Almost a full year after the Coronavirus put a stop to the 2020 college baseball season, we are about to get the sport back for the 2021 season.
With an extremely short season last year combined with no Cape Cod League and limited in person scouting allowed, there are more questions than ever about the upcoming crop of draft eligible players. That isn’t just because scouts haven’t had long looks or against top competition, but we’ve gotten to see a fairly limited amount of the development from these kids for the last two calendar years- the bulk of the draft eligible group were just completing their true freshman seasons in 2019 when we last got an extended look at them against top competition.
That could mean more volatility in the rankings than ever before from the preseason lists to the final draft boards. Especially on the college side, since the high school group was more able to have showcase events during the summer and fall of 2020.
With that in mind I thought the best look at the top college players was a top group going position by position.
Adrian Del Castillo, Miami - Del Castillo is one of the best bats in the class regardless of position. The only real question with him is whether or not he ends up remaining at catcher.
Hunter Goodman, Memphis - The Memphis slugger came on strong in the shortened 2020, but like Del Castillo he will need to prove that he can stick at catcher long term.
Henry Davis, Louisville - Davis is the opposite of the other catchers on this list- a defense first catcher. The defense has always been legit, and while he started to answer some questions with the bat last spring he will need to prove it over a more extended time frame this year.
Alex Toral, Miami - Toral could have been drafted last spring but teams passed on his elite power due to his major issues with swing and miss.
Max Ferguson, Tennessee - Ferguson is a very well rounded offensive player who hits for average, some power, and knows how to use his instincts to take a base. The issue here is he doesn’t have a true defensive home, though most project him as a second baseman. He played some second last year and can help himself by proving that is where he belongs this season.
Ryan Bliss, Auburn - A college shortstop who likely has to move to second long term, Ryan Bliss is another well rounded player. He doesn’t have a lot of power, but he’s solid across the board everywhere else and does have gap power. He did however show a little more pop last spring in the small sample, so that is something to watch this spring.
Alex Binelas, Louisville - Binelas is what you think of when you think of a slugging third baseman. While he does have some swing and miss in his game, he hits well enough for it not to be a huge issue, however he basically missed last year after being injured early on. It isn’t a sure thing he remains at third long term either, but even if he can’t, he has more than enough bat for first base.
Zack Gelof, Virginia - Gelof is a very different player to Binelas to the point some may call him the top college third baseman. He’s a well rounded player who does a bit of everything and does it well. He is a quality hitter, which may be his best tool as the power, defense, and run tools aren’t quite plus graded tools for him.
John Rhodes, Kentucky - One of the toughest guys in the college class to rank is John Rhodes. He only qualified for the draft because it was moved back to a later date as a second year eligible player. We haven’t seen much of him at the college level, though he has been very productive in a small sample size and there are questions on if he can handle third or if he ends up moving to the corner outfield. Still the bat with plenty of power and a chance to hit for average as well will have teams taking a close look at him this spring.
Matt McLain, UCLA - A first round pick out of high school who didn’t sign, McLain had a very strong 2020 to push his way back into position of being a two-time first round pick. I am not sure he ends up playing here defensively, as second or center field feel more likely, however I am a little more confident in his ability to handle short than I was when he was coming out of high school. Still the value comes in the bat as McLain is a potentially plus hitter with above average to plus speed, the type of guy you see at the top of an order and brings adequate power. I am personally not as high on his upside as some, but his combination of upside and floor make him a guy who will go early.
Cody Morrissette, Boston College - Morrissette is a weird case as a guy who will be drafted as a shortstop that doesn’t even play the position for his college team. Not to take anything away from his average glove for the position, but BC already has an elite level defender there. Morrissette instead has moved around the infield for the Eagles and brings a well rounded offensive game despite not having plus power or speed. Essentially he is a Ben Zobrist type of player that makes good contact, has decent power, knows how to take a base, and can play anywhere for you. He also comes with a great track record of success in the ACC.
Jose Torres, NC State - Maybe my personal favorite shortstop in the college class is slightly under the radar. Jose Torres is a second year eligible player who came in as a defense first guy, but showed more with the hit tool and the power than anyone expected from him. The key for him this year will be to prove the bat we saw in the short 2020 translates to a full season and against ACC competition, but if he does that he will move up considerably.
Jud Fabian, Florida - Some want to call Fabian the best hitting prospect on the college side because he is very toolsy and filled with upside. I am not one of them as I think the swing and miss issues in his game are a legitimate concern and was a little underwhelmed by his production in the Florida State Collegiate League last summer. Not that Fabian was bad, but it wasn’t what I was expecting from a guy who some like as the top college bat. The key for him this spring will be to show the hit tool has improved and to put up some big numbers, as he is young, athletic, and has power potential.
Colton Cowser, Sam Houston State - Colton Cowser’s biggest issue is not having a long track record against top competition considering he plays for a small school. He projects as a prototypical right fielder who can hit for average and power, runs well, and takes good at bats. He is also a natural center fielder who will likely have to move over to right at the next level. The key for him is just to keep producing as he has done since arriving on campus.
Sal Frelick, Boston College - A little on the undersized side at just 5’9, Sal Frelick is a very toolsy outfielder capable of handling center field with plus plus speed. He can work on being a little more consistent from at-bat to at-bat, but he should have at least above average power and makes enough good contact that hitting for average shouldn’t be an issue.
Christian Franklin, Arkansas - Franklin is a power and speed combo guy with some questions. Fortunately when you have the power and speed combo you have more room for questions as that is a very desired combination of tools. The biggest question with Franklin is the high strikeout rate and if he can cut down on the swing and miss this year, which would help to determine how much his power would be able to play at the pro level.
Ethan Wilson, South Alabama - Wilson brings the same concerns that Cowser does, being a small school guy. He also has less track record against elite competition to look at to this point. One more thing is the fact he is likely destined for left field only, which is a tougher profile to sell. What he does bring should more than make up for that, as he has big power and in his freshman year, proved that he can hit for average as well which would be more than enough bat to profile well as a left field only prospect.
Levi Usher, Louisville - Levi Usher is another prospect tough to judge. He has always been super toolsy dating back to high school, but with some injuries and having to head to JUCO before arriving at Louisville, we haven’t been able to see much of him against top competition yet. He projects as a five-tool talent with intriguing power and speed, but we need to see him do it for a full season in the ACC.
Robby Martin, Florida State - Martin presents a potentially well rounded corner outfielder, especially if he proves that there is more power in the tank this year. This is a kid who has always hit well and been a good athlete, but we might finally be getting to see some of his potential become his present.
Kumar Rocker, Vanderbilt - The presumed number one pick in the draft for a lot of people after his dominant end to his freshman season, Kumar Rocker does have some questions to answer in spite of what he has already achieved. Those questions being despite his elite fastball velocity, will he be able to get any additional movement on the pitch that it lacks at present? Then there is the question of how much he used his slider in the short 2020, a high use rate that would not translate to pitching once every five days for 162 games. He should still go high, but to go number one overall he will need to clear those things up.
Jack Leiter, Vanderbilt - While I am fully aware of how great Jack Leiter was in the shortened 2020 season, it should be pointed out that he did it as a weekday starter which means he didn’t face the best competition. Leiter came in very advanced in his pitchability and has seen his stuff tick up since arriving on campus. For him to lock himself into a Top 5 overall spot I want to see him show that stuff and put up good results for a full season against SEC competition.
Jaden Hill, LSU - Hill is another guy with big potential but also big questions. The upper 90s fastball and the change aren’t questions, but the development of his breaking ball and his new fourth pitch (a cutter) will need to hold up as he takes on a starting role for the first time in a full season. That’s less a criticism and more of a needing proof he can hold up in a starter’s workload.
Ty Madden, Texas - Madden has been a high profile prospect since his high school days and like a bunch of Big 12 pitchers, seemed to take a step forward last spring in a shortened season. It is just going to be a matter of seeing his mid to upper 90s fastball and slider hold up command wise with a full season’s workload.
Gunnar Hoglund, Ole Miss - Another first round pick out of high school who didn’t sign, Hoglund is in the mix to be a first rounder for a second time this year. In order to do that he will need to show increased velocity from the low to mid 90s fastball he normally sits at as he has been more of a pitchability and command guy than elite stuff so far.
Jonathan Cannon, Georgia - Cannon is a true wildcard. The big, projectable right hander with mid 90s stuff has the profile of a high pick. However Cannon is a second year eligible guy who pitched out of the pen as a true freshman in 2020 since the Bulldogs had such a loaded rotation. It is fair to say the transition to starting this year will be key for him, as we’ve seen even less of him than we have of Jaden Hill.
Left Handed Pitchers
Jordan Wicks, Kansas State - Wicks is in the running to be the top lefty pitcher in the draft at the moment, with a low to mid 90s fastball and a plus plus change, plus the pitchability to really take advantage and make the fastball play up.
Steven Hajjar, Michigan - Hajjar is a big, projectable lefty with a limited track record due to redshirting in 2019. Still, he was a recruit who attracted plenty of attention and pitched well in the short 2020 season, so a strong spring can only help boost his stock.
Christian MacLeod, Mississippi State - MacLeod is a pitcher without a plus offering, but the lefty has the pitchability and command to get the most out of his average to above arsenal. Similar to what former Bulldogs ace Ethan Small did a few years ago.
Jonathan Childress, Texas A&M - Childress is another guy without a full track record due to Tommy John surgery, though in his limited resume, he has been successful. Childress’ fastball is in the low 90s with a pair of solid secondary offerings and throws strikes. He has previously hit higher velocity before surgery, so there could be a little more in the tank with him.
Five players who could rise
Brant Hurter, LHP Georgia Tech - Towards the end of 2019, Hurter blew out his elbow and required Tommy John, and hasn’t pitched in a game since. He was initially a high projected pick for last year, but if he can put together a strong, full season in 2021 he could really move up the board.
Kevin Abel, RHP, Oregon State - Another injured pitcher who hasn’t pitched since 2019 and was eligible for the draft last year, Abel was initially a potential high first rounder last year after a very impressive true freshman season. Getting hurt early as a sophomore has knocked him down rankings since, but he can rebound with a strong full season showing he hasn’t lost anything.
Jerrion Ealy, OF, Ole Miss - Ealy was a potential first rounder out of high school who went to Ole Miss to also be a Top 100 national recruit on the football team as a running back. He’s extremely toolsy, but definitely on the raw side. However with development he could really rise.
Dalton Fowler, LHP, Oklahoma - Fowler is a huge, projectable lefty with mid 90s stuff who is arriving at Oklahoma from the junior college level. He could move up based on a number of things from an velocity spike to improved curve to pitching well against high end competition in the Big 12.
Luca Tresh, C, NC State - NC State’s power hitting catcher is a real threat in the middle of their lineup, but has battled injuries through his career. He seemed to be on the right track last year before the season ended abruptly. The key with him would be proving he has what it takes to remain behind the plate defensively at the next level.