Far Too Many Scouting Notes on Prep Draft Prospects

I’ve been driving around Florida this spring, getting looks at a particularly loaded draft class. I also spent last week at the NHSI tournament run by USA baseball in Cary, NC. NHSI is always a solid event, with at least a half-dozen interesting draft prospects appearing over the four days, but this year featured the best crop in the history of the event. Of the 16 participating teams, almost every one had a potential top-five-round draftee to watch.

I already broke down the players I saw and buzz I heard after week one of the college season, and last Friday I reviewed the college players I saw last month. Now here’s all the notable prep players I saw last month, with video, notes on what I saw, and a preview of the area of the list they will rank when Eric and I release an updated draft list next week. Here are our preseason rankings.

Carter Stewart, RHP, Eau Gallie HS (FL), Mississippi State Commit

I wrote up Stewart and Denaburg’s first matchup in one of the pieces linked above, but they had another one a couple weeks later. The first matchup, which took place in front of a double-digit number of scouting directors, placed them both firmly in the middle of the first round, so it was unsurprising to find over 100 scouts and three general managers at this next game. Stewart opened it sitting 92-96 mph and was holding 92-94, hitting 95 mph in the fifth inning. His signature 80-83 mph curveball, with Seth Lugo-level spin rates, flashed the normal 65 or 70 on the 20-80 scale (go to 0:56 for the best one I got on video), and his changeup — which looks about average in warmups and may project above average with more use — wasn’t used in game. I counted 13 Ks for Stewart through 5.2 innings.

Stewart passes all the tests in terms of arm action, delivery, frame, and athleticism that scouts use to try to find the most projectable prep arms in terms of velocity and health. As you may guess with this high-octane stuff, the mechanics are somewhat aggressive, but there are no red flags here — and maybe not even any yellow ones. Combined with command that projects to average or a little above, the result is a truly rare package. There’s buzz now than Stewart could sneak into the top five picks and become the next elite right-hander taken with a premium selection.

Mason Denaburg, RHP, Merritt Island HS (FL), Florida Commit

Denaburg was no slouch in this game, either, also coming out of the gates sitting 92-96 mph and using his consistently plus 77-81 mph curveball liberally while also showing a mid-80s changeup that flashed average. I counted 12 Ks for Denaburg through 5.2 innings. Denaburg is a little less loose and projectable than Stewart and his curveball is more of a present plus without further projection, but it’s amazing how close these two pitchers are as prospects from high schools just 20 miles apart. Denaburg projected for the 10th-15th overall pick range until his velo slipped in two subsequent outings, and he was shut down last week with biceps tendonitis.

At this point, he probably still goes in the late first round if he doesn’t pitch again, and it looks like an injury with no long-term effects, but this is another situation to monitor as the draft approaches. We currently have nine prep pitchers in our top 30 and that is the sort who tend to slip on draft day, so there’s a lot of competition for those teams that are willing to pull the trigger on a prep arm in the first round.

Matthew Liberatore, LHP, Mountain Ridge HS (AZ), Arizona Commit

Liberatore set the scouting world ablaze when the preseason-projected top-10 pick was 93-97 mph with a plus curveball in his two-inning season debut. That possibly set expectations too high, as Liberatore has always been more of a smooth, projectable lefty who does everything above average than a fire-breather with present plus stuff. His stuff has backed off to expected levels each start since that debut, and he was very solid in the first inning at NHSI: he sat 93-95 mph on the fastball with a 55 to 60 curveball, a fringe slider (a new pitch he had added in the past week), and a 55 changeup. By the third inning, Liberatore was out of sync, having some trouble with strikes and working 89-91 with a curveball that flashed 55. He closed the game well, locating better and dominating prep hitters; his slider flashed solid average but nothing was plus at that point.

Liberatore is now essentially back where he was in the preseason: a solid fifth to 12th overall pick who’s above average at everything — and who might look particularly strong on some days — but who lacks the plus stuff a club typically wants with a top-10 pick. It appears that Stewart has slid past him to be the consensus top prep arm in the class, with more stuff and comparable projection/athleticism from the right side, but Liberatore still looks like he’ll go in the top dozen picks right now.

Cole Winn, RHP, Orange Lutheran HS (CA), Mississippi State Commit

Winn moved from Colorado to southern California in part to face better competition and be scouted more heavily; that move has paid off so far. Winn was more of a sandwich-round pick in the preseason whom scouts were saying before NHSI was firmly in the second half of the first round with his improved stuff this spring. Winn is 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds with limited remaining projection but plenty of present stuff, working 92-95 mph with occasional above-average life. He settled into 90-93 mph, while touching 94, later in my look.

His mid-70s curveball was a 55 to 60 pitch at times, his mid-80s slider was average to above, and while he didn’t throw many in-game changeups, it looks like it can be an average pitch. The command is there to start, and his curveball was a very high-spin pitch over the summer, so you can probably round up that future grade to a 60. Winn’s delivery is good and his arm is pretty clean, so he passes all the major tests to likely land somewhere in the 20s on draft day.

Connor Scott, CF, Plant HS (FL), Florida Commit

Scott draws easy and somewhat warranted comparisons to Astros prospect RF Kyle Tucker. Both were high-school teammates, both were committed to Florida, and both possess similar frames and almost identical swings. The big difference is that Scott is a 70 runner at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, while Tucker was more of a 45 runner at draft time. Scott is also a legitimate top-five-round prospect on the mound, with a low-90s fastball and three pitches grading average or better. The arm is unsurprisingly an asset in center field, where Scott has the instincts to be above average defensively. His long strides aren’t typical of someone with his speed. In the first clip of the above video, though, Scott posts a 4.1-second time rounding first base on a triple, which would be plus even if he were running in a straight line.

Scott has a frame and tool package for which scouts have trouble finding comparables, which is obviously a good sign — nor is he a tools goof with no feel. In light of all that, I’m actually a little confused as to why he isn’t getting more talk in the top 10 picks. Scouts I’ve asked don’t have a clear answer for me. Tucker went fifth overall in 2015, and Scott seems to be in the 10-15 range right now on the heels of a solid spring. It’s starting to look like this may be the player on whom I’m a little higher than the industry. I’m good with that.

Nolan Gorman, 3B, O’Connor HS (AZ), Arizona Commit

Gorman was some scouts’ favorite prep prospect over the summer. He showed 70 raw power from the left side, performed well in games, and — despite a thicker, powerful frame — exhibited quick enough feet to stick at third base. This spring, Gorman got a little bigger, though it isn’t bad weight, and his actions at third base along with his quickness have regressed a bit, though his arm is still above average. Most scouts just assume he’s a first baseman now since he’s not quick enough (roughly a 40 runner) to be average in a corner-outfield spot. At the least, it’s in the area of Braves prospect Austin Riley, where Gorman will have to work on staying trim and quick to stick at third. Even then, it may only be for part of his pro career.

More worrisome is that some scouts have seen Gorman struggle with spin this spring and wonder if the projection now is a 50 bat, 55-60 game, and a first-base fit, which is much closer to an average everyday player than what most thought over the summer. At NSHI, Gorman made solid line-drive contact the first three games and got a hold of a couple pitches with a double on day three. In a tough fourth game, however, he recorded three strikeouts, fooled on a few curveballs.

There’s a happy medium between the two camps I’ve described, but Gorman’s stock has fallen from a top-five-overall pick to more of an 8-15 fit. It sounds like there are a couple teams in the top 10 still taking long looks, so this one isn’t settled yet.

Brice Turang, SS, Santiago HS (CA), LSU Commit

Turang was hyped as a 1-1 candidate after he was the best player on the field at Tournament of Stars in the June following his sophomore year of high school — and rightfully so. He performed as well as anyone at the event — which was populated by players a year older than him — and Turang showed top tier tools: plus running with a plus arm, the ability to stick at short, raw power that projected to average or a little more, and an advanced feel for hard contact.

Last summer was expected by many to be Turang’s coronation as the presumptive No. 1 pick, but he was just okay, with too many booted balls at shortstop and defensive, opposite-field swings in games where he is obviously more talented than anyone on the field. This continued into the fall and this spring, with scouts wondering if they could draft a player in the top half of the first round not based on the last summer, but the summer before that. It was more of the same at NHSI, with Turang putting the ball in play reliably but not playing as well as he should.

On the last day of the event (which is the first clip in the above video), Turang got into a pitch, hit a triple, and scouts exhaled, hoping he was turning the corner. The next week, he hit a huge homer at the highly scouted Boras tournament in southern California. Turang will be one to monitor closely, because he will go in the top 10 picks if he can keep this momentum going, but the preponderance of evidence (and more than a few high-level scouts telling me at NHSI before that last swing) suggests his stock is more in the 12-25 range.

Alek Thomas, CF, Mount Carmel HS (IL), TCU Commit

Thomas is another guy who was at big summer events as a high-school underclassman, and he showed advanced feel for the game even then. He’s a plus runner with fringe raw power and arm strength, a line-drive approach, and good defensive instincts. He hit four or five balls hard at NHSI and I didn’t happen to see any of them (here’s one), but I’ve seen Thomas enough to know his game and saw enough to know it hadn’t changed much.

He isn’t the electrifying, projectable tooled-up prospect about whom fans get excited come draft time, but there’s lots of successful big leaguers with this profile and clubs like having some certainty with prep picks. Alek’s father is White Sox director of conditioning Allen Thomas and the pre-draft chatter is he’ll need a top-50-pick bonus to turn pro, but he’ll likely go in the 25-50 range.

Jordyn Adams, CF, Green Hope HS (NC), North Carolina Commit

Adams was a known prospect last summer, going to a few of the major events. He’s also known as an elite football recruit, committed to UNC as a wide receiver (where his father Deke is the defensive line coach), and the author of a viral dunk. I talked to someone who saw him a few weeks before NHSI and suggested Adams was a little off-balance at the plate and had experienced some trouble against high-80s pitching. This makes his breakout at NHSI even more eye-opening because Adams appeared to become a top-two-round prospect during this highly scouted event, with scouting directors lining up to watch him hit during his fourth game after many scouts didn’t even watch his first.

Adams ran multiple four-second-flat times (80 on the 20-80 scouting scale) on ground outs, showed current average raw power, a potential average arm, and above-average defensive ability. While the swing is a little noisy and he needs to steady his head earlier, he’s athletic enough with the bat control to make it work for now, with some notable names flying out of scout’s mouths to put him in context: a swing sorta like Kyle Lewis’s, twitchy athleticism that reminds one of Byron Buxton, physicality like Royce Lewis. To be clear, Adams isn’t currently the prospect any of those three were at draft time, but you can see why more traditional- and tools-focused clubs are getting excited. Adams also posted some triple-digit exit velos.

The buzz before NHSI is that Adams wasn’t really interested in baseball and that a team would have to throw at least $1 million around to get his attention, but he wasn’t close to that kind of player. Now there’s multiple teams that would consider paying twice that, so the odds are rising that Adams listens to the advice of Jeff Samardzija, Antwaan Randle-El, and others and tries baseball, even though his price hasn’t been set yet.

Joe Gray, Jr., CF, Hattiesburg HS (MS), Ole Miss Commit

Gray is another player who was identified early in his high-school career but who has stood out more for his athleticism and tools rather than his performance, as he’s swung wildly from solid to terrible from event to event. Scouts were happy to see that the good version of Gray came to NHSI, but he was also walked a number of times, so it wasn’t as complete of a look as we were hoping to see. He’s still a bit of an outfield tweener who didn’t get a ton of chance to show his speed and defensive ability, but he has an easy plus arm and some projection to his frame, so I assume he’ll end up in right field eventually.

The raw power is above average, the bat speed is plus, and Gray was showing better pitch recognition and adjustability to his swing for me in this look. You may not be positive how this will play out, but a chance for four average tools and a 6 or 7 arm with loose athletic actions is enough for player development to work with and have a solid chance to make an everyday player. Gray sounds like he’ll now go somewhere in the second round.

Triston Casas, 1B, American Heritage HS (FL), Miami Commit

Casas was a known name early in his high-school career when he was very old for his class, then he reclassified to the 2018 class where he has an average age (18.4) for prep players in the class. He’s always been a bigger kid with real power from the left side, and that’s still what he is. He’s given scouts some trouble this spring because he’s been pitched around so much in south Florida that some area scouts have seen a half-dozen games with just one or two swings per game. Casas is patient and works deep counts, which means lots of walks with high-school pitchers or a better chance he gets rung up on a bad call from a high-school umpire.

Casas posted huge exit velos this summer and has 70 or 80 raw power that will be an 80 in the future if it isn’t already. He plays third for his high-school team, but he’s a first base fit in pro ball and is a below-average runner. The hit tool is the question and, like I mentioned above, it’s been hard to get a long look this spring without going to all of his games. He was a little too opposite-field/top-spin oriented in BP, but his game mechanics are very solid from a power perspective and he was solid from a contact perspective this week in the 10 plate appearances I saw. Given that it’s a high school first baseman, his range starts around 20-25 overall and he’ll likely go off in the sandwich or second rounds, where it sounds like he’s signable.

Gunnar Hoglund, RHP, Fivay HS (FL), Ole Miss Commit

Hoglund was a solid name to monitor from last summer, sitting 88-91 mph with a soft curveball but a clean arm and projectable frame. That projection came quickly, as Hoglund hit 96 mph in a couple early starts and then all the scouting heat came rushing in. I saw him on a colder night working 90-93 mph, a tick or two below where he was the week before and week after I was there. He had consistent above-average life on the heater, and you could easily project his 76-80 mph curveball to above average as well.

He didn’t throw a changeup in the game, but it looked like it had average potential in warmups, and while the competition he faces in the spring isn’t that strong, Hoglund currently has an 87:0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His frame is near ideal at about 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, and his arm is a little late to catch up with his delivery but that’s more of a timing issue than a fatal flaw. Hoglund is a two-way threat with a smooth lefty swing and is a good student, so the signability is rumored to be in the seven figures to keep him from Ole Miss. That said, he’s now in the mix for the second round, where his price could be met.

Cole Henry, RHP, Florence HS (AL), LSU Commit

Henry got on the scouting radar years ago, getting into the low-90s as an underclassman, and has steadily improved. He has a solid frame with some projection and came out showing a solid three-pitch mix early on: a 91-93 mph sinker that had plus life at times, a solid-average changeup, and a curveball that flashed above average. The arm action and delivery both look reliever-ish, though that isn’t the clear negative it used to be given how relievers are valued these days, and it isn’t a slam-dunk projection. Henry is in the area where his price will dictate whether he turns pro or heads to LSU, but there’s third- to fifth-round talent here.

Cory Acton, 3B, American Heritage HS (FL), Florida Commit

Acton is more of a fourth- to fifth-round prospect who likely ends up going to Florida but is getting plenty of looks this spring while playing alongside Casas. He has advanced feel to hit, a long track record of making contact, sneaky power, about average speed, and the ability to play competent defense at a couple of spots. Most teams see him as a $200-500K bonus type player, but he’s already 19, so the clubs that will value his prep performance will knock him for being older. Since he’s old enough to be a draft eligible sophomore, two solid years in Gainesville would probably get him into the top three rounds and at least double that amount.

We hoped you liked reading Far Too Many Scouting Notes on Prep Draft Prospects by Kiley McDaniel!

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Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Interesting note on how Carter Stewart is now the top prep arm. What about Ethan Hankins? He was #3 on your list before, one slot ahead of Liberatore.

Also, that description of Connor Scott is ludicrously good. A guy with Tucker’s swing and who is likely plus in center field is what, a top 3 prospect? Do you really think this guy has a shot to hit like Tucker? What am I missing here?