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GREENVILLE, N.C.—Evaluators have a seen a lot of Tennessee third baseman Nick Senzel. He’s an alumnus of powerhouse program Farragut High in Knoxville, Tenn., where he played alongside fellow prospects Philip Pfeiffer, Nicky Delmonico, A.J. Simcox and Kyle Serrano.
Senzel participated in the showcase circuit leading up to his senior high school season. He produced for the Volunteers for his first two years on campus, then emerged as a potential first-round pick when he showed loud offensive tools in the Cape Cod League last summer. But what evaluators have seen from Senzel lately has him racing up the 2016 draft board.
Senzel’s best tool is his righthanded bat. He has a compact swing, plus bat speed and exceptional strike zone awareness. He controls the inside part of the strike zone, routinely squares up quality breaking balls and hits line drives with authority to all fields. He’s a special hitter.
“I just hit the ball hard, hit the ball where it’s pitched,” Senzel said. “If they pitch around me, so be it, but I just hit it where it’s pitched and be patient, and when I get my pitch, make sure I drive it.”
The emerging scouting consensus regarding Senzel has him as one of the safest hitters in this year’s draft class, and some scouts project him to develop into an all-star-caliber player, but he isn’t perfect.
Senzel’s feet start slightly open and he closes off as his front foot lands, and as a result he can sometimes struggle against pitches down and away. He makes up for that lone weakness with a very advanced feel for hitting. He knows what kind of hitter he is and he knows what kinds of pitches he can drive, but he also knows which pitches he has no business swinging at, and he’s more than happy to reach first via walk.
After Senzel’s summer, scouts weren’t concerned about his ability to hit but worried about his stiff actions in the infield, and his relatively modest power production. So far this season, he has settled the former concern, with one scouting director saying he looks more natural defensively.
Senzel has moved to the hot corner after previously playing second base for the Volunteers. That transition has gone smoothly, and it’s a big part of why he is moving up draft boards. While his actions aren’t silky smooth and his hands can be a little rough, Senzel has made a statement with his defensive play early this season.
In a tournament at East Carolina in early March, Senzel had several balls hit to him at third base, and he showed the ability to make the plays necessary to succeed at the position. He showed a quick first step, good reactions, adequate range to his left, the ability to barehand ground balls hit up the line and average arm strength from a relatively compact arm action.
Senzel has worked closely with Larry Simcox, who returned to Tennessee’s coaching staff last summer. Simcox has a reputation for helping infielders, emphasizing a ground-up philosophy that focuses on players staying low and maintaining balance and composure. Senzel says that Simcox’s coaching is a big part of his recent improvements.
“I think coming back from winter break, I started learning the position a little better, playing lower to the ground, ground-up, that’s helped me out tremendously,” Senzel said. “Working with coach Simcox, he’s helped me a ton over there and I think the biggest thing is working ground-up and taking better angles and knowing when to change arm slots, and I’m pretty comfortable over there now.”
While Senzel is unlikely to develop into a plus defender, he’s showing teams that he has the ability to play the position.
The other question about Senzel is his power production. While the Knoxville native shows the ability to lift the ball deep over the fence in batting practice, he hit just five home runs in his first two years at Tennessee and hadn’t homered in his first dozen games this season. Senzel’s swing is built more for contact and line drives, though his bat speed and the way the ball comes off his bat indicate a future of power production. He has already smacked six doubles, including a line drive off the wall against Maryland ace Mike Shawaryn.
There’s lightning in Senzel’s bat, but his approach and swing mechanics have prevented scouts from hearing thunder. Some scouts believe that will come soon enough.
• A poor start in terms of results, stuff and command have continued a downward trajectory for Louisville righthander Kyle Funkhouser. Last year’s unsigned 35th overall pick has a track record of success, but he also has below-average command and was pitching his way out of the first round.
• California righthander Daulton Jefferies is pitching his way up boards with athleticism, a plus changeup and a fastball that has reached 95 mph. Other college players who have some helium include righthanders Bailey Clark (Duke, No. 46), Cody Sedlock (Illinois, No. 36) and Jordan Sheffield (Vanderbilt, No. 38).
• High school players who are moving up draft boards so far, according to scouts contacted for this story, include Georgia prep outfielders Akil Baddoo (No. 70) and Taylor Trammell (No. 9), and lefthanders Braeden Ogle of Jensen Beach (Fla.) High (No. 87) and Dallas Jesuit Prep Kyle Muller (No. 95).