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2017 Draft Preview No. 3: Split Decision Two Ways

Profiling a pair, er, trio of two-way draft prospects.

Toronto Blue Jays v St Louis Cardinals
That was a hell of a moment.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Morning, all. Today we return to our sorely neglected draft preview series for 2017, with a pair of players about whom the opinions are decidedly split. Not split in terms of the talent on display; both players have talent in spades. Rather, the opinions are split in terms of what sort of career each should pursue. Both have shown significant aptitude both on the mound and at the plate, and both could get drafted in the first ~50 picks as either a position player or a pitcher.

And yes, I said pair of players; I’m departing this week from my normal three-player paradigm in order to offer these two very unique talents a little extra space, and also because there’s really only one other notable two-way talent in the draft this year, and that’s Hunter Greene, the combo right-handed pitcher and shortstop who is nearly a lock to go, if not first overall, then within the first three picks in the draft this year. Greene is on another planet from basically every other player out there, and as such has absolutely no chance of even a moderate fall down the board in all likelihood. The two players I’m featuring here today have very, very little chance of falling to anywhere near the Cardinals’ first pick, but it’s at least within the realm of possibility if things go awry on draft day.

So we have a pair of two-way talents, both pretty much splitting opinions down the middle (or close to it), and both showing enough talent on both sides of the ball to continue both pitching and hitting in college, should they choose to go that way.

Oh, and one other thing: they both just happen to play for the same high school. Weird, huh?

Hagen Danner, RHP/C, Huntington Beach HS (California)

6’1”, 195 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

DOB: 30th September 1998

So, what’s so great about this guy as a catcher?

Hagen Danner’s name has been on the scouting radar for quite a while; he’s one of those precocious talents who showed up in the Little League World Series and immediately caught the attention of pretty much anyone watching. It’s not hard to squint and see a little bit of Robert Stock, the former USC catcher turned Cardinal relief prospect who washed out a few years ago and is currently trying a comeback in the Reds’ system. Stock was far beyond his years in terms of maturity and precociousness, leaving high school early to enroll with the Trojans and getting drafted at barely 20 years old. Stock was the best prospect in the nation at fifteen years old. And at sixteen. And probably at seventeen. And then, things went off the rails in slow motion.

Hagen Danner may very well have been the best fifteen year old in the nation. Maybe sixteen year old, too.

Hopefully for Danner, that’s where the comparisons will end, seeing as how Stock’s talent seemed to stagnate as he matured. Teenage phenoms don’t always end up Bryce Harper, and Stock is a prime cautionary tale.

Behind the plate, Danner shows the raw tools to potentially be an outstanding catcher, if not quite the polished skills that would guarantee he stays there. The arm is an easy plus, maybe better, and he generates elite pop times down to second with that arm strength. The receiving is quiet, and he’s nimble in moving around on balls in the dirt or getting up out his crouch to throw. In other words, he has all the tools.

At the plate, I’m a little less sanguine about Danner’s abilities. That’s not to say he doesn’t have tools to succeed as a hitter; he has a little pop to the pull side and solid contact abilities from a very balanced, quiet setup. However, the swing is a little stiff overall, and I don’t think the batspeed gives him much more than average offensive upside. Now, if he stays behind the plate, the offense could certainly be good enough to make him a big league regular. If, on the other hand, the defense moves him out to some other position, then things get a bit more hairy.

I like Danner as a catcher; I think he’s got the tools to end up an above-average defender, and that makes the offense more of a bonus than an absolute necessity. I don’t love him behind the plate, though; I think the ceiling offensively is limited enough to keep him from ever being much more than an overall average player. On the other hand....

So, what’s so great about this guy as a pitcher?

Well, let me tell you: if I like Hagen Danner the catcher, I love Hagen Danner the pitcher. I could still be talked into preferring Danner as a position player, I suppose, by dint of the positional scarcity attached to the catching position, but as things stand now I would lean hard toward putting him on the mound permanently.

Danner works from a high arm slot that gives him more plane on his pitches than one might expect given his relatively modest stature (modest for a pitcher, that is; not normal human being standards), and he makes the most of it. His fastball can reach 95, and he locates up and down well, changing the eye level of hitters. But his best pitch, and the one that could potentially make him a star, rather than just a solid contributor, is a nose-to-toes curveball that doesn’t look at all like the normal high school breaking balls you see, even at showcases for top talents.

There’s a changeup here as well, though it’s more the usual change of pace you see from high school aged pitchers. He slows his arm throwing it, telegraphing the pitch, but it still has enough drop and speed differential to be effective at his current level.

The delivery is good, though Danner’s arm action is a little long in the back and could use some tightening up. It’s also a little concerning that Danner is on the short side, as guys of his height can tend to lack some plane. I think the high arm slot makes up for that, but there could be some scouting bias against Danner based on not being 6’3” or above.

For my money, I want Danner on the mound. The fastball is at least average, probably closer to a 55, and the curve could give him a devastating one-two punch down the road. It will obviously be important for him to develop that third pitch with his changeup, but the potential is definitely there. I see a potential average regular behind the plate as a glove-first contributor if everything goes right. On the mound, though, I think there’s a chance Danner could end up much more than that.

via The Prospect Pipeline:

and via 2080 Baseball:

Nick Pratto, LHP/1B, Huntington Beach HS (California)

6’1”, 195 lbs

Bats: Left

Throws: Left

DOB: 6th October 1998

So, what’s so great about this guy as a hitter?

Pratto possesses one of my personal favourite qualities to see in a hitter, and possesses said quality in great quantity: Balance.

To me, great balance in a hitter’s setup and swing is a huge step toward eventual production, even if some of the other ingredients need to be brought to the table later. Think of the way Aledmys Diaz is swinging the bat right now, and how on every swing he’s falling toward the plate, even when he makes contact much of the time. Diaz right now is struggling, mightily, with his balance. He’s lunging. He’s way out in front. The reason he’s barely walked this year has less to do with plate discipline than it does the mechanics of being off-balance. You can’t let a pitch travel deep when you’re off balance, and you can’t judge the strike zone well when you’re moving all over the place. Aledmys is struggling with the mechanics of his swing right now, and it all comes down to him not having the same balance so far in 2017 we saw for nearly all of 2016.

Nick Pratto has a head start on everybody. He has great balance.

Pratto also has easy loft in his swing that should turn into consistent power down the line, as he grows and matures, even if right now he’s a little warning track-y. Best of all, the balance and the loft make Pratto an all-fields hitter, and one capable of driving the ball in the air to all fields. Opposite field power has become one of the things I most prioritise in trying to scout and project hitters. It’s one of the big reasons I liked Paul DeJong coming out of college, and it’s one of the big reasons I like Nick Pratto so much as a hitter.

The bad news about Nick Pratto as a hitter is that Nick Pratto is really mostly a hitter. He doesn’t have the kind of speed to profile in center field, nor in all likelihood as an impact defender in a corner. Being left-handed, he’s limited in positions he can play anyhow, and to date he’s almost exclusively manned first base when not pitching.

There is, however, some small silver lining in that cloud, and that’s the fact that Nick Pratto looks like he could be an outstanding defender at first base. He has the same great footwork I so admire in Dylan Carlson, to the point I want Carlson at first base even if playing the outfield probably makes him more versatile. Pratto has that balletic grace around the bag that is the hallmark of all great first base defenders, with that seemingly innate ability to get his feet into exactly the position they need to be in on any given play. That being said, even a great first base defender is still a first baseman, and so you have to live with the knowledge that most of the value Nick Pratto could create as a position player is going to come when he’s in the batter’s box.

Luckily, I think that value could end up more than enough to make up for the lack of defensive value.

So, what’s so great about this guy as a pitcher?

Where Hagen Danner earns my vote as a pitcher based on a potentially dominant one-two punch and projection for development once he focuses on the craft full-time, Nick Pratto as a pitcher is all about polish and feel beyond his limited years. Would I go so far as to say Nick Pratto at eighteen years old is already a Crafty Lefty? No, I would not. But I might think it just loudly enough for someone to hear.

Pratto lacks any one plus offering, but works with a solid three-pitch mix and advanced command that helps it all play up. The fastball cruises right around 90, bumping a little higher at times, and he puts it where he wants it more often than not. The velocity isn’t great, but there’s enough movement and command to grade the heater at a 50. He throws a big, slow curveball that probably grades about average as well, at least on a good day. If pressed, I would prefer to put a 45 on the pitch, simply because I’ve seen him break off some good ones, but I’ve also seen some decidedly high school curves, where it’s clearly just a slow ball that gravity is turning into a breaking ball, more than a proper spinner. There is, of course, plenty of time for Pratto to improve his feel for the pitch, so please don’t take that as me damning the pitch forever. It’s just that, right now, the curve is occasionally good, but also occasionally just a big lollipop.

On the other hand, if there’s one pitch Pratto throws that makes me consider voting for him to stay a pitcher rather than a hitter (spoiler alert), it’s his changeup. He shows outstanding feel for slipping the ball, and he sells the pitch better than most pitchers of his age and level. Good fade, good tumble, and good arm speed. I would probably slap a 55 on the pitch at the moment, but could see going as high as a 60. It’s a really impressive pitch.

The hope for Pratto as a pitcher, of course, is that he would improve his velocity once he focused on pitching exclusively, and the other pitches would develop as he moved up. I could certainly see those things happening, but while I’m certain he would improve the curve and continue to hone his changeup, the velocity uptick I’m less sure of. Probably it would happen, yes. But it’s no guarantee, and even a couple miles an hour will likely only given him an average to maybe a 55 heater at best. He has big tree trunk legs of the Mark Prior variety already, so it isn’t as if there’s a ton of lower body development he’s going to do, I don’t believe.

On the other hand, I think the raw tools are there for Pratto to be not just a productive hitter, but one with star potential. Obviously, there’s a lot of development that would have to take place, but I think the raw material he possesses in terms of offense is significantly better than what he brings on the pitching side. It’s funny; I would normally lean toward the guy who plays the premium position, so you might expect me to go pitcher for Pratto and catcher for Danner, but I have to vote with what I see as the highest ceiling potential each player possesses, I think.

Put it this way: I think Nick Pratto the pitcher could be Tim Cooney. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I loved having Tim Cooney available to the Cardinals before his arm started breaking down. But I think Nick Pratto the hitter could be John Olerud. And there’s just really no comparing those upsides in my mind.

via MaxPreps (and yes, they did in fact put Danner’s name on the video by mistake):

So those are the two two-way players you really need to know about in this draft. In all likelihood, neither of these guys will get anywhere near where the Cardinals will be making their first pick (nor will any of the other players we all really want this June), but there is at least a chance that one of them does fall. My money would probably be on Pratto, especially if scouts start leaning toward him hitting rather than pitching. As a pitcher, he’s a polished lefty out of high school; as a hitter he’s positionally limited and will have to really hit in order to have value.

Okay, okay. For completion’s sake, I’ll give you the scouting report on the third two-way player in the draft.

Hunter Greene, RHP/SS, Notre Dame HS (California)

6’3”, 195 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

DOB: 6th August 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy as a hitter?

Hunter Greene is a legit shortstop, at least for now, with a very good feel for hitting and some serious power potential. He’s big, and will probably get bigger; if we’re looking into the future I think he’s probably more of a third baseman than a shortstop long term. He’s a slightly above-average runner right now, but that may not hold up down the road.

Overall, Greene fits perfectly the five-tool profile as an infielder. He does everything well, and could end up with 60 grade power down the line. And yet....

So, what’s so great about this guy as a pitcher?

He sits at 96, has hit 100 at multiple showcases, and already features one of the best curveballs in the draft. He’ll break off an average changeup at times as well.

Hunter Greene is going to be drafted as a pitcher, and could end up the first high school righthander ever drafted first overall. He’s that special of a talent on the mound. He’s only worth writing up in relation to the Redbirds for the sake of completeness, and wouldn’t have been an option even if they still possessed the 19th overall pick in the draft this year.

Sigh. What a shitty game.

So the good news is Michael Wacha looked really good. The bad news is I think I was right (as were plenty of others), in saying Aledmys Diaz isn’t really a major league caliber shortstop. I’m not sure what else you do with him, unfortunately, but I just don’t know if you can keep living with this level of defense at short. And it kills me to say that.

Also, I really wish Kolten Wong could post even just an average BABIP. I’m not sure his quality of contact suggests he should, but it would be really neat to see his line right now with an even K:BB ratio and a .310 BABIP, rather than the .250 he’s currently rocking.