Over the past two months, I have immersed myself in the college baseball ranks and provided in-depth analysis in regard to which players to target in dynasty formats. As it relates to the greater priorities of my life, I refer to this project as the “Immersion Diversion,” in which I neglect all other areas of my existence in favor of researching college prospects. This began with my top 10 college prospects, which then grew into a top 25 before culminating into my top 100 overall. Then, I was slammed with arguably the largest hazing scandal Razzball has ever seen, as some questioned in the comments why I failed to address the underclassmen in these lists. Was it solely due to an underlying hatred for the newcomers?
At the time, my response was two-fold: 1) the upperclassmen have added value due to the fact they will be attainable via first-year player drafts next off-season and 2) only those eligible for the 2020 MLB Draft come with complete and updated scouting grades. Not only do these scouting tools help us predict future MLB production, but they shed light on where players will be drafted, and where specifically a player is drafted goes a long way in determining said player’s perceived value in deeper formats. What I’m saying is that no first-year player fantasy drafts have 10th round talents being selected. At least they shouldn’t. Draft position influences hype, which influences who you and your league-mates target post-draft and beyond.
Still, this posed an intriguing dilemma. What about open world leagues, where everyone in the college circuit is readily available at present? In those cases, would I recommend Asa Lacy (2020 class) or Kumar Rocker (’21)? Would I advise anyone to pass on LSU’s Daniel Cabrera (’20) for Colton Cowser (’21) of Sam Houston State? Over the next several weeks, I will begin revealing college underclassmen not yet eligible for the MLB Draft who I recommend deep-leaguers begin targeting NOW, beginning with five names this week to put on your radar.
At the culmination of this project, I will rework my previous top 100 and present my complete college top 100, which will include players of all draft classes. Admittedly, this complicates matters a bit, because determining where Rocker and company fit into the mix forces me to add yet another variable into the equation. Before, we were weighing not only a prospect’s pure talent and tools as they related to fantasy, but MLB readiness as well, in an attempt to place a value on which current college players are the smartest buys for deep formats. Now, in addition to that, we are adding in one (at minimum) year of unscripted collegiate competition. Simply put, the further out we project where a player is going to be drafted or what type of player they’re going to be as a professional, the more uncertainty we get.
For that reason, I am going to begin by outlining the five players I think are the surest bets to comprise the first five draft picks come the 2021 MLB Draft. You’ll have to wait until the full college top 100 to see where they fit in with this year’s draft-eligible crop, but I will say that all five of the players to follow would crack my top 50. Can’t wait? Keep reading and I’ll provide a sneak peek in the form of where I’d rank Kumar Rocker among the 2020 draft-eligibles.
1. Kumar Rocker, RHP, Vanderbilt
I already provided an in-depth analysis of Rocker in a random prospect breakdown last month, but even that doesn’t truly explain where he fits in with the current crop of college underclassmen. Barring injury, Rocker is a surefire top-10 choice in the 2021 MLB Draft and the odds-on favorite to go No. 1 overall. If you’re playing in an open world league where Rocker is already available, he should instantly jump ahead of the vast majority of players in my previous College Top 100.
Although I’m not yet finished building in the entire underclassmen crop into those rankings, I can tell you that Rocker would be my No. 8 overall college player as it stands today – draft eligible players and the ineligible alike. There are only four pitchers I would target ahead of him in open world leagues and they are Asa Lacy, Emerson Hancock, Max Meyer and Reid Detmers. In his high school draft year back in 2018, these were Rocker’s scouting grades: 70-fastball, 60-slider, 50-changeup, 50-control. That mix landed him in the 38th round of the draft, but he would have gone significantly higher if not for signability concerns (ranked the No. 23 prospect in the draft at the time). Rocker has been more of a two-pitch guy for most of his high school and college career, although the changeup has made strides and many scouts believe it can still become a plus-pitch. That’s something scouts clearly would have placed a heavy emphasis on throughout the 2020 season, but his progress on the offering will now have to wait until 2021 to be seen.
Still, with the productive numbers Rocker has posted in the past (especially in the spotlight during 2019’s NCAA Tournament), his arsenal and his ability to stretch the velocity band close to 20 MPH (80-86 MPH slider that can add and subtract depth, fastball topping at 98 MPH), he would be a top 10 pick this year and will accomplish that with ease in 2021. Target and hold tightly in open world leagues – anxiously await in dynasty and other keeper formats.
2. Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt
Could two Commodore right-handers go one-two in the 2021 draft? It’s unlikely, with so much left unwritten (sing to me, Natasha!), but I could see both Rocker and Leiter going within the top five. The son of Al Leiter, Jack has advanced pitchability and command for a college freshman. He has the kind of maturity and a sense of how to attack hitters on the mound that often comes with a guy with a family pedigree such as Leiter. Or someone who has inadvertently eaten a surplus of Pedigree dog food. I forget which! Anywho, I hear that twenty-five years from now, Jack will even be on MLB Network doing a bit with Zach Plesac!
One year ago, Leiter was ranked the No. 33 overall prospect in the 2019 draft, but went 615th to the Yankees due to….. *cue drumroll* ….signability concerns! You know, signability has never been a problem for me. I’ll sign anything. Pro contract? Done. Baby’s head? Done. Your mom’s bottom? Done. Restraining order demanding I stay at least 150 feet from Trevor Bauer’s home? Never!!!
Truthfully, Leiter hasn’t been given a fair chance to show many measurable improvements since the 2019 Draft. He was a true freshman this past season, one abbreviated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he’ll be eligible for the 2021 Draft nonetheless due to age. In 2020, Leiter made four appearances (three starts) and registered 15 2/3 innings of work by season’s end. He ended up with a 1.72 ERA and opposing hitters managed a mere .098 average against Leiter. Most impressively, Leiter allowed just five hits in his debut season, only one of which went for extra bases. During those 15 2/3 frames, Leiter set 22 batters down on strikes (12.6 K/9) and walked eight (4.6 BB/9), so the command could have been a smidgen better. But, again, this was an extremely small sample size and something Leiter could have smoothed out throughout his first season in the college circuit. It’s not anything that should generate any serious concern. What does concern me is the fact that I just typed the word “smidgen” and realized it rhymes with “pigeon,” and for some reason now I can’t stop saying “pigeon smidgen” out loud.
The most recent scouting data we have on Leiter includes a 55-grade fastball that tops out at 94 MPH, but that has likely already gained several additional upward ticks during his stay in Nashville. Come the 2021 Draft, I expect Leiter to be sitting in the mid-nineties during starts, once we begin to get some added intel on these guys when the draft focus transitions from the 2020 crop to 2021. Leiter also wields a curveball, slider and changeup, profiling as a prototypical starting pitcher in terms of his arsenal. The breaking pitches are average to slightly-above average, with the curveball being listed at 55-grade by MLB.com. In my opinion, it’s much better than that and has already evolved into a true wipe out offering. The break on it is that ridiculous, and he locates it remarkably well in the bottom half of the zone. In his first career start versus South Alabama, he baffled hitters with it, as just one ball was put into play in the first three innings. Leiter ended up striking out 12 of the 16 batters he faced in that game, tossing five hitless innings in his college debut.
The changeup has the potential to be above-average as well, as he spots the pitch well, but he hasn’t had to rely on it enough yet in this stage of his career. Standing at 6’0”-6’1” and 195 lbs., he could use a little weight to assist with durability, but even with his young age, Leiter doesn’t exhibit a tendency to rely on a two-pitch offering in starts and steadily mixes in all four pitches, often changing his sequencing on an inning-by-inning basis.
There’s a lot we still need to see from Leiter for him to solidify himself behind Rocker at the onset of the first round in 2021. As stated before, he could use a little added weight and the radar guns will need to see quantifiable increased velocity come this fall and beyond. Still, he’s incredibly advanced in terms of his pitchability and command for the strike zone for his age. He isn’t the can’t-miss, add-now prospect like some of his peers, but his floor is high and the ceiling could be even higher than scouts think if tangible velocity gains are indeed made. With the family pedigree, Leiter will be a Major League pitcher someday. The only question is, how dominant does he project to be as a pro?
3. Adrian Del Castillo, C/OF, Miami
Del Castillo represents another likely top ten pick next June, although his true position in the field has been a bit of a question throughout his time with the Hurricanes. As a freshman in 2019, he started all 61 games for Miami: 31 in right field, 16 at DH, 12 at catcher and two at third base. In 16 starts in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, Del Castillo morphed into the team’s primary catcher, logging 13 starts behind the plate, two in right field and a sole appearance at DH. For now, he’s listed as a primary catcher, but I can definitely see him making the move to corner outfield as a professional in an attempt to lengthen his career and considering he does possess a leaner frame at 5’11” and 208 lbs.
Despite moving all over the field like a vintage 2016 Kris Bryant, Del Castillo’s versatility has never eaten into his production at the plate. As a freshman, he batted .331/.418/.576 with 12 home runs, 22 doubles, 58 runs, 72 RBI and three steals across 236 at bats. During that time, he struck out 24 times (8.5 K%) and drew 32 walks (11.3 BB%) – signs of a mature approach for a young hitter getting his first taste of collegiate competition. The college circuit wasn’t able to exploit any holes in Del Castillo’s swing on the heels of his ridiculous 2019 season, as he improved his slash line to a .358/.478/.547 mark over 53 at bats in 2020. Only two long balls came with that production (five XBH), but Del Castillo maintained excellent on-base numbers and even drew more walks (16.4 BB%) than in his rookie season. The strikeouts did rise slightly to an 11.9% clip, but that’s hardly noteworthy based off the sample size and relatively low rate that Del Castillo punches out as is.
When he was last given scouting grades during his high school draft year in 2018, Del Castillo was handed a 50-55 hitting grade and 50-60 raw power, depending on where you look. He didn’t come with the same level of draft hype as others in this piece, as he was the No. 194 player on the board for the 2018 Draft and lasted until the 36th round due to his commitment to the U. Even back then, he was lauded for his rhythm and efficient stroke as a hitter, traits that have only improved through his first two seasons with Miami. The swing is compact, gets to the zone quickly and stays through the hitting zone for a very long time, all things that provide hope that Del Castillo will mature into an well-rounded professional hitter and not a one trick pony that hurts you in the AVG/OBP department. On top of that, there is potential for borderline double-digit steals in a 600 PA season with Del Castillo, but 8-10 is probably his ceiling in that department. If you’re in an open world league, Del Castillo is type of hitter you would be wise to get a share of now. If you’re waiting for him to hit first-year player drafts almost two years from now, see how he does next spring and go from there – but this bat should be a lock to be a top 10 selection at worst next June.
4. Jud Fabian, OF, Florida
Here comes the Jud! I’ve seen Fabian listed as highly as No. 2 overall in projections for the 2021 Draft, but there isn’t a whole lot of scouting data to go on for him. He was never previously drafted, but has the tools to be a top five draft pick next year. Here’s why:
In 2018, Fabian’s junior season of high school, he batted .453 and tied Trinity Catholic’s home run record with 11 big flies. As a result, he earned a spot in both the Under Armour and Perfect Game All-America Games. Then, instead of returning for his 2019 senior season and draft year, Fabian elected to enroll early at the University of Florida and begin his college career. Therefore, instead of playing against high school competition last year, Fabian appeared in 56 games for the SEC-based Gators. Quite a jump, and the numbers reflected it.
Fabian slashed just .232/.353/.411 last season with seven home runs, nine doubles, 32 runs, 26 RBI and seven stolen bases to pair with a 21.7 K% and 13.5 BB%. Sure, the average was low, but this was an 18-year-old kid getting exposed, to a degree, against significantly better competition. I’d still rather see that than Prince Fielder being fully exposed on the cover of ESPN the Magazine again. But even so, Fabian posted an OPS above .750 and socked seven long balls, so it wasn’t all bad. Then, he followed that up with a solid Cape Cod performance, where he was the youngest player in the league and became the youngest-ever selection to the CCBL All-Star Team after notching a .290/.350/.500 line with six home runs, eight doubles and one steal with the wood bats.
What that performance tells me, is that we shouldn’t worry too much about Fabian’s low average in his freshman season – the same way I’m not worrying about the fact that I haven’t done any laundry in almost two weeks and am writing this in a maroon sweatsuit from the sixth grade. Fabian is obviously still a work-in-progress as a hitter, as he should be, and has already proven he has legitimate power with the wood bats. For his shortened sophomore campaign, the bottom-line numbers took a big step forward: .294/.407/.603, five home runs, six doubles, 19 runs, 13 RBI and two steals over just 17 games/68 at bats. The strikeouts remained high, rising to a 26.5% clip, while the walks increased to a 16.0 % mark. More so than solely focusing on his hit tool, I think the concern for Fabian should be the strikeouts. If he’s punching out 26.5% of the time at the college level, what will this look like as a pro? Even as he’s improved in the batting average and on-base departments over the past year, the strikeout numbers have only risen. Even during his successful All-Star season in the CCBL, he was striking out over 29% of plate appearances. Many scouts chalk this up to Fabian’s difficulties picking up spin on the baseball, which means he still needs to prove he possesses the ability to recognize pitches well enough to excel as a professional.
Fabian should certainly be owned in any open world league, but truthfully, he isn’t one of my favorite picks at present. I would much rather study him throughout the 2021 season next year to see what new adjustments he’s able to make. To me, Fabian profiles as more of a prototypical three-true-outcomes type as a future Big Leaguer, with potential to contribute 10-15 steals across a full season. Regardless, expect Fabian to be another top selection next June and someone who will go off the board in 2022 first-year player drafts relatively quickly.
5. Matt McLain, SS, UCLA
To me, Matt McClain sounds like the name of the cliché high school d-bag from a Hollywood movie. He’s the kind of dude who slashes your bike tires after school or spreads a rumor that you have a thing for the 11th grade science teacher. But that doesn’t describe this Matt McLain, although he is a bit weasel-like at just 5’11” and 170 lbs. Remind me how he made this list again?
Right, right. McClain was drafted 25th overall in the 2018 MLB Draft by the Diamondbacks, but he elected to pass up the first round money and go to UCLA. At that time, these were McClain’s tools: 50-hit, 50-power, 60-legs, 55-arm and 50-glove. The main reason for including the defensive tools is because McClain’s ultimate positional home is still up in question. There’s been talk that he could be destined for second base, third base, or maybe even the corner outfield. When you see those tools, you have to wonder what it was that landed McClain in the first round two years ago. In reality, he was only ranked the 54th overall player in that draft. Baseball America viewed him as a third-to-fourth round talent. Perhaps, Arizona reached for him and thought he was more signable than some other prospects surrounding him – which he wasn’t.
At first look, McClain strikes me as a quick twitch guy with the bat – just look at how he fidgets his hands during his pre-pitch timing mechanism. He uses an energetic bounce to time incoming pitches, striding to the ball as opposed to using a leg kick. Diamondbacks scouting director Deric Ladnier said of McClain:
We felt like it was a very advanced high school bat. He has a short compact swing. He’ll end up having some power.
While my boy Deric won’t be winning any public speaking awards, he gave us a little added intel on why Arizona selected McClain so high. The D’Backs thought they were drafting a high floor HS bat, potentially a five tool guy with the 60-grade speed. But they never were able to sign him, and he didn’t exactly make the organization look smart during his first college season with the Bruins. In 2019, McClain batted .203/.276/.355 with four home runs (19 XBH), 28 runs, 30 RBI and six steals over the course of 217 at bats. It wasn’t good, and the 25.7 K% didn’t help matters.
Things improved during 2019 CCBL action. In 34 games and 113 at bats competing with wood, McClain slashed .274/.394/.425 with two homers (11 XBH) and six steals. He even cut the strikeouts below a 20% clip during the summer and improved his on-base tendencies thanks to a 12.4 BB%.
Enter 2020. It all makes sense now! This is like wondering why both of your parents are 6’11” with luscious blonde hair and Herculean build, while you peer up at them from below through your shrunken 5’6” stature and noodle arms, finally to find out after all these years that you were adopted! It all clicks at some point, like it did for McClain during the abbreviated 2020 campaign. The sophomore shortstop exploded with a .397/.422/.621 slash line with three homers (seven XBH), 15 runs, 19 RBI and one steal in just 13 games. As always, the sample size needs to be taken into account, but it looked as if McClain had taken a leap forward and then some. The dude was like Frogger skipping the street altogether and going straight to the lily pads. Booyah. In one-fourth as many at bats, he nearly matched his home run production from the previous season (three vs. four), raised his average by .194 points and OBP by .146 points – while nearly doubling his slugging (.355 to .621).
McClain likely wouldn’t have continued this pace over the course of the full season, but it leaves us prospect junkies desperately wanting more as we await the resumption of organized baseball. McClain has been comped to Alex Bregman in the past, but I wouldn’t go nearly that far. Indeed, Bregman never hit double-digit homers in college and like Bregman, McClain profiles as a guy whose raw pop won’t develop fully until he’s established as a pro, but Bregman also never hit .203 (or even below .316 for that matter) over a full college season, either.
With McClain, you’re looking at a top 10 talent in the 2021 draft, with room to fluctuate upward or downward depending on his swing-and-miss tendencies during the 2021 college season. There are college bats I like more than McClain for where he’s being projected to be drafted, like Boston College’s Sal Frelick, but you would be unwise to write off McClain as a result of his ugly 2019 freshman season. He should be owned in all open world leagues and is a top 50 overall college prospect as it stands today – underclassmen and upperclassmen alike.
Also Considered: Sal Frelick, SS, Boston College; Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State; Ethan Wilson, OF, South Alabama; Alex Binelas, 3B, Louisville; Gunnar Hoglund, RHP, Ole Miss
As I’ve come to expect, your research teamed with knowledge and wit provide convincing cases for the players that make your list. I’m anxious to see where your headed next, Hobbs. I feel so much smarter after an inning or two with you.
Appreciate the read, FC! We’ll continue where we left off next week with perhaps my favorite player in next year’s draft class, Sal Frelick of Boston College.
Any thoughts on Alabama’s Connor Prielipp (freshman last year, so 22 draft eligible)? LHP, ranked top prospect in 22 draft by one service. Thanks in advance.
Hi Craig, thanks for reading. Prielipp is a fascinating case, in my opinion. I had him more as a fringe first round guy in 2022 prior to the 2020 season, but he’s a great example of someone who really took advantage of the abbreviated season and advanced his stock. After throwing 21 scoreless innings to begin his college career (15.0 K/9, 2.6 BB/9), I’d have to agree he’s trending more in the direction you read about. He’s got four pitches and including a lethal fastball-curveball combination.
With his 2020 season, he’s moved into the 2022 top 10 conversation for me but he’s not in consideration for that top spot yet. Florida’s Hunter Barco probably came into the year as the most highly regarded college arm, and his 1.40 ERA/.162 BAA over 19 1/3 frames certainly didn’t change that appraisal. Still, Prielipp has plenty of time to continue to build stock and so much can change between now and June 2022.
Thanks. I personally thought the top pick was a touch too aggressive, but I also don’t pay as close of attention to college baseball. I’d think front offices would want to see how he does against better competition the next couple of years. While the numbers were undoubtedly gaudy this spring, they didn’t come against SEC competition. To me he kind of seems like a guy who puts up 30 points a game in a major league in November of a college basketball season. Eye-catching, and very much warranting a longer look, but also need to see similar or close-to-similar results from January on to justify it.
Anytime! I’d have to agree — too aggressive for my liking and yes, we’d prefer to judge performance based off the full picture via non-conference and conference competition collectively.