Last June, the Chicago White Sox plucked outfielder Keenyn Walker from the junior college ranks with the 47th overall pick in the amateur draft. After seeing him in person late in the 2011 season, it became apparent the organization tried to have their cake and eat it too to some extent with the selection of Walker. How so? For a touch under $800,000 in signing bonus, Walker has tools better than players I’ve scouted who have received two to three times as much in signing bonus, but his baseball skills are on par with somewhat skillful teenagers seen at the level.
And while lottery tickets are found in every organization, the White Sox system is notoriously thin at present forcing one to wonder how prudent it is to select boom or bust prospects such as Keenyn Walker so early. Regardless of the answer which would make for a fine debate on draft philosophy while operating on a bare bones draft budget (hint, hint), it’s important to understand just how thin Kannapolis has been the past three seasons.
Between 2009 and 2011, The cream of Kannapolis prospects included pitcher Jacob Petricka, third baseman Juan Silverio, outfielder Trayce Thompson, shortstop Tyler Saladino and the aforementioned Walker. Yes, Outfielder Jared Mitchell, closer candidate Addison Reed and current Diamondbacks starter Daniel Hudson also appeared briefly in the “Sally”, but had come and gone by the time the team passed through my stomping grounds. Include the lot and it’s still not as impressive as what the Greenville Drive (A-level Boston Red Sox) rolled out in 2011 alone.
Back to Walker, his lead off triple to open the ballgame was breathtaking as he showed both the gap power and plus speed which led to his being drafted so highly. In terms of most exciting moments scouting players in 2011, this at bat ranked in the top-5 at worst. On a fastball middle-out, Walker drove the pitch into the right-centerfield gap which one-hopped the fence. Out of the box, Walker’s long strides appeared gazelle-like making top flight speed look easy. Rounding the bags, Walker maintained his stride and pulled into third base standing up. For me, truly premium athletes combine explosion with fluidity of movement and Walker had plenty of both to spare. After Blue Jays Anthony Gose, I’d be hard pressed to name a better pure athlete scouted in my three-plus years evaluating prospects.
Of course Walker’s athleticism is not in question – his baseball skill is. And as glorious as Walker’s triple was, the rest of his at bats paled in comparison highlighted by an above average run time to first base on a ground ball to the left side. In game action, it appeared as if Walker was actively working on pitch selection as he was overly passive at the plate leading to poor hitters counts in subsequent at bats. In flailing at a low off-speed pitch for a strikeout, Walker also may have provided a strong example of why his strikeout rate was phenomenally high at 35.6%.
In terms of hitting mechanics, his effortless bat speed was impressive, but his size and strength would likely play better a if he was more spread out and strong with his hands further back off of his ear. For me, his set up in the batter’s box led to my perceiving him as smaller and less powerful than he otherwise would have been. Also, limiting his movement by shortening his load would help with consistency.
Additionally, I was perplexed as to why he was playing right field as his offensive profile fits much better in an up-the-middle position. Yes, Trayce Thompson is a higher ranking prospect and the White Sox leaving him in centerfield until proving unable to man the position is the right decision, but a more even time split down the stretch may have benefited both. Walker was untested in game action, but the speed and stride length would play beautifully in center. My hope is that he returns to Kannapolis in 2012 while Thompson advances a level allowing both to play the most valuable position defensively.
In the end, any organization would be silly to not want a talent like Walker as exemplified by his being drafted on three separate occasions. However, as impressive as the 6-foot-2 Walker is from a physical standpoint, his floor is so low that it’s difficult to envision a surefire Major Leaguer at this time. However, a perfect development timeline would leave him an Austin Jackson-type with a decent amount of walks, plenty of strikeouts, a smattering of power and solid stolen base totals.