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2021 Draft Preview No. 10: Persons of Interest One

An extra-large batch of interesting talent.

Chicago Cubs v. Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

These are not the top of the prospect heap guys we tend to focus on. But then, I think we all understand that when it comes to the draft, entirely too much time and energy is spent only on the top of the pile, when in reality players come from all throughout the strata of the amateur world.

The 2009 draft was one of the more remarkable successes in recent memory for the Cardinals, really the crowning achievement of the Jeff Luhnow scouting department, and their first round pick that year was Shelby Miller. Now, Shelby Miller turned out to be a fine pitcher for a couple years in the majors, but the most value he contributed to the organisation was, to be frank, the six and a half wins Jason Heyward put up in 2015. The value in that ‘09 class came from lower down — much lower down, in fact. The value that year came from Joe Kelly in the third round, and Matt Carpenter in the thirteenth round, and Trevor Rosenthal in the 21st, and Matt Adams in the 23rd. Miller was the headliner, and he certainly looked like a fine head of the class on prospect lists, but he ended up a bit player compared to some of those other names. (Also worth noting that Ryan Jackson made it to the big leagues for a bit with the Cardinals, and Robert Stock ended up a reliever for the Padres and Cubs after switching from catching to pitching. No, not like that.)

What I’m saying is, don’t worry about these guys not being first rounders. Or second or third rounders, even, for some of them. Good players come from all over.

Kevin Kopps, RHP, Arkansas

6’0”, 205 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: March 2, 1997

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I spoke just a moment ago about the 2009 draft, when the Cardinals pulled a fairly spectacular assortment of talent together. Well, in that draft, one round after Joe Kelly, the Cards selected a college reliever named Scott Bittle, out of the University of Mississippi. Bittle was a fifth-year college senior who had redshirted one year and missed another in college due to arm injuries. He barely ever pitched professionally, appearing at two levels in 2011, but after that he was done. It was a real shame to see; Scott Bittle in college was one of the most dominant relievers I’ve ever seen. In his junior year of 2008, he appeared in 27 games, threw 70.2 innings, posted a 1.78 ERA (this was the juiced bat era, still, also), and struck out 130 batters. Bittle’s calling card was a devastating cutter, and he struck out over half the batters he faced in 2008 while throwing about one and a half pitches.

Kevin Kopps is the 2021 equivalent of Scott Bittle, including, unfortunately, the past arm injuries.

At 24 years old, Kopps is a real draft anomaly. He is a sixth-year senior Arkansas, having missed both his real freshman year of 2016 and the 2018 campaign due to Tommy John surgery. In 2017 and 2019 he was a fine reliever, and he was quite bad in the truncated 2020 season. He came back this spring with a newly-refined cutter, full health, and a better idea of who he wanted to be as a pitcher. The results? Thirty-three appearances, 89.2 innings pitched, a 0.90 ERA, 131 strikeouts, twelve wins, eleven saves, and the SEC Pitcher of the Year Award. (And keep in mind, the SEC included both Vandy guys this year, not to mention Gunnar Hoglund, Will Bednar, and several other highly thought-of starting pitchers.)

Kopps throws three pitches technically, with a 90-93 mph fastball he spots pretty well and a get-over curveball he can land for strikes when hitters aren’t expecting it. But really, Kevin Kopps throws one pitch that matters. Call it a cutter, call it a slider, call it The Thing if you like (some do); it doesn’t matter. It might be the single best pitch anyone throws in this year’s draft, and while there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Kopps’s ability to translate his college dominance into major league success, there’s also a chance that hitters at higher levels will be just as befuddled as SEC competition.

Kopps’s cutter is a weird pitch. He’ll throw it anywhere from 81 to 87 mph, and it has tremendous bite. More importantly, hitters seem completely unable to pick the spin of the pitch up due to the spin (he throws it with gyro spin, like a spiral pass in football), and pretty much just flail helplessly as he pours one cutter after another into the strike zone. He can vary the break as well as the speed, and he can put it pretty much everywhere he wants seemingly at will. There is as much disagreement about Kopps as any pitcher I can recall in recent memory, but I’m a believer. I have no idea where you would have to take him to ensure you actually got him — I could see a team jumping the line and picking him as early as the fourth round, or him sitting around until round fifteen or something, and neither would surprise me — but considering his age, status, and dominance, he could be a big bonus saver for a club willing to take him early, allowing them to allocate a substantial chunk of that bonus money elsewhere for tough signs.

Here, watch this shit. (Terrible announcer warning, however. You’re going to get real tired of the word ‘slahder’ if you don’t mute it.)

via A1 Tech:

Tommy White, 3B, IMG Academy (FL)

6’1”, 220 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 2nd March 2003

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Tommy White can hit. That’s pretty much the size of the thing. He can hit, and hit for power, and when he’s fielding, you wish he was hitting.

This is not really a typical profile for a high schooler, it should be said. White is much thicker, stronger, and slower than the athletes you usually see coming out of high school, and his long-term position is very much in question. He’s a reasonable third baseman right now, but no more than reasonable, and if he slows down any further he could be unplayable there. He doesn’t have the wheels to make it in the outfield, so it looks very much like a future first base/DH kind of profile. The bat would have to be really special to carry him if that’s the case.

The good news is, the bat might just be really special. Blaze Jordan was the single-dimensional power standout among last year’s high schoolers, and he went in the third round to the Red Sox. Tommy White doesn’t have quite the hype of Jordan, who got his strength even earlier and was making highlight videos of batting practice at fifteen, but I think White has a better overall approach and swing than Jordan. It’s very good balance, even when White is taking a huge hack, and he has more than enough strength to do serious damage when he connects without selling out to the pull side.

White is a below-average runner already, and his overall athleticism is a real concern long term. However, he impacts the baseball as well, and as often, as anyone in this draft, and he isn’t a one-dimensional hitter in the Chris Carter mold. The upside with the bat might just be high enough to make up for his other limitations, though if I had to guess I would say White probably ends up going to college and beating up on SEC pitchers for a couple years. (He’s an NC State commit.)

via 2080 Baseball:

Mason Black, RHP, Lehigh

6’3”, 230 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 10th December 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I’ve decided I’m going whole hog on this thing of trying to mirror the 2009 draft, so here I am, covering the pitcher who most resembles Joe Kelly to me in this year’s class.

Mason Black is capable of throwing very, very hard. He’s hit 100 on the gun multiple times in the past when working in relief, and at that velocity his iffy command doesn’t matter nearly so much. This spring, though, he pitched in the starting rotation for Lehigh, and his velo was a much more pedestrian 94-95. Well, maybe not pedestrian, exactly; that’s still pretty good. But it’s not blow the doors off good, and when you don’t command the pitch at 94 any better than you at 99, you should probably just throw as hard as you can all the time.

The issue for Black is his delivery, which is kind of a mess. He’s got an extremely long arm action, with a long swing in the back that does, in fact, resemble that of Joe Kelly in college. (Kelly completely changed his delivery over the years, to the point he’s basically a short-armer now, but when he was closing games at UC Riverside and early in his minor league career he had one of the longest arm swings I’ve ever seen.) He works from a lower arm slot, as well, that gives his fastball very good armside run, but he struggles to control the movement on the pitch a lot of the time due to an inconsistent release point. Still, he has premium velocity and plus movement, so there’s plenty of clay here to try and mold.

Black’s best secondary pitch is a slider that will flash above-average some days but just as often gets lazy and hangs. The pitch is better when he throws it harder, at which point it turns into almost a cutter, and that’s fine. He throws a changeup as well, but it’s bad.

What we have here, really, is the makings of a two-pitch power reliever. Black is not cut out to be a starter, I don’t believe, because he lacks both the variety of pitches and command over the pitches he does have to make it work in a rotation. If he could tighten up the delivery, though, and pare down his repertoire to just fastball/slider, there’s real potential for a dynamic bullpen arm in there.

via Prospects Live:

Kevin Abel, RHP, Oregon State

6’1”, 195 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 19th February 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Kevin Abel is, essentially, the opposite of Mason Black. Where Black is pure power, with little feel for pitching beyond just throwing the ball hard, Abel is all junk and guile, a guy who has fought and will fight against the perception he just doesn’t have enough fastball to succeed, but who can toss offspeed stuff with the best of them.

Abel has been a prospect for a long time, having been a third- to fifth-round talent out of high school and a College World Series MVP his freshman year at OSU, back in 2018. He missed the whole 2020 season due to Tommy John surgery. In other words, it’s been an eventful few years for Abel since he was a high school senior in California, but his name has been on the radar at least peripherally all that time.

He has something in common with Adam Wainwright, in that both Waino and Abel were early bloomers in terms of stuff, who showed good high school velocity, were projected for more, and then just never threw any harder. Also like Wainwright, Abel has compensated for that failure to launch on his fastball by learning to throw multiple plus offspeed pitches.

The fastball sits around 89-90, with decent armside run. Abel can put his heater where he wants it, to all four quadrants of the zone, but it’s still just a little too hittable. On the other hand, his offspeed pitches are, generally, not very hittable at all, starting with a 55-60 grade curveball that has both depth and power, with Abel able to throw it in or out of the zone pretty much at will. Even better is his changeup, a pitch that might grab a 70 if you see it on the right day and overmatches hitters despite playing off what is not a very intimidating fastball. He throws it in the low 80s, and it tumbles like an anvil at the plate.

What’s interesting about Abel is that, despite having a fastball that’s very hittable, he doesn’t actually give up many hits. Instead, he allows more walks than you would expect from a pitcher with such good feel, essentially following the Mike Maddux playbook and nibbling around the edges, forcing hitters to swing at pitches he doesn’t believe they can do much damage on. It’s the pitching version of the prevent defense, and while it sucks to watch most days, it’s also mostly effective. Still, Abel could do with a little less nibbling, as his walk rate is much too high for a guy with both feel and quality stuff overall. As a fourth-year college guy, he could come at a bonus pool savings, and would fit nicely into a draft strategy in the fifth round area, depending on what a club needed to shave for tough signability players earlier or later in the draft.

via Pac-12 Networks:

Levi David, RHP, Northwestern State

6’5”, 220 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 14th June 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

A two-year juco guy before transferring to Northwestern State, David is one of the more intriguing relief arms in the draft this year, though he’s still going to need some work in terms of dialing in his control once he gets into pro ball.

Working from a very high arm slot, David throws a tough, steep fastball that gets on hitters quickly, with velocity that will range anywhere from 94-99. When he’s locating well, he can be unhittable; the problem is, he doesn’t locate well all that often. Even better than the fastball, though, is David’s curveball, a mid-80s hammer that he can throw for strikes or bury, and neither version gets touched very often. It has spin, depth, and power, and hitters just can’t do much with the pitch.

To that point, David struck out 104 batters in 61 innings this spring, working almost entirely as a starter. Long-term, however, he fits much better in a bullen role, as he lacks a really usable third pitch and struggles to throw consistent strikes. He puts me in mind of no one so much as John Axford with his steep angle of attack, devastating curveball, and intermittent strike-throwing issues. A team might take him and send him out as a starter to get in more consistent development work, but I think he ends up pitching high-leverage late innings sooner than later.

via Larry David (I assume it’s a different one than you’re thinking of):

Cooper Bowman, 2B, Louisville

6’0”, 205 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 25th January 2000

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Bowman played the 2021 season at Louisville, a place where it is extremely easy to get noticed by scouts, but he certainly didn’t start in such auspicious circumstances. Bowman is originally from South Dakota, not exactly known as a hotbed of baseball talent. He spent a couple years at an Iowa juco before making his way to the bright lights of Louisville, where he showed very well against ACC competition, putting his name in top five round consideration for the draft.

Bowman possesses dynamic tools, including plus speed and enough power that he could be a 15/15 or even 20/20 guy down the road if he hits enough. He stole 20 bases in 24 attempts this spring (in 223 plate appearances), and that foot speed gives him above-average range at second base, as well. He doesn’t have the arm to play on the left side of the infield, but could be a very good second baseman. His swing is a little flat, but his bat speed is good and he hits to the gaps very well. He posted a 32:23 strikeout to walk ratio this season against higher level competition than he’s ever faced before, so I don’t have too much concern about Bowman adjusting as he heads up the ladder. He doesn’t have a long track record of playing at a high level, though, with just the one year in the ACC, so his draft stock is somewhat depressed compared to where the raw physical tools might suggest it should be.

If given the choice between Ryan Bliss of Auburn at 70 and Bowman at 150, I would probably take Bliss, but it’s close. Both have significant offensive upside at up the middle positions (Bliss is a shortstop in college, but I don’t think he has the arm for it in pro ball), and both have the speed that center field would be an option if they can’t stay on the dirt. Bowman is bigger and faster, while Bliss is a better overall hitter. I do think Bowman did well for himself his first season in a major conference, and he could be a guy who looks like a steal in a couple years because the team drafting him bet there were even better days ahead.