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2021 Draft Preview No. 11: The Upside Report

Some of the higher ceilings available this Sunday, collected together for you.

2021 St. Louis Cardinals Photo Day Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

We’re coming up on the MLB draft fast now, folks. Day one is this Sunday, so I’m going to try and blitz through as much more coverage as I can here over the next few days.

What we have here today is a group of the highest-ceiling players in the draft (who I expect to reasonably be available when the Cardinals go on the board). I’m not going to bother covering Marcelo Mayer or Brady House, despite the fact that yes, they do in fact have very high ceilings.

Anyhow, this is a mixture of pitchers and hitters, which I don’t usually do, but we’re running out of time, and I need to get these players done one way or the other. So here we go. Also, a couple of these players have been directly tied to the Cardinals at eighteen via scuttlebutt or informed mock draft types. Not saying there’s anything there, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Bubba Chandler, RHP/SS, North Oconee HS (GA)

6’3”, 200 lbs

Bats/Throws: Switch/Right

DOB: 14th September 2002

So, what’s so great about this guy?

There might not be a more fascinating player in the draft this year than Bubba (birth name: Roy), Chandler, who does not, “do a little bit of everything,” the way we usually mean it when we say that about a baseball prospect. Instead, he very literally does a little bit of everything, in a way that both makes him a more fascinating prospect for sure, but also clouds and complicates the picture to an extreme degree.

To begin with, Chandler is currently a two-way baseball prospect, capable of both pitching and hitting, though as he has developed it has become more and more clear that the mound is where he’s really going to make his money. Still, he’s a solid shortstop as well, and would probably be something like a second-round talent if he were just a big, physical, switch-hitting middle infield prospect. Oh, yeah, did I mention he’s a switch hitter as well? So that’s two swings, an up the middle defensive position (though, admittedly, he really looks more like a third baseman in pro ball as he continues to fill out a little more), and a pitching repertoire to manage.

But then, of course, just to make things extra complicated-slash-intriguing, Chandler is also a three-star football recruit as a quarterback, who is currently committed to Clemson University. You know Clemson, right? Dabo Sweeney? Couple of national titles recently? Played in four of five national title games from 2015-2019? Yeah, that Clemson. Now, admittedly, it’s no guarantee Chandler would end up starting for the Tigers, but he’s still a highly thought-of quarterback recruit committed to one of the two or three best football schools in the nation. So, yeah. Complicated.

So what we have here is a two-way, two-sport, Clemson commit who also switch hits. If that’s not literally a little bit of everything, no prospect is ever going to meet that definition for you.

All of which is my way of saying that drafting Bubba Chandler is an extraordinarily fraught prospect, even if he does, in unguarded moments giving interviews and the like, seem to be more passionate about baseball — and about pitching, specifically — than he does the other things.

And it’s on the mound where I think you really have to consider Chandler if you want to understand why his ceiling is so high. The fact he’s a very good hitter with plus power potential certainly helps, and if the universal DH is indeed coming, he would actually have a reasonable shot at the Shohei Otani career path, but it is as a pitcher where Chandler really separates himself from the madding crowd.

I was not, I should say, a big fan of Chandler as a pitching prospect this time last year. He was definitely already on radars, but that was more due to his LBOE-ness rather than him being a fully fledged prospect in any one aspect. At that time, his delivery was a bit of a mess, his timing varied widely even from pitch to pitch, and he just generally looked like a kid with a good arm who had pitched in little league and had just never been told to stop. A funny thing happened, though, during the autumn of 2020. At some point during the pandemic shutdown, Chandler got serious about building his body up, and went on an 8000 calorie a day diet, combining that with a religious training regimen, and managed to push his body from the 160-170 range up to nearly 200 pounds. As he got bigger and stronger, not only did the overall quality of his stuff tick up, but his delivery began to improve as well, to the point where now I don’t see much higher risk than any other high school arm, and the potential ceiling he offers as a pitcher would actually force me to consider taking him at eighteen, Clemson complications and draft bonus issues be damned. I didn’t say I would take him, mind you; only that I would have to consider it.

Chandler operates with a legitimate five-pitch mix right now, throwing both a four-seam and two-seam fastball, a curve, a slider, and a changeup for which he actually shows surprising feel, given his youth and divided attention. He can push his four-seamer up to 97 at its best, though it tends to sit more around 92-94, and it has good riding life up in the zone. His two-seamer comes in a couple miles an hour slower, and while it doesn’t sink as much as I might like to see, it does have good armside run. The four-seamer is pro-ready, the two-seamer will need a little more work. Still, I love a pitcher who throws both fastballs, and that’s a big plus on Chandler’s resume for me.

His best offspeed pitch for now is his power curveball, thrown in the upper 70s with above-average spin, and he locates it well down and avoids hanging the pitch, though landing it for strikes is still a hit or miss proposition. He throws a harder slider in the low- to mid-80s, and it has good tilt and stays separate from his curve, though he babies the slider a little more at times. Still, any high schooler who can throw two distinct breaking balls is well ahead of the curve, so to speak. And finally, Chandler also throws a changeup that is roughly average now and shows signs of being better down the road. He throws the change with more conviction than a lot of pitchers his age, and while he doesn’t always keep it down, it has excellent fade and a little bit of sink.

Off the mound, Chandler is a little above-average right now in terms of speed, has plus power potential from both sides of the plate, actually shows very solid defensive chops on the infield dirt, and obviously has a top of the scale arm. As I said, he probably slows down a touch over the next few years and looks more like a third baseman to me physically, but his bat is intriguing enough that a two-way development track is a definite possibility. I can imagine a club having him give up hitting to focus on pitching, but not the other way around.

It’s really hard to say what will happen with Chandler; it isn’t often that a high-end baseball prospect comes along who also has a shot to play quarterback at an elite college program. Still, if you’re looking for a player with a shot at the Otani career, Chandler is probably the best bet you’re going to find, and that just might be worth taking a shot at, and probably altering your draft plans in general to make happen.

via Southern Brit:

Joshua Baez, OF, Dexter-Southfield (MA)

6’4”, 220 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 28th June 2003

So, what’s so great about this guy?

If you’re looking for a guy who can hit a baseball a mile, Josh Baez is probably the guy you’re looking for. He takes his cues at the plate from another Baez — that being Javy — and swings from the heels pretty much every time he gets a pitch to his liking, and there is not a stronger, more impressive batting practice to be found in the nation right now.

Physically, Baez is huge, an already-hulking obliterator of baseball who nonetheless moves very well for his size and has a chance to be an above-average defender in a corner outfield spot. He also has a tremendous throwing arm, capable of touching 97 off the mound, so there could be some Jose Guillen/Vlad Guerrero throws from the right field corner in his future someday.

Baez carries his hands high at setup, then swings as hard as he can nearly every time, without much in the way of extraneous movement. That kind of approach to hitting carries with it certain disadvantages, and there is considerable swing and miss already in Baez’s game, which could end up spelling doom for him as a prospect when the pitching gets better. The thing is, Baez doesn’t have to swing as hard as he can every time he swings; he’s more than strong enough he could gear back to 85-90% of where he swings now and still hit the ball out of pretty much any ballpark around. Now, whether changing his approach to put the bat on the ball more often would be possible for Baez is tough to say at this point, but a good player development system should be able to help him find a happy medium between contact and power, rather than taking that Javy Baez hack every time and whiffing a quarter of the time against high school competition. Personally, I would like to see him introduce some more obvious timing mechanism into his swing, either a leg kick or a more pronounced hand load or something, because at the moment it feels to me like he struggles to initiate his swing on time.

It is also worth noting that Baez is one of the youngest players in this draft, having turned eighteen just over a week ago. Bubba Chandler is over nine months older than Baez, which is not so much a knock on Chandler as a huge point in Baez’s favour. The Cardinals have long shown a proclivity for skewing toward extremely young for their demographic players in the past (Nolan Gorman, Delvin Perez, Jordan Walker), so that could mean they would be a little extra interested in the big slugger, and it’s also worth noting he might be the most similar player in this draft to the high school version of Jordan Walker. The pro version of Walker has shown plate discipline and contact ability well beyond what we should have expected, but the pre-draft version was remarkably similar to Baez in a lot of ways.

Long-term, it’s easy to see Baez tuning his swing down just a little, and hopefully learning a better plate approach in terms of waiting for pitches he can handle, then taking the big hack, giving him a high probability of three-true-outcomes sluggerdom. Something like Joey Gallo feels like a good outcome for Baez, and also shows all the potential pitfalls of a hitter with such an extreme profile.

via Kyler Peterson:

Harry Ford, C, North Cobb HS (GA)

5’10”, 200 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 21st February 2003

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Harry Ford is one of the more intriguing prospects in this draft in terms of what his future might look like, particularly considering he is not a two-way player, nor a multi-sport college recruit, or any of those other things we’ve seen a lot of the past several years. No, Harry Ford is just a baseball player, and a tremendously exciting one, but the fact he is a catcher does make his future a bit more of a question than you might expect, considering how loud his tools and advanced his skills already are.

First off, it’s difficult to ignore the history of high school catchers taken in the first round. For whatever reason, when you take a high school catcher in the first round, you’re basically punting on that pick. (Historically speaking, that is.) There’s something about the development arc of catchers that seems to dictate the very best ones at eighteen will almost certainly not be the best ones at 24. I don’t really understand why that would be, but between the attrition native to the position and the soft skills catchers have to develop along their way to the big league, maybe it is just a fact that catching-specific tools tend to show up later, and those who commit to the position early just wash out for some reason. Like I said, I don’t quite get why catcher is such an unusual position, but there is a long and storied history of early-round busts when it comes to high school catching prospects.

The thing about Ford, though, is that he seemingly has all the potential in the world behind the plate, but also has some of the best offensive tools of any high schooler in this draft. He’s got the big arm, he’s extremely quick and nimble behind the plate, and he’s handled big-time stuff from showcase pitching with aplomb. He also has plus bat speed, an extremely intelligent approach to hitting, power to all fields and an ability to go foul pole to foul pole, and is, currently, a plus runner, which is basically unheard of for a catcher, non-Jason Kendall division.

And here’s where it gets complicated: Ford is such a good hitter, and such a remarkable athlete, that any team taking him would have to be tempted to move him out from behind the plate to take better advantage of all the other tools he possesses. He could play second or third base, and even has the speed to hold down center field, at least for now. I keep saying for now about his speed, I’m sure you realise, because if he stays at catcher, he’s not going to be a plus runner down the road, when his knees start to show the wear and tear of squatting behind the dish for hours every day.

On the other hand, you don’t get catchers who can hit like Harry Ford very often, and so the idea of keeping him behind the plate and coming away with an offensive force who is also a plus defender back there is extremely tempting. Will Smith of the Dodgers is the guy I’m thinking of right now, but you can trot out Buster Posey or Russell Martin if you like too, in terms of plus hitters and athletes who also wore the tools of ignorance.

So the question becomes: do you take the hard road with Ford, and hope for the longshot jackpot payoff where he’s one of the best players in baseball? Or do you move him out from behind the plate, let the bat and the athleticism play, and hope he develops faster, loses less of that athleticism to attrition, and has less chance of injury along the way? This conundrum is why Bryce Harper was drafted as an outfielder, despite playing catcher pretty much exclusively up to that point. Ford isn’t quite to that level (fewer Sports Illustrated covers, for one thing), but he forces the same kind of debate.

via Keanan Lamb:

Peyton Stovall, 2B, Haughton HS (LA)

6’0”, 180 lbs

Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 14th February 2003

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Peyton Stovall may well be the most naturally gifted hitter in the 2021 draft, full stop. Watching Peyton Stovall swing a baseball bat is like watching a fish practice swimming. It’s just what he was built to do, it seems.

Stovall has one of the best swings in the draft this year, and as natural a stroke as you’re ever going to see. He makes consistent loud contact, can handle velocity, breaking balls, pretty much whatever you’ve got to throw at him, and when high school teams stopped pitching to him entirely this spring, rather than get frustrated and struggle, he simply took the walks. (To wit, he ended the high school season with a walk rate near 30% and a strikeout rate of about 4%.) He reminds me a bit of Bryan Reynolds as a hitter, albeit without the switch-hitting part, and is capable of lashing the ball to all fields with real pop. Stovall might be the best pure high school bat I can think of since Kyle Tucker went ninth overall to the Astros back in 2015.

So why is Peyton Stovall anything but a lock to go not just in the first round, but the top ten, you ask? (He’s being placed anywhere from pick 28 to the late 30s, in most of the mock drafts I’ve seen.) Because Peyton Stovall, as good a hitter as he is, has some real questions about his game when he’s not in the batter’s box.

To start with, Stovall is roughly an average runner right now, but he doesn’t have great short-burst quickness, which limits both his basestealing ability and his defensive upside. He doesn’t have the arm to play on the left side of the infield, and while he should be able to hold down second, it’s not a sure thing. In other words, there’s a pretty good chance Peyton Stovall will not be playing a premium defensive position long-term. He could, mind you, but then he also very well might not.

There is also some question about how much much power he ultimately develops, given he’s not the biggest guy, but I’m personally not concerned with that. I don’t know if it’s 25+ home run power, but it could absolutely be 20 homers and 40+ doubles power.

Stovall is also an Arkansas commit, which could make him a little bit tougher sign than some other players in his range. If a club wanted to pop him at eighteen I’m sure they could buy him away from campus, but if you’re waiting into the mid-30s I think you might be looking at an overslot situation. Add it all up, the incredible natural offensive prowess, the questions about most other things, the college commitment and possible accompanying price tag, and it’s going to be really interesting to see exactly where Stovall comes off the board on Sunday. There is very little doubt in my mind, though, that he has as high an offensive ceiling as pretty much any hitter in this draft class.

via 2080 Baseball: