That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time of year again. A time when we take a break from endless free agent discussions and the thinking of deep thoughts about baseball’s economic future (read: we all bitch about Bryce Harper, a lot), and instead dive into the deep end of amateur baseball, looking off into the distant future at the heroes and zeros of a yet-unseen age.
Why doesn’t zeros have an ‘e’ in it? Heroes does. I feel like it should be zeroes, or heros. Go home, English, you’re drunk.
Anyway, it’s draft preview time again, beginning anew this long-running series for 2019. And this, friends, is that annual tradition of the comic-book themed zero issue, in which I tell the secret origins of this year’s draft by covering three players of note who are returning from the past to be drafted again. And yes, if you’re wondering, the conceit of this post has kind of run its course by this time, since the idea was really just sort of a one-off I thought of several years back when there was a specific kid sitting around the top of the draft board about whom I had written some very flattering things when he was coming out of high school. Now every year I have to go back and find guys who had some buzz and didn’t sign, and then cram them into this post together whether it makes sense or not. A smarter writer would probably end the charade, but I will almost certainly not. I am, as I’m sure most of you have noticed by now, a man who loves forms and formats and recurring features in his writing, if only as a way to organise the things I have to say, and so the origin issue conceit will likely continue long into the future, to the heat death of the universe and beyond, until it is the only thing left, floating alone in the vast and tiny nothingness of nothing, with only memories of existence to keep it company. And it will still feature Zack Collins, in all likelihood.
Two position players, one pitcher, all three very talented. Here we come 2019.
Carter Stewart, RHP, Eastern Florida State (JuCo)
6’6”, 200 lbs
DOB: 2 November 1999
So, what’s so great about this guy?
I’m beginning this with the only pitcher, but more importantly what is likely the most familiar name. The reason Carter Stewart is probably the most familiar name of these three is because it’s only been about a year since he was previewed in these electronic pages as a potential first-round draftee, and then lionised as the greatest thing since sliced bread. He ended up going well up above where the Cardinals drafted, being popped eighth overall by the Braves, and it seemed like things were going alright for Mr. Carter Stewart.
However, things then got kind of weird. Stewart had suffered a wrist injury late in the spring, and there seemed to be some kind of disagreement between player and team over how serious the injury was, and how much of a discount the player should be giving the team. Now, we’ve obviously seen this sort of thing before; the legend of Brady Aiken and his cursed UCL should be all the cautionary tale anyone will ever need regarding players with medical concerns in the draft, and how teams play hardball with them. (Not saying it’s always unjustified, either; Aiken is, at 22, essentially a non-entity in baseball now.) But in the case of Stewart, wrist injuries are not usually the sort of thing teams are really that concerned with. For hitters, sure. Wrist injuries can cause a guy to go full Nick Plummer. But for pitchers? You worry about elbows, and shoulders, and nerves, and occasionally ribs. But not usually wrists. Given that the Atlanta Braves are one of my very least favourite organisations in baseball, though, and seemingly always one of the first to come up literally every time something really shady is going on, I’m not at all upset that my personal favourite pitcher from last year’s draft did not end up wearing a tomahawk on his chest.
So Stewart headed off to a junior college in Florida, not that far from his hometown, and is reentering the draft this year. If he’s healthy, and looks like the same pitcher he was his senior season of high school, he’ll probably come off the board far ahead of the Cards’ pick once again. (The Redbirds are picking 19th. Again. Which I’m super tired of, although it did mean Nolan Gorman last year, so I won’t complain too much.)
At his best, Stewart flashed a 65 grade fastball, capable of touching 98 at times and sitting comfortably around 93-94, and complemented it with the best curveball of any high schooler in the 2018 draft. Actually, that’s not strong enough; Stewart’s fastball was not the best high school curve, it was the best high school breaking ball period. Also the best college curve, and college breaking ball, with the possible exception of Griffin Roberts’s slider/slurve thing. Carter Stewart’s curveball has a chance to be an actual real-life 80 grade pitch, and is one of the most impressive breaking balls I’ve ever seen in an amateur.
He showed off a more fully developed changeup last spring as well, though the pitch still needs some work. The speed and movement are both good, but he slows his arm enough you can see it coming most of the time, and better hitters will exploit that. Still, there’s plenty of time for Stewart to round out his repertoire and develop as a pitcher. He won’t turn 20 until after the 2019 season is over, and his raw talent will make the slightly late start to his career nothing more than a footnote, I believe.
via EGHS Digital Media:
Drew Mendoza, 3B, Florida State
6’4”, 190 lbs
DOB: 10 October 1997
So, what’s so great about this guy?
Drew Mendoza in 2016 was one of the better pure hitters in the draft, particularly when only considering high school position players. Blessed with one of the more natural left-handed strokes you’ll see, he easily sprayed doubles from gap to gap, and his large frame suggested there would be plenty of over the fence power to come as he filled out. The only thing that really suppressed his draft value was an extremely strong commitment to Florida State, which he ultimately ended up honouring after he was not drafted until the 36th round by the Tigers. FSU is one of those programs that usually gets their kids to campus, and Mendoza was no exception.
Since getting to the college field, it’s actually been somewhat surprising to see Mendoza make less contact than one might have expected, given the type of hitter he was in high school. Strikeout rates have risen in college, but not at anything like the explosive pace we’ve seen in the professional game, so seeing Mendoza whiff nearly a quarter of the time over two seasons is a bit concerning.
However, it’s also undeniably true that Mendoza has hit for more power in college than might have been expected also, particularly in his freshman season. He clobbered ten homers in less than 200 plate appearances as a freshman en route to slugging .534 and posting an overall OPS of .934. The guy who in high school was mostly a smart spray hitter had turned into a walks-and-homers pull power guy.
Interestingly, Mendoza walked that back a little his sophomore season. His power output dropped, as he hit only seven dingers in almost 100 more trips to the plate, but he cut his strikeout rate from over 26% to just about 22%, kept his walk rate up over 16%, and hit twice as many doubles as he did his freshman season. The drop in slugging percentage meant he actually ended up with a slight decrease in OPS, but a .440 on-base percentage is a hell of a thing, even in college.
A shortstop in high school, Mendoza moved to third immediately at FSU, and he’s a solid defender there. Good hands, plus arm, solid range. He’s not flashy, but he’s very effective. Just an average runner, he probably profiles better on the infield than as a corner outfielder, so I doubt there would be much push to convert him unless an organisation was simply swamped with third base types. <cough>
As a hitter, Mendoza right now resembles nothing to me so much as Matt Carpenter. Maybe not the one with the crazy power surge to 36 homers in 2018, but the real Matt Carpenter, the ~25 homer, .375 OBP guy we got so used to seeing from 2015-’17. Defensively, Mendoza is a much more natural fit at third than Carp, with none of the throwing worries. He would certainly only add to a potential future glut of third basemen in the Cardinal system, but if Drew Mendoza goes out and puts together a junior season that shows him continuing to hone and develop as a hitter, he’d be a fine choice for the Redbirds at 19 come June.
via Florida State Seminoles:
Nick Quintana, SS, University of Arizona
5’10”, 185 lbs
DOB: 13 October 1997
So, what’s so great about this guy?
When Nick Quintana was coming out of high school in the 2016 draft, he was seen as a potential plus offensive player for a middle infielder, but there were questions about whether he would stay at short long term. Arizona is another school that tends to get lots of their commits to campus, and there were just enough questions about Quintana’s position on the field that he fell. He ended up being drafted by the Red Sox in the eleventh round, that strange haven of high-ceiling prop bets after all the rounds with penalties for not signing players have passed. I believe Boston did make a serious run at signing him, if I remember correctly, but ultimately just didn’t have enough wiggle room in the budget to entice Quintana away from school.
Three years later, Quintana is one hell of a hitter, and probably could maybe play shortstop, possibly, for a while. In other words, he really hasn’t changed that much as a player, other than cementing just how good he is offensively in his time in the desert.
Quintana doesn’t necessarily look like an offensive force at 5’10” (ish), but he consistently does as much damage with a bat in his hands as nearly any hitter in college baseball. He’s not quite the freak of nature that Nick Madrigal proved to be going into last year’s draft, but Quintana also has already shown more consistent power than Madrigal did his first two seasons. Quintana hits just about everything thrown his way hard, and has enough loft in his swing that he socked fourteen home runs last spring in 254 plate appearances. Now, that’s playing his home games in the desert, and lots of Pac-12 ballparks, of which several are very hitter-friendly, so grains of salt and all that, but Nick Quintana possesses a natural ability to drive the baseball, period.
If there’s any concern about his offensive profile, it’s that Quintana played in the Cape Cod League each of the past two summers, and both times saw him post huge strikeout rates with wood bats. He was still a decent hitter; his 2018 OPS on the Cape ended up at .786, but he still whiffed over a third of the time. Hitting with metal he’s shown no real contact concerns to date, but the wood thing is certainly something teams will have to evaluate for themselves.
Quintana has a chance to be this year’s Jonathan India, a solid college performer who takes a big step forward and catapults himself well up into the first round of the draft. Long term I think he fits best at second base, where the footwork and speed are less demanding than at shortstop, but he’s been suggested at basically every position on the diamond (including catcher), at one point or another, it seems. Maybe that’s ultimately the best way forward for him; teams are increasingly focused, it appears, on finding those super-utility type players always described as ‘Zobrist types’, largely due to bullpen creep putting such a strain on club’s benches. Maybe Quintana takes his adequacity at shortstop to half a dozen other positions, hits .280/.355/.480, and ends up a new-wave star in the big leagues. Or he could just move to second base and be a star that way, too, I suppose.