Welcome to Prospect Week 2020, FanGraphs’ annual pre-season spotlight on our sport’s future, and my annual opportunity to experience a dissociative fugue state.
The uninitiated will first want to read this primer on how I assign an overall grade to each prospect, and if you want to familiarize yourself with my process more thoroughly, you should pre-order Future Value, the book I co-wrote with baby-faced turncoat Kiley McDaniel, now of ESPN. In the span of a long weekend Kiley got engaged, joined ESPN, saw our book go to the printer, and did a SportsCenter hit wearing someone else’s tie. Congratulations to my friend, who worked until the clock struck midnight on his FanGraphs tenure, and to me, as I now get to do what I want without having to convince Kiley that it’s a good idea.
While the NCAA baseball season starts this weekend, 2020 draft looks have already been going on for nearly a month. The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend always features several important high school showcases, and junior college baseball begins shortly after that. Meanwhile, Division-I schools have been scrimmaging in front of scouts in preparation for Friday’s openers. Dope siphoned from these events is included in my 2020, 2021 and 2022 draft rankings, all of which have been updated for today and will be updated continuously between now and the draft. And in a brand new feature courtesy of Sean Dolinar, you can now see all three draft classes mushed together here.
There’s rarely a big, sweeping update of prospect rankings at this site. Like a sourdough starter, The Board is a living, breathing thing, and I often update it with notes in real time while I’m at the field. For draft coverage, that water wheel of info begins this weekend. For pro notes, the process will begin after all of the org lists have been published.
The Depth of Draft
The prevailing industry opinion is that the 2020 draft is deep, and while I don’t think that’s true of the very top tier of players at this moment, I agree that the totality of the group is very strong. The tier of talent that often wears thin toward the back of the first round (typically the intersection of the 45 FV and 40+ FV tiers here at FanGraphs) is more robust than usual, and stretches well into the second round of this year’s draft. Notably, scouts and executives on both the pro and amateur side are aware of this class’ strong reputation, and a premium has been placed on acquirable compensatory selections in the trade discussions that the pro side participates in. Four compensation picks have already changed hands since their allotment was announced in mid-December. (There are fewer of them available this year because none of the eight free agents who declined qualifying offers this offseason came from revenue sharing recipients, which means there are no comp picks immediately following the first round.)
And it isn’t just one or two of the four primary player groups (prep/college x hitters/pitchers) driving the depth, but rather an unusual confluence of all the groups. College pitching is poised to occupy a sizable chunk of the first round, including many of the top 10 to 15 picks. Of course, there have been years when that’s been true in February before ligaments tear, lat muscles strain, and stuff quality inexplicably evaporates during the season, causing guys to tumble down draft boards. C.J. Van Eyk had a forearm injury in high school, Emerson Hancock had a knee injury as a freshman and lat soreness in late-April/early-May of 2019, J.T. Ginn dealt with shoulder soreness during the 2019 postseason, Kevin Abel and Hugh Fisher have each had an arm surgery, Cade Cavalli had a stress reaction in his arm last year, Chris McMahon has had a knee surgery and dealt with a shoulder issue last year, Slade Cecconi had injury problems as a high school senior, and Carmen Mlodzinski has had a fractured foot. That’s half of the college arms on whom I currently have a 40+ FV or better. All of these players are healthy entering the year (knock on reinforced carbon fiber polymer), but there will almost certainly be some entropy.
The overall depth might push a lot of the exciting high school talent past where it’s signable at slot value. The number of teams that are both willing and able to be financially creative is always small, and it’s possible a lot of high schoolers with high price tags will end up going to school. That means three drafts from now, when that group of unsigned high schoolers is draft eligible again, we might have another very talent-rich year.
High School Outfielders
Opinions about how to line up the crowded group of high school outfielders vary. Austin Hendrick can rotate better than any hitter in this class and has the most present power among the high schoolers, but he’s also the oldest and had strikeout problems against good pitching last summer. The strikeouts he’s notched throughout showcases combined with tempting raw pop are both Jo Adell pre-draft parallels, though Adell was 18.2 when he was drafted and Hendrick will be 19. Robert Hassell is the most well-rounded of the group, which is odd because he also pitches. Dylan Crews’ hitting posture — his torso is tilted over the hitting zone, enabling his barrel to traverse the zone with natural lift — is reminiscent of Mike Trout’s. Crews is nearly as explosive as Hendrick and similarly undercooked. Pete Crow-Armstrong is the best defender but his summer was also bad, though scouts who saw him overseas with Team USA later last year thought he’d rebounded in a big way. Zac Veen, who I have atop the group right now, has the best combination of present feel to hit and power projection because of his frame, which is of the Cameron Maybin/Jayson Werth ilk.
A few players in the next tier of prep outfielders (NorCal center fielder Chase Davis, multi-sport center fielder Robby Ashford, human blur Enrique Bradfield, etc.) have a real chance to insert themselves into the above group. Physical and skill development can occur very rapidly as this age, so the way this group lines up a few months from now may look different.
What is so hypnotic about the University of Virginia that it’s causing young players to cede one of their (maybe) two chances to be paid well before they reach the majors? For years, highly-regarded high school prospects have, in essence, made themselves unavailable for selection after their senior season, either by withdrawing from draft eligibility or by pricing themselves out of selection with a bonus ask teams aren’t willing to meet, in order to be Cavaliers.
Many of these prospects have been pitchers, two high-profile examples of which have come in the last two years in right hander Mike Vasil, now a sophomore, and lefty Nate Savino, who graduated from high school early to enroll at Virginia last month. Savino had a shot to go in the first round this June, or could have been someone’s over-slot pick later than that, like Matthew Allan was for the Mets last year; if neither scenario materialized, he could have then matriculated to Charlottesville. Now he doesn’t have that option.
It’s possible that Savino will be a top 10 pick in three years. Teams’ past behavior has indicated they’re more confident picking college arms than they are high schoolers. But it’s not as if the University of Virginia is good at developing pitchers. Nathan Kirby, Nick Howard, Connor Jones, Danny Hultzen, and Branden Kline have all either gotten worse or had injury issues or stuff fluctuation, or some combination of the three. Only current Royals lefty Daniel Lynch, who was famously resistant to the coaches during his breakout junior year, got better during his time in college. Now former top 2021 high school prospect Nick Bitsko, a Pennsylvania righty and UVA commit, has reclassified as a 2020 with an eye on going to college a year early. While I can’t climb inside the mind of elite teenage athlete or his family, and while I acknowledge many things to be much more important than money — Virginia is a fine academic institution, Charlottesville has a cute downtown with lots of exposed brick, the Paramount Theater is gorgeous — I’m perplexed by the seemingly annual decision for one of them to punt on their senior season draft opportunity, let alone to do so to go to a school that is famously bad at developing pitchers.
Blaze Jordan in Context
Another player who reclassified as a 2020 prospect is Blaze Jordan, who has been famous since the fall of 2016 when he hit several balls way, way out of Globe Life Park. He will be the youngest player available in this year’s draft (a model-friendly trait), and he made lots of contact during the summer and does have big power, but I anticipate being lower on him than other reputable, public-facing draft rankings. I’m skeptical of amateur players whose bodies mature well before their peers’ and righty hitting first basemen, and Jordan is both. Hitters with his profile are not uncommon at the lowest levels of pro ball, and I don’t see much difference between someone like Jordan and prospects like Neyfy Castillo or Jhonkensy Noel, who most of you have never heard of.
Big Potential Hauls
Here are the teams with several early picks as the draft order currently stands:
Detroit (1, 38, 63, 75)
Baltimore (2, 30, 39, 76)
Miami (3, 40, 62, 77)
Kansas City (4, 32, 41, 78)
Seattle (6, 43, 65, 80)
Pittsburgh (7, 31, 44, 81)
San Diego (8, 34, 45, 82)
Colorado (9, 35, 46, 83)
Cincinnati (12, 48, 66, 86)
San Francisco (13, 49, 68, 69, 87)
New York Mets (19, 53, 70, 93)
St. Louis (21, 55, 64, 71, 95)
Washington (22, 56, 72, 96)
Cleveland (23, 36, 57, 97)
Tampa Bay (24, 37, 58, 98)
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.