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2020 MLB Draft 1st Round Thoughts

The 2020 MLB Draft is almost here and it promises to be one of the craziest yet. The only thing crazier is that this marks ten years of my covering the draft. In 2010, I remember being in seventh grade and wanting my favorite team at the time, the Mets, to draft Chris Sale – only to see them pick another college pitcher named Matt Harvey who some talent evaluators also pegged as a future reliever as they did with Sale. I am now a college graduate, heading to law school in the fall while they have gone on to have careers full of ups and downs and change their franchises’ fortunes. This year, however, is unlike anything I have seen before. There will be only five rounds, instead of the forty many have gotten accustomed to, because of the worldwide pandemic known as COVID-19. Simply, scouts and teams have not been able to see as many prospects as usual and do the homework that is usually done by this time each year. Instead of keeping tabs on thousands of amateur baseball players, organizations will only consider and focus on probably a couple hundred. There is no question that the ripple effects of this will be felt for a long time to come, with so many Major League hopefuls having to miss out on a dream. The impending shutdown of dozens of minor league teams and release of dozens of minor leaguers per team figures to change the landscape of professional baseball perhaps forever. This is a shame because this year’s crop of talent is some of the best that I have seen or can remember. Like always, as the draftnik (see what I did there?), I have scouted each player in MLB Pipeline’s Top 200 players and have tried my best to sort through my favorite players. Not much has changed for me and my process as I rely on video all the time but footage has been harder to come by with less games played because of our public health emergency in the United States. There is a chance that some of the players I highlight below may not be drafted but the cream of the crop always rises. Spencer Torkelson, this year’s consensus number one overall pick was not selected out of high school and Jacob deGrom would have been undrafted if there was a five round draft in 2010. Luckily, I was able to predict his abilities on the mound when he was not even a top 30 prospect in the New York Mets’ farm system according to experts.

 

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For the Yankee fans reading, I also was a huge Aaron Judge fan when he was at Fresno State and proudly proclaimed the following during a time many question his power of all things! The rise of both New York superstars, and many others, show the importance of scouting in our game and trusting what one believes about a player over anything else. The two were floated numerous times in trade talks that would have turned out to be disastrous for their teams if deals went through and might be wearing different uniforms right now if not for player personnel staff who knew better.

 

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With that out of the way, I will briefly touch on the strengths and weaknesses of this class. In general, there is no shortage of college talent to be had in the first round, although this should come with the caveat that the position player group seems a little lighter than usual. From this follows the fact that college pitching this year can be had in droves. High school pitching, widely considered to be a risky demographic all things considered, looks really strong as well. High school hitting is more of less what it usually is, in my approximation. After Torkelson at 1, most have Austin Martin, the shortstop for Vanderbilt, and Asa Lacy, Texas A&M’s left-handed ace as the next two prospects off the board, going to Baltimore and Miami respectively. Martin, one of the best pure hitters and culture changers in the draft, is a solid second overall pick but I would caution those who think he is better than Torkelson solely based on positional value. He is a likely a better version of Dansby Swanson while the slugger from Arizona State, who took down many of Barry Bonds’ records there, is a better hitting but shorter and less versatile Kris Bryant. Lacy, who I loved 3 years ago, is a rock solid starter who has frontline potential and can be a nastier Jon Lester. After them comes intrigue and perhaps the first prep bat taken in Zac Veen to Kansas City. This would be a homerun selection by the Royals as pairing him with Bobby Witt would be a sight to see. Veen is my top ranked high school bat because of his incredible confidence and work ethic. I compare him to Charlie Blackmon, an end result I’m sure Royal fans would gladly accept. There are teams who could prefer an all around player like Robert Hassell and I get why.

 

The draft gets murkier after this as the Blue Jays and Mariners are reportedly considering college starters like Max Meyer. No disrespect to Meyer as he may have been the best college starter I have seen this college season but I would take the ceiling of a Emerson Hancock over him, which I view as a combination of Yu Darvish and Aaron Nola. I’d even go as far to say the ceiling of Hancock surpasses that of Lacy but it is understandable that teams want to minimize as much risk as possible with their top picks, this year especially. Meyer seems to be a Sonny Gray clone and has a bit more upside thanks to his devastating slider but teams in the top 5 would be making a mistake potentially passing Emerson up past the top five, let alone top ten as some rumors and mocks are saying. Another player that seems to be falling, unbeknownst to me, is Nick Gonzales. I understand that Gonzales is short but the best hitter in the draft should not slip past Seattle. The Keston Hiura comp that has been thrown out on him is spot on and I would add Anthony Rendon to it. I also get the feeling that players after the New Mexico State star are being slept on, potentially because of how safe they are. To me, safety does not always indicate a limited ceiling. I could quite easily see Reid Detmers and Heston Kjerstad continuing to surpass the expectations put on them in Louisville and Arkansas at the next level. They would be ideal Colorado Rockies as there is little bust potential with the duo. I envision them becoming solid and vital, but underappreciated, contributors as Mark Buerhle and Joc Pederson were and have become. I take that everyday if I’m a major league team. Detmers curveball is the best I have seen in a long time and makes up for the lack of perceived velocity while Kjerstad has huge power. The other two I have not heard much about in the way of team interest are Garrett Crochet and Patrick Bailey. Crochet, for my money, is the neck and neck with Detmers and the most electric out of any. Even if he is not able to stretch out as one, Crochet would be fine in a Josh Hader role since he can pitch like him in the future and because there are few things more valuable in baseball. The only thing more sought after is quality catching and Bailey provides just that. There are few questions, if any, about Bailey’s ability to stay behind the plate and I think he has a better bat than most give him for as it has improved each season. He has spent time on his swing during quarantine too but I will note that this is easily the greatest year for catchers I have ever scouted so teams could want value later. I personally would wait for a catcher, past players like Tyler Soderstrom who to me is in the mold of a Daniel Murphy.

 

The three-headed monster of prep arms expected to go early is well-documented. Mick Abel, Jared Kelley and Nick Bitsko could be rearranged in any order you want and can be developed into aces. However, it seems to me that one or two of them may slip into the latter half of the first round which would be a shame. Abel is the most likely to go earliest due to concerns teams have about Kelley as a pitcher and Bitsko’s pricetag. I think the former is unfair since, unless I am mistaken, I don’t think any high schooler has pitched better statistically than Kelley has. He is a Texas flamethrower and has the frame to carry a rotation. Kelley is the most advanced among the trio but it appears that clubs are balking due to the spin rate on his pitches. I am not the biggest believer in spin rate, especially when it is regarding fastballs and that is reportedly the issue here. Hopefully a team does not outsmart itself and view him as too good to be true. Many pitchers with premium spin rates do not pitch nearly as well as that metric indicate. The examples are many. Bitsko is very much the mystery man as he has not pitched this spring due to his being in Pennsylvania but he may be the most talented of the bunch, with Abel having the best mix of upside and risk. The last player I want to quickly touch on is the other polarizing and debated figure: Austin Hendrick. At first, I was not sold on him due to the obvious swing and miss that comes with his game but my concerns when I learned the reason for his shaky showcase circuit last summer. Hendrick was testing a legkick after hitting with a toetap before, which, admittedly, does not sound like a great time to test things out but I give him credit for trying to get to another level. He has things that cannot be taught with his bat speed and prodigious pop. Problems with his swing and pitch recognized can be corrected with coaching and seeing more quality arms. Also from Pennsylvania, he did not get the chance to as a coldweather, Northeast kid. All he needs is reps and the sky is the limit. His statline can look like Bryce Harper’s so teams picking in the late teens should be thrilled if he’s there and take him.

 

Before I start talking about my favorite late first to fifth round picks, I want to highlight the two high school players I think will move quickly in the minors but have disappointed scouting departments with how their power has developed. Ed Howard and Pete Crow-Armstrong have both had marvelous youth careers and been on the map for a long time. Surely there is prospect fatigue here as I do not think either has performed particularly badly and think the issue has to do more with thought that neither will become superstars. Even if they don’t, they are much safer high school picks than is the case most years. For teams who don’t have much film on other players who may have popped up recently, they can’t go wrong picking two high schoolers who can play up the middle and really well defensively. I project Howard, once a star of the Little League World Series, to put up several seasons of at least 3 WAR and for Crow-Armstrong to do the same. They will have high averages and have been in the spotlight longer than almost every high schooler, carrying themselves really well. Howard does not remind me of Tim Anderson like he does with others but another (former) White Sox might serve as a comparison for him: Alexei Ramirez. Pete is similar in style to Nick Markakis, one of the most underrated players of his era. It’s possible the two won’t excite fans with their selections but those savvy with the draft know to value the intangibles like leadership they bring to the table.

 

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