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2021 Draft Preview No. 5: Up the Middle Bats, College Edition

Premium defensive positions and offensive upside. What’s not to love?

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

This draft class is shaping up to be one of the stranger I can recall, if not the strangest. It’s a draft class absolutely loaded with high school middle infielders, to a degree I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, and the rather strange shape of the class is compounded by the information imbalance created by last year’s pandemic-related cancellations. To wit, this is perhaps the only time we will ever head into a draft with the drafting organisations having a stronger informational grasp of the high school players than they do the collegians.

See, normally baseball prospects start being scouted sometime during their high school careers, usually as sophomores or juniors. They aren’t scouted in-depth at that point, necessarily, but they go on follow lists, area scouts will note any important developments, and they just kind of sit on the back burner, with everyone kind of watching, but not really paying full attention. As they get into their senior years, that scouting really ramps up, and by the draft clubs should have pretty good scouting reports. Obviously, the higher-profile guys will get a little more attention earlier on, but it’s really only during a high schooler’s senior season that scouts really bear down on them and try to figure things out. There’s a simple reason for that, of course: simple bandwidth. Teams only really care about the things they really care about, and so that’s all that scouts are going to seriously focus in on.

Now, after a player is either drafted, or not, and then heads off to college after not signing, he sort of goes right back to where he was in high school, as far as scouts are concerned. Essentially, he goes back to follow-list land, and is sort-of paid attention to his first year or two in college. If he plays in a wood bat league, scouts pay attention, and some clubs place extra emphasis on that in their scouting. If a guy is going to eligible for the draft as a sophomore, obviously that requires some extra attention, but otherwise, it’s really fall ball of a kid’s junior year and then the season proper heading into a draft year where the college kids really get scouted heavily again. Scouts and organisations obviously keep tabs on players they think are interesting, but when you’re not available to be drafted, you really don’t have to be on the radar.

So in general, a player coming into his junior season of college has probably been scouted heavily once before, in his senior year of high school, and maybe a second time if he played in either a wood bat league or with Team USA for international competition or something of the sort. He will be scouted diligently that spring of his junior year, leading into the draft. When June or now July rolls around, clubs will have a pretty good feel for who the player is, where he is in terms of development, how much has changed since he was a high school kid, and how much more growth they believe is there. Obviously every player is a little different, but this is how you try to scout an amateur player to make a draft decision. I know it’s not rocket science, and I hope no one thinks I’m being condescending laying it out like this; I’m just trying to explain that scouting a player is not a long term continuous process. You pay attention to a player when you need to pay attention, and the rest of the time you’re busy paying attention to all the other guys you need to pay attention to at that moment.

The reason I’m explaining all this is to tell you how odd the circumstances are this year. Normally, clubs have way more information on college players than they do high schoolers, simply because of the longer track records. Particularly toward the top of the draft, the college guys have put up numbers in college, with varying degrees of competition depending on the conference, they’ve played some wood bat ball either on the Cape, or the Northwoods League, or for Team USA, or whatever, and they’ve shown steady growth, or stagnation, or a sudden breakout since their high school days. This particular group of college kids, however, because of the pandemic wiping out last year’s summer leagues and most fall ball, have not been scouted nearly as much as the usual crop of collegians. The high school showcase circuit was affected last summer as well, but enough events still managed to go on that scouts saw those kids quite a bit. The college guys, though, didn’t play on the Cape, where the scouts can get good looks at top players going head to head, and also some of the teams have the newest and latest tracking technology, because it benefits MLB for them to have those sorts of things in their stadiums. The information gap is so small this year it’s almost nonexistent, is what I’m saying. Teams may very well be just as comfortable with a high school kid this year, because the college guy could actually bring more mystery with him, depending on how exactly the circumstances of the shutdown and this spring worked out for him.

Personally, I’m fascinated to see how this works out, and what effect it might have on club’s draft strategies, if any. Maybe it doesn’t change things at all, and teams still give the college guys the bump for being lower-risk even if they don’t feel as sure as they normally do. Or, maybe they don’t. This class is absolutely loaded with solid depth, but even with Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker looking like sure things coming into the spring, the top of the draft this year is remarkably unsettled. A couple of high profile pitching injuries (Jaden Hill, Gunnar Hoglund), have only added to the uncertainty. How the top of the draft unfolds this year is going to be fascinating, I think.

With all that said, here is a group of college bats, all of whom play premium, up the middle defensive positions. These are guys who would usually move up as draft day approaches and teams want some certainty in their picks. This year? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State

6’3”, 195 lbs

Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 20th March 2000

So, what’s so great about this guy?

First, I actually think it would be useful to get what Colton Cowser isn’t out of the way, before I tell you what he is. What Colton Cowser isn’t is a spectacular, highlight-a-minute player. What he is is one of the best overall players in this draft, and one of the safest bets on the board. He is also quite possibly the greatest player in Sam Houston State history, and I’m betting will end up the best Sam Houston alum in the big leagues, with all due respect to Caleb Smith.

Colton Cowser is one of those players who just does everything well on the baseball field. He’s a plus runner, and plays at least an average center field. He’s moved around the field a little in deference to a couple of teammates, but in pro ball he should stick in center, and playing there full time I think he has a chance to grade out better than average. He may not get there, but the tools are there. I suppose a club could try him on the infield — he played some third and I think a little second base as a freshman — but he fits better in the outfield, I believe, and that would be by far the easiest path to get his bat to the big leagues.

Coming into this spring, there were some real questions about Cowser’s long-term power potential. He has always shown good bat speed and a natural ability to barrel the ball, but over-the-fence power had not really been in the offing up until now. Well, those questions have mostly been put to bed now, as Cowser hit thirteen home runs in just over 200 plate appearances this spring, and while those homers were obviously not with wood bats, he did hit well as a member of the college national team in 2019. Again, this is what I was talking about earlier; normally we would have a Cape Cod League performance to add to the data pile on a guy with this sort of pedigree, but the lost 2020 campaign muddies the waters a bit. For the first time this spring Cowser walked more than he struck out, he stole fifteen bases in eighteen tries, and his overall OPS of 1.122 is tough to argue with. He may get dinged a bit for playing in the Southland Conference as opposed to the SEC or Pac-12 or ACC, but this is a player who produced at as high a level this spring as any player in the nation, and has an overall package of tools that could make him an impact center fielder. He should go in the top 20, and maybe the top ten, depending how things shake out.

It’s also worth noting Cowser is one of the younger college juniors in the draft, as he won’t turn 22 until next March. That could give him an extra leg up with clubs that value age relative to level and all that as part of their process.

via 2080 Baseball:

Matt McLain, SS, UCLA

5’10”, 175 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 6th August 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Matt McLain has actually already been a first round draft pick before, when Arizona selected him 25th overall back in 2018. Somewhat surprisingly, McLain and the DBacks did not come to an agreement, and he headed off to UCLA. He will go even higher this July, having three years of high-level college ball under his belt, and elite performances to boot.

I’ll be honest: Matt McLain slipping to the Cardinals at eighteen is basically my dream scenario in this draft. He came into the spring ranked up around the top five in the entire draft, then really saw his draft stock slip a little as he struggled early on. Coming off an abbreviated sophomore season in which he demolished Pac-12 pitching before the shutdown, it was surprising to see a player of this pedigree look so...average. Well, he finished the season with a .325/.432/.578 line in 190 plate appearances, so ultimately I think average can pretty well be thrown out the window. He has missed time here at the end of the college season due to a thumb injury, so it’s possible teams might be slightly worried about that, but I wouldn’t expect him to make it out of the top ten. Players with this combination of tools and skills do not grow on trees, and I would kill many, many innocent people if I thought it would somehow push Matt McLain to the Cardinals’ draft slot.

Look, I said ‘if’, okay? Quit being so sensitive.

McLain is not the biggest player, but he is a bundle of twitchy athleticism with enough functional strength that you can project average power down the road without it being too much of a stretch. He has top of the scale bat speed and makes loud line drive contact from foul pole to foul pole. As for over the fence power, he did hit nine homers this spring in under 200 trips to the plate, but I think he’s more like a 15-20 home run guy in the big leagues. Still, add that pop to his easy 60-65 grade speed, and there’s a chance for a 20/20 player here. Probably 15 homers and 20+ steals is more realistic, but there’s at least a chance.

McLain plays a very solid shortstop, with plus range and an arm that allows him to make all the throws. He’s moved around the field a little in college, playing mostly third his freshman season (UCLA had a strong starting shortstop at the time, if I remember correctly), and seeing some time in center field. For my money, though, he’s a shortstop all the way in pro ball, and could be a very good one.

As for concerns, his size, or lack thereof, will knock him down a little in terms of ceiling in some scouts’ eyes. The power is not an issue for me, like I said, but it’s fair to wonder if the pop he’s shown in college will fully translate to wood bats and pro ball. There was a little too much swing and miss in his offensive game early in his college career as well, but he was also starting full-time as a freshman in the Pac-12, and has improved his contact and plate discipline both markedly over time. Again, the lack of wood bat data hurts here a bit.

As I said, Matt McLain falling to the Cardinals in the draft is kind of my dream scenario at this point. You know how when the Cards draft a really talented high school kid, I often write something along the lines of, “This is the kind of player the Cardinals don’t often get to draft”? Well, in those cases, the Cards are getting upside they usually don’t see at 19-24 by taking a player with a riskier profile or some nagging flaw in their game, a la Nolan Gorman. Matt McLain, on the other hand, is really the kind of player the Cards never get to draft, in that he’s both a high-ceiling and high-floor player, the kind of easy building block teams drafting fourth overall can pull, but a club who rarely gets a shot above eighteen basically never sees. Dansby Swanson played the best baseball of his life at the best possible time, catapulting himself to a monster payday as the number one overall pick in the draft back in 2015. Matt McLain is a better prospect, but has had some poor timing in his college career. Could that get him to the Cardinals? Probably not. But a man can hope.

via Pac-12 Networks:

Christian Franklin, OF, Arkansas

5’11”, 195 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 30th November 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I started off this group of players by scouting Colton Cowser, who I took pains to point out is not a spectacular player, but rather a great one who just does everything well. Christian Franklin is a bit of the other side of that coin. Franklin is a spectacular player, at times. He is one of the best pure athletes in the college ranks this year. However, there is zero chance he goes nearly as high in the draft as Cowser — though he’s probably still a first round pick — simply because while he may be the superior athlete in nearly every way, Christian Franklin is not nearly as well-rounded a baseball player.

Let’s start off with the good stuff: Franklin has four 55 or better tools. He’s a plus runner, capable of playing an above-average center field as well as adding solid value on the bases. He has above-average raw power, hitting with a leg kick and producing the occasional booming home run over everything in left field. He should stick in center, as I said, and has a plus throwing arm that should keep baserunners in check anytime he’s patrolling the grass. In other words, if it requires speed, power, or velocity, Christian Franklin can do it with aplomb.

Now for the bad part: Christian Franklin has improved as a hitter. He may still not be a very good one.

To be fair, Franklin has produced good offensive numbers for Arkansas the last two seasons, which means he has put up big numbers in the SEC, the toughest conference in the nation. In both the truncated 2020 season and this spring, Franklin posted an OPS over 1.000, which is no mean feat. He has hit for lots of power, including eleven homers and fifteen doubles in 225 plate appearances this spring. He’s even become a fairly patient hitter, walking over 13% of the time this season and getting on base at a .431 clip. The problem is even with all the improvements, he still struck out over a quarter of the time this spring, which is markedly better than where he was as a freshman, but is still very high for a college player hitting with a metal bat. We have no wood bat data on him for comparison, and the history of high-strikeout college guys coming into pro ball is very scary. Lots of those guys, even the ones with big power and who are willing to take a walk, just end up not making enough contact to succeed in the professional ranks. Pro pitchers are also much, much better at working the strike zone than college pitchers, even those in the SEC.

Christian Franklin has a lot of Randal Grichuk in him. And that is not a bad thing, not at all. Grichuk has had a very nice career for himself despite certain limitations in his game, because he can add value in multiple ways on the field. Franklin, I think, has some of the same limitations, but also that same explosive athleticism that may very well make up for them. He also comes with the benefit of playing center field, which can eat a lot of sins if a player does it well.

Eighteen is probably a little early for Franklin, but he won’t be around at 54. In short, I don’t think he really fits the Cardinals’ draft position very well, unless someone in the organisation really likes him and sees more in the bat with some pro-level player development.

via Keanan Lamb: