Teams see upside of drafting high school hitters
Risk is higher with youngsters, but there is more room for improvement
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Seven high school kids donned their formal attire and sat waiting in the wings, underage but overcome by anticipation.
"It's a lot better than prom," one of them said. "That's for sure."
Nick Gordon uttered those words, just after he became the first of this group asked to dance. The Twins called his name with the fifth overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft on Thursday night, making a Minnesota-sized bet not only on genetics (and frankly, it was a close call as to whether Nick or his famous father "Flash" was more excited about the announcement), but also on upside.
|1||HOU||LHP Brady Aiken|
|2||MIA||RHP Tyler Kolek|
|3||CWS||LHP Carlos Rodon|
|4||CHC||C Kyle Schwarber|
|5||MIN||SS Nick Gordon|
|6||SEA||OF Alex Jackson|
|7||PHI||RHP Aaron Nola|
|8||COL||LHP Kyle Freeland|
|9||TOR||RHP Jeff Hoffman|
|10||NYM||OF Michael Conforto|
|11||TOR||C Max Pentecost|
|12||MIL||LHP Kodi Medeiros|
|13||SD||SS Trea Turner|
|14||SF||RHP Tyler Beede|
|15||LAA||LHP Sean Newcomb|
|16||ARI||RHP Touki Toussaint|
|17||KC||LHP Brandon Finnegan|
|18||WAS||RHP Erick Fedde|
|19||CIN||RHP Nick Howard|
|20||TB||1B Casey Gillaspie|
|21||CLE||OF Bradley Zimmer|
|22||LAD||RHP Grant Holmes|
|23||DET||OF Derek Hill|
|24||PIT||SS Cole Tucker|
|25||OAK||3B Matt Chapman|
|26||BOS||SS Michael Chavis|
|27||STL||RHP Luke Weaver|
|28||KC||LHP Foster Griffin|
|29||CIN||SS Alex Blandino|
|30||TEX||RHP Luis Ortiz|
|31||CLE||LHP Justus Sheffield|
|32||ATL||OF Braxton Davidson|
|33||BOS||RHP Michael Kopech|
|34||STL||RHP Jack Flaherty|
You see, Gordon wasn't just one of seven high schoolers putting his Draft day emotions on display for MLB Network's audience. The 18-year-old shortstop was also one of six prep position players taken in Thursday's first round, and this subset of players serves as a shot in the dark, even by amateur Draft standards.
Yes, the Astros and Marlins went the prep route with the Draft's first two overall picks, but those picks were a matter of trusting the eyes and making the fairly easy assumption that Brady Aiken's command of three plus-pitches or Tyler Kolek's 100-mph heater and 12-to-6 curve can play at the professional level.
With position players, a scout must trust his instincts at least as much as his eyes, because there's often no telling how well a scrawny senior will fill out or how his plate presence or pop will translate when he's wielding a wooden bat.
"Pitching is easier to evaluate, because we have the radar gun," a National League scouting director said before the Draft. "That's a big measurement. There's none of that for a high school bat. Bats are instincts."
We know the Draft is, on the whole, a crapshoot. That point is hammered home every year, and it's true that, historically, more than 30 percent of first-rounders don't even make it to the big leagues.
Simply put: Scouting ain't easy, folks.
But going all-in on high school position players is a guessing game within a guessing game. And it's a game with the potential for a huge payoff.
Or have you never heard of a certain 25th overall pick out of Millville (N.J.) Senior High School named Mike Trout?
Michael Chavis has heard of him. On Thursday night, Chavis, who is likely to convert from shortstop to third base, was taken by the Red Sox at No. 26, just one spot after Trout's old terrain. He hopes to make a similarly swift ascent into the national consciousness.
"I see a lot of guys say we're 'projectable' and stuff like that," Chavis said. "And that's very true. A lot of guys have great tools and you can never really tell what they're going to develop into."
Case in point: In 1980, the Reds took a lanky shortstop from a Los Angeles-area high school with their eighth-round pick, knowing: A. his tools were raw, but, B. there were five of them.
It was worth a shot.
Thirty-four years later, Eric Davis is in the club's Hall of Fame. He didn't stick at short, but he did apply each and every one of those tools as few others before or since. On Draft night, when Davis served as the Reds' representative, he said going with a high school kid actually ought to be an easier choice than the alternative, because there's more in the tank and on the come.
"It's about finding somebody who has the chance to be better," Davis said. "College players, historically, don't get better. Either they're good or they're not good. Not too many of them come out and get better, because they're locked into their routines from their programs. High school kids have the ability to get better."
Some of them had to get better just to get on this year's first-round radar. Gordon, Chavis and Derek Hill (who went at No. 23 to the Tigers) all attended the Draft, and all reflected on the gains in strength and stamina they've made in the last calendar year alone.
Gordon was once listed (perhaps generously) at 165 pounds, but he added about 15 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame and, in so doing, added a little more power to his offensive repertoire, adequately addressing the biggest question about his overall profile. Scouts are pleased with the potential of his range, his arm, his hands, his actions and -- in what should come as no surprise if you've seen his brother Dee with the Dodgers -- his speed.
But none of that is worth a darn if the kid can't hit his weight, which is why he worked so diligently to put on good weight to help the cause.
"Growing this last season has improved my game so much," Gordon said. "I'm excited to grow my game even more. I know I'm going to get bigger and stronger and my game is going to improve a lot."
Again, scouting talent of this age and experience level is about projection. A year ago, Hill had to stop himself from "panicking" (his word) about a lack of pop. But after he was drafted, MLB Network showed a side-by-side clip of his swing from 2013 and '14, and the difference not only in his size but in the intensity of his leg kick was evident.
"Filling out was the last piece of the puzzle," Hill said. "You've just got to put it on the right way."
One advantage high school kids like Hill have over their NCAA-established Draft-pool peers is the ability to work out for prospective clubs. Hill took advantage of that opportunity at Comerica Park mere days before the Tigers took him, and that meant not only shaking hands with Dave Dombrowski and the other influential members of the front office but also meeting his idol, Torii Hunter, and evaluating a sizeable outfield where he hopes to one day win some Gold Gloves.
"It's pretty beneficial," Hill said, "because you get to meet the guys in the organization and you get to feel them out and they feel you out and see if it's a good fit. And I felt like it was an absolutely perfect fit. Everybody was warm to me and took me in as their family, even though I wasn't a part of it yet."
Consider that another form of projection altogether. And projection is, ultimately, what scouting high school bats is all about. The instincts have to be at least as sharp as the eyes, and the risk is huge.
But the payoff? Well, here's something to consider about the payoff. The Draft's first overall pick has not yet yielded a Hall of Famer, but that trend is sure to change in 2016, when Ken Griffey Jr. joins the ballot, and again in '18, when Chipper Jones is eligible.
They were both -- you guessed it -- high school bats.
"You see?" Davis said. "We watched them get better."
And now it's time to watch Gordon, Chavis, Hill and the others. They've made it past prom. Thursday was graduation day.