Blue Jays 2018 MLB Draft Preview

The 2018 MLB Draft kicks off tonight, with the Detroit Tigers presumably getting things started with Auburn right handed pitcher Casey Mize at 7:00 PM ET. Having lost no notable free agents last winter and evidently being excluded from consideration for MLB’s competitive balance picks, Toronto will make just one first round selection: 12th overall. The 12th overall pick has a slot value of 4.2 million USD, giving the Blue Jays the opportunity to land a premium talent. The Jays’ second round pick, 52nd overall, will come later, but the selections need to be considered in tandem. The Blue Jays have just over 5.5 million USD in slot money to play with in the first two rounds, and how it’s used could depend upon how the first 11 picks unfold. Toronto could try to go overslot on a high-end talent that’s sliding, or if they happen to like a guy more than the rest of the industry, cut a deal at twelve and land another considerable talent at 52.

This preview will give attention to the players the industry believes the Blue Jays have been targeting over the last few weeks. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have built a reputation for having a preference towards college prospects in the first round, but both Keith Law and the experts at FanGraphs believe their focus has shifted to the prep talent over the last few weeks. FanGraphs in particular has had the Blue Jays zeroing in on high school players in each of their three mock drafts to date.

With that being said, the preview is still going to consider each of the four classes of prospects — College Hitters, Prep Hitters, College Pitchers, and Prep Pitchers — and identify and briefly discuss the specific names in each group that have been bantered about.

College Hitters

OF Travis Swaggerty (South Alabama)

Once projected to go comfortably in the top ten picks — maybe even the top five — Swaggerty has seen his draft stock plummet this spring but many analysts consider the Blue Jays to be the floor of any possible slide at 12th overall. Undrafted out of high school, Swaggerty exploded onto the scene during his sophomore season at South Alabama, hitting .361/.487/.567. The performance has dipped in 2018 — to just .296/.455/.526 this year — which is a cause for concern given the middling competition in the Sun Belt Conference.

MLB Pipeline describes Swaggerty as an “on-base machine” with a leadoff profile, comparing him to Brett Gardner (minus the ghoulish facial features). Across his collegiate career, Swaggerty walked 143 times against 130 strikeouts. All of the prospect outlets referenced consider Swaggerty to be a future five-tool talent, with 50+ future grades across the board. His premium tool is his speed, grading out as a 60/65 current with no immediate projected decay in his athleticism. Swaggerty is draft-eligible as a junior, but is young for the class as he won’t turn 21 until August. Swaggerty is a consensus top-11 prospect.

OF Trevor Larnach (Oregon State)

Larnach has a ton of helium, climbing draft boards in a hurry after being largely overlooked to begin the season. This emergence can be directly tied to the newfound power the outfielder displayed this season. Larnach had just three home runs in 88 games for the Beavers as a freshman and sophomore, but cranked 17 as a junior to go with a .324/.447/.637 slash line. He has really started using his lower half well and has reportedly racked up exit velocities in excess of 115 miles per hour this season. Strangely, however, much of his power is to his opposite field, which raises questions as to whether it’s the sign of a mature approach or a potential inability to hit professional-level velocity.

Larnach doesn’t offer much defensively. He has played right field for Oregon State, where has has enough arm to get by, but the longterm expectation appears to be a move to left field. Keith Law labels him as a 30 runner already at 6’4, 205 lbs, and even the more optimistic MLB Pipeline only offers a 40 grade on his speed. FanGraphs is the highest on Larnach, ranking him as their 12th prospect, while Law is the lowest, at just 49th.

3B Jonathan India (Florida)

India was tied to the Blue Jays for the first time this morning, and it’s an interesting turn of events given that the third baseman has long been expected to go well before the Blue Jays take their turn at the podium. Playing for Florida in the hyper-competitive SEC, India was dominant as a junior to the tune of a .362/.502/.723 batting line with 17 home runs and even 11 stolen bases, to boot. He’s a semi-finalist (and one of the favorites) for the Golden Spikes Award as the top player in the NCAA.

India was a shortstop in high school and even played it some at the collegiate level. His longterm residence likely remains the hot corner, however, though the natural athleticism that made him a viable shortstop shines through as India is a true five-tool talent on the infield. The only blemish on his profile is that he’s something of a “jack of all trades, master of none” — zero of the five tools project to be legitimate pluses. India fills a role as a high floor, low ceiling talent who, as FanGraphs notes, could be worth 2-3 WAR annually. That’s not a star, sure, but it’s a valuable contributor.

Prep Hitters

OF Jarred Kelenic (Waukesha West HS, Wisconsin — Louisville commitment)

Similar to Swaggerty, the Blue Jays may represent the floor for Kelenic tonight. He’s been tied to the club by FanGraphs, Keith Law, and MLB Pipeline, and as a relatively polished player, he may be the best balance between upside and risk-aversion among prep talent. Kelenic will turn 19 in July and graduated high school this past winter. He has since been playing travel ball, which has given scouts the opportunity to see him against better competition than what he faced in Wisconsin.

There has been debate as to whether he profiles in center field long-term, but right field is an easy fallback option with an arm that has registered at 96 miles per hour (from the outfield). His arm and hit tools have both been graded as possessing 60 potential, with power, run, and field all average or better. Kelenic is also lauded for his strong work ethic and “fiery demeanor”. MLB Pipeline has compared him to a “more athletic Mark Kotsay”, and while that doesn’t sound the most appealing for a high first round pick, Kotsay was a .287/.342/.426 hitter with 95 home runs over nearly 5000 plate appearances from 1998 through 2005 (ages 22 to 29). That’ll play.

SS/2B Xavier Edwards (North Broward HS, Florida — Vanderbilt commitment)

Edwards has been linked to the Blue Jays, though it’s frequently been with the disclaimer that the club hopes to get him in the second round. If the club has truly fallen in love with him, however, he could potentially be in play at 12th overall for a well below slot deal. The number three middle-infield prospect in the draft (behind Nick Madrigal and Brice Turang), Edwards is a switch hitter with a contact-oriented swing. He slaps at the ball, under-utilizing his lower half, which has really held back his power but does allow him to maximize his best tool coming out of the box — his speed. MLB Pipeline grades the run tool as a 70 with both FanGraphs and Baseball America throwing legit 80’s on the tool; the latter clocked him at 3.9 seconds to first from the left side. Edwards could develop into a .280-ish true-talent hitter; a number that could play up further as a result of his speed and ability to beat out ground balls.

Edwards is described as having quick hands and feet, and loose, natural actions at shortstop. With that being said, his longterm defensive position is tied to his arm strength. The hope is that it develops into a 50 tool, but if it doesn’t, Edwards could be moved to second base or even center field where his top-of-the-scale speed would flourish.

OF Connor Scott (Plant HS, Florida — Florida commitment)

Scott continues the trend of first-round caliber outfield prospects with a five-tool profile: FanGraphs gives him 50-or-better future grades across the board. The best of those tools is his speed, which currently grades out as a 70. Scott is often compared to a fellow Plant HS alumnus, Astros prospect Kyle Tucker, but with more speed and a little less power. The two have comparable swing paths, athleticism, and physiques, and it’s hoped the power will develop similarly. Scott stands a tall and lanky 6’4/180 lbs, and has plenty of frame on which to add muscle. As a peculiar aside in the year 2018, he doesn’t use batting gloves.

It’s expected that Scott can handle center field as he transitions to the professional level, but could prosper in right field if not with an arm that was clocked at 93 miles per hour off the mound. FanGraphs notes that with a solid curveball to go along with that velocity, Scott has received top-five round consideration as a pitcher as well. The outfielder has dealt with a number of injuries this spring, including having his appendix removed, which has limited the number of looks teams have had. Like Edwards, one would expect the Jays to have a below slot deal in place if they take Scott at 12th overall, as he’s unanimously considered more of a mid-first talent.

C/IF Noah Naylor (St. Joan of Arc HS, Ontario — Texas A&M commitment)

Naylor has surpassed Tristan Pompey as the top draft-eligible Canadian this year. He’s been linked to the Blue Jays, but as Keith Law notes, that interest may be overstated solely due to the Canadian connection. At 12th overall the Blue Jays would be about the earliest he’s expected to go off the board, though he’s a legitimate first round talent. Interestingly, if the Jays did select him, he’d be taken in the same slot as his older brother three years ago. Despite their shared genes, Noah couldn’t be a less similar prospect to his brother Josh. The older Naylor, generously listed at 5’11/250 lbs, was a first base (*cough* designated hitter) prospect with prodigious power. Noah has a much more athletic build (6’0/195 lbs) and has a contact oriented swing.

Behind the dish Naylor has a plus arm but is otherwise raw defensively, with his receiving skills supposedly needing a lot of work. He’s played third base in showcase games as well as with the Canadian Junior National Team. Keith Law ranked him as his 14th overall prospect, admitting he’s probably higher than the industry, but that he sees an athletic hitter who can play a strong third or second base, with plus running speed and a plus arm. FanGraphs agrees, throwing a plus grade on his speed with 50-or-better future grades for his hit and power tools. Continuing the trend among the prep hitters linked to the Jays, one would expect a below slot deal at 12th overall.

College Pitchers

RHP Logan Gilbert (Stetson)

Gilbert was linked to the Blue Jays by only Keith Law, and this occurred back in mid-May. As previously noted, however, Law sees their interest shifting towards prep talent (or India) more recently. One has to hope that is indeed the case, as Gilbert would not be an inspiring selection at 12th overall despite elite numbers at Stetson. Gilbert began his career in the bullpen, but transitioned to the rotation as a sophomore and was the school’s number one starter as a junior. This season he pitched to a 10-1 record in 100.0 innings, striking out 143 and walking just 20. In total, Gilbert produced a dominant 2.52 ERA and 0.80 WHIP over his 14 games.

The concern with Gilbert relates to a sudden drop in velocity. The right hander sat in the mid-90s and touched 97 miles per hour last summer, but has pitched mostly at 89-92 this spring and even that velocity has been inconsistent. FanGraphs offered speculation from scouts that he’s dealing with a nagging injury that isn’t enough to sideline him but has him below 100%, and that the velocity could return in 2019. Gilbert has the ideal frame at 6’5/200 lbs with plus athleticism and good extension in a smooth delivery. He has a well-rounded arsenal with a curveball, slider, and changeup, and could advance quickly through the minor leagues. The issue, of course, is that if he can’t regain that velocity, he profiles as a back-end starter.

LHP Shane McClanahan (South Florida)

McClanahan has red flags that are equally as distressing as Gilbert’s, though they arise from the opposite end of the velocity spectrum. McClanahan sits 93-97 with his fastball and has reached 100 miles per hour, but that velocity comes from a high-effort, short-arm delivery. This is doubly concerning given that McClanahan underwent Tommy John surgery during his freshman season at South Florida and has struggled to do anything but throw hard since returning. His junior season saw just 71.0 innings of work across 13 games. And while he struck out an impressive 117 batters, he also walked an unseemly 44.

His changeup has nice drop and is ahead of his slider, but both have been extremely inconsistent. His collegiate career may best be described as McClanahan trying to simply throw his fastball by the opposition. And with a low 3/4 arm slot, everything about him screams reliever profile. MLB Pipeline notes that some scouts have offered (amateur) Chris Sale comparisons due to his big fastball and athletic frame, but that seems irresponsible given that for every one Chris Sale there are probably hundreds of lanky left handers who amount to nothing. Any team drafting McClanahan in the first round dreams that he puts his top of the rotation potential together, but must understand how low the probability of that happening is. The far more likelier outcome is that of a high-effort shutdown reliever that you go year-to-year with once he hits arbitration.

LHP Ryan Rolison (Ole Miss)

Rolison was drafted by the Padres in the 37th round of the 2016 draft, but FanGraphs reports he may have turned down a seven figure bonus to attend Ole Miss knowing he’d be draft eligible again in just two years. The left hander will turn 21 in July and had mixed results as a Sophomore this year. The good was his 107 strikeouts in 90.0 innings pitched; the bad was his 42 walks and surprisingly hard contact surrendered leading to a 1.39 WHIP. The left hander has been linked to the Jays by Baseball America, MLB Pipeline, and Perfect Game in the last week alone.

Rolison sits 91-94 miles per hour with his fastball, touching higher, but his curveball is more highly regarded as a future 60 pitch with sharp break and depth. FanGraphs notes that Rolison became overly dependent upon it and hitters countered, knowing that he struggled to locate his fastball and barely threw his changeup. Continuing the trend of “college pitchers with red flags that the Blue Jays are seemingly intrigued by”, Rolison started throwing cross-body in the last twelve months and the public prospect analysts are unanimously concerned. As a total package Rolison doesn’t have super loud stuff, but most believe he has #3 starter upside.

Prep Pitchers

LHP Matthew Liberatore (Mountain Ridge HS, Arizona — Arizona commitment)

Liberatore is one of the true jewels of the draft, and could very well go in the top-five picks. He receives mention here simply because FanGraphs has linked Liberatore to the Jays twice, though in both cases with the “if he’s available” disclaimer. In the unlikely chance the left hander slides to the 12th pick, he could see the lion’s share of the 5.5 million USD the Jays have available for their first two selections in order to buy him out of his Arizona commitment. Liberatore is polished and has the best pitchability among all prep arms in the draft. His fastball sits 89-94 miles per hour, touching 96/97, but that velocity has a tendency to slip in the middle innings. Both his fastball and curveball have the potential to be 60+ offerings, with the curveball described as possessing 3/4 tilt with a high spin rate. The two are complemented by a slider and changeup that both project as average or better supporting pitches.

Liberatore has the prototypical build, standing 6’5/200 lbs, and the hope is that the velocity settles into a more consistent low 90’s once he matures physically within a professional development program. There are some similarities between Liberatore and Mackenzie Gore, the top prep left hander in the 2017 draft who went 3rd overall, but Baseball America notes that both his stuff and control are a step behind Gore at this stage.

RHP Kumar Rocker (North Oconee HS, Georgia — Vanderbilt commitment)

Rocker entered his draft season with a ton of hype as a potential top-ten selection, but an uneven spring has seen his standing slip more towards the 20’s. Vanderbilt is one of the premium pitching schools in the NCAA and Rocker likely has a significant price tag to buy him out of that commitment. Outside of teams like Kansas City, Tampa Bay, or Cleveland — all of whom have a number of compensatory picks with large bonus pools they could move around — Rocker could be simply unaffordable for teams outside the top fifteen.

Rocker is the son of former NFL defensive lineman Tracy Rocker and he has the physique to match, standing 6’5 and weighing in at 250 lbs. There’s very little physical projection remaining, and in addition to conditioning, maintaining his velocity as he transitions from pitching once per week to once per five days could be a challenge. Rocker doesn’t need to add much, however, as he’s set the bar incredibly high. From an easy delivery he already sits 92-96 miles per hour with his fastball, showing heavy sink, and that’s not even his best pitch. That honor belongs to Rocker’s slider, which sits in the mid-80’s and earned the label of “hellacious” from FanGraphs. The wipe-out slider is a 60-grade pitch today, and could get even better as he develops. His changeup was seldom used and is a work in progress, but could settle in as an average third offering.

Beyond the conditioning, the biggest concern with Rocker is his fastball command. He doesn’t locate it particularly well, so when it’s on the low end of his usual velocity spectrum, it can get hit pretty hard. That was the case this spring when Rocker returned from a hamstring injury and was clearly below 100%. If he puts it all together Rocker has top of the rotation potential, but his progression arc will differ greatly than most prep arms due to the unique challenges he’ll face. Rocker would be best suited to be drafted by a team that crafts individualized development programs *cough*, rather than blanket ones.

RHP Grayson Rodriguez (Central Heights HS, Texas — Texas A&M commitment)

Rodriguez remade his body over the winter, losing his “bad weight,” and has seen his stuff explode this spring accordingly. Rodriguez sits 92-94 miles per hour with his fastball, topping out at 97/98 and showing heavy life. Standing an impressive 6’5/230 lbs, Rodriguez uses his height and a high 3/4 arm slot to create a steep vertical plane on his pitches. The fastball is complemented by a mid-80’s slider, and while he’s also shown both a curveball and changeup, neither has fully emerged as a viable third offering as of yet. Because of this, as well as the effort in his delivery, there’s some reliever concern in the profile.

Rodriguez lacks polish and could be a slow mover through the minor leagues, but he has high-end stuff and could reward a team that shows patience. Baseball America observes that he manages his emotions well on the mound and has already pitched in pressure situations in front of large Texas crowds, so if the bullpen is his eventual role, he has all the makings of a high-end closer. FanGraphs in particular notes that, while they don’t see him as a top-15 talent, opinions on prep right handers differ wildly from team to team, and both Pittsburgh (10) and Texas (15) are in on Rodriguez in addition to Toronto.

RHP Cole Winn (Orange Lutheran HS, California — TCU commitment)

As an advanced prep arm, Winn is the complement to Kelenic on the pitching side. The right hander sits 92-95 miles per hour with his fastball, touching 96. The pitch is a true four seamer with little sink, and Winn uses it intelligently, striving for swings-and-misses at the top of the zone. Winn then complements it with off-speed stuff at the bottom of the zone — something seen frequently around Toronto these days. His breaking ball has evolved from a flat cutter, to a slurve with a ton of depth, to finally a traditional power slider in between the two. Winn also has a changeup, but it was seldom used (or required). High school numbers are always absurdly inflated for top prospects, but Winn’s 0.20 ERA in 70 innings (with 120 strikeouts) is something to behold. These results came after Winn transferred from Colorado to face better competition and increase his exposure; mission accomplished.

Winn’s delivery is described as clean, easy, and simple, and his command — which is already the best among the high school pitchers — should continue to improve as a result. From my perspective, Winn seems exactly like type of talent that this front office would prefer at this juncture. He has the polish to satisfy the risk averse, but there’s still room within his development for an organization to imprint themselves on the player. FanGraphs has repeatedly mentioned a rumor that the Giants might take Winn second overall with a well below slot bonus, but if that doesn’t turn out to be the case, the right hander should absolutely be in play for the Blue Jays — he’s a consensus top twelve talent with mid-rotation potential.

Lead Photo © Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

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