As the Cubs draft strategy for 2021 slowly revealed itself on Monday, I think we saw a plan to spend big in the early rounds and save money in the middle. In rounds 2-4 specifically, the Cubs saw three players with substantial upside — prep infielder James Triantos, prep lefty Drew Gray and decorated Arkansas outfielder Christian Franklin — and decided to allot a significant amount of their draft resources to land them.
These are big swings on unique talents; let’s explore their games a little more.
Round 2: James Triantos
There’s a real disconnect, in a good way, between the swing I see on video and the results that swing has produced in the last year. When I watch Triantos, I see a quirky-but-fun swing: his top third leaking out a little early, his hips producing the violent torque of a power hitter and really good hand speed.
It’s not a swing that I would think the following to be true: he’s shown an elite ability to make contact.
This began last summer on the showcase circuit, with FanGraphs Eric Longenhagen saying that Triantos had “the most extreme BIP-to-Whiff ratio I’ve encountered while perusing players on Synergy.” And then he got to his senior high school season and struck out all of zero times. What this disconnect tells me is that Triantos has elite hand-eye coordination that will allow him to adopt changes while still maintaining his core skills.
One of those changes, I would think, is adding a bit more leverage to the swing, which I think will unlock some power. This will take some time and come after work in the weight room. But it’s where the All-Star upside resides.
A successful pitcher as well, Triantos is going to grade as a firmly plus infield arm. He played mostly shortstop in high school, but the Cubs announced him as a third baseman and it makes the most sense. He’s an above-average runner but I don’t think that’s likely to maintain itself as he grows. Still, he should have more than enough lateral athleticism to eventually learn to play successfully at the hot corner.
Round 3: Drew Gray
Consider the foundation the Cubs see in one of the draft’s youngest pitchers:
- Athlete. For a long-limbed still-growing teenager, Gray’s natural athleticism allows for a really clean delivery. He has a big high leg kick, then gets low and drives off his back leg, gets good extension and a strong leg block. (He would play as a two-way guy at Arkansas if he ended up in college there.)
- Spin. After popping in the fall when he was showing (really solid) mid-2000s spin rates, Gray took another jump in the spring, showing both Keanan Lamb and Ian Smith 2800-rpm fastballs. Also showed the ability to spin two different breaking balls up to about 2600 rpms.
- Projectability. Gray will be turned quickly to the Cubs High Performance team, who will begin work on adding good pitching weight to Gray’s frame. Velocity, which did increase with Gray’s weight room work while at IMG, is also likely to go up.
Of course, there are plenty of hurdles to get Gray where he needs to go. Gray’s long levers make repeating the delivery a work-in-progress, and the upcoming further change to his body will keep that difficult for awhile. His combination of extension, lower release point and high spin mean that he’s going to succeed with high four-seam fastballs, but that also means that he has to learn to command high four-seam fastballs. No easy feat.
Here are the 3 strikes from one AB against Cubs third rounder Drew Gray this spring.
This is where the potential lies: elevated fastballs with an elite spin rate. Out of his armslot, batters are just gonna be under the ball.
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) July 13, 2021
The breaking balls both show potential (particularly the quite-horizontal slider), but I’m not sure either one has even reached the grip or shape that it will ultimately settle in at. He’s a project, but the kind of one that minor league coaches live for. This is one development I’m looking forward to track.
Round 4: Christian Franklin
Once considered a potential first-round pick, Franklin slid as a result of striking out in 78 of 274 plate appearances this season. I’ve seen different experts claim Franklin’s main issue to be right-handed sliders and high fastballs, and will assume the answer is probably both. Arkansas coaches played with quieting Franklin’s left leg, which he uses as a timing mechanism, and I think that work will continue in pro ball.
Christian Franklin. Big boy juice. pic.twitter.com/G1cnIVP7IY
— Ian Smith (@FlaSmitty) March 27, 2021
When Franklin makes contact, however, it’s generally of the high exit velocity variety. He’s shown power to all fields and can absolutely destroy balls pull side in a way that you wouldn’t expect from the 5-foot-11 frame. I think the bat speed will play up to the highest level and I actually like his hand path a good deal (though there’s some debate on that).
Defensively, Franklin has enough highlight reel plays in center field to make me believe there’s a home there. His run times aren’t great for an up-the-middle player, but his instincts help him play faster both in the field and on the base paths. While there should be enough power to support a move to left field if he needs it, I think he’ll be able to make it in center field for the next decade or so.