Previewing the MLB draft conference-by-conference
We blinked, and suddenly the MLB draft is just weeks away. As we’ve done in previous years, this year we’ll be previewing some names of college baseball players you might hear called on draft day(s), conference-by-conference. We’re starting at the top, with the SEC, home to some of this year’s most prominent first-round talent, like Vanderbilt outfielder J.J. Bleday, Missouri OF Kameron Misner, and Texas A&M SS Braden Shewmake. For each of those prominent first-rounders, we’ll also offer a brief assessment on whether or not they’ll be available at spot 20, where the Mariners pick, and if we think that’s a direction the team might go. Even beyond the big names, however, the SEC is stacked with talent, with several teams boasting five or more draftable players. (Stick with us through these early slogs; as the level of conference play drops off, the writeups will get shorter, we promise.)
Although he trails the Commodores leading hitter by nearly 100 points in batting average, there’s little arguing that OF J.J. Bleday has been the starting offensive player for a Vanderbilt squad that’s been routinely featured near the top of the NCAA rankings in 2019. The left-handed (hitting and throwing) 21-year-old was selected by scouts as the top prospect in the prestigious Cape Cod League last summer after he slashed .311/.374/.500 with 5 HR, 13 BB, 20 SO. Through 48 games for Vandy this season, he’s slugged a single-season school record 23 home runs while slashing .349/.464/.780 and running a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 40:41. He was selected with the #5 pick in the Lookout Landing 2019 Mock Draft, and MLB.com’s Prospect Pipeline recently pegged him as the #4 selection, going to Miami. Also contributing to the vaunted Vanderbilt offense has been Bellevue, WA native SS Ethan Paul. The 22-year-old middle infielder swings it from the left side and has posted a career-best .339 average on the season and is also hitting for a bit more power as he’s also set a new personal high with a .526 slugging percentage. He’s been a lot more walk than strikeout throughout his collegiate career, but was impressive in Cape Cod League action in 2017, when he slashed .304/.437/.437 and swatted four dingers while nearly doubling his walk rate. Second-year C Philip Clarke has a chance to get drafted as a bat-first backstop, after slashing .326/.404/.505 with 6 HR and 53 RBI, although it wouldn’t be a huge shock to see him return for his junior season in an attempt to improve his draft stock for 2020. Senior OF Stephen Scott, who was drafted by Miami in the 31st round last June, should hear his name called once again despite having a slightly down season by his standards. His slash line (.312/.435/.506) and rate stats (15.2% BB%, 20.6% SO%) look a bit better this year than last, but he’s poked just six homers in 46 games after going deep 15 times in 53 games last season. Draft-eligible sophomore OF Pat DeMarco has only improved on a freshman year where he was named an All-American after winning Georgia Player of the Year in high school, but he may choose to stay a Vandy Boy and watch his draft stock continue to skyrocket.
On the pitching side, RHP Patrick Raby likely stands the best chance to be selected in next month’s draft following a senior season in which he’s gone 8-1 with a 2.51 ERA through 61.1 IP. He’s struggled with walks this season, coughing up 4.9 BB/9, but a club might roll the dice on the 6’3” hurler based off his durability and Vanderbilt’s storied past in producing talent. 6’5” righty Drake Fellows has 94 Ks in 79 IP and is 10-0 as a starter, best in the nation; he has a low-90s fastball, an at-times-unhittable slider, a changeup, and recently added a splitter to his arsenal.
It’s been a breakout season at the plate for INF Aaron Schunk, who doubles as a relief pitcher for the Bulldogs. After OPSing .751 last season, he’s slashed .339/.367/.556 at swatted nine homers in this his junior season. One knock on him is that his power evaporated during his 29 game stint in the Cape Cod League last summer as he slashed just .287/.338/.336. Assisting Schunk in manning the Georgia infield over at second base is senior INF LJ Talley. He too has enjoyed a breakout this season, slashing .335/.450/.510 while for the first time walking more than he’s struck out. SS Cam Shepherd hasn’t recaptured the brilliant start that earned him Freshman All-American honors and an invite to Team USA, but he’s still a solid defender with gap-to-gap power and has gotten hot at the right time.
A pair of Bulldog outfielders have been playing their way into draft discussions as well. OF Riley King, a draft-eligible sophomore, has primarily manned right field this year and has seriously impressed after playing very sparingly prior to 2019. He’s hit for both average and power while demonstrating a patient approach. We’ve also seen an interesting skillset from OF Tucker Maxwell, a lefty-lefty center fielder with the potential to develop into a perennial 20-20 threat. He’s got more swing-and-miss to his game than you’d like, but leads the team in both home runs (10) and stolen bases (19).
In his first year as a full-time starting pitcher, RHP Tony Locey has stepped up his game, posting an ERA of 2.63 through 12 starts and limiting the opposition to a .157 average, although he’s struggled mightily with walks, posting 5.0 BB/9. RHP Tim Elliott is a midweek starter for the Bulldogs, but he’s been effective, with a four-pitch mix including a low-90s fastball, a curveball, a slider, and a new-and-improved changeup.
There’s a good chance OF Kameron Misner is available at 20, as some strikeout issues have hurt his draft stock, but OF is one area of depth in the system, and Misner doesn’t seem compelling enough to warrant choosing him over other names that might be available. LHP T.J. Sikkema is following up a strong season on the Cape with a dominant junior year in which he’s struck out 91 batters in 79.2 innings. FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel had Sikkema pegged for rounds 5-7 back in March, but current evaluations have him closer to the second round, where he may be available when the Mariners pick at 57. The Mariners like Missouri pitchers, too; former Mariner Michael Plassmeyer and current AA pitcher Reggie McClain both came out of Missou’s analytics-friendly program.
Leading the Volunteers with 14 home runs while manning the hot corner, INF Andre Lipcius has slashed .296/.396/.583 through 52 games. His performance held up during play on the Cape as well, where he slashed .313/.391/.456 and poked four homers. RHP Garrett Stallings has been a workhorse for Tennessee, logging 83.1 innings. He’s walked only 13 hitters all season and has posted a 3.46 ERA and 1.24 WHIP during 2019, but was impressive last summer during Cape Cod League play, posting a 2.50 ERA and 1.00 WHIP through three starts. RHP Zach Linginfelter was drafted last year in the 19th round but chose to return to Tennessee for his junior year; he earned SEC Pitcher of the Week honors in late March but has struggled with inconsistency this season despite a strong 93-95 mph fastball. Righty reliever Andrew Schultz has triple-digit heat; in 20 innings he’s punched out 34 batters while walking 13. A slight fellow at 6’4”/195, Schultz throws with a whippy arm action that’s reminiscent of Edwin Diaz.
It’s Friday and you know what that means…
— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) May 3, 2019
Following three pretty average seasons for the Gators, OF Nelson Maldonado has blown up as a 22-year-old senior, slashing .350/.411/.611 and homering 10 times. He’s a bit undersized at 5’10” 190, but he makes up for it by using his whole body in his swing.
RHP Tyler Dyson follows in a strong tradition of power Florida arms (Mariners prospect Sam Carlson was committed to Florida before Seattle nabbed him in the second round in 2017). He had some shoulder issues last season, although he was able to pitch well on the Cape last summer, and those issues seem to have followed him into this season. His fastball still has plus mid-90s velocity, but it’s flat and hittable, and he’s failed to regain the sharp slider and crisp changeup that had him projected as a Day One selection, and lost his spot in Florida’s rotation. He still has upside as a bullpen arm, but it’s far from the lofty ceiling projected for him last season. SS Brady McConnell was limited last year by a season-long injury, but has rebounded this year to hit .365 with double-digit home runs. The 6’3” righty was highly regarded coming out of high school for high upside on both sides of the ball, but opted to turn down the Reds when they drafted him in the 33rd round in order to be a Gator. He’s a draft-eligible sophomore and if a team doesn’t take him highly enough, might opt for another year in Gainesville to continue bulking up his resume. Junior OF Wil Dalton had a slow start to the season but heated up down the stretch; he has some big potential power. Fellow OF Austin Langworthy is also hitting well, but his power is down from last season.
The true standout on a middle-of-the-road Wildcats team has been LHP Zack Thompson. Ranked as the #15 draft prospect per MLB.com’s Prospect Pipeline, the 6’3” hurler should become the highest drafted pitcher in University of Kentucky history. This season, he’s racked up 121 strikeouts and posted a 2.14 ERA and 1.00 WHIP while making 13 starts. His arsenal consists of a fastball he can run up to 96mph as well as a low-80’s slider and curveball that both produce solid spin rates, in addition to a decent change-up.
Senior OF Ryan Shinn has found success in his second year at Kentucky after beginning his collegiate career at Florida Gulf Coast and transferring to a junior college before joining the Wildcats last season. Through 51 games he’s the club leader in slugging with a .597 slugging percentage as well as 13 home runs. He’s had very little luck during play with wooden bats, which could significantly affect his draft stock.
Catcher Luke Berryhill has hit double-digit home runs,but as a redshirt sophomore JC transfer in his first year at South Carolina, might want to stay a Gamecock a while longer. OF TJ Hopkins has battled injuries over his career, including a nagging back injury that caused teams to lowball him as a late-round signee in last year’s draft. Hopkins opted to return for his senior season, and, finally healthy, he’s hit double digit HRs for the first time in his career.
RHP Isaiah Campbell is a self-described “data nerd” who wanted to pursue a degree in biochemistry before realizing the difficulty of managing that major with a baseball schedule. He settled for criminal justice instead, with the hope of one day being a forensic scientist. Data nerds tend to do well in Seattle’s organization, especially those with 33:3 K:BB ratios who can throw mid-90s with a four-pitch mix. Matt Cronin is a 6’2” lefty who works exclusively out of the Razorbacks’ bullpen but should be a quickly-moving arm; he struck out 59 batters in just 25 games last season, and is on pace to put up similar numbers this year. He’s a two-pitch reliever with a mid-90s fastball and a nasty curve. OF Dominic Fletcher, the younger brother of the Angels’ David Fletcher, is Baseball America’s sixth-best college outfielder. He’s got more pop than expected out of a 5’10” frame, but has below-average speed, and there are questions about his ability to hit at the next level. Righty reliever Jacob Kostyshock has a microscopic ERA and is up to the mid-90s with a nasty slider this year. INF Jack Kenley has come seemingly out of nowhere to slash .342/458/.658 after slashing .222/.389/.259 last season and has only struck out four times in 47 PAs. Sounds like the kind of pop-up prospect the Mariners went for in last year’s draft.
OF Jake Mangum was drafted as an eligible sophomore in the 30th round by the Yankees but chose to return to school; he’ll undoubtedly go much higher than that, after he carried a strong summer on the Cape into an electric junior year. D1 baseball ranks him as their third-best college outfielder, but most other outlets have him lower than that; he’ll most likely go in the supplemental or second round. Mangum, who now owns the record for most career hits for an SEC player, is the quintessential toolsy outfielder; he’s above-average in center and should stick there, with speed and a strong arm, and he hits for contact as a switch-hitter, although his aggressive approach at the plate might not translate well to pro pitching. LHP Ethan Small is a redshirt junior who recently won his first SEC Pitcher of the Week honors as he’s shrunk his ERA down to 1.85 this season, striking out 122 batters in just 73 IP while walking just 18. His velocity isn’t anything to write home about, but he’s deceptive and polished, and would be a great value if he’s around when the Mariners have their competitive balance pick.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 4, 2019
RHP “Night Night” Colby White is sub-six feet but manages to coax near triple-digits out of his frame thanks to a maniacal dedication to health and fitness. He’s fanned 39 batters in just 21 innings while walking just five, and has added a fading changeup to make his arsenal even nastier.
Thomas Dillard was on a path to play SEC football before a freak injury suffered on the football field sent him baseball’s way. A true switch-hitting OF who also plays backup catcher, Dillard’s numbers haven’t been as strong this year as they were last year, with his strikeouts up and his slugging down some, and an ill-timed slump has probably stung his draft stock some. Senior superutility two-way player Ryan Olenek could make an intriguing senior sign; he was drafted in the 17th round by the Giants last year but opted to return to school. RHP Will Ethridge pitched out of the bullpen last season but has been a steadying force in the Ole Miss rotation this year; he has strong K-BB numbers as a result of working in more of his secondary pitches (curve and change) rather than just his fastball-slider. Catcher Cooper Johnson is the kind of pop-up prospect the Mariners drafted heavily last year; despite a poor showing on the Cape last summer, he’s added fifty points to his slash line across the board this season and recently took home SEC Player of the Week honors. He’s also a strong defensive catcher, and gets high marks for leadership. Grae Kessinger is BA’s 15th-best college shortstop and grandson of All-Star Don Kessinger. He has plus range and the ability to stick at the position at the next level, and is working on a 40-game on-base streak at the time of this writing. In fact, Kessinger has been one of the best hitters in the SEC, if not college baseball, this season, slashing .350/.450/.500 with more walks than strikeouts; his lack of a track record with the wood bat is probably what’s holding him back some, as he didn’t appear in the CCBL in 2017 despite being invited, and in his first game in 2018, was involved in a collision that required surgery on both his thumbs. He also has a pretty fantastic twitter handle (@swagulater15; his dad is @studulaters), and is close with the Bishop family.
From his back. #SCTop10
— Ole Miss Baseball (@OleMissBSB) May 12, 2019
RHP Zack Hess was a star in LSU’s World Series run as a freshman, but an attempt to transition him into the starting rotation has failed badly and he’s only a shadow of his former dominant self. 6’5”/230 RHP Todd Peterson has stolen some of Hess’s thunder as the next great reliever out of the Tigers’ ‘pen; he’s reportedly been up to the high 90s this year, paired with a nasty curveball, although he can struggle with command. Zac Watson is BA’s 7th-best college outfielder, and is choosing a good time to post his best season of his collegiate career. He’s a plus defender in center, and has some pop in his bat. Shortstop Josh Smith, who is a real! pain! to! google!, is a contact monster who is more pest than pop, but with a slight swing adjustment on his fairly flat swing might be able to harness a Braden Bishop-like transformation. Like Bishop, Smith also brings above-average defense at a premium position; also similarly to Bishop, he receives high marks for character, leadership, and work ethic.
Hard to tell, but that’s Josh Smith taking extra throws right now.
So far he’s taken 23… and he just started. pic.twitter.com/jay7sO88Hk
— Ashley Liotus (@AshleyLiotus) May 8, 2019
SS Braden Shewmake is the top Aggies draft prospect and a top-five college shortstop in this year’s draft; there’s a chance the Mariners could snag him in the first round, although he’s not seen as someone who will stick at the position, which could be a problem if his bat doesn’t develop some more power. He’s got excellent contact skills, though, even if his swing is a bit unconventional. But with no true defensive home and questions about the bat, I’d be pretty disappointed if the Mariners took him at 20 over players I like more at the position (Smith, Kessinger, or even prep SS Nasim Nunez). Draft-eligible sophomore Kasey Kalich has been 92-95 as the closer for the Aggies and has 38 Ks to just 4 walks in 23 innings this season. John Doxakis is a 6’4” lefty who currently throws in the high 80s and might be a candidate for the Mariners’ gas camp as he possesses above, although it’s difficult to see him falling to the Mariners in the second round as he continues a strong junior campaign.
Texa A&M lefty John Doxakis jumped 24 spots in our latest draft rankings.
— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) April 24, 2019
Shortstop Will Holland hasn’t ever quite put it all together as a collegiate, with varying levels of offensive success, but he’s a good athlete and a solid shortstop and could be an intriguing project for a club that believes they can help him make an offensive adjustment to be more consistent. Quebecois Edouard Julien is a draft-eligible sophomore who hit the second-most home runs in the nation among freshman and is a natural 2B who learned 3B on the fly this year; he draws rave reviews for his work ethic. His numbers are down a tick this year, and it’s not hard to see him returning for another year to build up his draft stock if he’s not taken at a position he feels is commensurate with his talent. Davis Daniel was a draft-eligible sophomore last year who opted to return for his junior season and unfortunately had to have TJ surgery this spring, but a team could still take a chance on the hard-throwing reliever. Catcher Matt Scheffler (yes, he is cousins with Steve) is a Kirkland native who played two seasons at Pierce Community College before transferring to Auburn. He’s a plus defensive backstop recently named to the Buster Posey Award watch list, but shows a solid hit tool as well, along with plus plate discipline.
— Blake Logan (@theblakelogan) April 19, 2019