Junior colleges began playing games that count a couple of weekends ago, but most D-1 schools began their baseball seasons on February 9. As inconsequential as that may sound, it signals that the 2018 MLB Draft will be here sooner than you think.
The Cubs have gone hard after pitching in the last two drafts and many of those young college arms will be moving through the upper part of the minors this season. The starting rotations at South Bend, Myrtle Beach, and Tennessee will offer a series of litmus tests for how well those selections are working out.
The 2018 draft selection pool is deep and the Cubs are going to get a very good player with the No. 24 pick. The strategy they choose to employ will determine what kind of prospect they add: They could target the best available player, they could try to replenish the bats that will be ready to hit free agency by 2021, or they could continue the recent trend of college pitching. No matter who the Cubs draft, that prospect will likely shoot to to the top of their prospect list.
As with any year, there’s a lot of variation in the evaluation of draft prospects. For example, Clemson’s Seth Beer was the consensus No. 1 pick following the 2017 season. Now he’s barely in the first round. A poor summer playing for USA Baseball and the lack of a definitive position in the field has taken some of the fizz out of Beer’s draft position. Someone is going to take a chance on that bat, they just aren’tt going to pay over $5 million for the opportunity.
Given the number of high-value college bats that figure to be available at 24, I think the Cubs will go that route. In addition to Beer, TCU’s Luken Baker should be around. He’s limited to first base, but Anthony Rizzo won’t be around forever. I would take Wichita State third baseman Alec Bohm in a heartbeat if he’s still on the board. At 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, he has a good frame and can generate some serious power. Most importantly, he has destroyed the ball in wooden-bat leagues (.959 and .912 OPS) the past two summers, including the Cape Cod League in 2017. That’s always a good barometer for Jason McLeod.
Prep shortstop Xavier Edwards is a four-tool player currently ranked No. 38 on MLB Pipeline’s top 50 draft prospects. He is still growing and has elite speed and a good arm. The issue is whether he will keep his commitment to Vanderbilt.
If, however, the Cubs want to keep loading up on arms, there are a few pitchers who caught my eye (click on their names for video profiles from MLB Pipeline). High school right-hander Cole Wilcox, lefty Tim Cate from Connecticut, and 6-foot-11 Sean Hjele (sounds like “Jelly”) from the University of Kentucky are all intriguing possibilities. Though they have little in common, all three share one important trait: the ball comes out of their hands very easily and they can throw in the mid to upper 90’s with little effort.
Wilcox is just a teenager but he looks pretty polished already. Once he transitions to pitching on a full-time basis, the sky could be the limit for him. He was on USA Baseball’s 18U team and did really well, which is a solid precursor of professional success. The one issue I would note is that, while he seems to do everything pretty well, he really doesn’t have one overpowering pitch.
Cate hides the ball extremely well and it’s hard for the hitter to pick it up coming out of his hand. His curve destroys lefties with a nice 1-to-6 break and he gets some of the ugliest swings I have seen this offseason. Cate does have USA Baseball experience as well, a common theme among the players the Cubs prioritize. I don’t know if he’s going to be a full-time starter, but he could move pretty quickly as a reliever. He’s not going to make it to the back of the second round, so the Cubs would have to take him with their first pick if they like him.
As you might imagine, Hjele’s defining characteristic is that he is just huge. He was the SEC Pitcher of the Year last year as a sophomore and I think he is someone to keep an eye on this spring. He is very good now, but I can’t figure just what his ceiling would be.
There’s always the possibility that the Cubs could look to re-draft a player, in which case we should keep an eye on Santa Clara’s John Cresto. The Cubs picked the third baseman in the 18th round back in 2015 and I thought they had a pretty decent chance to sign him that summer. Cresto opted to honor his commitment to Santa Clara, where he hit .257 as a freshman and a little over .300 his sophomore year. He hit .267 with three home runs last summer, as well.
At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, the right-handed hitter has improved each season and appears poised for a breakout his junior year. The Cubs selected pitcher Jake Steffens from Santa Clara last year, so you can rest assured that they’ve been able to keep tabs on the one that got away over these last couple years. While Cresto will probably not be a first round pick, he has a good shot of being taken on Day Two.
It is extremely early in the process and much will change over the next four months, but those are some names I like so far.