Image credit: J.T. Ginn (Photo by Trevor Birchett/Mississippi State Athletics)
Welcome to Baseball America’s Draft Stock Watch. A recurring feature throughout draft season, we’ll use this space to explore rising and falling prospects in the 2020 draft class and also dive into various themes and topics at greater length.
You can see previous installments below:
When talking with scouts about the 2020 draft class, one area that gets frequently mentioned is the strength of this year’s draft-eligible sophomores.
There are six draft-eligible sophomores ranked among the Top 50 prospects on our current draft list. Of that group, four players are already within first-round consideration: No. 10 righthander Carmen Mlodzinski (South Carolina), who redshirted thanks to a foot injury in 2019; No. 12 righthander JT Ginn (Mississippi State); No. 20 catcher Austin Wells (Arizona) and No. 26 righthander Cole Wilcox (Georgia).
That amount of talent has led some evaluators to say it’s the best crop of draft-eligible sophomores they’ve ever seen. After searching our draft database history, it seems clear the 2020 group has a chance to be a historically strong class. In 2019, there were two draft-eligible sophomores taken in the first round—shortstop Greg Jones and righthander Drey Jameson—but the count is sporadic for the rest of the century, with just seven other draft-eligible sophomores taken in the first round from 2000-2018 based on the data we were able to check.
Many of the 2020 draft-eligible sophomores come from a loaded 2018 high school pitching class, and might have otherwise been drafted if not for dealing with so much competition. There were six prep righthanders taken in the first round that year: Carter Stewart (Braves, No. 8), Grayson Rodriguez (Orioles, No. 11), Cole Winn (Rangers, No. 15), Mason Denaburg (Nationals, No. 27), JT Ginn (Dodgers, No. 30) and Ethan Hankins (Indians, No. 35).
“I’ve always just vaguely followed the draft, never too in-depth on it. So I didn’t know how loaded it was at the time,” said Wilcox, who is now the Saturday starter for No. 7 Georgia. “I knew all those guys were really good pitching with them, but I just figured that’s how every class was. Looking back you kind of see how many great arms there were in that class. And a lot of them came to college, so it makes the sport better.”
The trickle-down effect that stemmed from having such a large number of prep righthanders in the 2018 class—in addition to high school righthanders being a risky demographic in general—has helped strengthen an already impressive college pitching class.
And it’s not just the pitchers who remember the talent. Wells was on the receiving end as both a catcher and a hitter who had to step into the box to face those arms throughout the summer.
“It was the best of the best in that class and going against those guys and playing with them as well, it’s not something I’m going to forget for a long time,” Wells said. “Those guys in that class who are still in this class are some of the best. There are going to be a lot of guys who are going to make it a long way in their career.
“I remember facing all of them. I remember facing (Ginn) at the USA trials and he threw me three fastballs right down the middle. I missed all three of them. I was just like, ‘Ok. Well. I guess it’s just not my day today.’”
Ginn and Wilcox were two pitchers who wound up making USA Baseball’s 2017 18U National Team, a group that could go down as the best of all time. That pitching staff already boasts five first-round picks (Matthew Liberatore, Ryan Weathers, Denaburg, Ginn and Hankins) and more are sure to follow, including Ginn (again), Wilcox and Kumar Rocker in 2021.
“We knew every time we showed up at the park we were going to have a dude on the mound,” Wilcox said, looking back at the gold medal run.
“It was really fun just going through that process. That was our goal going in. And we talked about how we could have been the best team they had ever had. We didn’t think about it too much, but once we got going we realized it was a real possibility. All the guys like Hankins and Liberatore and Weathers. Me and Kumar and JT and all those guys—we just kept rolling them out. It was really fun to be a part of that.”
While Wilcox didn’t know at the time just how impressive that pitching class stood up in the context of the draft, he did admit that pitching alongside that group of players made everyone step their game up.
“You have to learn how to pitch better obviously, because you want to beat those guys. Even when they are on your team,” he said. “You don’t want to be the weak link, so you pick up stuff here and there you talk to people, (learn new) grips and stuff. You just put it all together and try to be a complete pitcher. Because there’s no time to slack when you’re around those guys.”
Now, after two years of college experience, draft-eligible sophomores are in the perfect position. Those players have built up college track records that MLB scouting departments covet and the players also retain more draft leverage than their junior counterparts.
That leverage has allowed Wells to focus on his development. He’s spent the last year attempting to become more flexible and improve his overall defensive game behind the plate. And while the draft is still looming for him, like all the other members of the 2020 class, it doesn’t loom quite as large.
“Since I got on campus in the fall the focus for me has been just do whatever it takes for us to win and take that next step forward as a team,” Wells said. “I have not had very much focus on draft stuff. And it’s in part due to the fact that I am sophomore-eligible, which gives that leeway. I can do whatever really is best for me.”
Wilcox agreed with Wells’ sentiment.
“I don’t think it’s something you put off and don’t even think about,” he said. “Because it’s one of those things that only happens once in a lifetime. You definitely have something to be excited for, something to work for. That’s kind of how I am. But once I take the mound, yeah, it’s kind of an afterthought.
“Especially in college ball, that’s what’s so special about it. You’re with these guys every single day so when you take the mound you feel like it’s your job to play for them. Once you get on the mound it’s all about trying to get outs and let your team get back to the plate. So when I’m pitching it’s easy not to think about it. Once I leave the mound it’s in the back of your mind for sure.”
Notes From The Field
At Baseball America, we travel around the country throughout the season. Here are notes from our in-person looks. This week we checked out amateur talent at Prep Baseball Report’s Florida Preseason Classic and stopped by Athens to watch No. 7 Georgia.
Emerson Hancock, RHP, Georgia
Baseball America was in Georgia to see No. 2 overall prospect righthander Emerson Hancock for his 2020 debut. The outing didn’t go as planned—Hancock lasted just four innings against Richmond, surrendering nine hits and six earned runs while striking out four batters and walking one.
The stat line wasn’t as bad as Hancock’s actual outing, considering three runs scored during an inning where the ball didn’t leave the infield, but the 6-foot-4, 215-pound righty still struggled to finish off batters and got just one swing-and-miss on his fastball during the outing.
“No concern at all,” coach Scott Stricklin said after the game. “He’s got premium stuff. He’s the right kid. He’ll handle it the right way. He’ll go into this work week with a little chip on his shoulder. He will be ready to go. Not worried at all about him because he’s the right kid. Work ethic is off the charts off the field and plus-plus stuff. So I’m not worried about him.”
The positives for Hancock were fairly obvious. He commanded his fastball well to both sides throughout the outing and touched 97 mph before settling into the 91-94 mph range in the second, third and fourth innings. He showed good feel for spin with a 79-82 mph slider and he also spotted a changeup with good tumble down in the zone.
His footwork is impressive on the mound, helping his delivery, pickoff moves and ability to come off the rubber and field his position. Still, Hancock looked more like former Florida righthander Brady Singer than Auburn righthander Casey Mize.
The cons from this outing were a lack of swing-and-miss with his fastball and slider. The former got just one whiff as mentioned previously, while his slider got one swing-and-miss as well. His changeup was his most consistent chase pitch, and he got five whiffs with it.
Hancock has more than enough velocity to miss bats, but will a lower, three-quarter arm slot allow batters to pick him up sooner? And will that also make his slider a bit too slurvy at times?
Those are questions that were raised for evaluators in this outing, and teams will look to get answers to them throughout the spring. But it’s worth mentioning that it’s very early in the season and Hancock’s track record is much better than this. Don’t overreact too soon.
Cole Wilcox, RHP, Georgia
Wilcox is one of the most talented Saturday arms in college baseball, ranking as the No. 26 overall prospect in the game. Against Richmond he set a career high with eight strikeouts in five innings of work, allowing just one earned run and walking a pair of batters.
Improving his strike throwing was a focus over the offseason, after Wilcox walked 38 batters in 59.2 innings (5.7 per nine) as a freshman.
“I feel like a completely different pitcher,” Wilcox said after his 2020 debut. “Last year I felt like I was working on a lot of things and it wasn’t as much pitch making. This year it was all pitch making. All about going out there and getting outs and grinding out innings.
“Just the mentality—I stepped on the mound today and my heartbeat was a lot slower than it was this time last year.”
Wilcox cruised through his first three innings, facing the minimum while striking out three batters, though his control was better than his command. In between innings he would often warmup without throwing a ball over the plate, and he was a bit scattered with his fastball, even though he got nine whiffs on the pitch.
During the few instances Wilcox got into trouble, he either got the strikeouts he needed to get out of a jam or used his heavy, sinking fastball to induce a double play. Wilcox sat 92-95 mph throughout the outing and touched 96 regularly, and mostly went to a mid-80s slider that featured solid sweeping action for a secondary offering.
He didn’t break out his changeup in earnest until the fifth inning, and when he did pull it out he showed surprisingly good feel for the pitch. It featured good fading life in the 84-87 mph range and Wilcox did a nice job spotting it down in the zone.
It’s more of a power operation than finesse with Wilcox, but if he can continue taking steps forward with his command he won’t go too far after Hancock on draft day.
Ryan Webb, LHP, Georgia
Webb stole the show on Friday night, relieving Hancock and throwing five outstanding innings. The 6-foot-1, 196-pound southpaw struck out a career-best 11 batters without allowing a run and showed off a four-pitch mix that should allow him to start at some point this season, if necessary, and in pro ball.
Webb sat mostly in the 88-92 mph range with his fastball, though he touched 94 early and consistently worked to his glove side with the pitch to get ahead in counts. He also showed excellent feel for a 75-80 mph curveball that had 1-to-7 shape and good depth. He got five swings-and-misses on the curve and used it against lefthanders and also used it effectively as a backdoor offering to righties.
Additionally, Webb threw a 82-84 mph changeup that had fading life to the arm-side and a cutter in the 81-84 mph range that didn’t have a ton of movement, but offered a different breaking ball look.
“I used to just throw fastball, curveball, changeup,” Webb said after the game. “But me and coach (Sean) Kenny have been working on kind of like a slider/cutter this fall and spring. It was just one of those pitches that I guess was just working tonight—if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
Jonathan Cannon, RHP, Georgia
With a July 19 birthday, Cannon is likely to be sophomore-eligible next year. With the amount of starting pitching talent Georgia is expected to lose in the draft, Cannon could move quickly into a starting role, and he showed big-time potential as a freshman out of the bullpen.
Cannon has a terrific frame and is listed at 6-foot-6, 207 pounds, and he showed off impressive velocity, sitting in the 92-95 mph range with a solid slider. In two shutout innings Saturday, Cannon struck out two batters and walked one without allowing a hit.
“I think he’s a future superstar,” Stricklin said. “He’s a freshman and the first pitch he threw was 95 and looked like he threw it 80. It’s just nice and easy and comfortable. He throws a ton of strikes and he’s really athletic and competitive.”
Zac Veen, OF, Spruce Creek HS, Port Orange, Fla.
Veen was the top-ranked prospect in a loaded Prep Baseball Report Preseason Classic field, which featured five prospects ranked among the top 65 in the country. Veen is getting the most chatter of that group, and could push himself into the top 10 picks this June.
We broke down Veen, in addition to the other four ranked prospects and five other players who raised eyebrows, extensively here.
Notes From The Phone
We are constantly checking in with scouts throughout the season. Here are notes from those conversations.
Max Meyer, RHP, Minnesota
Meyer threw five innings against Oregon and struck out seven batters in the process, walking three and allowing just one earned run. The stuff was just as electric as it’s ever been, with some scouts getting him as high as 101 mph at his best, with a slider in the 90-92 mph range. If Meyer combines that sort of stuff with that type of success throughout the spring, it’ll be tough to see him falling much further than the middle of the first round.
Colby Halter, SS, Bishop Kenny HS, Jacksonville
Bishop Kenny doesn’t start its season until Wednesday, but it sounds like there has already been some solid heat on Halter. He hit well over the summer and with few high school shortstops to speak of in this class, perhaps Halter’s polished hit tool has teams excited. He has a chance to prove himself as a hitter in Florida this spring.
Carmen Mlodzinski, RHP, South Carolina
The redshirt sophomore struck out just three batters over seven innings of work in his debut this season against Holy Cross, but he pitched well despite that. Mlodzinski has a heavy fastball and that pitch helped him rack up 12 ground ball outs to just three fly outs. He needed only 87 pitches to work seven shutout frames, walking one batter and allowing six hits.
Logan Allen, LHP, Florida International
Florida International was one of the most popular scouting destinations Friday, as many scouts who were at PBR’s Florida Preseason Classic stuck around the area to see No. 56 prospect Logan Allen take the mound. He lived up to the hype, striking out 11 batters over five innings, while walking two and allowing six hits. FIU reported there were around 100 scouts in attendance.
Tanner Witt, 3B/RHP, Episcopal HS, Bellaire, Texas
Witt made some noise on both sides of the ball Saturday. That makes sense, considering he’s a legitimate pro prospect as a hitter and pitcher. Check out video of the two home runs the Texas commit hit in the video below. In three innings on the mound, Witt struck out seven and faced the minimum.
Slade Wilks, OF, Columbia (Miss.) Academy
Wilks had around twenty scouts—including a few crosscheckers—watching him last week, and they certainly didn’t go away disappointed. The No. 112 prospect on the Top 200 draft list and Southern Mississippi commit put a couple balls in the atmosphere. Check them out below.
Mitchell Parker, LHP, San Jacinto (Texas) JC
Parker is part of a deep San Jacinto pitching staff that also includes lefthander Luke Little and righthander Brandon Birdsell, though Parker has been the best of the bunch so far. Through three starts and 15 innings, the 6-foot-4, 195-pound lefty has struck out 37 batters and walked four, while posting a 0.60 ERA. Parker throws in the low 90s and has flashed a good curveball.
Cam Cowan, RHP, Campbell
Campbell has done a nice job producing pitchers in recent years, and Cowan could be the next player up. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound righthander played at Kirkwood (Iowa) JC for two years prior to transferring to Campbell and made a loud debut. In the opener against South Alabama, Cowan tied a program record with 15 strikeouts. He threw 8.1 innings and allowed just three hits and one walk. Cowan was named Big South starter of the week.