This week, Ben, John, and Kate are previewing the first round of the MLB draft with a thought-experiment: what if the Mariners had every pick in the first round of the 2018 draft? Picks 1-6 and a general intro are here and picks 7-12 are here.
Today we go through picks 13-18, which includes the Mariners’ actual first selection at 14th overall! Almost any of the players we’ve profiled thus far COULD be available when Seattle is on the clock this June, but if the draft happened right now, this group seems most likely to be available. In what is widely considered a deep draft, there’s plenty to look forward to.
Pick 13: Kate selects Will Banfield, C, from Brookwood HS (Georgia)
Banfield is, to my mind, the best backstop in the draft, a dyed-in-the-wool catcher who works tirelessly to perfect his craft. Banfield picked the position up in Little League when his team was short at the position, leading his coach (also his father) to ask “who wants to try catcher?” Young Will raised his hand, and the rest is history. Banfield boasts the top pop time in the draft, able to hop out of his crouch and throw to second at a top time of 1.74 seconds with a strong and accurate arm (for context, Manny Piña posted the best pop time in all of MLB last year at 1.74 seconds). He’s also able to handle big velocity; Banfield plays on a travel team where he catches fellow Peach State residents Ethan Hankins and Kumar Rocker, both of whom throw in the upper 90s. Moreover, though, Banfield has the mentality of a top-tier catcher; he understands his job is to make pitchers look good by stealing strikes and blocking pitches, and he excels in both those areas.
Beyond his skills behind the plate, Banfield is a big right-handed bat who showcases easy power with an uphill plane; he hits the ball hard, and he hits it far. There’s more growing left to do in his 6’0/200 lb frame and some noise to quiet in his swing, but it’s easy to see Banfield, from both a talent and intangibles perspective, developing into Zunino 2.0. He even has a similar affinity for dingers in the clutch:
Pick 14: Ben selects Travis Swaggerty, OF, University of South Alabama
Swaggerty wound up at South Alabama—a school that has never produced a first-round pick—after being offered few (no?) other opportunities to be a position player at the collegiate level. Having gone undrafted out of high school, he caught scouts’ attention, but many wanted him to pitch after a successful run as a closer in high school.
It’s safe to say South Alabama Head Coach Mark Calvi’s gamble paid off. Swaggerty finished out his sophomore season with a .361/.487/.567 slash line while demonstrating an impressive combination of power and speed, clubbing 10 homers and swiping 19 bags. His 17.6% walk rate was not only better than his strikeout rate (16.1%), but also was the highest of any college outfielder inside MLB.com’s Top 50 draft prospects. A guy who has been likened to Brett Gardner for his size (5’11” 180lb) and defense, but also his base-stealing ability, Swaggerty’s .487 OBP last season is indicates he’ll have plenty of opportunities to show off his wheels on the basepaths, which many scouts view as his standout skill.
Swaggerty silenced any doubts about his ability for his offense to translate upon switching to a wood bat with his successful stint with the USA Collegiate National Team, where he posted a .386/.518/.500 line through his first 14 games, prompting some scouts to dub him the top postion-player prospect on the team, which included the aforementioned Nick Madrigal among a handful of other guys you’ll see coming up in this series.
In the previous highlight, courtesy of Baseball America, you can see Swaggerty sets up with a slightly open stance, and uses a smooth left-handed stroke from what appears to be a strong frame to drive the ball (note that he’s using wood). BA credits his offensive success to “his willingness to use each side of the field. Early in the summer, he tried to pull too many pitches. That resulted in pitchers shying away from fastballs, and sending more offspeed pitches his way.” Additionally, Swaggerty mentioned “I had to change my approach in the swing. I started doing that now, here,” Swaggerty said. “I think to go up the middle, left center. When they throw me in, I trust my hands to get there. “I’ve been staying up in the middle of the field and that’s really helped me.” He also added “When I get on base I try to fly around. It’s not so much about trying to be selfish or trying to pad my stats, I’m trying to advance, get in scoring position and score runs for the team. I just try to fly around and do what I do to help the team out.”
Swaggerty’s discplined plate approach and ability to run the bases—both things Jerry Dipoto has been very open in identifying as areas of needed improvement—could make him a realistic pick for the M’s, who’ve ranked in the bottom-five in BsR in each of the past three seasons, at their real-life draft spot of 14, just like he is here.
Pick 15: John selects Kumar Rocker, RHP, North Oconee (Ga.) HS
Few veins are as rich as the depth of 80-grade names in this MLB draft. Following Swaggerty is a tough ask, but Kumar Rocker is up to the task, both on the field and when signing autographs. The first thing that stands out about Rocker is that, frankly, he’s massive. The son of NFL lineman Tracy Rocker, Rocker stands 6’5, 250 lbs, and uses his impressive athleticism to generate easy mid-90s velocity. Along with fellow Vanderbilt commit Ethan Hankins and Florida’s Jackson Kowar (my pick at 9th overall yesterday), Rocker is in the discussion for the most impressive fastball in the draft, pushing 98-mph with sinking action. What stood out to me was how low-effort his motion was, particularly against top competition last summer.
Rocker just turned 18 in November, and already has a nice power curve in the mid-80s to accompany his heat. In the clip above, he induces a flyout from Brice Turing (Kate’s pick at No. 12), freezes Nolan Gorman for a backwards K with the breaking ball (Kate’s pick at No. 6), twice spots the slider just off the plate for a near strikeout looking before inducing a muffed grounder against Jarred Kelenic (My pick at No. 10), allows a walk, then refocuses for a dirty swinging strikeout on the slider once again. He’s also still building his changeup, but it’s already a passable pitch that, with his impressive one-two combo, only needs to be decent for Rocker to have success.
Rocker will need to improve his command, a common refrain for HS arms. It’s easy to be enamored with a big body and a big arm, and Rocker hasn’t always maintained results that match his tools. Reports on his character and his focus are positive, and hopefully the results will follow. If they do, neither he nor Hankins seem likely to pitch as Commodores next year.
Pick 16: John selects Joey Bart, C, Georgia Tech University
While I’ve broken from my streak of college pitcher/high school hitter, I’ve stuck with a different sort of trend in this round. Jerry Dipoto remarked on the recent Wheelhouse podcast that Georgia has established itself as a hotbed of baseball talent, and with back to back picks from the Peach State, I’m ready to agree.
Since Danny Hall took over as head coach at Georgia Tech University in 1994, four of his catchers have been taken in the first five rounds, with two, Jason Varitek and Matt Wieters, going in the first round. Joey Bart should continue that trend. Bart seems likely to draw more comparisons to Wieters than Varitek, as a 6’3, 225 brick wall with plenty of power from the right side.
There had been two questions for Bart coming out of high school, where he was in consideration as a bonus pool selection before committing to Georgia Tech. The first, obvious concern was if he could maintain consistency as a hitter. Bart’s size and strength give him more than enough natural strength to drive the ball with power. He’s shown that as he’s dominated the ACC and the Cape Cod League as a hitter. His swing still strikes me as a bit long, but it has improved visibly from high school. Secondly, Bart didn’t seem like a lock to stick behind the plate defensively, which would put far more pressure on his bat. His athleticism seems solid for a catcher but unremarkable elsewhere. Thankfully, reports are positive about his improvements at Georgia Tech, and his footwork has caught up enough with his elite arm strength to appease most evaluators.
Bart is a catcher with a legitimate power bat and results against strong competition. That brief resume is enough for many teams. Heck, a catcher with a power bat was potentially the Mariners’ best player last year. It’s not worth underestimating. If nothing else, he’s used to wearing the jersey.
Pick 17: Ben selects Jeremy Eierman, 3B/SS, Missouri State University
Eierman smacked the crap out of the ball all season long for Missouri State in 2017, where he posted a stat line nearly identical to the guy manning the hot corner next to him, 2017 first-round-pick Jake Burger.
While Burger demonstrated a more disciplined plate approach, striking out just a bit more than half as often, Eierman may have made up that lost value by edging out Burger 17-3 in the stolen base department, while only getting caught twice.
Based solely off the numbers he posted during his breakout sophomore season, Eierman could likely get himself drafted, but adding in a solid defensive profile likely will elevate him to mid-first round status. MLB.com had this to say about his defense:
To this point, you’re probably wondering why he lasted this late into the draft. Basically, it boils down to what appears to be a complete inability to hit when handed a wood bat as opposed to the aluminum stick he swings for MSU. Following his freshman season, he reported to the Cape Cod League for 35 games over which he slashed .192/.235/.533 with zero home runs. Despite the rough going, Eierman said “I think the Cape helped me quite a bit. As far as the new guys, just learning everyone, learning who they are, and becoming good teammates. Going to the Cape really helped me progress as a hitter, learn my zone, and swing at the right pitches.” Following his 2017 campaign, he reported to the even-more-prestigious USA Collegiate National Team, competing against the top college talent from all around the world. And the results were even worse. Through 18 games, the righty slugger ran a .125/.182/.225 line, again failing to go yard, and posting walk and strikeout rates of 5% and 25% respectively while being bumped almost exclusively to third base on defense.
After Eierman was one of my initial favorites from a precursory scanning of stat lines, I’ve become rather disenchanted with this pick. He’s shown he’s got some real offensive potential, but his lack of a track record with a wood bat makes him a bit of a risk, and the Mariners farm system, which was recently ranked dead last, can’t afford to have yet another first round pick bust.
Pick 18: Kate selects Noah Naylor, C, St. Joan of Arc HS (Ontario, CN)
Furthering the legacy of the Mariners selecting Canadian players and taking another backstop to replenish a catcherless system? Don’t mind if I do. You might recognize the surname from Noah’s older brother Josh, a power-hitting 1B Padres prospect who played with Mariners prospects this year in the AFL as a member of the Peoria Javelinas. If you watched the AFL closely you’ll have noted that Josh is sneaky-fast on the bases, running well despite his large frame. At this stage, Noah is even more athletic than his older brother, playing a premium position with one of the better pop times in the class and showing an ability to nail runners trying to steal on him (that’s Nolan Gorman, my second choice at #6, with the nice pick on the first play):
In addition to his defensive chops, Noah, like older brother Josh, is a big boy with the ability to hit for power. Gorman and Naylor might be the two best power-hitting prospects in this year’s draft class, and the two of them went toe-to-toe in the HS home run derby held during the All-Star Break this year, where Gorman emerged victorious. I picked two prep catchers in this round because holy cats do the Mariners need catchers, and took Banfield first because I like him better from a floor standpoint—he’s absolutely a catcher, and at the bare minimum could serve as a backup MLB catcher. Naylor’s bat seems more developed at this stage, though, and there’s a chance he sneaks past Banfield and Bart to be the first catcher off the board this year.