While Jordan Lawlar, Brady House and Marcelo Mayer may be getting the bulk of the headlines for the prep shortstop class, don’t sleep on Wake Forest, North Carolina blue-chip Khalil Watson. He may not have the length and projection the other three have, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in explosiveness and physicality on the baseball field.
At 5-foot-11, Watson is at least three inches shorter than any of the other prep shortstops at the top of his class. Watson will likely never be the tall, rangy, prototypical shortstop many fancy in the first round of any MLB Draft. His likely final destination will be second base or third base, depending on the trajectory of the body. As it stands now, Watson tips the scales at just 170 pounds.
Watson is a really well built kid. Don’t let the weight fool you, he’s got incredibly strong shoulders and a broad, thick back with a chest with some barrel to it. Most of his mass is carried in his core with his lower half and forearms lagging slightly behind.
For context, when Francisco Lindor was drafted 8th overall in 2011, he too measured in at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds. But Lindor was built much different than Watson. Lindor had a much thinner neck and sloping shoulders. He was more of a nimble-framed infielder with longer levers and proportional weight distribution. He was smooth and had a tendency to glide around the diamond whereas Watson is strong and explosive in his actions. Lindor lacked the power projection due to lesser bat speed and future strength.
(credit to the Indians and Lindor for utilizing the pull-side fly-ball revolution)
A more appropriate example of a player akin to Watson may be former Mariners shortstop Jean Segura. Similar to Watson, the now Phillies infielder checked in at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds on his 19th birthday. Unlike Lindor, however, Segura carried a lot of his weight in his core and glutes. He’s was more compact with shorter, more explosive legs. Many felt Segura was limited to second base where his arm and range would play better. As we know, he dispelled those notions thanks to defensive instincts and smooth actions. That said, he’s still been a fringe average defender at the position his entire career.
So what does this mean from a scouting perspective? Well, considering the body and the skillset, Watson probably ends up at second base or third base depending on the power trajectory.
But there’s intangibles to be graded here too. Watson has a bit of bravado to him. He plays the game with a passion and likes to have fun. If he tanks one off of you, you’ll be the first to know. There’s some theater to his game, and I for one am all for more personality in the game of baseball.
That said, let’s explore the tools a little more closely in helping us project his future value across the board.
Tools (Future Value)
I’m going to be a tad-bit bearish on Watson’s hit tool here, though you’ll probably see other reports in the 45-55 range. Watson has a good hit tool, though it’s not his biggest strength. He’s an ambush hitter at times, and certainly hunts fastballs, especially early in the count. He’s not overly aggressive.
Watson exhibits a good bat path that has more of a pull-centric approach. He doesn’t consistently barrel up the baseball, but when he does, it’s awfully loud. For now, there are a little too many infield fly balls and balls pounded into the dirt. The mechanics of the swing suggest those tendencies should improve.
Watson employs low hands that really cater to his lofty swing, also allowing him quick to the ball.
There’s very little pull-off in his swing and he’s reasonably short to the ball. It’s a rhythmic load with different checkpoints in his cadence. There are times, on seldom occasion, his hands can get a little ‘hitchy’ as he loads, but by and large it is sound. Watson is pure and fluid to the ball on most occasions. Here’s an example of a little hand-hitch, though he’s so strong he’s still able to drive the ball into the gap for a stinging double.
Watson didn’t hit under .350 at a single event all summer. There’s a lot to like in the bat and it wouldn’t shock anyone to see a future .260 hitter here, but there are some minor little inconsistencies to clean up. He’s young. These inefficiencies are to be expected.
Watson’s calling card may be his bat speed and his ability to really punish a baseball. As previously mentioned it’s a swing that really fits the modern approach toward lifting the baseball. There’s plenty of loft here. Watson does an exemplary job of extending and making contact out in front. It’s the same type of philosophy and approach that has allowed guys like Lindor and teammate Jose Ramirez to tap into more game power than most ever anticipated they’d be able to achieve. It’s also the type of swing that has allowed a guy like Ozzie Albies to become a more pronounced power hitter at the big league level.
It’s not just his approach though. Watson’s has the strength, athleticism and bat speed to support the notion he’s a future power hitter. At the WWBA World Championships this year, Watson hit the third longest home run all week at 411 feet.
It was a nuke.
Watson’s got the bat speed, the hand speed, and the lift to suggest he’ll be an impact bat at the next level, but his athleticism at the plate also stands out. The separation he creates in his swing shows off his mobility and helps add to the narrative his swing and body will age well in terms of impact with the stick.
This shot here is a great example of superior hip-shoulder separation. The fact Watson can separate the rotation between his trunk (hips) and his shoulders really lends to the narrative of bat speed and athleticism. His belt buckle is facing the pitcher while his shoulders/hands lag behind, subsequently creating torque.
Watson’s foot is down and he’s created tension in his obliques and core. It’s a little like a rubber band in that sense. The more you can stretch these powerful muscles, the more ‘snap’ they’ll create when the swing is triggered. Thus, creating bat speed and, as you’ve probably figured by now, power and distance.
I really like everything Ramirez does with his swing and I think there’s a lot of similarities in trajectory between the two players. The whole operation is optimized for flight, though Ramirez has obviously proven his approach and patience at the plate really allow him to stand out. Watson will need to hit enough at the big league level to reach anything near that stratosphere in the slash column.
Make no mistake, Watson’s ball skills and hands having nothing to do with his projection to second base. As it stands today, he can more than handle his own at shortstop right now. A move to second base is strictly based off the projection for more weight coming in his core and partially due to his shorter legs. Future range is what is in question.
If you’re sticking this kid at second base, he’s going to be a valuable asset on defense. Watson has a super soft glove and reliable hands that really stand out on the diamond. His transfers are quick and exhibit the right pace and touch around the bag. He’s got plenty of arm too, which we’ll get to in a bit.
Watson really understands the diamond and shows good instinct and awareness on ground balls hit his way. He circles to the ball very nicely and rarely seems rushed. He turns a smooth double play as well.
Watson is an accomplished bit of leather in his own right, and like Segura, I wouldn’t be surprised should he stick at shortstop long-term. But for the exercise, a move to second base optimizes his ability and simply projects better based on the information and visuals at our disposal.
Watson’s got plenty of arm for either second base or shortstop. He’s been clocked at 88 mph across the infield, so rest assured he can get the ball to first base.
That said, his throws have had a tendency to sail wide of their target now and again, so that’ll be something to track as he continues his development up an organizations’ system. At shortstop, the arm strength suggests an easy above average arm, though you could make the case his woes on the accuracy front drop it to an average tool. At second base, however, it’s firmly a solid average to above average offering.
Watson is probably an above average to maybe even a plus runner as it stands today. By the time he makes his debut, and he’s tacked on 15 more pounds or so, I do believe he’ll regress just a tick into the solid average range. A 55-runner is still plenty dangerous and has the potential to steal 12 to 15 bags per year.
Watson is a little sluggish out of the box which will bring down his home-to-first times a bit. That said, his 60-yard dash times and his 2B-to-3B times are definitely in the 60-grade plus category.
Like most players his age, Watson’s future speed tool will really depend on the direction of his body.
The kid plays with his hair on fire. He’s going to give you everything he’s got on the field and hustle should be the last concern of any of his coaches.
Khalil Watson had one of the best summers on the circuit of just about anyone. The hit tool and burgeoning power exceeded expectations. He’s a solid infield defender and runs really well. Watson has played his way into the first round conversation and figures to be a huge point of attention next Spring. If the hit tool takes even the most marginal step forward, it’s not out of the question the NC State commit is selected in the front-half of the first round.
There’s a lot to like about the profile here. A more recent comparison is that of Miami Marlins slugging infielder Jazz Chisholm. Watson, of course, will write his own story, but he’s got some of the same qualities teams look for in high-upside first round talents.