I had dinner last night at the Pantera’s Pizza in Edwardsville, Illinois. They have a dinner buffet; it’s good. As is the case with any pizza buffet, you’re at the mercy of what comes out, and so the experience is always different from simply ordering what you want. Still, it was pizza, which has one of the higher baselines for quality amongst various food types, and it was my favourite pizza, so I’m not going to complain.
There was a man in the restaurant, wearing an almost unbelievably well-preserved Michael Jackson Beat It jacket. Not the slightly more famous one — red leather with black stripes — he wore in the Thriller video, but the red leather with multiple zippers from the Beat It video. I had one of those when I was very young, probably four or five, and I wore it until it fell apart. When I saw this man and his jacket, I was seized by two simultaneous urges: one, to simply go up and ask him what the hell he was wearing, and two, to demand he either hand it over immediately or tell me where he got it. If it was original, it was absurdly well-preserved; if it’s a modern reproduction, I’m about 20% of the way to needing one for myself.
It was odd; the man did not appear to be a hipster of some sort. He was probably a little older than me, maybe early 40s, and had a bit of a mullet. Not a full-on hockey goon job, but the outline was very much there. I occasionally see something in the world and wonder if it was placed there solely for my own personal enjoyment, and this was very much one of those occasions. I was already eating at not only my favourite pizza place, but very much the pizza restaurant of my childhood, and then what should happen along but a man wearing my greatest fashion statement of 1984. Was this an apparition of the past, only there to enhance the ambience of a pizza chain that was far more successful in the mid 1980s? Or was this perhaps a man who dresses for wherever he’s eating, and old-school pizza restaurant means a Michael Jackson jacket, the way a diner might require a white tee shirt with cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve?
Anyway, prospects. Draft. These are the position guys I like most right now, but it’s still February. Let’s rock.
Ed Howard, SS, Mount Carmel High School (IL)
6’2”, 185 lbs
DOB: 28th January 2002
So, what’s so great about this guy?
If you were to draw up a template for what a modern shortstop looks like physically, you might end up with something like Ed Howard. He’s a little taller than the traditional model, but even at 6’2” he glides on the field and can range for miles in either direction. He’s probably got room for another ten or fifteen pounds of good weight without slowing down even a little, and he’s already a more polished fielder than you expect to find coming straight out of high school.
Offensively, Howard is a smart hitter, one who makes a lot of solid contact already, and should grow into greater power as he matures. He uses the opposite field very well — almost to the point of being a bit too reactive at times, rather than looking to pull and drive the ball when he has a favourable count — and rarely gets himself out by being overly aggressive or expanding the zone. It’s always tough to gauge how patient a hitter is going to be until you see him in pro ball, but in terms of commanding the strike zone and knowing what he wants to do at the plate, Howard is ahead of the game. I’d say there’s a future average-at-least hitter here, and maybe more than that. How much he taps into future power as he grows and matures will have a lot to say about Howard’s offensive ceiling, but the natural feel for hitting and an approach that allows him to compete at the plate are both there.
It’s on the defensive side that Howard really shines, though. He’s got the big arm that is if not a requisite for shortstop then at least a huge head start, allowing him to make throws off-balance and on the move that a lot of other players can’t quite pull off. He has above-average speed and plus range to go along with that arm, and the combination of all three gives him upside with the glove that very few defenders can match. He’s not quite as explosive an athlete as, say, C.J. Abrams, the similar-built high school shortstop who went sixth overall to the Padres last year, but he’s not far off, and has smoother, more consistent actions in the field, I think.
I think there’s a chance Howard gets overlooked a little come June, and ends up sliding further on boards than he maybe should. He’s a plus athlete, and an incredibly heady, smart player, but I can find other players in a similar range who have one or two tools that maybe scout louder, and sometimes guys who have a bunch of 55s on the card but no 60+ grades get underrated a bit. For my money, though, Howard has one of the best combinations of ceiling and polish of any high school hitter available this June.
via Baseball America:
Austin Hendrick, OF, West Alleghany High School (PA)
6’1”, 205 lbs
DOB: 15th June 2001
So, what’s so great about this guy?
I’ll be honest: of these three players, Hendrick is the one I’m least sure of. The other guys I can give lots of reasons why I believe in them, and not a ton of reasons to doubt. With Austin Hendrick, though, I have some doubts, some questions, and some concern about his trajectory. At the same time, if you’re looking for one player in this year’s draft who I think could hit his way to stardom, Hendrick could very well be that guy, and so here he is, making it into my favourites.
The thing about Hendrick is this: in some ways, he’s very similar to Kyle Tucker, the Astros’ former first-round pick. Hendrick is not as long and lanky as Tucker, but both are borderline center field types who fit best in right field and feature huge offensive ceilings and unorthodox methods of doing what they do at the plate. For Tucker, it was his old-fashioned bat load, with low hands, a near-vertical barrel and a flat load path, making him look a bit like Stan Musial or Ted Williams. For Hendrick, it was a setup that saw him hitting with his knees almost together, then a strong stride into an explosive swing. All his weight was on his back foot at address, and it just looked...funky.
There is a key difference between Tucker and Hendrick, though. Tucker stubbornly maintained what worked for him, refusing to change the swing that had made him a first-round talent. (Admittedly, his hands have drifted higher as he moved through the minors, but that seems to have been a gradual evolution, rather than a deliberate change.) Hendrick, on the other hand, changed his setup over the summer last year, and went to a much more conventional looking swing. Personally, I think he should go back to what worked for him before, as his balance and timing both appear much worse to me now. More than anything, he doesn’t seem to have nearly such good rhythm, nor nearly as strong a trigger, in his swing with the more conventional setup.
If we’re grading tools, Hendrick has 70 grade raw power and probably 60 game power, as he’s capable of crushing baseballs both off of and over outfield walls. He has fantastic natural bat speed, easy natural loft, and basically just hits the ball the way you want a middle of the order slugger to hit. He’s an above-average runner, has a strong throwing arm, and should end up an above-average defender in a corner outfield spot. He can fake it in center for now, but really isn’t that sort of fielder long term.
It’s the hit tool that is really the question mark for Hendrick right now. With his old setup, he had solid contact ability, which combined with his plus power profile gave him a huge offensive ceiling. Since he changed to the more normal looking swing, though, he’s seen a big uptick in his swing and miss. Like I said, he doesn’t seem to have as strong a natural trigger in his swing any longer, and his timing is worse because of it.
Maybe Hendrick adjusts to his new swing, and ends up stronger in the long run for it. Or, maybe he does what I would council and goes back to his more unorthodox but better suited for him setup and gets back on track. Or, maybe this is a player trending in the wrong direction, and what seems like harmless tinkering is going to end up making a huge difference in what kind of hitter Austin Hendrick ultimately becomes. For now, the ceiling is too high, too tantalising, for me not to pay attention to him. We’ll see where he is come June.
via Perfect Game Baseball (old swing):
and 2080 Baseball (new swing):
Nick Gonzales, 2B, New Mexico State
5’10”, 190 lbs
DOB: 27th May 1999
So, what’s so great about this guy?
And now we come to the guy who would probably be my number one overall pick if you gave me free reign over the draft this year. No, he’s probably not the prototypical first overall pick profile, but Nick Gonzales is the guy I feel most strongly about in the whole draft this year. (Well, at least right now, four months out.) What Alex Bregman was to the 2015 draft, Nick Gonzales is for me this year. (He’s also basically the same player, so it may just be that I have a type.)
Defensively, Gonzales has the range to play shortstop, but really doesn’t have the arm. He’s a 55 runner, maybe a touch better, and should be able to swipe 10-15 bases a year. The glove is a plus at second base, he’s a good baserunner, he does all those little things we talk about not always showing up in a box score, but do contribute to a team winning ball games. So all of that stuff is in there.
Now let’s talk about the really good stuff. The bat.
Nick Gonzales hits like Timi Yuro sings. He’s 5’10” and slugged .630 on the Cape last summer. The guy is going to be an absolute monster at the plate down the road.
To be fair, there is some skepticism about some of Gonzales’s offensive numbers. Unlike Bregman, who started out in New Mexico then transferred down to the Bayou at LSU, Gonzales has put up all of his ridiculous stats playing at altitude, in a desert. Yes, his OPS in 2019 was 1.305, but we have to do some mental adjustment to those numbers for context, certainly. Nonetheless, I will go right back to Gonzales winning the Cape Cod MVP last summer and say that I don’t think the numbers mean something completely different from what they say, maybe only the degree to which they are saying it.
This is a middle infielder with a middle of the order hitting profile. Nick Gonzales likely doesn’t get anywhere near the Cardinals’ draft spot this June, which is a real shame. This is a star waiting to happen, and whoever picks him up at number three overall is going to get a potential franchise cornerstone player, mark my words.
via Cotuit Kettleers: