, in terms of an almost stunning lack of college position players, specifically on the infield. Nearly every year, there are a handful of college infielders who populate the top of the draft. A shortstop here, a third baseman there. The combination of positional value and polish you see in these elite college infield types makes them extremely attractive commodities, and among the safest bet one can place in the draft.

They lack the volatility that comes with distance you see in high school players, when you're trying to project four or five years of growth, in terms of both tools and skills, and weighing that potential growth against all the pitfalls that come between 18 and 25. They also lack the volatility that comes with the simple reality of being a pitcher, with all the assorted arm troubles that can derail a career. And the fact of playing an already-valuable position adds to the cache of these players over their flycatching brethren, even their college contemporaries. College infielders can still fail, of course, but the reality of the draft is that you J. Dansby Swansons and Kris Bryants are, by and large, some of the safest bets one can place, in terms of extracting at least some form of value from a premium draft pick.

This year, though, there are virtually none of these players. I'm sure there will be a college shortstop taken in the first round, simply because some team will want one and reach, but hell if I know who it will be. Or if any of the contenders are even worth it. I've covered Bobby Dalbec already, who may stay at third, but I have my doubts. He'll probably go in the first, thanks to prodigious power potential, but he might also strike out a quarter of the time in the Pac-12 this spring and scare teams away.

In spite of the shocking lack of college infielders near the top of the draft this year, I'm going to endeavour today to find three who roughly fit the bill. Perhaps not the first round, but probably pretty high. And players who are interesting, for one reason or another.

I'll be honest: it wasn't easy deciding on three. But, here we go. Beginning with the other college third baseman, besides Dalbec, who has the best chance to go in the first round.

Nick Senzel, 3B/2B/OF, University of Tennessee

6'1", 205 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

Of all the college infielders in this year's draft class, Senzel most closely matches that prototype I laid out above. He has the kind of polish you like to see in a college bat, combined with an ability to play two positions on the left side of the defensive spectrum at an acceptable level. In other words, when you're talking about high floors, Nick Senzel is the sort of player you're talking about.

I'm not going to lie: Nick Senzel is not the most exciting prospect. He has average tools pretty much across the board, with his feel for hitting probably being his best quality, but there isn't any one thing that truly jumps off the page at you. He looks settled at third base right now, having moved over from second, where he played his sophomore season. He was a little short on range up the middle, but his arm plays better at second than at third. He can make the throws, but isn't going to wow anyone, Scott Rolen style. Think of Matt Carpenter's defensive profile, basically.

Wherever Senzel ends up playing at the next level, it's at the plate he's going to earn his keep. He is very much the epitome of a polished college bat, with a balanced, all-fields approach and a solid command of the zone. He's more of a doubles hitter, in terms of extra bases, rather than an over-the-fence threat. He did modify his approach some in 2015, swinging a bit more aggressively to try and generate better power numbers, and it somewhat worked. It came at the expense of a higher strikeout rate -- again, sounds a little Matt Carpenter-y, doesn't it? -- but his overall production was better. Going forward, I expect Senzel will stick with that slightly more aggressive approach, and will ultimately force pitchers to be more careful with him.

We know the Cardinals in particular value success with wood bats, especially if it comes in the Cape Cod League, and Senzel absolutely decimated the Cape last summer, winning the MVP of the league and leading all hitters in half a dozen offensive categories. In other words, if Nick Senzel happens to still be on the board when the Cardinals pick, I would be shocked if they didn't take him. He just seems like a Redbird player, in myriad ways.

The problem, of course, is the question of whether he will, in fact, be available. The dearth of players in his demographic this year will almost certainly push his stock even higher than it might otherwise be, and his play on the field already merits a pretty high draft position. The Cardinals pick at 23; I expect Senzel to be gone probably ten picks before then. But if he slips, for some reason....

If one wanted to be optimistic about Senzel, it's easy to look at a guy like Matt Carpenter for inspiration. Senzel doesn't have the extreme plate discipline of Carpenter, but he has a similar level of feel with the bat and a solid grasp of what he's doing up there. He uses the whole field, makes consistent hard contact, and has enough functional strength to hope for more power as he continues to develop. The fact Senzel is probably an average fielder at best, wherever he plays, shouldn't be a problem if he hits the way he could.

On the other hand, if one wanted to be less generous, you could look at Zack Cox, the former Cardinal first-rounder, dealt for Edward Mujica, which is very much less than an ideal outcome for a first round pick. Cox showed feel for hitting at times, an ability to hit for power at other times, and never could find a comfortable defensive home. He ended up a classic 'tweener, without the glove to add value at a tough position, and not enough bat, in either power or average, to just outproduce his shaky defense.

The fact Senzel has played all over the field at times has also led a few hyperbolic scouting types to compare him to Ben Zobrist. The problem, of course, is that Zobrist was an absolute premium defender at both second base and in right field, could handle shortstop just fine, and brought offensive value to every position he played. Senzel doesn't have those kinds of defensive chops, by any means, and will likely have to work hard just to be average at any position. He might -- might -- have a similar kind of offensive upside, but there's no way he's going to end up the kind of WAR darling Zobrist was in his prime years.

Overall, I like Nick Senzel. Quite a lot, in fact. I like him more having written him up here than I did when I started looking at players at the beginning of this process. Over the years, I've become more and more convinced it's almost always a good idea to bet on a guy with a premium bat, and while the total package for Senzel might fall just short of premium, you don't have to squint all that hard to make him look really, really good. He's easily worth a mid- to late-first round pick, and he may end up higher than that, for all the reasons I outlined earlier. If he's on the board at 23, expect the Cardinals to take him. I'm calling it now.

via Eric Longenhagen:

Ryan Howard, SS, University of Missouri

6'1", 190 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

Well, first off, how hilarious is it that there are now two relatively big-time baseball prospects named Ryan Howard from the St. Louis area? One, the Ryan Howard we know, attended Lafayette with David Freese, and proceeded on to Missouri State, then to the Phillies and a whole lot of home runs, as well as an MVP Award and one of the more questionable contracts in recent memory. The other went to Francis Howell in St. Charles, proceeded on to Mizzou, and is hoping to grab a better draft position this year than the 31st round pick the Giants spent on him last year, when he was draft-eligible as a sophomore.

It's also quite funny that, in spite of all their similarities, Ryan Howard and Ryan Howard are, physically, about as different as two baseball players could be. Ryan Howard of Mo State and the Phillies we know; Ryan Howard of the Tigers and who knows is a rangy white shortstop whose biggest question will be whether he can develop enough power to be dangerous.

What's interesting about Howard, for me, is this: remember that thing I mentioned a few moments ago, about Nick Senzel drawing some Ben Zobrist comps, which I then gave my reasons for not buying into? Well, let me tell you, if I were to project a player in that mold in the draft this year, it actually just might be Howard. He plays a solid enough shortstop, and looks to have the kind of overall package of tools and skills that would lend itself to versatility and an ability to produce in a variety of roles. He's just an average runner, and so the range at short isn't exceptional, but he has a very strong arm (he pitched in high school, and regularly sat in the upper 80s, touching 90), and very good hands. Steady, one would say, attempting not to damn with faint praise but doing so slightly all the same.

On the offensive side of the ledger, Howard is an extreme contact hitter, controlling the strike zone well and showing an above-average understanding of the art of hitting. Unfortunately for him, he has yet to really show much in the way of power, which both keeps him from putting up big slugging numbers and also allows pitchers to attack him more aggressively than they might otherwise. Even so, as a sophomore in the SEC he struck out in less than 10% of his plate appearances and showed an ability to hit the ball with much more authority than he had as a freshman. His first season in a Mizzou uniform he simply survived at the plate; in 2015 he began to look like a much more dangerous hitter.

The lack of power is a real question going forward. He's strong enough that he should be able to hit for decent power, but so far that has yet to manifest. Howard has added probably 20 lbs of good weight since he got to Columbia, so perhaps it's a matter of simply being patient on him growing into his body. I haven't had a chance to catch any Mizzou games yet this spring, unfortunately, so I can't say if he looks noticeably different or better than he did last year.

Overall, I love what Howard brings to the table. I love the fact he looks like he could stick at short, but probably has the tools to play all over the field. I love the fact he seems violently allergic to striking out. I love the fact he's a local kid, too. I don't think Ryan Howard will be a first round pick come June. But, depending on how well he hits this spring, I could see him sneaking up into round two or three, somewhere in that range, and I would love to see him wearing a Cardinal uniform one day.

I like the Ben Zobrist comp, even though Howard lacks the ability to switch hit and thus cannot exploit platoon advantages the way Zobrist always has. I also think he somewhat resembles current Cardinal farmhand Aledmys Diaz, though with a better chance to stick at short long term, I think. Then again, the longer I look at Diaz, the more I begin to think his offensive ceiling may be much higher than we've given him credit for in the past, so take that for what it's worth.

via 2080 Baseball:

Cavan Biggio, 2B, Notre Dame

6'2", 185 lbs

Bats: Left

Throws: Right

So, what's so great about this guy?

First off, yes. That name, Biggio, means exactly what you think it means. So the bloodlines are obviously there. And while I'm generally loathe to put too much weight on that sort of thing, there are certain natural advantages that come with growing up the son of a Hall of Famer, in terms of both genetics and exposure to the game.

Since the time he was high school shortstop, the book on Cavan Biggio has been that he is a Hitter. Capital H. Tremendous natural bat speed, outstanding strength in his wrists and forearms, and the kind of understanding of the craft of hitting that one so often sees in the children of baseball lifers. It was only a strong commitment to Notre Dame (after breaking a verbal commitment to Virginia, actually), that kept him from being a high draft pick back in 2013, when the drooling scouting reports were already rolling in.

And so, it's probably quite surprising when you look at what Biggio has actually accomplished in two years at Notre Dame, and see he has yet to crack a .260 average or a .500 slugging percentage. So what gives?

Well, it's tempting to chalk it all up to poor BABIP luck, given that even while posting a .204 ISO in 2015 he still BABIPed just .302, which is quite low for the collegiate level. And, honestly, that's probably the explanation I'll go with. Biggio has struck out a bit more than what I would consider optimal in college, especially his sophomore season, but not to a level that I'm hitting the panic button just yet.

There's also the matter of that slightly elevated strikeout rate in 2015 coming with the aforementioned .204 ISO, nine home runs (22 extra base hits overall), in 280 plate appearances, and a .406 on-base percentage (with just a .258 BA), thanks to an 18% walk rate. In other words, Cavan Biggio's offensive profile is...interesting, for a second baseman.

Physically, it's impressive to watch Biggio at the plate. He has a very unorthodox setup, pointing the bat toward the pitcher high over his head and waggling it, Gary Sheffield-style. It's not quite Craig Counsell, but it's in that neigbourhood. The bat waggle alone is indicative of the remarkable strength he possesses in his forearms, and the loud contact really only drives the point home. While I'm not one to usually shy away from somewhat unusual-looking batting stances, I would definitely prefer to see Biggio make some adjustments to his setup. Still, he's patient and powerful, and could, I believe, be poised for the kind of monster junior campaign that would fulfill the promise so many scouts were projecting for him as far back as his freshman year of high school.

In the field, Biggio is okay, but nothing to write home about. He does possess above-average speed, but it works better on the bases than on defense. For whatever reason, the professionalism he already brings to the offensive side of the game has yet to translate to the glove. His arm is strong enough for second or third, but his footwork leaves a lot to be desired. His hands are iffy as well. It's possible a move to the outfield may be in his future, which could take a bit out of his value. He does run well enough one might hope for an assignment to center, but even more than that, one would hope the work ethic he brings should allow him to improve and stay in the dirt.

Cavan Biggio is very much his father's son, in many ways. The approach, intelligence, and feel for the game all speak to his background. The power, though, is entirely his own, and something the elder Biggio never really showed, outside of that late-career boom when he simply started trying to yank medium-deep flyballs into the Crawford Boxes nearly every at-bat.

Biggio has been on the radar a long time, similar to Daz Cameron, Mike Cameron's son who made so much noise in the 2015 draft. To this point, it's been mostly promise and potential, but shaky production for the junior Biggio. If he has the kind of season I think he may have this year, though, we should see the full extent of his talents on display, and there's really no telling how high he could advance in the draft at that point.

As it stands right now, however, Biggio's uneven performance and shaky defense have him probably with a second- or even third-round grade. I think that should change by draft day, though.

via Baseball America: