Cubs Draft Prep: A Top-Heavy College Hitting Class

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Cubs Draft Prep: A Top-Heavy College Hitting Class

Chicago Cubs

If there is anything we know about the Chicago Cubs during the Theo Epstein era, it’s that you should always keep your eyes on college hitters with potential first-round draft selections. The industry expectation is teams are even more apt to lean toward the relative safety that college picks offer this June, given the lack of new information from the shut-down spring.

Earlier, we provided an early preview of the strength of the draft: college arms. Since then, believe it or not, things have been pretty fluid. Golden Gopher Max Meyer went from an honorable mention to a player that will be drafted before the Cubs’ 16th overall pick. Oklahoma right-hander Cade Cavalli went from a second- or third-round arm to someone right in the mix for the Cubs (he’s workout partners with Kohl Franklin).

The draft board is a little less fluid for college hitters, as their statistical profiles have a greater sample size. Here’s my take on the top dozen or so guys in the NCAA offensive class:

The Three to Not Get Your Hopes Up For

The Detroit Tigers have an interesting philosophical conundrum with the top pick in the draft. On the one hand is a first baseman that was headed to have one of the more decorated careers in NCAA history: Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson. On the other is Vanderbilt utility man Austin Martin, an athlete with a short, simple stroke that could lead a league in batting average some day.

To me, it’s a pretty simple answer: take Tork. But the Tigers seem, based on the reporting out there, a little more undecided. Either way, however, one thing is for certain: no NL Central team will end up with either player.

That will most likely also be the case with New Mexico State middle infielder Nick Gonzales, who should be off the board before the Pirates pick at seven. Playing in one of the most offensive friendly environments in the country, it was a bit hard to contextualize Gonzales’ .432/.532/.773 sophomore season in 2019. But then Gonzales went to the Cape Cod League and was the best player there, unfazed by facing the nation’s best pitching and handling a wood bat. Gonzales kept the ball rolling in the brief start to 2020, with 12 home runs in 16 games, leading to the old 1.765 OPS (what?!).

This is a good draft to have a top five pick.

The Two Who Probably Will Be Gone, But Hey Ya Never Know

For most of the spring, there was a fourth player on the list above, athletic UCLA outfielder Garrett Mitchell. But when ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel reports, I listen, and his latest mock draft had Mitchell still on the board when the Cubs pick at 16 (and the Cubs passing). The Cubs have been California heavy in their selections in recent years, and after heavily scouting Chase Strumpf last spring, it’s fair to say there’s a lot of familiarity with the team and Mitchell.

The 21-year-old center fielder is a dynamo athlete (and plus-plus defender), with a 6-3, 200 body that gives many scouts reason to believe there’s some untapped power potential. What I find most exciting is the progression of Mitchell’s strikeout rates since rebuilding his swing at UCLA: he struck out in 25.5% of his at-bats as a freshman, then down to 15.9% as a sophomore, and was at just 4.8% this spring in non-conference play. With Mitchell’s fantastic speed, the team that drafts him will do so with leadoff hitter dreams dancing in their heads.

Across the country, there have been links already to the Cubs and Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad. The problem for the Cubs is it now appears the Razorback right fielder will probably be off the board before pick 16. He would be a great fit for the system, as his best strength is a match for the Cubs farm system’s largest weakness: power.

The question with Kjerstad in his transition to wood bats seems not to be whether he’ll continue to hit home runs, but whether the batting average will translate against more advanced arms. I watched as many Kjerstad games as I could, and I just don’t agree with the notions out there that he has a “complicated swing”. His hands are active pre-swing, but that’s not exactly unprecedented for power hitters.

These are two names that we’ll be able to instantly talk ourselves into if they end up as the Cubs selection.

The Three Catchers

Most draft boards seem to now have three catchers right in the Cubs area, and I’ve seen plenty of mock drafts linking the Cubs to one or the other: NC State’s Patrick Bailey, Arizona’s Austin Wells and Ohio State’s Dillon Dingler.

I remain a bit skeptical of the Cubs likelihood to draft a catcher. I know that the MLB Draft is always and only about Best Player Available, but few teams have as much player development investment already at catcher as the Cubs. Two young catchers at the Major League level, one of the game’s best catching prospects, and $5 million in investments last year in three teenage catchers (Hearn, Quintero, Altuve). I think if the Cubs are between one of the three NCAA catchers mentioned above and someone else, my bet is they lean the other direction.

But perhaps one of the catchers simply wins them over.

In Bailey and Dingler, the first attraction scouts have is defense. Bailey entered the year seen as the nation’s best defender, but Dingler has been the biggest “riser” this spring among college hitters. Teams have started to question whether it was actually him that was the NCAA’s true gold glove. Dingler is a converted catcher with elite athleticism that keeps improving, while Bailey has the long track record of success behind the plate. Will be an interesting draft subplot to see who gets popped first.

Third in the conversation is Austin Wells, though he’s right in the mix with Dingler for me as top dog (still, I should say: I’d have all three below 16). There’s a bit of length to Wells’ swing, but he’s a good hitter that I believe will see his power blossom in a professional organization. Perhaps you’d want to see more in-game power if you project Wells to move to left field, but he does have some of the nation’s better plate discipline, so there is a good offensive baseline.

A Tier Below: Five Middle Infielders

The eight names mentioned above seem to be the consensus for college hitting class, but the Cubs do have a recent history in bucking consensus, like when they did in grabbing Stanford shortstop Nico Hoerner. This draft has five middle infielders that draw both praise and criticism, and while they seem most likely as second-round picks, it’s not impossible the Cubs could have fallen in love.

One of the more fun boom-or-bust players in this draft is Arkansas shortstop Casey Martin. He has that Javier Baez quality of always swinging hard, always being aggressive, though it seems scouts question whether he has the instincts to be able to replicate anything resembling Javy’s results. Martin is ultra-fast, with the floor of a super-fun bench player if his swing-and-miss proclivities get in the way of offensive production.

I have a hard time picking my favorite among this group between two teammates, Jordan Westburg and Justin Foscue from Mississippi State. Foscue is the one with far more present ability, your classic polished big school college player that has a mature approach at the plate. There’s some similarities to Strumpf with his pull-heavy power and questionable final position, and I’m just not sure that he offers quite the upside you’d want at Pick 16. But in the second-round? He’d be a home run.

Westburg is sort of on the opposite end of the spectrum. I could see a team that likes him seeing enough to put a first-round grade. He’s big (6-foot-3) and strong, with some upper body projection and a powerful swing. He is a solid shortstop and would likely be an excellent third baseman. But he’s already trading strikeouts for power, and the power is still more projection than reality.

Down my draft board a bit are a pair of lower upside college stars: Baylor’s Nick Loftin and Arizona State’s Alika Williams. They have short, efficient swings and will make consistent contact at every level. They are competent, good defenders up the middle. Both good athletes, both solid across the board. You’re just not sure there’s enough upside with either.

I’ll be back in a week or two to preview the high school class.

Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.