ESPN MLB Insider Kiley McDaniel answered questions today regarding his top MLB prospects series, which is rolling out this month on ESPN+. The series includes McDaniel’s top 100 prospects, rankings of all 30 MLB teams’ farm systems and top prospects for every team.
A transcript of the conversation is below:
Kiley McDaniel: If you are sort of new to my list, I tend to have this same sort of process every year where it’s a combination of my history of the player, my in-person looks, and in cases where we haven’t had that many looks, talking to scouts and people around the league, and then getting ahold of some of the spin rate and velocity data that’s kind of floating around, exit velos and what not, and then continuing to massage it from there.
As much of this is a subjective process of, like, what I think is, you know my opinion is inserted into plenty of these, but I don’t think there’s anybody in the top 100 where nobody thought they belonged there and I put him there. It represents some amalgamation of industry people in addition to me.
So, that’s sort of your preamble for how I did this.
Q: I’m sure you’re shocked to know that the person I wanted to ask you about was Bobby Witt, Jr. I wanted to find out from you if there was a tool amongst his that stands out. I know he is viewed as a five-tool guy. I don’t know if there’s one that stood out. Overall, if there was something that you felt set him apart from, I guess, maybe the larger group of prospects and being I believe your number two guy.
McDaniel: Yeah, with Witt, the separator, because there’s plenty of guys that are shortstops with some history and some tools. I don’t know, there’s probably 15 or 20 of them however you want to define that on the list. His separator is both at the age of being a college junior, so you can look at the most — you know, the upcoming draft class and even the SEC is basically below low A.
So if a guy is 21 in low A, all right, he is ahead of the college guys, generally speaking. This guy was in triple-A and arguably could have been in the Big Leagues if the situation dictated.
So you take that performance and it puts him ahead of basically every other shortstop, maybe every hitter in the Minor Leagues, just starting there with just the raw performance stuff. Then you go back to my history with him going to sophomore year of high school being probably the best player on the field, playing with kids two, three years older than him, where that two, three years is a huge difference, and putting up exit velos near 110 miles an hour when he is a sophomore in high school.
Like he has been sort of exemplary, top of the scale, however you want to say it at something basically every time I’ve ever seen him. But compared to these other guys on here right now, there’s a lot — a lot of guys that have played the position that are pretty good hitters.
He has that in common with a number of guys, but to be able to do that and hit for power against guys that are much older than him at close to a Big League level and in spring training against some Big League pitchers, the power and the in-game performance or even the exit velos, however you want to categorize that power performance, that is the thing that is unique to him from all the other guys on the list.
Typically, if a short top on this list has power potential, it’s either he can’t really hit, or he has a bad approach, or he is not getting to it in games, or there’s something not quite there, and he takes all those components of power and makes them play. So, yeah, that’s his unique element.
Q: Just kind of like you wrote in your capsule, ‘death, taxes, and the Rays having a good farm system.’ Given all that they graduated and obviously a very hefty group, what are they doing right? How big of a deal is this to be as good for as long as they have been, you know, I guess between the three of international, draft, and trades? Just where do you see them being so good, and how big a deal is this?
McDaniel: So I have these conversations with teams in the past. I know the Rays have been a common answer for like, who is the team doing the best right now. There was a while where the Yankees, every guy they had on the Minor League roster was throwing 95. Everyone is like, oh, have they figured out arm actions. There has been examples of like Cleveland taking college pitchers that all dramatically get better.
There are little pockets where teams are really good at something, and the industry — maybe more like sort of Twitter as opposed to the industry in general — assume they’ve figured something out. They have some silver bullet. Every time I ask someone from one of those teams at that time, what are you doing, it’s basically, we do a pretty good job at everything; we’re all on the same page communication-wise; there’s no internal strife; we all have the same plans; we have set things we look for and set things we try to develop; we treat every player differently. Each one of the things they say seems really obvious to the point where it’s, like, why would you even bring it up? They have noticed, oh, we’re doing something that we feel like is pretty standard stuff, and we’ve noticed nobody else can do all of those things at the same time.
That’s the trick. I can say from working with teams, I have now worked for four teams, so no one story is about any one team. I can say that is very rare where it’s like, are you good at this and this department gets along with this one, this one, the guy in charge of the department, his contract is up soon so he is trying to take credit for everything so he gets an extension. This guy is trying to get promoted. This guy thinks he can only succeed when this guy doesn’t.
There’s a lot of normal politics that any of you have encountered working in corporate America in any way. I know it’s not a sexy answer, but, yeah. I think the harmony within the front office, the continuity having a same sort of plan over time, and then having all the departments work together, which I think is helped by such a long track record of success. If your superior says, do this, it’s like, well, the person probably knows what they’re talking about because the team has been beating expectations pretty consistently.
So it’s somewhere in that amalgamation of things, and we could spend — we won’t, but we could spend time talking about each one of those things. They’re pretty good with high school pitchers and other teams are not, and they seem good at turning guys that aren’t that good defensively at shortstop into good defensive shortstops.
They’re good at specific things, but speaking largely why they’re at the top of the rankings, that’s the reason.
Q: It’s kind of special that they are, I guess, to maintain that.
McDaniel: Yeah, yeah. I mentioned in the book when I was going through the international departments that there were three teams. It was the Rays, the Yankees, and the Dodgers that were generally seen as the best, because there’s a lot of ways to get results both internationally and otherwise.
The hardest thing to do is to constantly go to the top of the market where you are signing guys up at 13, 14 years old for $5 million and getting results there, and those teams have done it there and at the bottom of the market. They get it in bulk. They do it every year. They do it developing the Minor League-wise and do it with the draft. The draft is way harder to do it than internationally, obviously because of the way the picks are set up, how there’s much more information.
Everybody has pretty much the same conclusions about most players. It’s just more difficult to do it. So the margins are much smaller from best team to worst team as opposed to internationally there’s like giant differences.
But, yeah, the fact that they can do it across all those departments I think is the separator. Every team is good at something. They’re top ten at something, with maybe one or two exceptions that I won’t call out now because it will be embarrassing.
Q: MacKenzie Gore, can you conceptualize what you saw from him pre-pandemic and maybe what he is doing differently now that he resurfaced in Arizona fall and maybe what he needs to do to regain form?
McDaniel: He is a little bit of a cautionary tale. Not of any specific thing, but just valuing pitchers in general. There’s a reason that you have seen it across all the other lists in the industry, but also mine, like it’s very difficult for a pitcher to get in the top 10 or 12.
And I think I put it in — let’s see, in Grayson Rodriguez’s capsule this year, the top pitcher on my list, I pointed out that the last three years, whoever — I think almost every list had one of these four players as the top pitcher in the Minor Leagues at some point during that year.
All four of them have seen huge losses in value. All of them different ways. All of them at different levels. Some of them unfortunately blew out had six different injuries and didn’t make the Big Leagues. Jesus Luzardo was in the Big Leagues, was pretty good, got traded for way less than you thought he would, and now is seen as a different sort of player.
I have actually done some interviews in San Diego media, and I have compared it to the Sports Illustrated curse with pitchers where it’s not that there’s, like, some hex being put on people in the Sports Illustrated offices. Like we all know it’s because someone gets on the cover when they’re at the peak of the sports industry, and so there’s only one place to go, which is down.
And on the flip side of that, when you see, like, Bryce Harper gets hyped as a 14-year-old and essentially does a version of what people thought he would do, with hitters that sort of gravity doesn’t exist. Whereas with pitchers, it’s like someone gets heralded at 18 years old as a potential ace.
The numbers of those guys that have turned into aces is like a handful of guys. Felix Hernández is one of the only examples I can think of where at 16, 18, and 19 years old people are, like, oh, this guy might be an ace, and then he was an ace and stayed an ace for, like, ten years.
More commonly it’s like Roy Halladay makes the Big Leagues and gets sent to A ball and people give up on him and then he makes it. Cliff Lee is on waivers and as a lefty doesn’t throw hard, and then he is an ace. That’s more commonly where those guys tend to come from.
Jacob deGrom was a shortstop in college, and now he is an ace. Jose Fernández was the fourth best in his draft class. As good as he was in the minor leagues, he wasn’t seen as that guy when he was 18.
So all that to say MacKenzie Gore, I don’t think there were any special risk factors above and beyond him being a pitcher. There were people telling me when I ranked him I want to say, like, 10th to 15th a couple of years ago, oh, he should be 40 or 50. His stuff is not impact enough to weather the storm of whatever is going to happen to him, because something almost always happens to everybody that’s ranked at this level, which is essentially what happened.
Like he just sort of lost his delivery and then his command went and they tinkered with delivery, and then the raw stuff came down a little bit as he was tinkering because he was known for having an aggressive delivery. He dials that back in. Now his leg kick every time he pitches is a little different. Usually took a month or two to adjust that. He needs to dial it in some, but I tend to think that this sort of gravity or inertia or however you want to describe it with pitching prospects, once you are up here and you take that step down here, you typically don’t go back up here.
The same way that when someone doesn’t get hurt, then they get hurt, and they start getting hurt somewhat often, they tend to stay kind of hurt, like not the most durable guy on earth, that kind of thing. I think expectations for MacKenzie Gore need to be adjusted down.
Maybe they should have been adjusted down to like the middle of the top 100 a couple of years ago and sort of foresaw some of the stuff happening. Maybe I shouldn’t put a pitcher anywhere in the top 20, because there just really hasn’t been an ace coming out of these lists any time recently.
Yeah, I would tell everyone to just sort of calm down and expect a mid-rotation starter that’s pretty good at everything, and I think he’ll figure it out, and maybe that’s what we should have thought the whole time.
Q: Mechanically what is different now that he is kind of back from his two-month hiatus in the fall league?
McDaniel: As best I understood his issue when he didn’t get called up for that playoff sort of spot start/bullpen stuff, is because he wasn’t sort of syncing everything correctly so the command wasn’t there with the consistency. As I mentioned, he has a very aggressive, big stride towards the plate. And so if you’ve never met a pitching coach, you have a complicated thing and I let you do it because it works. Now it’s not working. Let’s make it less complicated, less of a stride, less moving parts, which is probably a smart thing to do.
It’s basically been some version of a journey on that spectrum of how complicated, how big of a stride, how much raw stuff are we trying to create, how much command are we losing as a result, how do we sync all these things up.
It’s just sort of been some version of that issue, and I think we’ll probably see at the beginning of this year, spring training, like all those sorts of things, we’ll kind of see where he is on the spectrum. I would imagine he has now had long enough as a like plus athlete that has always a good feel for his craft. I think he will figure it out, and I will be curious to see where he starts the year, because I would imagine with this much time to figure it out, he will probably figure it out.
I just don’t think it’s reasonable to think he is going to be plus stuff, plus command, like just blow everybody away. Like I just don’t think that is likely, and it probably never was that likely just, again, given the track record of pitchers in general.
Q: I noticed that you had ranked the Orioles number one, and I was interested in your answer to the question about the Rays. Unlike the Rays, the Orioles don’t have a long history with a successful farm system. What do you see there that makes you rank them number one?
McDaniel: So the guys that are running things in Baltimore came from Houston, and Houston had a long track record of a number of things. But if we’re ignoring some of the more Luhnow-y things, they were very good, sort of on the cutting-edge of pitcher development, focused on analytics and pitch design and tweaking arm slot, leaning into a spin rate, adjust the tilt of a breaking ball.
All those sort of very fine things that were hard to do, basically nobody was effective at doing it back then, and now most teams are reasonably good at it. Like they have some ability to do it. They’ve gotten really good at that and have been really good at that, and it’s not just one or two. It’s not just Mike Elias, it’s pitching coaches and all kinds of people from top to bottom, having a process, things like that.
They’re really good at that, and there’s also some newer elements, like pitcher development was sort of the beginning of that curve. Hitter development, you know, developing raw power or taking a guy with raw power, tweaking his approach a little bit, all these are the little things in development in an old school way when I’ve been in more traditional front offices, it’s usually been, oh, we don’t take a pitcher that does blank because we can’t fix that. That’s a thing you don’t fix.
You can’t take hitters that have this kind of stride, step in the bucket, or whatever it is, because you can’t fix that. I think now we’re seeing these sort of progressive analytical, those sorts of teams, now that they have numbers whether it’s like a K-Vest that measures your explosion in your swing, there’s not numbers on everything, and so something that used to be the domain of traditional teams of, oh, we have a good swing guy, he can figure this out.
Now that those things are numbers they can now say, not with more certainty than traditional teams, but they can say, oh, guys that have an explosion number of blank in their swing, we can work with that. Guys that tend to have that characteristic, that’s a Big League characteristic.
A thing that didn’t used to be a number. It used to be something that you saw with your eyes. Now everybody has access to that. That makes scouting and development much easier. You talk to I casual baseball fan, and they’re like, Oh, Moneyball. Everything changed then, right? It’s like, no, we knew walks were undervalued. It doesn’t really help you with any of this stuff.
It’s just like, oh, that guy is a little better than we thought, but it’s like walks in college. Was does that mean in pro ball? You’re not really sure. Now it’s like what is his explosion, you know, force plate readings on his leading hip in his swing. You can make it whatever you want, and they were doing that before everyone else.
So while doing the team building, tanking, however you want to describe it, not trading your prospects, accumulating men, picking high, all those sorts of things make it a lot easier, but you have to be good at pick picking the player out, which I really like what they’ve done in the draft, focusing on position players as opposed to pitching and taking shots on high school players later that they think they have more information on than other teams, whether than burning a pick and money on them, just burn the money and not so much the high pick.
And then focusing on those things they’re really good at, which is optimizing pitchers and finding characteristics they can work with on position players. And then they’ve also done that a little bit better than the other teams that have also been in sort of asset collection mode because we’ve seen some of these rebuilds go much slower or not go quite as well, and they’ve executed at a high level.
Q: Thanks for the time, Kiley. Appreciate it. While we’re focusing on Dodgers real quick, I guess really the never-ending pitching prospect factory, I want to get your thoughts on, one, how they keep doing it and why doctors hate them for this one trick, and really focusing on the two main names we’ve seen a lot, which is Ryan Pepiot and Bobby Miller. You know, what you see for them really this year. Looks like Miller can probably help out in 2022.
McDaniel: Yeah, they have a slightly different approach than Baltimore. I think Baltimore is seen as a very progressive, more on the analytical end of things is where their advantage is relative to other teams. The Dodgers are seen I think probably more in that Yankees area where it is driven by the scouting and the eyeball stuff, and then once you have picked out the guys where you sort of like the makeup and the traits, the competitiveness, then go look at the data and the more advanced stuff and sort of figure out, you know, which guy fits the best here.
Pepiot was a guy that was a mid-major late rising college guy that had a Bugs Bunny changeup and threw pretty hard. Had okay command, okay breaking ball. Had some components they liked.
And then Miller was a guy that I thought was a reliever. One or two innings at a time. Was a lot of power. His slider wasn’t an outpitch all the time, and then they figured out a way to make a slider better to improve his command and throw his changeup more, and all those things happened all within a year.
And part of the reason I pointed out that they frustrate me is that Bobby Miller doesn’t look like the way you would draw up a pitching prospect. You would pick like the high school kid that’s 6’4″, 180 and used to be a quarterback and moves very easily and everything comes out of his hand effortlessly.
You can project him to improve in a very linear, traditional way, and he is like a finished product of a power pitcher. And somebody mentioned to me, they were, like, why aren’t you ranking him higher when I had him not in the top 100. They were, like, what do you think Max Scherzer looked like at this age? He is the example that a lot of people use as, oh, he doesn’t look the way you are supposed to look. He is grunting and spitting in college and has a head whack and has some violence.
You wouldn’t have ranked that guy high at that time if you were doing this on this stage then, which is true, so why can’t you look at a guy that was picked by a team that you think is smarter than everybody else or smarter than most teams, picking a player of that style when they’ve taken guys like Walker Buehler that has some head violence? Why can’t they figure it out with this guy?
I’m like, well, I don’t want to assume some guy that’s in the middle of my top 100 is Max Scherzer. That’s a silly way to interpret that point. He is also right, where it’s like, okay, if I tend to think they’re going to beat expectations, why can they only beat expectations with certain sorts of players? It’s not just that projection guy.
So Pepiot I think is maybe a little more stable in that he is probably closer to a finished product and it’s small sort of breaking ball and command adjustments will dictate if he is a five or six innings at a time or one or two innings at a time guy.
Miller I think is a pretty good shot to be three to five innings at a time and is more of a power guy and a little more variance, just because you’re not sure if he will revert back to some of those college elements.
But, yeah, another way to explain that the really good organizations have multiple ways to get to better than average returns as we talk about the Rays and Orioles. They have a slightly different flavor of beating everybody.
Q: With Julio Rodriguez ranking as your number three prospect, how early can you expect him at the Major League level, especially with the Mariners outfield standing as it is with Haniger, Kelenic, and the ultimate return of Kyle Lewis this season?
McDaniel: I kind of wonder — I can tell you when I think he’ll be good enough to be good in the Big Leagues. That’s sort of irrelevant as we’ve seen over the years. And given the Kevin Mather comments, obviously he’s not in a position to be making those decisions anymore, but we know how the thinking goes in most front offices, and we have evidence that that was the thinking some time ago with this regime of the Mariners.
The question of when will he be ready to be a Big League average hitter is, again, sort of irrelevant. It’s more like, what are they trying to do? Last year since they almost made the playoffs and like you pointed out, they have don’t have a sterling, long-term bunch of 25-year-olds making the All-Star Game outfield, so when do they want to call him up?
I think they have flicked the switch where it’s, like, we’re trying and we want to win now. If he is going to give us a better shot to win then we’ll call him up. I don’t think they’re quite where the Braves were where it was like, do we want to call up Jason Hayward for twelve games to lose a year of control?
I would imagine, if the rules stay the same, they would like that extra year to extend that window. They don’t have a Yankees payroll to make their window sort of forever. I would imagine that it will be at least a couple of weeks into the season, and he has also only played 46 games in double-A. It’s not like objectively obvious that he is ready. I would imagine he will spend the first half of the season in some combination of double-A and triple-A, and if he is torching everybody in the way that Acuña and Louis Roberts, some of the guys ranked up here have done, and there is a hole even as just a DH spot with the team, I think as early as midseason, maybe even a little before midseason, whenever the season starts, that could be a real option.
I think that’s when you start considering it. I think if he doesn’t make it up this year, that’s probably seen as, like, a little behind schedule, but not like sounding alarms. Just the trajectory he is on is he will probably get there this year.
Q: I write about the Colorado Rockies, so going into one of your favorite organizations. For Zac Veen and Drew Romo, you had them ranked a little higher than some of the other lists, and especially with Romo I know you said you did a 180 on him in the last year. What were some of the things that you saw or you heard about him developing with at the plate?
McDaniel: When he was in high school, he was like early on the scene. I think he was on some Team USA squads as a sophomore in high school. He was out there early.
Also, it’s very easy in a showcase setting to see if a guy has raw power and as a catcher can throw really well, and he was one of those guys. He was one of those guys where it was like, oh, that’s him over the fence as a left-handed hitter. He will put up a good pop time to second base. Get on the radar very quickly, committed to LSU, Team USA, all those sorts of things.
I saw sort of up and down in-game utility of the power up and down contact depending on the game. With catchers, again, how long is the season, how long is the summer, longest year of playing in their lives. There’s all kinds of mitigating circumstances. I was prepared to say I tend to not be bullish on young catchers, but a lot of times when I do these lists people tell me to move the catchers up knowing I’m intentionally conservative with them, but saying there’s no good catchers in part because they all develop in certain ways.
So when one has performed at some level and could presumably in the next couple of years be one of the top ten in baseball when the bar is so low, it’s like you got to move those guys up when you can ID them as being good.
Romo I went into the year thinking, all right, he is below that level, but he has the tools to do that. Let’s see what happens. The Rockies don’t have the greatest track record of developing more contact in guys that haven’t done it. I think they’re pretty good at drafting high school hitters, but they tend to be sort of finished products that just show up and continue to do about what you think.
I think they have a good job of getting out of the way and letting those guys do what they do.
Romo, I thought there was work that needed to be done. Let’s see if they can do it. Some combination of somebody figured out how to get him to have an above average contact rate. Looking at his numbers right now I’m just like, man, I see why I put him on there. I didn’t see that coming.
He has all the pedigree, has all the tools, was drafted high, they believed in him. This is the demographic they tend to do better than other teams with, and he has now performed. It’s like, well, the only thing you can say is he didn’t hit for power as a 19-year-old in low A when he was making tons of contact, and that seems pretty silly to be nitpicking like that.
So, yeah, at some point he was on the list of guys that it was like, let’s wait and see what he does, and he bullied me into saying he did something, so now I have to treat him appropriately and not hold my pre-draft opinion, which I think I had him ranked 50th instead of 25th.
It’s not like I thought he was terrible. These kinds of guys tend to fail more than where they’re drafted would suggest, and he so far seems to be emerging from that group.
Q: Obviously, a lot of these guys on the list are still dealing with the impact of losing the entire 2020 season, and now some of them who are on 40-man rosters might have a delayed start to the 2022 season also. Are you concerned at all about kind of the error bars around projecting these guys once you start to deal with that much missed time?
McDaniel: Yeah. MacKenzie Gore is a good example of while he was not getting called up to the Big Leagues in the first pandemic year — first pandemic year, oh — like we thought he would, we didn’t get to see him pitching in triple-A while that he was happening, so we had to then find out after the season ended. Oh, this is what was happening.
We don’t know how bad it was because he wasn’t facing triple-A hitters. We just heard sort of about it from like sim games and stuff, and basically have to just trust what the Padres were telling us, use being all the prospect people, because they weren’t sharing data or video from their alternate sites.
It was basically like take their word for it or talk to people close to MacKenzie and hope they’re going to be truthful with you. It was like sort of tricky figuring that out. Also for MacKenzie, I’m sure he would rather face hitters. If his velo is down, but he still struck out seven, I’m sure the feedback he gets is, oh, it’s pretty good. Whereas when you’re on the alternate side facing guys that aren’t 100% competitive that you have both seen each other ten times, all you can really go by is your velo and did I hit my spotlight.
You are sort of guessing how it would’ve played in the game. He is a good example, especially for a pitcher that’s having some difficulty, which I think at the beginning of spring training most pitchers are, oh, I don’t have my synced up but my delivery or my velo is down some, but like let me buy some time.
If you don’t have the feedback of a game that’s actually competitive, you don’t really know where you are, and that can then have longer reaching circumstances. I think in general like if you are to project ten years from now, like whose career will be derailed in a notable way because of this, I don’t know really what demographic that is, but I think in the short-term of, like, who is at some place on this list and he is an international signee that’s in A ball that got added to the 40 man early and needs reps and will miss two months or whatever they’re going to miss as a result of this, there’s certainly going to be guys where there is a lag from how good they actually are in the Big Leagues to it showing up on a list because of the lack of reps and the lack of in-game stuff. If they’re better, we don’t really know it yet. All that.
There’s definitely a lot of short and medium term stuff. In terms of long-term, missing a couple of months, it’s like they basically just got injured. I don’t think someone pulling a hammy is going to change their career unless it’s a chronic problem. I don’t think it’s long-term, but there will be a lot of sort of randomly disbursed short and medium term things that I would like to avoid.
It makes my job easier if everybody is playing nonstop. They’re the ones having the real problem. I can deal with it.
Q: Sorry I can’t put my camera on now. I wanted to ask if you have an influx of college athletes coming in and if we’ll see more over the coming years, just an increase of college athletes being drafted into MLB.
McDaniel: It’s been a little tricky with the pandemic. There was a sort of perception out there that because the rosters of the big colleges would be getting — I guess all colleges would be getting bigger that there would be more of the junior and seniors and super seniors hanging around, more freshmen and sophomores getting kicked to junior colleges.
Now as those guys are graduating, are there more spots opening up more quickly than they normally do for more players to get to those big schools? Do the junior colleges emerge? I think reviewing the last two drafts, like it hasn’t been as wildly different as we expected. I think junior colleges are roughly as good as they’ve been in the past. There’s also been a bit of the concentration of the same five or ten junior colleges get most of the same guys.
It will break this year, but there’s been a trend of junior college players, like hitters aren’t taken in the top three rounds at all, which I think is very interesting for a number of ways.
Then just the balance of college guys in general. Like I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the top 100, the thing that teams are looking for, if you told them, like, hey, there are four of hitter-pitcher high school-college, there’s four identical players, what demographic do you want? Depending on what team you are asking or what their competitive lean is, they would either say college hitter because they want a guy that will get there quickly that’s the safest, or they’re going to say high school hitter because they want a star, and that tends to be disproportionately where stars come from.
All that being said, at the top of the draft when there’s a Marcello Mayer versus a Henry Davis, they’ll he go in different areas because of bonus demands and things like that, but the industry is getting continuously better in measurable ways at dictating which high school position players are good enough that they should be signed out of high school and not letting them get to college, and then because they squabbled over 750K versus a million, so now he gets to go to school and signed for $5 million, that’s happening less and less.
I think what’s happening is the sort of second and third tier players and later bloomers relative to the high school guys tend to get pushed to college. Some of them obviously emerge to that first round level, but I think teams are really looking for high school players, because all things being equal, they would like to be in charge of development, ages 18 to 21, and then outsource the second and third tier players to the colleges and then pick through them once they’ve been sorted through.
In terms of, like, big picture stuff, the teams are going to be focusing even more as we see with some of the CBA negotiations getting fewer and fewer players into their system in general, having them be as elite as possible, get them as early as possible for as cheap a price as possible, which basically points to the high school players who they want to sign, all things being equal, but they’ll take the college guy when there’s not a suitable high school option.
Q: Kiley, I wanted to ask specifically with — from the Royals, M.J. Melendez, Nick Pratto, how you contextualize the big bounceback seasons they had in 2021, coming out of alternate site in the year without Minor League Baseball, considering obviously they’ve had some demonstrated ability and success in the Minors, but the last full Minor League Season in ’19 they both had poor performances.
McDaniel: They’re good examples of guys that improved behind closed doors in ways that we couldn’t properly contextualize because they didn’t have competitive competition to sort of hang on it. I think it’s notable, A, for that, that guys that were first, second round picks out of high school, like, pedigree guys that I had seen for years and years that a number of teams are interested in, and then they were really bad depending on when you saw them and then dramatically were way better.
Obviously, with that lost year in the middle, so I’m sure they were getting better during that process. There was some buzz that those guys were trending up, but after coming off such a bad year when not that many outside teams had opinions because they weren’t seeing all of those games. Like if a Royals person tells you, oh, these guys are way better, well, they were among the worst players in the league last year. I would hope they were getting better.
It’s notable for that. It’s also notable that they were both at the same time being roughly the same age at the same level, both being similarly awful at the plate, and then all magically doing it in somewhat similar ways at the same time on the verge of the Big Leagues. They’ll probably be the same age at the same level for the rest of their careers now.
And then having just a giant turnaround, I would say those two and Anthony Volpe are the biggest jumps out of nowhere, that they’re good players with good tools that I really liked two or three years ago, but — and nobody saw this coming.
I think it’s also another point in sort of favor of really good hitting coaches can dramatically change someone’s fortune. We all sort of joke about Charlie Morton. Why did he get so much better in his mid-30s? Somebody told him to throw harder. Sounds like a joke, but that’s kind of actually what happened.
In some cases it’s like swing at better pitches and make your swing a little simpler and it will probably work. All right, I didn’t think you would go from the worst player in the league to leading the Minors in home runs, but sometimes that happens. I’m sure there were nonmeasurable elements of connecting with certain hitting coaches and having confidence in yourself. Those are all important, too, but just purely the home run total is almost just like, this seems random. Why do I even try to do this?
Q: If I could have one follow-up. I wanted ask, when you look at circumstances of guys coming into pro ball, particularly in the pandemic year, again, with the Royals, a guy like Asa Lacy who came in and hasn’t had the traditional start to a professional career, drafted out of a curtailed college season, had I think some alternate site time, got interrupted a little bit, and then had last year where he had some time that his season got cut short before he finished up in the fall league. How does that impact your evaluation of a guy like that?
McDaniel: I was pretty consistently the lower guy in the industry on Lacy when he was projected to go that high. Part of my role as draft guy is make sure you’re rankings reflect what the industry thinks which ends up reflecting where they get drafted, and then mix in some of your opinion.
If I say he is the 28th best guy in the draft and he goes third, people will be like, what are you doing? Do you think you’re that much better? I didn’t think — I thought he was 7th to 10th is like my actual opinion. We’ll say, who are you going to take? Oh, college pitcher with a delivery I don’t love that’s more stuff over command. That’s not my flavor of guy. I’ll put him down a little lower.
Not to say that I saw this coming. I didn’t think he would have some of the trouble that he did, but that is also an incredibly risky subset of player. Sort of development — not development project, but like not as polished as his peers, college pitcher that needs to dial in his delivery a bit. That’s going to have some ups and downs even if it ends up being Justin Verlander. He will have too many walks and like might have some soreness here. Ah, four walks per night and missed five starts. What are we doing?
Very few times does that guy turn into Tim Lincecum where he just merges with the Big Leagues. I thought that was a wait-and-see guy. I think some people didn’t think he was a wait-and-see guy, and now we’re waiting and seeing.
I think he is a Big Leaguer of some sort, and I don’t really know where it’s going to go from there because of the things I said before, where the kind of guy he is at the age he is at with what he has been able to prove on the field. I don’t think is quite enough for me to have a lot of confidence in exactly what he will be, but I think he will be at least an eighth inning guy and maybe as good as number two starter. That’s a pretty wide gap for a guy at that age.
Q: Just two other guys you had in the Rays list that were — you acknowledged maybe a little bit of coming out of nowhere. A couple of words on Taj Bradley, what impressed you with him, and then also with Curtis Mead, who I thought you had a great description of.
McDaniel: The Rays guys I talked to were hesitant to compare him as a Big League All-Star, but he is that kind of player and roughly that size and sort of the same position. Yeah, but I don’t want to say he is going to be that guy, Brandon Lowe.
Mead was — Philly does a really good job with Pacific Rim prospects, and signs, I want to say — I’m sure it’s sitting in front of me, but I think 200k, 300K. Lets guys be like, got some things we like; let’s see what happens. Typically the Australian special position players, you’re sort of a similar, like give them some time, barbecue, low and slow, all that kind of thing.
Had he a good year in rookie ball quicker than everybody thought he would, and the Rays are maybe the most aggressive team in terms of scouting the lowest levels of the Minors. They do pretty comprehensive coverage of the DSL, which at a time when I don’t think any other team was doing that, and now like maybe 10, 12 teams are doing that.
They are also good in rookie ball, like sending good scouts down there to get an idea of those guys, and they were basically training a guy that was on the edge of their 40-man that they didn’t really need, but it was good enough they could get something for.
They just went to the Philly’s rookie ball team and was like, this guys is pretty good. He can kind of hit and play the infield. We’ll take him. Even Rays were saying at the beginning of the year, we weren’t convinced he could play anything better than first base or maybe corner outfield, and we thought he could hit and had some power, but we weren’t really sure what it was, it was probably like a reserve of some sort, and then obviously he was laugh out loud middle infielder for the Rays again. What are we doing? This kid is just really good.
Luckily, like Brandon Lowe was right there as a guy that was underrated and could probably hit and play infield and had some pop and grew into a thing. If he was on another team, I probably would have used Brandon Lowe as the comp, too.
Even they were surprised by that one, which I think is probably good fortune — what’s the saying? Work hard and be in the right place at the right time and it will look lucky, but it’s actually hard work. Something like that. You can figure that out.
Yeah, he is just another example of the things they tend to be good at. I think a lot of good process things that just sort of surprised them with a good result.
Taj Bradley is another one where I saw him really late before the draft when he was a 17-year-old in the Atlanta area. He was kind of maxed out body, but he is really young, pretty good athlete, decent strikes. Breaking ball a little above average. Just a couple of pieces. You like some of the stuff.
I’m not at the level where I’m sitting and talking to all these players the way the teams are. It sounds like they liked his mentality and how he is improving. The scout was really on top of him, and then he also broke out of nowhere. All right, this guy might be a seventh or eighth inning reliever if it goes well. That’s sort of the expectation with that kind of guy, and now he has two plus pitches and might be a third starter.
He is — when you add in the good athlete sort of like late bloomer but young relative to his class and we like the mentality and all those pieces, and you put that on top of now he has two plus pitches, it’s like, oh, okay, yeah.
Another example of do the right thing over and over again. And you won’t hear about the eight times it doesn’t work out. You’ll remember the one time where it works out and he is on the top 100 list and then ends up not being good in the Big Leagues, and the one time out of ten where he does end up being good in the Big Leagues.
Odds are either Mead or Bradley will be a good Big Leaguer on a playoff team, and the other one probably won’t. This juncture of the list is basically 50/50, so I’ll let you guess which one of them will actually be good. They created value out of nowhere, and that’s what the Rays are good at.
Q: Did anything Wander did this year surprise you given what you had thought of him coming up?
McDaniel: No. I thought he would — because of his not even him specifically, but knowing that he has the mental makeup, the kind of player that he is, like the very high contact, good bat control, surprising pop sort of player, he would have a quicker breaking-in period.
He would more quickly get to you can’t send this guy back to the Minors than, say, an Acuña, Luis Robert. A little more swing and miss, big swing, that kind of guy. I don’t know. You probably could tell me a little better, but it seems like his breaking-in period was after two or three weeks, oh, you can’t send this guy down.
He had like a — I want to say it was week two was kind of slow, had some strike-outs, and then were just like, well, now he is good. He’s figured it out. That went about the way I thought it would, and, yeah, other than that, he played the right position, ran around the bases, kept making highlight plays.
Yeah, I would say if he made me guess at this time last year what his season would be like, it would be half a season, broke in pretty quickly, has some stuff to improve, but made a lot of contact, and you saw the glimpses of the guy he might be able to be. Comparing that to I think Vlad Jr. Obviously not the same player, but similar age, trajectory, all that kind of stuff. He clearly blew that trajectory out of the water. He didn’t have that long breaking-in period, which is also part of the margin for error you get with the positional and speed and all those extra secondary skills he has that Vlad doesn’t.
Q: The Padres, as you would expect now middle of the – middle-tier farm system, I’m wondering who you might think might be in the top 100 prospect conversation after another year of development this year?
McDaniel: Yeah, they, as I’m sure has been said ad nauseum at this point, a lot of their low-level 18- to 20-year-old type guys that had a chance to break through were the guys that got traded in those deals.
So that mid-tier is now a lot of guys they acquired in the last year or guys in triple-A that are probably role players. There’s not many of them, but I would say the early reviews on James Wood after the draft, he was really good over the summer. He could get in the top ten picks and then was really bad in the spring to the point where it was, like, one of those looks was correct and the other one was wrong, and we don’t really know which one or why.
That’s why he slid later in the draft. His early returns are good. It sounds like that summer version of him where I thought he was Kyle Tucker. Same part of the country. Similar swing and similar handiness. No batting gloves. Right fielder. Really big guy, but surprisingly good athlete. He has all those elements, and he just swung and missed a lot facing a lot of 90-plus arms in high school at IMG.
It looks like, like I said, he’s more that summer guy than he was that spring guy. He seems to be arrow up. If he has a big year, he’ll be on the list.
Jackson Merrill, exact opposite kind of guy. I didn’t know his name until March or April. Early returns are good on that one as well. Potential shortstop with power. Would have gone 15 picks higher if he had played over the summer, played in Florida during the spring and had just more data around him.
He slid to where he slid because there just wasn’t enough data, but the up side dictates him go higher. The other returns are positive.
The third guy would be Victor Acosta, international shortstop that played in the DSL last year. He is the buzzy name outside of those top 100 guys. Yeah, I think those are the three guys I have ranked right after the top 100 guys. I tend to value those upsidy, lower-level position players in the same way that those trades and some of the other teams; Tampa Bay prioritized them as well.
I also prioritize those guys, and I think those are the three guys, and I think if somebody not on the 100 for them that is currently in the system makes the 100, it will be one of those three guys. I would be willing — I would set the over/under at 1.5 of those three guys being at 50 next year, so we’ll say next year’s top 125. I can almost guarantee one of them will. Also, San Diego tends to be pretty good at taking players, developing them, having a type. Their scouts are out-scouting people kind of thing. These are I think three guys where that’s where they did that. They’re on the trajectory of being those guys.
Q: Kevin Kopps, how do you think what he does will translate as he climbs the ladder? Are there any Big League comps that jump out in your mind?
McDaniel: No. He is a really tricky one because it’s very difficult to find a comp. If he is what San Diego and other teams thought he would be, he will be in the Big Leagues next year and won’t be on the list next year, and I’ll use a modifier in front of unique. Extremely uniquely. There’s just not a lot of guys that do a version of that or have had that level have success in college or like popped up that late and got drafted this high or this old.
Like just everything about him is sort of one of one. I would imagine he’ll probably be in the Big Leagues next year and will probably be pretty good. I would guess seventh or eighth inning guy. And getting that out of a guy beyond the first round is seen as a success, especially if you get it right away for not that big of a bonus.
It’s just there is no ceiling on this. Like he basically can’t be a closer or starter, so like he just can’t become anything else. And like fundamentally when you start drafting second, third, fourth round, teams all think they can find a guy that can be an everyday player or starter, and we don’t want to put an artificial ceiling on what they can find.
That’s why he was around, and the fact that he is also so old — not so old relative to us, but relative to the players on these lists that haven’t had any Big League success, there is just not a lot more to figure out. Arkansas, Vanderbilt, there’s like a couple of schools that are very good at optimizing players and figuring out what they’re good at, and he came from one of those.
So, yeah, I’ll just throw my hands up and be like, I’m very good at telling you what the comps are and what trajectory he is on, but he is going to be what he is going to be. It’s probably Big Leaguer, and probably soon.
Q: I want to mention some guys from the Marlins and maybe get your thoughts on them. The first guy would have to be Max Meyer and maybe what you think about him, because I feel like he may be polarizing as a prospect. Some people have him as a starter; some guys have him as reliever; some guys don’t even have him in the top 100. Also, a guy like Kahlil Watson, how you had — Marlins almost had highway robbery in drafting him, and just those two guys, Meyer and Watson. Thank you.
McDaniel: Meyer I don’t really understand why he is polarizing. He went I want to say second overall in the draft and was universally seen as a top ten pick and in the pandemic shortened year had maybe the best two-pitch combo in the whole draft.
And then he just went straight to triple-A as a 22-year-old and continued performing with about what you think his stuff would be adjusting to throwing an entire season on four days off, and a guy that like has not had an entire season where he has been a starter. Like he was a reliever in college and then started for that shortened year. He just hadn’t done it before.
The Marlins further explained to me he is not one of these like TrackMan optimization guys. He has not been all gurued up where like his delivery has to be ever so, which most of these guys at like age 14 they have a guru telling them what to do.
Then you have the head butting between the team and the college coach and the pro people and the guru and all that kind of stuff. He doesn’t have any of that stuff. All of these things that would mark, oh, he is not quite as peaked in his ability relative to other guys of his age, and he is also from Minnesota, like he doesn’t have any of those things — or he has all those things on his side in that there is more untapped potential, and he performed in triple-A as a 22-year-old with plus stuff after being a pedigreed high pick.
So, yeah, I don’t really get it. Love to have some Lincoln Douglas debate with somebody that wants to explain why this guy is not very good. Put him 33rd, and I basically think it’s almost impossible for a pitcher to be in the top ten, so he is just a couple of dozen spots from as high as he can basically be.
Kahlil Watson, I was pretty clear on the draft podcast that this doesn’t make any sense. I will reserve saying why some other teams were skeptical of him both to sort of protect what they’ve told me in confidence.
Also, I think they’re wrong. I don’t think there are very many left-handed hitting, long track record of making contact, chance for above-average in-game power, can play an important position, is a good athlete, checks the boxes in terms of competitiveness and all that sort of stuff.
But there’s never more than three or four of those guys in any draft class. The fact that he was sort of treated like he was, I don’t know, the seventh or eighth best high school player in his class, it’s just dumb. They’re wrong.
There’s a handful of times in each top 100 where I can look at a guy and be like, I don’t care if the feedback that I get from teams is not universal in praise of this ranking, I have a strong opinion. I have plenty of information. I have as much information I think as the other 29 teams that aren’t the Marlins have on this player.
I have asked a bunch of teams that don’t like him why they don’t like him. I have asked teams that like him why they like him. I have triangulated what’s going on here, and I am fine pushing my chips in the middle on him. Also, just separately from all of that, if you were, like, okay, what would be a good pro environment for Kahlil Watson? Would it be him hanging around with Derek Jeter all the time where Derek Jeter’s, like, his reputation as an executive that has some impact on the draft is riding on Kahlil Watson; do you think that would help?
Yeah. So another one with Max Meyer and Kahlil Watson, I think I kind of intentionally got them towards the top of that as one, two in that Marlins list because I feel very strongly about them. Then when you get to Sixto Sanchez coming off his shoulder surgery and hasn’t thrown on a mound yet, and everybody knows what he did in the Big Leagues, it’s like, all right, I don’t have a lot to add here. He will be out there or he won’t be. He will do what he did before or he won’t.
Like he’s already been in the Big Leagues; he’s ready to go back. He has good stuff; he will probably be very good. I didn’t feel quite as strongly about them, and as you can hear with Mayer and Watson, I think I know what they’ll be, and I feel strongly that I have as much information as I need to feel strongly about it. Those guys kind of float to the top of the list.
Q: I had one quick follow-up. It will be just about JJ Bleday, how he has kind of fallen and risen and he had a great Arizona fall league, and just where he see him and his trajectory at getting to the Majors?
McDaniel: Yeah, he is another interesting one. I wasn’t totally sold on him going ahead of C.J. Abrams is and Riley Greene out of college, but he broke a bunch of records and I think he won player of the year and hit 22 homers or whatever it was at Vanderbilt.
It’s kind of hard to look past that when that’s the highest level of amateur baseball in this country and he just demolished everybody. He was a bit of a late bloomer because he was both a pitcher and a hitter, and so again, a lot of those markers of, oh, this is a guy that would probably develop later.
And he had not a very good year coming off of the pandemic, but he also went almost directly from college to a little bit of the Minor Leagues to missed a year to double-A. So the gap between playing at Vanderbilt and playing at double A was I think 30 pro games or something, and he had to wait a year and a half and had the pandemic stuff in the middle.
That’s really challenging. Almost nobody in that position did well. Offensively he also has had some sort of remaking his body, and part of the issue was there wasn’t a lot of pop in his bat last year, and now it seems like that — there’s a little more bulk to the frame in a way that I think will play into his swing.
He has always been able to hit. He still kept his head above water contact-wise in double A. I think this will be a really big year because his expectations when he was drafted, if he can do what I think he will do this year, it’s sort of implied by where I have him ranked, he will probably get to the Big Leagues at some point this year and be at least an average everyday right fielder. Again, with these lists, it’s 50/50 if the guy does anything close to what I think he is going to do.
So if the 91st overall player is like a pretty good everyday right fielder, then he is probably under ranked. If he doesn’t do that this year or continues to struggle or barely gets to triple-A or whatever it is, then he doesn’t belong on this list and he will be seen as not quite as good as C.J. Abrams and Riley Greene it would appear.
Might be in the Big Leagues next year and be pretty good. So this is a big year for him to prove that, and I think he was one of those guys that was affected by the pandemic in a way that you should give him that extra year, and this year is that year. And you might have to adjust expectations down if he is not very clearly in the Big League plans by the end of the season.