With about half of the college season complete, let’s take a look at some of this year’s biggest storylines through the lens of the draft, which will be held July 17-19th. As we’ve indicated in the past, the plethora of high-ceiling college bats is the central theme of 2022, and the quantity and quality within this demographic should more than offset the Tommy John pandemic that has ravaged all the top arms in the class. In fact, it’s possible that as many as 10 college bats could disappear from the board before the first college arm is even selected.
Battle of the Backstops
What better place to start than behind the plate where All-Americans Kevin Parada from Georgia Tech and Daniel Susac from Arizona are asserting themselves as likely top-10 picks with banner seasons. Simply put, Parada, a draft eligible sophomore, is having a historic season with a slash line of .390/.476/.773 and an astounding 15 homers in just 33 games through Sunday. Equally as impressive is his 19/16 BB/K ratio, which speaks to his excellent plate discipline. While Susac—also a draft-eligible sophomore--has not displayed the same over-the-fence power as Parada, his .392/.444/.657 performance so far this spring is nearly as sterling, and his outstanding batted ball metrics have not gone unnoticed by pro scouts.
If there is a blemish on Parada and Susac’s record, it is the struggles they’ve had controlling the running game. Parada has thrown out just 17 percent of would-be base stealers, while Susac’s mark resides at 15 percent. A couple points on this: first, both backstops have received high marks from scouts for their other attributes, such as blocking errant pitches, receiving, and working with pitchers. Second, Parada and Susac’s catch-and-throw deficiencies won’t be as glaring in the pros as they would have been 20 years ago, as the running game in MLB has ground to a halt since the analytics movement took hold a generation ago.
When we published our Preseason Top 50 Prospects List right after the new year, we had four outfielders within the top 15, and that wasn’t counting LSU’s Jacob Berry, who’s seen extensive playing time in RF and Florida’s Jud Fabian (more on him later). Suffice to say, outfield remains the primary strength of this year’s college crop.
Though Chase DeLauter has rebounded extraordinarily well from a nightmarish opening weekend against Florida State, the guy currently in pole position is Virginia Tech CF Gavin Cross. Cross’ conventional stats pointed to a pedestrian season as recently as two weeks ago, but his top-flight batted ball data and minscule K-rate told a different story, and as if on cue he’s been on fire since. Even with an 0-for-4 on Sunday, Cross in his last eight games is 13/28 with 5 HR and just 2 Ks to 5 BBs. He’s also played a dynamite CF. Three months out, it’s hard to envision the Bristol, TN native falling out of the top-10 come July.
Another guy with a bead on a premier draft slot is DeLauter, who shook off a 3/14 start to his season (with 8 Ks) and is now slashing .437/.576/.828 with 8 dingers and 10 steals in 11 attempts. While the pitching DeLauter has faced in Colonial Conference play is nowhere near what he saw that first weekend against the Seminoles’ vaunted lefty trio of Parker Messick, Bryce Hubbart, and Ross Dunn, he’s displayed all the attributes scouts saw last summer when he established himself as the most complete hitter in the Cape Cod League. Additionally, scouts contacted by CBN have not voiced any concerns surrounding DeLauter’s unorthodox swing mechanics (he moves his back—left—foot in his swing follow-through) and universally believe he’ll be at worst a top-15 pick.
We assess that the broken foot DeLauter suffered this weekend will not materially hamper his draft stock. Although DeLauter will likely be out between three weeks and the remainder of the season, the 469 PAs he’s accumulated between JMU and summer ball (with a cumulative 24 homers and 1.156 OPS) has provided big league clubs with a sufficient sample size from which to base their analysis of the big slugger.
Consensus No. 1 team Tennessee has received extensive praise because of its championship caliber weekend rotation; however, Jordan Beck’s improvement has not been ignored by scouts. Beck, a prototype right fielder at 6-03/220, had a banner third weekend of the season at the Shriners Classic and hasn’t looked back. His K-rate is holding steady at a manageable sub-20 percent and his walks are ticking up. If he continues to show progress against SEC pitching, don’t be shocked if Beck goes in the top-20 after ranking 45 in CBN’s pre-season top 50. Beck’s muscular frame, power bat and bazooka arm have evoked multiple Hunter Renfroe comps.
Unfortunately, CBN’s highest-ranked outfielder coming into the season, Stanford’s Brock Jones, has seen his stock suffer considerably. We ranked Jones as the second overall college prospect back in December, but thanks to his .265 average, 3 homers, and 26 percent K-rate, Jones will likely not hear his name called in the 1st round and could fall out of the Day 1 conversation altogether. According to scouts, offspeed pitches have been Jones’ kryptonite—he’s frequently off balance with the slow stuff while exhibiting a propensity to swing over such offerings.
And then there’s Fabian
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. If all had gone to plan, Jud Fabian, after being selected in the top 5 of the 2021 draft, would have this week started his first full professional season in High A or Double-A en route to a seemingly inevitable big league promotion. But as Scottish poet Robert Burns once said, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” In Fabian’s case, it was last season’s 29 percent K-rate that threw a monkey wrench into his plans and caused him to fall to the 2nd round, where the Red Sox’ $2.1 million bonus offer was not enough to deter him from returning to Florida. To Fabian’s credit, he’s shown a remarkable improvement in his swing decisions by lowering his K-rate to 18 percent while retaining his plus power. He’s also hiked his BB-rate from 15 percent to 20 percent. Combine these trends with Fabian’s stellar CF defense, and you’ve got a guy who’ll almost assuredly hear his name called during Round 1.
Lighting it up in the Keystone
Cal Poly SS Brooks Lee and Texas Tech 2B Jace Jung are great bets to join Parada and Cross in this draft’s top 10. Lee has done nothing this year but enhance his resume, which was already spotless thanks to his .405 average in the Cape last summer. Not only does the switch-hitter boast a .413 mark this year with 25 XBHs in 33 games, but his 8 Ks in 155 PAs are good for a microscopic 5 percent K-rate. Though Lee’s chiseled 6-02/205 frame may preclude him from staying at the 6 long-term, his soft hands and strong arms would easily support a move to the hot corner.
Jung is another guy who didn’t miss a beat when the calendar turned to 2022. After achieving a 1.159 OPS in 2021, the powerful left-handed hitter has upped the ante to the tune of 1.265 this season. And if that’s not enough, he’s lowered his K-rate from 17 to 12 percent in the process.
Expecting the Unexpected
Every year, guys emerge out of nowhere to hoist their flag at the front of the draft, and this year is no different. A number of players on no one’s radar just several months ago are engulfed in helium and could very well be picked within the first several rounds.
Perhaps no player in America is rising as quickly as Virginia Tech C Cade Hunter. Hunter is an uber-athletic, left-handed hitting backstop who’s taken his offensive game to a whole new level. Some may point to his 11 HR and 1.333 OPS as a sign of things to come, but others may emphasize his 9 SBs in 10 attempts when describing just how much of a unicorn Hunter may turn out to be. Although Hunter still must iron out some inconsistencies in his pitch blocking and throwing, the tools are there for him to be an average defender as a pro. As such, it’s not a stretch, according to scouts, to imagine him as a 2nd rounder.
Mercer is off to a 27-5 record this year, and RF Colby Thomas is a big reason why. With 12 doubles and 14 HR, the Georgia native is flirting with a 1.300 OPS, and his batted ball data is among the best in the country. And if that isn’t enough, his 28/19 BB/K ratio is indicative of a hitter with an excellent grasp of the strike zone.
Illinois State CF Ryan Cermak is essentially a Midwest version of Thomas with slightly inferior bat-to-ball skills. At 6-1/205, Cermak looks the part, and he’s been a dynamo on both sides of the ball. He’s OPSing over 1.300 while playing a flawless CF and showing above average speed on the bases. With the Yankees’ 2021 selection of Eastern Illinois SS Trey Sweeney 20th overall, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Cermak (and Thomas, for that matter) gets popped before the conclusion of Round 3.