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2019 MLB Draft: Angels Needs & Opportunities

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Let’s explore the Big Board to examine the potential spoils of Monday’s Draft

What’s on this man’s mind this weekend?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We’re two days from Day One of the 2019 MLB Draft, and it’s time to take a closer look at the state of the Big Board. On Monday, we’ll update it one last time to reflect recent movement and new media intelligence, and then explore a few possible draft day strategies for the first few picks. Today, however, we’ll look at the names from that Board that may be available when the Angels select with their first pick at #15.

While most teams “don’t draft from need” – meaning they don’t draft to specifically fill gaps at the higher levels of their farm systems – there are nonetheless some tendencies on the Angels farm to be aware of.

Setting aside Jo Adell, currently rehabbing with the 66ers in San Bernardino, most of the talent in the system is clustered at the top and bottom of the pipeline, with a lot of organizational filler between Burlington A-ball and Mobile AA. The talent on an MLB trajectory (Adell, Marsh, Adams, Knowles) is typically in the outfield, while there is a marked deficit of impact infielders, and a serious lack of over-the-fence power across the entire system. Unless you’re wishing on someone like Jeremiah Jackson, who has not made an appearance at Burlington once this season, and is undergoing swing adjustments in Extended Spring Training, it’s hard to find anyone on the infield corners who might come up and offer 20+ HR power over the next 3-5 years. Infield power is a need it would be good to address soon.

Meanwhile, though the team over-indexed on pitching in the 2018 draft (after Jordyn Adams and Jeremiah Jackson, the next 11 selections were pitchers, mostly RHPs and college-level), recent draftees look more likely to fill bullpen roles, or play Felix Peña-like “primary pitcher” roles at the backend of the Angels rotation in the era of the “opener”. The Angels farm lacks many of the two pitcher types that tend to become frontend or mid-rotation starters: advanced college arms with some polish (think Canning or Jered Weaver), or young prep or junior college hurlers with good velocity and a couple promising secondary pitches (think Adenhart or Richards/Lackey in the JuCo case). Chris Rodriguez would be one of the latter, but he’s on the shelf for a second season after back surgery. Joe Gatto, a second-rounder from the generally successful 2014 draft, is now being promisingly converted to reliever in AA Mobile (he’s still only 23!).

So the Angels could really use some starter-caliber pitching and infield power to wish on from this year’s draft. If they were to follow recent form, and aim for projection and athleticism, there’s always someone like Corbin Carroll, a LH high school outfielder with few holes in his game. That’s the Adell/Adams approach, and Carroll would have been an even better target this year than Adams last year, given how much advanced college pitching (#2 Brady Singer!) that the Angels passed up last draft.

But I’d be seriously surprised if the Angels take the Adell/Adams route this year. So I’m going to chart a middle path here and explore possible names in the first round that offer impact talent but who also may satisfy existing needs in the system. The focus will be on pitchers that have at least mid-rotation potential, and infielders with some raw or in-game power that may develop over the next few years.

Here’s what I see.

(Numbers in parenthesis indicated rank on the current Big Board as of 5/31.)

High-ceiling prep pitchers

Candidates: Matthew Allan (17), Quinn Priester (18), Brennan Malone (19), Daniel Espino (26)

Dark horses: J.J. Goss (28), Jack Leiter (30), Blake Walston (40)

The dominant theme of much pre-draft analysis is that this is the year that the Angels will depart from the recent script of taking toolsy young athletes in the top two rounds, and instead turn to the best of the high school pitching class – young arms with high velocity that are projectable as potential frontline starters. To say that this would be unusual is to say Arturo Moreno likes billboards – a gem of Midwestern understatement.

In fact, the last time the Angels selected a high school pitcher with their initial first round pick was Joe Torres in the year 2000. In six years in the Angels’ org, Torres never made it higher than high-A ball. Basically, you have to go all the way back to the 1970s and Frank Tanana to find a first rounder the Angels drafted as a prep pitcher who had a major impact on the franchise. It’s just not in the organizational DNA. When the Angels pick up prep arms, it’s usually in supplemental rounds (think Skaggs) when they have extra picks, or in rounds 2-5, when they want to spread some risk (and cash) around to complement their first picks.

But this year, the high-ceiling impact hitters will be scooped up with the first ten picks, and the college pitching class is historically weak. But the five or so top prep arms would be potential first rounders in any class, and a few have some polish that suggests they might move reasonably quickly through a system (where “quickly” still means 3-4 years of development, arriving at age 21-22).

Among the top four names above – Matthew Allan, Brennan Malone, Quinn Priester, Daniel Espino – it’s rather subjective in determining who is best. I think it’s generally accepted that Espino has the best stuff, with a fastball that is typically in the upper 90s and has been clocked in triple digits, but at an undersized 6’, he also presents the most profile risk historically – so much so that Baseball America dedicated an entire article detailing the flameout tendency of this type. He has tantalizing stuff, but he’s a boom-or-bust prospect to be sure. Priester’s calling card is his athleticism and baseball IQ (he’s Gen Z all the way, having taught himself grips and delivery via Youtube videos). He has an upper-90s FB and a sharp 12-to-6 breaker that is highly effective. He has a lot of helium at the moment.

That said, I think Allan and Malone are arguably the most well-rounded, even “safe”, prospects here – to the degree that any high school arm can be be safe. While Espino has the undisputed best fastball in the class, Malone and Allen are #2 and #3 per Baseball America, and Allan has the best breaker, a wipeout 12-6 curve that high schoolers just have not been able to touch. Both kids have clean, repeatable deliveries from projectable pitcher’s frames – 6’4” and 6’3” respectively. I like both prospects, though something steers me to Brennan Malone, with a four-pitch mix in which each offering is average or better, with a legitimately plus fastball and slider. He has a lot of tools, with polish and projection, which is a lot to ask of an 18 year-old.

Goss projects well and has exhibited good strike throwing ability, only falling outside the top tier due to a bit lower fastball velocity and the fact he’s only begun to gain weight an fill out his 6’3” frame in the way scouts project him to. Leiter and Walston are both very well-regarded, but are said to have signability issues, with large bonus demands to pry them away from their college commitments.

Advanced college arms

Candidates: Nick Lodolo (7), Alek Manoah (9), Jackson Rutledge (11), Zack Thompson (13), George Kirby (18)

Dark horses: Ryan Garcia (91), Hunter Brown (96)

The last time the Angels selected at #15, they caught a college pitcher who was sliding down the board in Sean Newcomb. That worked out pretty well, as he became the centerpiece in the Andrelton Simmons trade, and subsequently made it to the MLB within three years, and has delivered a sub-4 ERA over 63 appearances since then. Just what you might want from a mid-rotation asset selected in the middle of the first round. Great value.

Despite the Angels being associated with the prep pitching class in recent mocks, there’s still a fair bit of chatter that, in an optimal scenario, they’d repeat 2014 and grab one of the top five college arms, depending on who is available mid-round. In most mocks, the first six picks are tagged for the strong hitting class in this year’s draft, and then there is a run on college pitchers beginning at slot #7 with Nick Lodolo. It’s entirely possible that all five get scooped in slots 7-14. But there may be situations where a Zack Thompson and/or George Kirby makes it to slot fifteen, and in that instance, the Angels could be ready to pounce.

It’s been said many times that this is the weakest college crop that scouts have seen since Y2K. Some of the names above might be late first-rounders or supplemental round picks in a typical year, but in a weak class, these five have set themselves apart as the first tier. I’m a little surprised, frankly, that Nick Lodolo is the consensus #1 – he’s a solid lefty with a three-pitch mix and a long track record starting, but no weapon really stands out, and most of his success as a starter at TCU has come in the past season. He’s likely to move fast within an organization, but he’s a mid-rotation guy, and his draft position is a clear acknowledgement of the relative weakness of this draft class.

The excitement here is with Manoah and Rutledge, two big boys (6’6” and 6’8”) with power fastballs and the reliever risk that comes with tall, big-bodied hurlers with big stuff. I like both a lot, Rutledge especially, as he reminds me of the last time we took a tall, Texas JuCo pitcher in John Lackey and rode him to a Game 7 win. (Lackey, of course, never had the explosive fastball that Rutledge does, but bear with me.) But Manoah and Rutledge are rightly coveted by a number of teams selecting ahead of the Angels, so it would be sheer luck if they fell.

More likely are Thompson and Kirby. Thompson is an advanced lefty with a plus fastball and slider, who would be likely to be a top ten guy on talent alone, but while he’s been healthy all season, he’s had shoulder and elbow issues in the past. He could move fast through the farm, but a risk of TJ might have him falling down boards on Monday. That leaves, George Kirby, a guy with few faults but who has sat in the teens and twenties in most draft mocks throughout spring, as he comes from a smaller school (Elon) and is a no-frills right-handed strike thrower without the loud tools of Manoah, Rutledge or some of the prepsters in the draft. But he has performed at every level, has the best command and control in this tier, and is arguably the safest name of any in this post. For that reason, he has helium right now, and I could see him being plucked away in the 10-14 region of picks. But if he makes it to the Angels, it’d be hard not to take him and hope for a Canning-like quick ascension to the rotation by 2021.

In the dark horse section, Hunter Brown is a name that has been mentioned with the Angels a couple times, as a small school outperformer with an improving FB, though I think he is likely a 2nd or 3rd round buy. Ryan Garcia, UCLA’s #1, was a guy we mentioned when we unveiled the Big Board, as he fell to the Angels at the #92 slot in round three. That, however, looks too optimistic now, as the MLB guys (Callis/Mayo) say he is suddenly moving up a lot of boards, given he finished the season very strong, and has a very good track record (as do UCLA starters generally). I think he gets drafted by the second round now.

Prep infielders with power

Candidates: Keoni Cavaco (23), Brett Baty (15), Gunnar Henderson (27)

Dark horses: Tyler Callihan (34), Rece Hinds (51), (Corbin Carroll (14))

This is now the Angels’ native territory. As mentioned above, Corbin Carroll (not an infielder) would be a natural fit in previous years, in the Marsh/Jones/Pearson model, but even more likely to become an everyday player at the highest level. Excellent strike zone judgment, athletic and defensively gifted guy who can play all over the field. My suspicion is that the Angels target this type in round two or three, with someone like Jerion Ealy being in sights – a more raw, multisport athlete who needs development, but has upper tier talent, if signable.

Instead, the name most often associated with the Angels here is Keoni Cavaco, someone who is shooting up boards, and may go in the teens whether the Halos take him or not. There’s a bit of see-what-you-want-to in Cavaco. He’s a 3B who can stick at the position, and a potential five-tool player on the one hand, with clear power projection, to go with speed and glovework that has already shown itself at the prep level. On the other hand, it’s hard to know if he’ll hit at all at upper levels, which leaves me anxious about another run at the Kaleb Cowart experience. There’s some boom-or-bust here, but the upside is what the Eppler gang likes, and I think he’s one of the more likely names (with Allen and Kirby) that the team might go with this week. Henderson is a similar gamble. Currently a shortstop, he may move to 3B in the future, and has some power projection and a bit of uncertainty with the hit tool. He occupied a similar place on many boards as Cavaco right now.

While I don’t think the Angels are in on either, the two names I like here the most are Brett Baty and Rece Hinds. These two guys have the biggest power in the prep draft class, hands down, though each has some defensive questions that will make them have to work to stick at 3b, and not slide to 1b eventually. Baty is an advanced hitter at every level, good strike zone assessment, excellent raw power. He’d be an unquestioned top ten pick if he were a draft-eligible sophomore. But he’s 19-and-a-half as a highschooler, and many analytically-oriented teams don’t like that, as their models show that this type of player has lower probability of making the big league. But it would be fun to test those models, given Baty’s current ability. Hinds, meanwhile, is a definite project in terms of his hit, glove and foot tools, but he already has 70-80 grade weapons with his power and his arm. He can hit baseballs a long way, and has excellent bat speed, but his pitch recognition is very inconsistent, and he gets fooled by offspeed stuff a lot. My dream draft would have Hinds falling to the Angels in the 2nd round, and see Eppler’s developmental gurus teach him to hit over the next couple years. (Bet the Yankees get him first!)

Dark horse “third baseman” Tyler Callihan has a Taylor Ward problem. He can hit, and hit for a little power, but he has no defensive home, and folks are trying to determine if they should convert him to catcher. Or 2B. Or OF. Well, we’ve seen this script before, but at least it’s coming early in his career. In the “what if” department, Kyren Paris is also a name that’s been heard with the Angels, but he’s more of a speed/glove guy that may have a utility profile in the future. Could be a disappointing outcome, and he’s hopefully a later round target, if there’s fire to that smoke.

College hitters with power

Candidates: Bryson Stott (10), Josh Jung (16), Logan Davidson (24), Kody Hoese (25)

Dark horses: Greg Jones (35), Brady McConnell (53)

Now we get into the more cumulus region of our hazy crystal ball, where “best player available” may mean some high-floor guys that are not the Angels’ typical profiles – though Matt Thaiss says hello! and well, who knows.

Stott is a college shortstop who has sat at #10 in many mocks for a long time, as he’s likely to stick at the position, and has at least average-plus tools across the board – enough to make him a high probability contributor, if not a star, at the highest level. I could see him sliding on draft day. Logan Davidson has a similar profile, but I actually like him more, even if he’s been ranked lower on many boards. He’s a defensively gifted switch hitter with some raw power, but a little more swing-and-miss, which has elevated his risk profile a bit above Stott. But I think the upside is higher in this otherwise safe pick.

The two more obvious fits among the Angels high-floor possibilities are third basemen Josh Jung and Kody Hoese. Both of these guys have outside chances to make it into the top 10 or 12 selections, as they have strong collegiate track records and can definitely hit. Both walked more than they struck out this season. Hoese came on with a lot of power in his junior year, with 23 HRs in 56 games, but that wasn’t in evidence in his first two years in college, so the track record is limited. His 3b defense is also sketchy, so you might be just buying the bat. Jung has a far more consistent record of hitting for average and some power, but most think he won’t get to that power often at the MLB level, and probably profiles as more of a 15-20 HR hitter, even as he is more likely to stick at the hot corner long term.

If the Angels are going to reach here, and there’s no miracle like Hunter Bishop falling into their laps, I’d probably reach for Hoese or Davidson, given the higher upside with both. Greg Jones and Brady McConnell are athletes and plus speed guys that are outside chances if the Angels continue to buy bodies over polished baseball players, and are hoping to shape them into what-have-you on a longer timeframe, as they learn to play baseball at multiple positions.

Verdict

This is an interesting draft cycle for me, as I don’t have an overriding selection that I’m wishing on. I’m open to a few names, and much depends on who is on the board when the Angels select. I suspect the team is in a similar spot.

In 2015, given atrocious draft position, my target was DJ Stewart, who Baltimore selected one pick ahead of the Angels. (He made it to the MLB club last season, and has put up a .255/.339/.490 slash since, showing some usefulness for the Orioles.) The club went with Ward, which looks better now than it did then, as most of the draft class that followed that pick has not distinguished itself, and in many sense, Ward has outperformed.

In 2016, my guys were Bryan Reynolds and Nolan Jones, but a promising pitcher in Dakota Hudson slipped to the Angels, and they let him slide right past in favor of Matt Thaiss. That was an unambiguous mistake – Reynolds has been killing it for Pittsburgh and is a RoY candidate, Jones is a top-100 prospect with outrageous plate discipline at the high-A level, and Hudson would be the #2 or 3 starter in the Angels rotation right now.

In 2017, believe it or not, Adell and Canning were at the top of my list, and it was a rare year that the Angels’ approach dovetailed perfectly with my own (2014 was another year where I agreed strongly with the early selections), and the team was very fortunate to have those players both available in rounds one and two.

In 2018, exactly like this year, I was keen for advanced pitching and infield power. My jaw dropped when Brady Singer, a consensus top-five talent, and Nolan Gorman, a top-ten bat, were still available at slot 17 when the Angels chose. It would have been agonizing for me to choose between those two, but that’s what boards and “BPA” are for. Given the state of my own board, I would have gone for even Shane McClanahan, Ryan Rolison or Jackson Kowar before Adams – I had five players total ahead of him – but the Angels went their way. Jordyn Adams’ bat has begun to heat up in Burlington, and he’s probably a prospect in the end, but there’s no question to my mind that Singer and Gorman were the better picks last season.

This Monday, though? I’m open. If pushed to choose, I hope one of the college five makes it to pick 15, and then maybe Kirby is my guy. If not, I would probably spin the roulette wheel on prepsters Monroe or Allan. If the Angels reach for athleticism with Cavaco, or risk it all with Espino, I’ll say, ok, let’s see it play out. And if the Angels want to reach a little and gamble on upside, let’s see them gamble on power with Baty, Hinds or Hoese leading the pack.

Just don’t give me a defensive catcher, boys. I hear there’s a Dollar Store discount sale in Sycamore Plaza on glove-first receivers next week!