This is a weird draft, everybody. Maybe that shouldn't be news; every draft seems a little weird in one way or another, I suppose. But this one...this one is just plain off.
Part of that, of course, is the simple fact the top of the draft board is so unsettled this year. In most classes, you have a clearly elite group of talents at the very top, usually 3-5 guys, maybe six, who have set themselves apart. Think of last year, when you had Brady Aiken looking like a world beater, Tyler Kolek throwing as hard as any high schooler probably ever has, and then a couple players like Alex Jackson and Nick Gordon who seemed to put a bit of distance between themselves and the field. (Also a lesson that the top talents by consensus don't always go in order at the top, actually.) Or 2013, when Kris Bryan, Mark Appel, and Jonathan Gray were far and away the top three players, in whatever order you might want to arrange them.
This year, though, really has no consensus group. Brendan Rodgers, the athletic high school shortstop with the premium bat, still looks to be the best overall talent, but there's little confidence he'll be the guy Arizona takes first overall. The top college pitcher as of right now is Dillon Tate, the converted closer with exactly three months of starting experience. There are two college shortstops in the top five to seven by most lists. The pure athletic talents you expect to see at the top aren't necessarily there, either, with Daz Cameron still hanging around top ten consideration, but looking like no one's idea of a world-beater. Absent that group of four or five players at the top you can call pure locks, the whole of the early portions of the draft feels unsettled in a way you don't see all that often.
There's also some other weirdness going on this year, though, in terms of demographics. There is virtually zero catching talent near the top. The elite high school arms coming in to the spring have failed to take that step forward, with Mike Nikorak being the most notable exception. And that thing I said about there being two college shortstops worthy of top five picks just a minute ago, and how unusual that is? It's a running theme, actually, as one of the least likely draft demographics, that of the college shortstop, is likely to be represented in the top three rounds this year in a way I'm not sure I can ever remember.
College shortstops are usually an odd lot anyway; there are always one or two guys coming out of college who can actually play the position, and they tend to go off boards pretty early. As a whole, though, college shortstops are typically fringe players who will likely have to shift to another position, as the premium athletes who make up the majority of major league shortstops tend to come out of the draft in high school or sign internationally. This year, though...
By my count, there are eight, possibly nine, college shortstops who should go in the first three rounds this year. It could be slightly less than that, of course, depending on what grades you want to slap on some of those players, but there's a real chance we're going to see a real aberration this year in terms of college middle infielders getting popped early.
I've covered the top two guys, Alex Bregman and Dansby Swanson, both of whom seem to be top ten locks at this point, with Swanson at least a possibility for the top overall pick. Personally, I still prefer Bregman ever so slightly; he was in my favourites post way back at the beginning, and I'm still an enormous fan. Swanson actually has the slightly better numbers this spring, as he has absolutely crushed the ball most of the season, but Bregman's absurd contact ability coupled with tremendous power for a middle infielder and solid plate discipline put him over the top for me. Best of all (for the players, that is), both have seemingly answered a whole lot of questions about their respective abilities to stay at shortstop going forward. Worst of all from our perspective, the Cardinals have absolutely zero shot at either of them, seeing as how they aren't picking up at the very top of the draft.
I also covered Richie Martin and Kevin Newman in the same post as Swanson, and Newman in particular has improved his stock this spring. Keith Law loves Newman, and his numbers have caught the attention of quite a few in the industry. I'm very lukewarm on Martin, and I can't quite make up my mind on Newman. The contact ability is absolutely unbelievable (his K rate this spring is 5.0%), he can spray line drives all over the field, and he can run a bit too, but there is no power whatsoever (ISO of .090), and he basically never walks, with a BB rate of just 7.0%. Tony Gwynn made that batting profile work. I'm always, always hesitant to bet on a guy being good in the same way as one of the more unique talents to ever play the game. But....Newman really can hit just goddamned anything.
So I've covered four of these players already; I have four more today. There's one other guy I'm a little less sure of, and he'll likely show up in a players of interest post. But these four I think should go top three rounds, and all have something intriguing about them. Varying degrees of confidence in where they'll play long term, of course, but for now all four come into the draft with 'SS' next to their names.
Kyle Holder, SS, University of San Diego
6'1", 185 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Richie Martin is sort of the bellwether for the college shortstops in this class, in the sense that he is the most polished, dependable fielder with the best chance to stay at the position long-term, at least in most estimations. He should hit enough to contribute, and should grade out as a slightly above-average defender. In other words, Richie Martin may not be the most exciting shortstop available, but he is seen as a very safe bet.
Kyle Holder, on the other hand, just might be the most exciting shortstop available.
Holder is a sublime athlete, and as a defensive prospect, his ceiling is significantly higher than Martin's. Higher than pretty much everyone's, in fact. If I'm looking for a fake award to give him, he gets the coveted, "Most Likely to Turn Into Brendan Ryan," award. He's every bit that capable.
Where Martin is polished and dependable, though, Holder is still a bit of a work in progress in terms of ironing out the details. Flashy plays are his bread and butter, and he's capable of making plays that are positively Andrelton-esque at times. The footwork still gets loose, though, and he's prone to occasional lapses in concentration. He also, sadly, doesn't have the 80-grade arm of Simmons; Holder's throwing ability is nothing to sniff at, but he's more in the 60 to 65 range, as far as a grade. Still a premium arm, though, and more than enough to make virtually any play he can get to in the field.
It's at the plate where there are far more questions about Holder. He's a former two-sport athlete (baseball and basketball), and has really only been focusing on baseball exclusively the last few years, so there could still be some upside with the bat, but for now his ability to hit enough is a definite concern. Now, to his credit, he has improved markedly as a hitter the past two seasons at USD, and has shown solid contact skills, as well as a decent approach at the plate. But there's very little power here -- though more than the aforementioned Mr. Newman, it should be said -- and he has no real track record of hitting with wood at all. The level of competition in the West Coast Conference is modest, as well, so those numbers he's put up the last two seasons come with some definite grains of salt.
Still, players with Holder's defensive upside don't come around very often, and he could probably be worth a win and a half or even two wins a year on glove alone. I have my doubts about the bat, and so I don't love him, but I could certainly be wooed by what he can do in the field. Bottom line: if the Cardinals came away with Kyle Holder in the competitive balance round of picks or the second round, I would be very, very excited.
Blake Trahan, SS, University of Louisiana-Lafayette
5'9", 180 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Well, first off, there's little reason to doubt Trahan should play shortstop in pro ball, so he's got that going for him. The other thing he's got going for him: Blake Trahan can really run.
The legs that make him such a threat on the basepaths are the same legs that give him tremendous range in the field, even if he lacks the absurd, twitchy sort of athleticism of Kyle Holder. He's got a good arm, too, though it's a bit erratic, and is capable of making the occasional highlight reel play for sure. A team wanting to take advantage of his speed could also consider converting him to center field, I suppose, but unless they were set at shortstop for the next 7-10 years I don't see why a club would give up the value he offers positionally.
At the bat, Trahan has maybe slightly fewer questions than Holder, but not that many fewer. He's hit well in his college career, for the most part, but the quality of competition is a question, and even with a patient approach that has led to a career walk rate of ~12%, there are doubts about his ability to get on base at the next level. He lacks functional strength in a pretty serious way (though he also tries to swing for the fences in a way Lou Brown would most definitely not approve of), and I think there's a pretty good chance pitchers just knock the bat out of his hands once they figure out he's pretty limited in the amount of damage he can do.
The best way forward for Trahan, offensively at least, is actually probably the same as the way forward for, say, Billy Hamilton. Trahan doesn't have quite that level of speed, mind you, but he's the sort of player who really would be served best by learning to put the ball in play, on a line or on the ground, perhaps try to bunt for a base hit on a fairly regular basis, and let his legs do the work for him. He's never going to be big, and I'm not sure how much more weight and strength his frame will take, honestly, so accepting his real limitations as far as power goes will probably be a real point of emphasis for him. If he can get on base at a decent level, though, he's very much the sort of player who could cause real havoc on the basepaths, which in our current offensively challenged era is cycling back toward being more valuable again.
I'm less sanguine about Trahan's chances than I am Holder. I think he really lacks the strength to do much damage, and pitchers will likely attack him without fear, mitigating his solid batting eye and limiting his ability to get on base. He could very well end up a 55 or even 60 defender at short, though, so the bar for offensive performance may not be all that high.
via Jheremy Brown:
Tyler Krieger, SS/2B/INF, Clemson University
6'0", 170 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Tyler Krieger is pretty much a starter kit for another player with the initials TK: Ty Kelly. The utility infielder, currently playing his trade in Memphis while we suffer through watching Pete Kozma take at-bats, has a remarkably similar skillset to Tyler Krieger, if a more fully-developed version. High walk rate, solid line-drive contact, very little power to speak of, and a defensive profile that leaves him without a permanent home but makes him able to fill in quite a few spots when needed.
Of all the players I'm covering here today, I think Krieger has the least chance of playing shortstop in professional baseball. He has tools that are fairly fringy anyway, and had labrum surgery (throwing shoulder), this past offseason, so there has to be an added concern about his ability to throw long term. For my money, he's a second baseman, and probably only an average one at that. The tools are just not all that impressive, honestly.
The skills, on the other hand, are legit, putting him in that category of player occupied by guys like Ty Kelly and Matt Carpenter. Krieger works one of the toughest plate appearances in all of college baseball, and while he will strike out a bit more than some guys, the result of seeing lots of deep counts, he also gets on base at a clip not many other college players can match. He rarely gives away an at-bat, forcing pitchers to work, and draws far more walks than one might expect from a guy without much power.
Then again, drawing walks in college has as much to do with pitchers lacking control as it does the hitter's ability to command the zone, and that lack of pop could become an issue for Krieger in pro ball. He hits the ball hard, with a level, line drive oriented swing form both sides of the plate, but power is just not a big part of his game. Again, as I talked about with Trahan above, there has to be at least some concern pitchers at higher levels won't fear him enough to be careful, and will attack him in the zone where he can only do a limited amount of damage. It's the difference between Mike O'Neill in Low A ball and Mike O'Neill in Double or Triple A. O'Neill at the lower levels could leverage his absolute mastery of the strike zone against pitchers with shaky command, while at the upper levels he failed to show he could do enough damage to keep pitchers honest, and so we saw the big decline in on-base skills he displayed last year at Springfield. And, for the record, while Tyler Krieger has excellent plate discipline, he's no Mike O'Neill.
If a team believed in Krieger's ability to stay at short, he would be an extremely intriguing talent indeed. Myself, I don't think he stays there long term, instead fitting best as a utility player. Still, he has enough tools he should be able to handle several positions adequately, and those on-base abilities should find him a job somewhere. Then again, Ty Kelly can't seem to get past the Pete Kozma hump, so maybe versatility and a high OBP aren't quite as valuable as I think they are. (Spoiler alert: they really are; I'm not the problem with the Cardinals' bench situation.)
Mikey White, SS, University of Alabama
6'1", 195 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Mikey White is a grinder. And I mean that in the best possible way.
It's not guarantee White will remain at shortstop in pro ball, as his footspeed is okay, but not really what you might expect or want from your rangiest infielder. He's an extraordinarily smart and heady player, though, and I think there's a decent chance he stays there, in the same way Jhonny Peralta manages to play top-flight defense without prototypical shortstop tools. I'm not saying Mikey White will put up a +18 UZR, necessarily, only that I happen to think he's the sort of player who can make it work even if he might appear at first to be a little light on tools.
He's got a big arm, so if a move from short is necessary, he could probably handle third, and could certainly play second base. He's got good feet, smart feet, and having watched a fair bit of SEC baseball, I feel comfortable saying he'll figure out whatever position a team needs him to play.
Where things get really interesting for White is at the plate. He strikes out more than the other guys on this list, but he's also got significantly more power in his bat. He's not Kris Bryant, of course, but a .205 ISO in the SEC is nothing to sneeze at. He'll likely be more of a high-doubles guy in pro ball than an over-the-wall type slugger, but this is a guy who could pop 30-40 doubles a year, I believe, and add maybe 7-10 homers annually. In other words, I think Mikey White has the potential to make it to the big leagues as an offensive-minded middle infielder, and a damned good one at that.
I actually don't necessarily love the swing, or at least the setup. He carries his hands high and away from him in a way I'm not crazy about, and doesn't really load his hands all that much, either. It seems to work for him, but I actually think there might be even a bit more pop in the bat with some tweaks to the swing. Probably a bit better contact, rates, also; I don't think White is doing himself any favours with his swing.
White is an interesting player, as he fits a bit more the traditional mold of the college shortstop, at least defensively, with tools that grade out well, but perhaps not well enough he's a slam dunk to stay at the position. Having watched him some, though, I think he can stick at short. Maybe not for a decade or more, but for five years? Or seven? I do. And I wouldn't put it past him to figure out a way to stay there longer, either. The offensive ceiling is unusual for a middle infielder, also; he's not quite at the level of Bregman or Swanson, but he's not as far behind as the draft rankings would suggest, I don't believe. And it's not as if he's putting up his numbers against weaker competition, either; he's in the SEC, same as those more-heralded players.
In 2005, the Cardinals really wanted to draft Jay Bruce, who was a high school center fielder at the time, but knew he wouldn't get anywhere near their draft position. So, they looked around for the most similar player they could find, and came up with Colby Rasmus, a skinny slugger from Alabama who had broken Bo Jackson's state home run record as a junior. If a team in 2015 really wanted to draft Alex Bregman or Dansby Swanson but didn't possess a top seven draft position to grab one of them, it would be easy to imagine that team looking around, trying to find a similar player. And if said team were doing that, I think there's a very good chance they might settle on Mikey White.
And I think that would be a pretty smart decision, also.
via E. Tyler Bullock: