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2018 Draft Preview No. 11: Persons of Interest One

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Breaking down some mid-round potential draft picks.

Philadelphia Phillies v St Louis Cardinals
Jordan Hicks, former mid-round draft selection
Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

You know, I first wrote about Greg Holland sometime around the middle of this past offseason, if I remember correctly. At the time, he wasn’t yet the Closer Time Left Behind, stuck accepting a one year deal on Opening Day; rather, I think it was just Jon Heyman doing his job as Scott Boras’s press secretary and linking Holland to the Cardinals as a guy who gets a lot of saves (or used to...), and a team that had a question mark at the back of the bullpen. I wasn’t a fan of the idea, and said so. I think I’ve been pretty consistent in my concerns about Holland from the very beginning, and how unsustainable I thought his pitching last season for Colorado was.

Anyhow, after I wrote my initial bit about not thinking Holland was a very good idea, I received an email from a reader. Not anyone I was familiar with; rather, it seemed like someone who had either only recently discovered the site or had simply found that particular article while googling free agents or something. The tone of the missive was rather insulting, accusing me of shilling for the Cardinal organisation, or being more concerned with Bill DeWitt’s pocketbook than winning, or just being a shitty analyst, or perhaps all three.

The point of the email was basically this: some combination of Brett Cecil, Seung-hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, Tyler Lyons, maybe Kevin Siegrist, combined for fifteen blown saves in 2017. (I’ll be honest; I deleted the email at some point, and I don’t recall the exact names, only that Oh and Cecil were two of them and there was about four total.) Greg Holland, meanwhile, had just four blown saves the whole season, which would have translated to eleven more wins and an easy playoff berth for the 2017 Redbirds. How was it possible I wrote for this prestigious blog when I was so clearly incompetent, crooked, or just plain dumb?

Now, I’m no stranger to angry emails; I’ve gotten more than a few over the years, from a pissed off church pastor who didn’t want his son reading about my dick and a toaster to the time Jeff Passan sent me and my editors at the RFT a searing excoriation after I said I didn’t think much of him as a writer during the Colby Rasmus/Albert Pujols drama. Point is, I don’t worry too much about negative feedback, so long as it’s either somewhat warranted, based on style or content, or just a disagreement. I get nice emails from time to time, as well, and I usually respond to them, though being incredibly uncomfortable with praise I often can’t find any way of saying thank you without awkwardness. You learn to take the good and the bad together, and just accept that not everyone is going to agree with you, nor like you.

This particular message that I’m talking about, though, irritated me more than most, coming as it did connected to nonsensical math, a fundamental misunderstanding of facts, and accusations of, I guess, intellectual dishonesty. (At best.) I ultimately decided against responding, mostly because my better angel won out with the argument nothing good could possibly come of it. I do wonder, though, why I haven’t heard any more from this person now that Greg Holland has come in and done what he has done to the Cardinals’ season. Oh well.

Today marks the first persons of interest post of my draft writings this year, in which I cover a grab bag of non-first round talent with no real connecting thread between them. Double the number of players to six, while trying to write as succinctly as possible about each to keep the word count down. Here we go.

Joe Gray Jr., OF, Hattiesburg HS (Mississippi)

6’3”, 195 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 12 March 2000

So, what’s so great about this guy?

You know how sometimes a player is described as a “prototypical ________”? Fill in the blank with whatever position you like, really; what you’re talking about is a specific set of physical traits that just make a player look like a __________, whatever that might be. Interestingly, at least to me, the position most often occupying that blank is ‘right fielder’, and for some reason there seems to be a stronger idea of what a right field prototype looks like than just about any other position.

For instance, Joe Gray Jr. is a tall, rangy athlete with big time power potential and a huge throwing arm. He’s a 55 runner, capable of handling center field now at eighteen, but probably ends up a little bigger, a little slower, and moving off the position down the road. Picture that player in your mind. Now what would you call that? A prototypical right fielder, of course.

The upside for Gray Jr. is huge; he’s got at least 60 raw power, the result of wiry strength that should only increase as he matures. His is an angular frame with plenty of room for growth, and he could end up closer to 225 than 195 without even really maxing out physically. The throwing arm is maybe the loudest tool of all, as he’s been clocked in the upper 90s on throws from the outfield, and he has average range for a center fielder right now. As I said, I think he’s destined for right, but there’s a chance for very good defense there.

The big concern with Gray is an excess of swing and miss in his game. I like his swing, as there’s easy loft and bat speed in it, but he’s a little mechanical, a little bound up looking. He misses breaking balls by a lot, at least the really good ones thrown in showcase events by elite pitching prospects. At times he incorporates a leg kick into his swing, and I like it when he does. He seems to get his hands into a better position earlier with the leg kick, rather than rushing his hand load late when he keeps his foot down.

I could see the perfect world version of Gray looking something like Jose Bautista, as a pull-power fly ball specialist, but with better speed and defensive chops. Of course, what really made Bautista so special was his patience in waiting for the pitch he wanted, and Gray Jr., at least as a prospect, is most worrisome in terms of pitch recognition. Austin Wilson is a good comp as well, both in terms of the physical upside and the questionable hit tool that has held him back.

via Vincent Cervino:

Garrett Wade, LHP, Hartselle HS (Alabama)

6’2”, 180 lbs

Bats/Throws: Left/Left

DOB: 1 August 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Wade is not in the conversation toward the top of the draft, but the stuff isn’t far off from that level. He’s one of my personal favourites in the round three to five range, just a touch behind Ben Harris in my head canon rankings this year.

Wade isn’t a particular big guy; he’s fairly similar in build to Luke Weaver. That will probably depress his stock slightly, much as we saw with Walker Buehler a couple years ago, whose own slight build added some questions to his profile. That being said, I like Wade’s arm action in terms of durability, and so am not particularly concerned about him holding up physically.

He won’t blow the fastball past anyone, working primarily around 90-91, but there’s a nice bit of wiggle to the pitch, and he can locate it to all quadrants of the zone pretty effectively. It’s a lower arm slot, and that helps add some sink and run. Where Wade really excels, though, is in his feel for multiple offspeed pitches. He throws a slider, curve, and changeup, with any of them having the potential to look like a plus offering on a given day. The change is the least consistent of them for now, almost always the case for a high school aged pitcher, but even it has excellent deception and good tail when he keeps his arm speed up. The slider and curve are distinct from one another, which isn’t always the case with a kid this young, The slider is sharper, and probably better overall, but the mere fact he has so many options to choose from, and such great feel for them, is the real news here.

If you want a comp, think of how Jack Flaherty was viewed coming out of high school. Now, Flaherty had more of a prototypical build for a pitcher, but the assortment of pitches built on top of an average sort of fastball should give you a feel for where Wade is. He’s an Auburn commit, and probably not the easiest sign because of that, but he feels like a potential bargain to me if he were to make it into about the fourth round. Even in the third I like him quite a bit.

via Steve Givarz:

Bren Spillane, 3B/1B, University of Illinois

6’5”, 210 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 21 September 1996

So, what’s so great about this guy?

One of my favourite players in this year’s draft is Alec Bohm, a big corner infield slugger type from Wichita State who has hit his way into top half of the first round consideration this spring by improving his contact and plate discipline markedly. Meanwhile, there’s a similar, though more extreme, player at Illinois doing a lot of the same sorts of things Bohm has made such a name doing.

Spillane has been one of the most impressive hitters in college baseball this season, knocking 20 homers in fewer than 200 plate appearances for the Illini, and putting up an overall OPS of 1.450. (His slugging percentage is .935.) He can hit the ball out of any ballpark, to any field, pretty much anywhere in the country.

The downside? While the numbers are certainly incredible, Spillane has some serious contact questions. He’s increased his walk rate each season at Illinois, which is good, but he’s still striking out over a quarter of the time this year. Hitters who whiff that often against college pitching have a steep climb up the ladder in the minor leagues. He does has a very sound approach in terms of using all fields and waiting for pitches he can handle, but there’s just a lot of empty swings to go along with all that damage.

Defensively, Spillane isn’t the most natural looking fielder, but he does have above average speed, and I think there’s some chance he sticks at third base. A club that believes he can play the hot corner might very well view him as a much better prospect than one who sees him strictly at first. The arm is fine for third, I think, though admittedly I’m basing that on pretty limited looks.

If I said Troy Glaus to you, would that indicate the kind of player I believe Spillane might be as a third baseman? Lots of strikeouts, lots of walks, lots of power. Glaus was a good fielder in his younger days, though, so maybe that’s not the best comp. I don’t know. I’m somewhat on the fence about Spillane, just because I worry about the contact translating up the line. Then again, those are exactly the sentiments I had about Aaron Judge back when he was in college, so perhaps I just underrate three true outcome guys with big K rates. If Spillane makes it to the third round, I would pounce. In the supplemental first, I might still be interested.

via Fighting Illini Athletics:

Griffin Conine, OF, Duke

6’1”, 200 lbs

Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 11 July 1997

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Yes, that Conine is the same as Jeff Conine, star of the Marlins’ early years.

You can take all the stuff I said about Bren Spillane’s offensive profile, and basically copy and paste it down here for Griffin Conine. He’s an all-or-nothing power hitter with serious contact questions, but big time power potential and a very patient approach at the plate.

Conine does have an advantage over Spillane in that he’s a left-handed hitter, giving him more platoon potential if needed, but he’s also strictly a corner outfielder, and not a particularly inspiring one at that. The arm is strong, making him a good fit for right field, but I don’t see a whole lot of range when I watch him play, and he’s not much of a runner on the bases either. In other words, Conine has plenty of power, but he’s even more one-dimensional in his game than some of the other all-bat types I’ve covered this spring, and is just not really my cup of tea, if I’m being honest. Anyone remember Kyle Russell, the former Texas outfielder the Cards drafted and failed to sign back in 2007? He was another power-heavy, contact-challenged left-handed hitter who ran mid-20s strikeout rates in college. When he got into pro ball, those K rates ballooned to 30%+, and there just wasn’t enough contact to really tap into that power potential.

There is one point in Conine’s favour, which is that he hit exceptionally well in the Cape Cod League last summer, so there’s at least some history of handling wood bats well. The Cardinals have long seemed to place a lot of emphasis on players who can hit with wood, and so Conine might have some extra appeal in their eyes. He could go as early as the second round, but I’d probably grade him a little lower than that.

via FanGraphs:

Durbin Feltman, RHP, TCU

6’1”, 190 lbs.

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 18 April 1997

So, what’s so great about this guy?

You mean other than having the name of an amazing pedal steel player from the 50s? I mean, that would seem to be enough to me, but I guess you people have unrealistic standards.

Durbin Feltman is a college closer, and college closers are a funny thing. One would think they should be perhaps the easiest of all college players to translate into the pro game; after all, the portion of TINSTAAPP that refers to a pitcher’s major league readiness basically states that if you have the stuff, there’s no difference in getting hitters out from one level to another. Given that most college closers are just one- or two-pitch monsters (or sidearmers, but that’s not what we’re talking about here), it would seem like that’s exactly the sort of profile you should be able to confidently project up the ladder with no real degradation of ability.

However, that’s not really the case, for whatever reason. There are success stories, of course, but there are also an awful lot of high-profile busts. For every Huston Street or Drew Storen, there’s a Casey Weathers or J.B. Cox. Given that the ceiling for a pitcher already in the bullpen in college is, one would think, a bullpen role, it’s fair to question the wisdom of pulling heavily from that draft demographic.

To be fair, though, we should really try to evaluate every player on their individual merits, rather than working off type, and in the case of Durbin Feltman, there’s plenty to like, even when you ignore he probably has great stories from the road in Bob Wills’s tour bus.

Feltman possesses two plus or even plus-plus pitches, in a fastball that sits at 95-96 and will touch 98, and a slider with great tilt that he can throw as hard as 88 without flattening it out. He’s got a changeup he’ll break out occasionally as well, but it’s not really a consideration for me. Maybe he develops a split out of the pitch down the road somewhere, but beyond that possibility I just see a fastball-slider relief arm. He’s undersized, listed at 6’1”, but that’s maybe fudging things a bit. There’s not a lot of plane on his pitches as a result, but the stuff is explosive enough it doesn’t really matter.

It’s easy to see Jordan Swagerty in Feltman; Swagerty was an early-round pick of the Cards back in 2010 out of Arizona State. An undersized college reliever with a high-effort delivery and a wicked fastball-slider combo, Swagerty started off his career well but burned out after just a couple years due to multiple arm injuries. The stuff for Feltman isn’t much different, and he’s got a similar uptempo delivery where he jumps at hitters, selling his pitches.

via Perfect Game Baseball:

Jaden Hill, RHP, Ashdown High School (AR)

6’4”, 195 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 22 December 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

When I was making my follow list for this year’s draft, I was convinced Jaden Hill was the son of Ken Hill, former Cardinal hurler and Aaron’s personal favourite Redbird pitcher of 1991. Hill inherited that mantle from Jose DeLeon, who had inherited it from John Tudor. See, I know Ken Hill has a son playing quarterback at TCU, and another son who is a dual-sport standout in high school. Jaden Hill is a dual-sport standout in high school who appears to be leaning toward a career on the mound rather than in the pocket, and so I believed this was the kid.

Well, he’s not. Marcus Hill is Ken Hill’s younger son, and Jaden Hill is just a dual-sport pitching prospect who happens to be a very similar pitcher to the former Cardinal. Ken Hill threw relatively hard, but was primarily known for a wicked split-finger pitch that he rode to a thirteen year big league career, including some very strong seasons with the Expos. Jaden Hill throws a little harder than relatively hard, working at 92-94 with his fastball, but his calling card is a nasty changeup that looks to me like a split-grip job, but I can’t honestly say for certain. I think you can see the reason for my assumption of relation.

Anyhow, Hill is another of my favourite pitching prospects in this draft, sitting in that Ben Harris/Garrett Wade area of rounds 3-5 in terms of where I like him. He’s got a little more buzz than those other two, though, so is probably closer to round three or so. He’s well-developed physically already, though there’s still room for more maturation, but I don’t see a huge jump in size and velocity coming. The biggest issue with his repertoire is a shaky breaking ball, as he works mostly with a curve, but it tends to be all over the place in terms of shape. I don’t think it’s a huge issue, but anytime a pitcher struggles to spin the ball it’s at least worth paying attention to.

The combination of quality fastball and outstanding offspeed pitch could make Hill a mid-rotation starter down the road, and I’m very high on him going into the draft. He does have an LSU commitment, which is always a touch and go sort of thing, so he could see his stock fluctuate over the next few weeks depending on how signable teams believe him to be. For my money, he’d be a great pick in the third round, though he’s still probably a touch below Ben Harris for me in that range.

via 2080 Baseball: