The Mariners are notably tight-lipped about player acquisitions, not wanting to tip their trident too early; even during the flurry of trades this off-season, leaks tended to come from national or the other teams’ beat writers, not our own. That goes double for the draft, as we tend to only find out about the Mariners’ interest in certain players (Justin Dunn, Jarred Kelenic) well after draft day. But when we do hear something, it’s worth according that at least some credence, especially when it comes from two separate sources. In Keith Law’s latest mock draft for ESPN (subscription required), while he projects UNLV SS Bryson Stott to the Mariners, he includes this nugget:
One weird rumor I picked up while working on this had the Mariners going way over slot for Anthony Volpe, a prep shortstop on the same team as Jack Leiter.
This may or may not be the same intel that caused the team at FanGraphs to project Volpe to the Mariners in their latest mock draft, although just a paragraph earlier Volpe was listed, along with teammate Jack Leiter (Al’s son), as a signability challenge. Reportedly Volpe is looking for at least $3 million to break his commitment to Vanderbilt, and might have a shortlist of teams he’d even be willing to consider, said to be heavy on teams near his New Jersey hometown.
It’s a curious rumor, as the Mariners don’t have the deepest bonus pool: with $7,559,000, they’re 19th among all teams. For contrast, Arizona leads everyone with more than $16 million available, making them heavy favorites to enchant prepsters away from their college commits. The slot for pick 20 is still $3 million plus, so if Volpe is looking for something in that range the Mariners could still come in around slot, although spending 40% of the pool on one signing will limit what they’re able to do in later rounds. That extra money can be useful: last year, the Mariners signed talented prep pitcher and Vancouver, WA native Damon Casetta-Stubbs to an overslot deal of $325,000 in the 11th round. DCS is already pitching for the Mariners’ A-level affiliate and has looked impressive in the early going. With the Mariners desperately rebuilding their farm after it’s been thinned by years of trades—especially on the pitching side—committing a significant amount to a prep shortstop is a bold move in a draft class that’s not viewed as particularly strong. Let’s dig into what Anthony Volpe offers that makes him an intriguing target.
Perfect Game lists Volpe as their #4 prep hitter behind names like Riley Greene, Corbin Carroll, and Brett Baty, and the second-best prep defender behind the glove-first Nasim Nunez. As a defender, Volpe demonstrates smooth throwing mechanics and clean footwork. He doesn’t have the strongest arm and isn’t the flashiest defender, but he has the basics to stick at the position at the next level.
The swing is where some scouts see an area of concern. At 5’11”/180, Volpe has a solid lower half and might project to gain size/muscle, but he’s already fairly physically mature. Volpe has plus bat speed and makes a ton of contact, but his swing isn’t designed to produce big power; he holds his hands high in his load and then keeps them close to his body, which keeps his bat in the zone for a prolonged period of time but doesn’t allow him to extend his arms. He also doesn’t use his lower half as much as he could to really drive the ball deep.
The main concern with Volpe is that, while he has some tools, he doesn’t have a loud, carrying tool, like fellow prep SS Nasim Nunez, who has similar offensive questions but a rocket arm, or power-slugging Nolan Gorman, taken by the Cardinals with the 19th overall pick last year. Volpe’s swing is geared for contact but not necessarily for power, and while he’s a capable fielder with clean mechanics, he doesn’t have a particularly strong arm. Where Volpe does get off-the-chart marks is for makeup and baseball IQ, as might be expected from someone who has been on the showcase circuit since he was a preteen. Perhaps in Volpe the Mariners see someone with a solid baseline of tools they can develop into an everyday starter at the next level with an appealing blend of present skills and future projection. That’s not a perspective shared by many scouting reports, who see someone with an average-to-better hit tool lacking power. Josh Herzenberg at FanGraphs notes that Volpe to artificially gets the bat on plane by pulling in his hands, an approach he worries won’t translate at the next level. You can see an example of how Volpe shortens up his swing and gets the bat on plane in the zone here:
We know that the Mariners have bet heavily on their on in-house development, so maybe they see Volpe’s swing as a non-issue given his supposed coachability and high baseball IQ. But the lack of a strong carrying tool, combined with the signability questions and strong East Coast ties (Volpe’s Twitter feed espouses enthusiasm for two primary things: the Vanderbilt Commodores and the New York Yankees), lead us to question if the Mariners wouldn’t be better served looking elsewhere with the 20th overall pick. It’s not a particularly strong draft class, and the Mariners do pick in the bottom third (thanks, 2018 Mariners), but there are a handful of names we prefer as a staff who should be available around that pick. There’s also—tin foil hat alert—the possibility that the Mariners know Volpe is likely unsignable, and are punting this pick in order to collect an extra draft pick (and extra pool money) in next year’s draft, which promises to be a little more robust than this year’s.