It was supposed to be different. Much different.
The Pirates with the first overall pick in the upcoming First Year Player Draft could have drafted and placed the young slugger with the light-tower power alongside rookie third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and shifted the rebuild into overdrive.
The Rangers at 1-02, with the new park that plays bigger than the old one, could have used his range to cover all that real estate in their spacious center field.
Then there are the Tigers, who would have liked nothing more than to grab him third overall and add him to a future lineup that would have included the likes of Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, and Dillon Dingler. But would he even still be on the board at 3?
It was supposed to be different for Jud Fabian. Much different.
As we move into May, Fabian’s third college season is at a crossroads. The Florida Gators’ center fielder entered the spring as the odds-on favorite to be the first college bat selected in the upcoming draft. But he started the 2021 campaign by going 1 for 13 with 7 strikeouts against Miami and never got back on track. In fact, during a March 26-28 series against South Carolina, Fabian went 0 for 13 with 11 whiffs and was said to be playing himself out of the 1st round altogether.
Fabian’s history is an interesting one. He matriculated at Florida a year early and played his entire freshman season at 18 in 2019. Although the numbers—.232/.353/.411—didn’t jump off the page, he made gradual progress during the course of that first spring and then starred for Bourne in the Cape Cod League by slashing .290/.350/.500 with 6 HR in 137 PAs. Fabian demonstrated further improvement during the abbreviated 2020 by posting a 1.010 OPS with 11 extra-base hits in just 81 PAs.
Despite Fabian’s immense talent and all the progress he’d made at UF, his one Achilles Heel remained his high strikeout totals—his composite K-rate as a collegiate (including his time on the Cape) has been a not-so-stellar 25.2 percent. Still, because of his youth (with a September 27, 2000 birthday, Fabian will be one of the youngest collegians in this year’s draft), quick bat, and the gains he’s already exhibited since arriving in Gainesville, many—this writer included—were confident that Fabian would be able to significantly reduce his whiffs in 2021. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case for the Ocala, FL native.
Fast forward to this weekend. Employing a new 2-strike approach that entails a wider base to prevent him from getting out on his front foot against outside sliders, Fabian displayed marked improvement in the contact department. In fact, entering this weekend’s series against Vanderbilt, he was 11 for his last 26 (including four walks) with six extra base hits and just five punchouts.
In the opening game against Kumar Rocker & Co., Fabian was a pedestrian 1-5 with a walk and sharp single off reliever Luke Murphy in the 6th inning. Though Fabian struck out swinging to end the game, the two strikes he took earlier in the at bat were borderline calls that could have easily gone in his favor.
Fabian shined on Saturday against possible 1-01 selection Jack Leiter. In the 1st inning he homered off a 94 MPH fastball, then for an encore took a Leiter slider downtown in the 3rd . What was so special about both of these at bats was that Fabian did his damage in two-strike counts, situations that had caused him so much trouble just several weeks earlier.
Later, in the 4th and 6th innings, Fabian provided additional proof of his recent progress by exhibiting excellent plate discipline and drawing two walks. In the 4th, he worked his way back from an 0-2 count against Leiter by taking close 2-2 and 3-2 heaters. In the 6th, facing southpaw reliever Hunter Owen, Fabian spit on 4 consecutive 92-94 MPH heaters to draw the BB.
Though Fabian K’d twice in Sunday’s rubber game, one thing became evident—he didn’t swing at a pitch out of the strike zone all weekend. While that still doesn’t fully mitigate his near 30-percent K-rate, it does speak to his pitch recognition skills.
The rest of Fabian’s game offers a lot to like. He plays a strong center field, taking excellent routes to the ball, especially those hit over his head. This was apparent in the 5th inning on Saturday when Fabian deftly tracked down a deep Dominic Keegan drive. Fabian on several occasions this weekend showed off an arm that is a potential “plus” tool in scouting parlance.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether Fabian’s new 2-strike operation will continue to pay dividends. If it does, it will help him salvage his draft status and remain a viable option for teams picking in the second half of the 1st round.
Even without the complete offensive package that had scouts and analysts drooling prior to the season, Fabian still resembles a player who will have a lengthy big league career. It’s just that instead of having production that will mirror the likes of George Springer, Mitch Haniger, AJ Pollock, and Ryan Braun (all frequent comps), he may instead follow the path of someone like Drew Stubbs (minus the steals). And that’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
As one would expect, the Gators are chock full of solid prospects who will get plucked in the early rounds both this year and next. Let’s talk about some of them:
Nathan Hickey is currently Florida’s catcher. Though he’s frequently comped with the Nationals Kyle Schwarber (i.e. a left-handed hitting college catcher with an impressive bat but no chance to stay at the position in the pros), I didn’t see the connection. Hickey isn’t nearly as physical as Schwarber was in college and doesn’t boast the same juice in his bat. That said, Hickey’s 36/26 BB/K ratio indicated a tremendous eye and his .592 slugging percentage is second on the team behind Fabian’s .607. Hickey will likely try his hand at 1B once he gets to the pros later this year, and he may ultimately gravitate towards full-time DH.
Kris Armstrong has more raw power than any other Gator. As we discussed earlier this week, the 6-04/235 powerplant hit a 108 MPH missile against Rocker on Friday and followed with several more line drives in excess of 110 MPH later in the weekend. One note of caution is Armstrong’s 31.5 percent K-rate. Still, we expect Armstrong to get drafted before Round 10 this July.
Colby Halter had a fabled amateur career before he even stepped on the field at Florida Ballpark, playing for the 18U National Team. Halter, who will be a draft eligible sophomore next year, has a well-developed hit tool and strong eye and is equally adept at 3B and 2B. He took some nice swings against tough Vanderbilt arms and appeared to have no problems catching up to premium velocity. In what will be a loaded 2022 draft class, Halter should be off the board in rounds 2-4.
Tommy Mace, Florida’s Saturday starter, put forth a yeoman’s effort against Vandy, tossing 118 pitches in 8 innings. Though Mace gave up six earned runs, he did not walk a Commodore and maintained the velocity on his fastball at 93-94 MPH for the duration of his outing. Mace’s game plan is simple—in addition to the cheddar, he goes with an 87-88 MPH cutter to lefthanded batters and a slider with similar velocity to righties. Mace turned down a seven-figure bonus to head back to Gainesville this season, and it’s very possible he’ll be off the board before the end of the 2nd round. Don’t be shocked if Mace’s future club turns him into a reliever and scraps one of his two secondary offerings. His stuff will likely play up in a bullpen role and he could eventually establish himself as a key 7th or 8th inning guy capable of missing bats in high leverage situations.
Jack Leftwich is another Florida arm who forewent riches in favor of spending another spring in northern Florida. He started this season as an anchor in Coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s weekend rotation but is now the closer. The new role suits him. Leftwich was especially effective closing out Sunday’s finale. He contributed 2.2 scoreless innings and fanned three Commodores. The big righty sat at 94-95 with his heater and showcased a sharp mid-80’s slider. Like Mace, Leftwich shouldn’t last until the 3rd round and could one day emerge as a vital weapon in a major league bullpen.