Feature Photo: Hagen Danner, RHP/C, Huntington Beach HS (Huntington Beach, CA)
POSITIONAL PREVIEW LINKS
It’s almost always a struggle to find depth at the catcher ranks in the MLB Draft, and the pool of high-end targets tends to shrink even further once evaluators begin to filter profiles by their likelihood to be able to stick behind the plate. The 2017 Draft Class is no different, with only a handful of backstops looking like potential Day One picks and the vast majority of top targets skewing heavily to either bat-first profiles with big defensive questions, or defensive specialists who may not hit enough long term to carve out everyday roles at the major league level.
Danner has enjoyed a strong spring for Huntington Beach – one of the nations top high school teams – drawing Day One attention both on the mound and at catcher. As a backstop, the UCLA commit has greatly improved his fluidity in actions, receiving, and footwork, helping evaluators to get comfortable with the idea that he can be more than just arm strength behind the dish. His physical maturity has begun, as well, with a noticeable tightening of his physique, which has in turn made for easier, more natural actions on the field.
At the plate, Danner shows solid bat speed and good feel for the barrel, generating solid pop through his core, and an ability to drive the ball with authority. Supporters point to easy loft in his swing, loose hands and present strength to go with a still projectable, athletic build in projecting average power at maturity. While most teams may prefer the live arm on the mound, there’s a contingent of clubs interested in Danner’s upside as a potential above-average defender with plus arm strength and a solid stick. He’s in play early on Day One, and should be off the board by the second round at the latest.
Luis Campusano, C, Cross Creek (Cross Creek, GA)
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/200 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 18y, 8m
The son of minor league catcher Genaro Campusano, Luis has some feel for the position to go with enough offensive upside to place him comfortably among the top catching prospects in the 2017 Draft Class. His stocky build belies solid footwork, both in the catch-and-throw game and in his side-to-side actions, and while his receiving remains a little rough around the edges, he has made progress in refining that portion of his game over the last 12 months.
Campusano’s carrying tool is his plus raw power, the result of above-average bat speed and a swing that effectively and efficiently incorporates the strength in his lower half. His deep load and aggressive cuts can lead to empty swings from time to time, and there are some concerns as to whether he will ultimately make enough contact to reach his upside as a 20-plus home run bat. While he’s committed to South Carolina, Campusano’s appealing mix of plus power and solid-average arm strength should get drafted high enough to make it unlikely that he’ll set foot on campus.
M.J. Melendez, C, Westminster Christian HS (FL)
Ht/Wt: 6’1”/175 B/T: L/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 18y, 7m
Should Melendez make it to college, he’ll play at Florida International where his father, Mervyl Melendez, serves as the head coach. As one might expect, Melendez plays like a coach’s son, possessing instincts and some of the more impressive catch-and-throw skills in the entire draft class. He earns plus grades for his arm which he likes to show off on steal attempts and back picks alike, showing a high level of comfort and ability to snap off quick throws from his knees (though at times the “flash” in his game can result in misfires and frustrating throwaways). Melendez has room to add bulk to a lean frame which should assist in handling the grueling demands of the position.
Offensively, Melendez has some unnecessary noise in his swing before commencing with a smooth, but lengthy left-handed stroke that flashes solid bat speed and average power to the pull side. He’s a glove-first talent at present, but he draws average hit tool projections from some evaluators and could develop into a strong everyday talent at the big league level, capable of impacting the game with his glove and arm.
After batting .333 on the Cape last summer and being selected as a Cape Cod League All-Star, Adams has put together a solid campaign for the Toreros in 2017, positioning himself to be the first collegiate catcher selected in the 2017 MLB Draft. Adams is big for the position, but has maintained solid flexibility and mobility as his body has matured, helping to mitigate some of the typical receiving and presentation issues normally associated with larger backstops.
More adequate than impact behind the dish, Adams does have a chance to impact the game in the box, where he shows good leverage in his swing and can produce above-average raw power through his long levers. The bat speed is average and the swing can get long, but when Adams stays direct to the ball, he produces loud contact that resonates with evaluators. He profiles as a potential average defender with average-or-better power to go with a fringy hit tool. That’s good enough for an everyday catching gig in the league today, and should be enough to entice a team to call his name on Day One. A well-below-average runner, Adams is likely relegated to first base if he has to shift out from behind the dish.
NAMES TO KNOW
Evan Skoug, C, Texas Christian Univ.
Ht/Wt: 5’11”/200 B/T: L/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 21y, 7m
A three-year starter at TCU, Skoug is no stranger to the big stage. Splitting catching duties with Florida’s Mike Rivera on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, Skoug hit .263/.364/.474 with a pair of home runs last summer, while showing plus raw power and a penchant for hard contact. He was unable to keep that momentum rolling into this Spring, however, as he struggled mightily to make consistent contact throughout the first half of the season before righting the ship some down the stretch.
At the plate, Skoug’s power is real, with the former Illinois prep product slugging 16 home runs in 2017 utilizing a compact left-handed swing that’s compact to contact with little in the way of wasted energy. There’s some violence in the swing and his barrel can routinely come off-plane, resulting in a lofty amount of swing and miss, as evidenced by his striking out in 30% of his plate appearances. He’s a fringy defender with average arm strength, but possesses the desired leadership and toughness intangibles for the position, and evaluators give him a fair shot at sticking behind the plate long term. The profile fits well late on Day One or early on Day Two.
Daulton Varsho, C, Univ. of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
Ht/Wt: 5’10”/200 B/T: L/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 21y, 2m
Varsho made a name for himself last summer in the Northwoods League, where he finished second in the wood bat summer league in home runs (15) while batting .321 and drawing more walks (45) than strikeouts (36) over his 290 plate appearances. His performance was enough to draw evaluators out to UW-Milwaukee this Spring, where the athletic catcher continued to put on an offensive display, slashing .362/.490/.643 with 11 home runs and a 46:39 strikeout rate over 249 plate appearances.
Varsho has a non-traditional profile as a catcher, possessing plus speed down the line and athletic actions to go with a below-average arm, opening the door for some playing time in left field at the next level and potentially fitting long term as a 120-game talent that can give you 50 nights behind the plate and the rest in the outfield or as a DH. There’s plenty of juice in the bat and a chance for the Horizon League standout to grow into an average power and hit tool at maturity, making him an interesting option to come off the board much earlier than expected to a team that believes in the profile, and particularly a team that values versatility. He could hear his name called as early as the second round.
Connor Wong, C, Univ. of Houston
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/180 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 21y, 0m
More athletic than most of his peers behind the plate, Wong served as the Cougars shortstop during his freshman year before splitting time between catcher, outfield, and third base over his sophomore and junior seasons. Wong’s swing lacks fluidity, but works for him thanks in part to Wong’s plus bat speed. On the season, the multi-positional talent has a .890 OPS with 11 home runs, showcasing an ability to do a little damage and keep pitchers working to fringes.
An excellent runner for a catcher, Wong sets the table as Houston’s leadoff hitter, and has 25 stolen bases in 29 attempts this spring. His actions are a bit raw behind the dish, which isn’t surprising given the lack of experience, but he does have have an above-average arm and quick feet that allow him to move well laterally. The offensive upside combined with the defensive versatility makes Wong an intriguing draft prospect with Day One upside.
Joey Morgan, C, Univ. of Washington
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/205 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 20y, 7m
Morgan has gotten incrementally better year-over-year during his time on campus in Seattle, evolving from a light hitting, glove-first backstop his freshman year, to a middle-of-the-order offensive threat this season. Now a junior, Morgan has earned All-Pac-12 honors in each of the past two seasons. Morgan has slashed .324/.427/.500 this season, while walking (30) nearly often as he’s struck out (35).
Morgan’s swing is short and direct to the ball, geared more toward driving balls into gaps than over the fence. Despite the offensive maturation, Morgan has been able to maintain his defensive prowess, earning a spot on the conference’s all defensive team and using his solid-average arm and quick release to wipe out 13 of 27 runners attempting to steal. Morgan should be one of the first college catchers off the board, somewhere between the second and fourth round.
Blake Hunt, C, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, CA)
Ht/Wt: 6’3”/180 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 18y, 7m
Hunt is one of the better catch-and-throw prospects in the class, regularly pumping sub-1.9 second pop times with a quick, clean release and good carry. As a standout at one of the nations top high school programs at Mater Dei, Hunt has long been known to SoCal area scouts as a player of interest. Added strength to his wide and projectable frame over the past nine months has boosted his stock further, giving evaluators a glimpse of both some offensive potential in profile and a sturdier, more physical foundation on the defensive side.
Hunt should have little trouble sticking behind the plate at the pro ranks and could refine into a true above-average defender with a strong throwing game thanks to his easy, athletic actions. A team who believes the hit and power tools could get to even fringe-average could pop him as early as the second or third round.
Matt Whatley, C, Oral Roberts Univ.
Ht/Wt: 5’10”/200 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 21y, 5m
In addition to baseball, Whatley wrestled and played football for Claremore High School (OK) before attending Oral Roberts. A first team All-Summit League performer in each of his first two seasons, Whatley has slashed .342/.451/.538 throughout his decorated collegiate career. That track record didn’t translate into success at the Cape Cod League, where he struggled last summer producing a.198/.271/.279 line. The swing can get long with a steep exit, pulling the barrel off plane at times and too often resulting in empty or soft contact this Spring.
While there are questions about the offensive side of the profile, Whatley is a polished defender, moving well behind the plate and showing receiving aptitude, quick exchange, and strong arm. He fits well in the third or fourth round as a quality defensive backstop with a chance to grow into a little bit of pop with some offensive adjustments.
One of four impressive catching commits lined up to attend the University of Florida, Jackson’s potential for 20 home run power sets him apart from the rest and makes him the most likely to be selected early enough in the draft to keep him from Gainesville. There’s some pre-pitch movement that can prevent him from a consistent load and launch, but when he’s on time he produces lots of very loud contact with easy natural lift and finish. His thick but athletic build plays well enough at present behind the plate, though there’s lots of developmental work to be done to ultimately get him to where he needs to be as an everyday player at the position.
There’s enough heat on Jackson’s left-handed power stroke that he could find his name called as early as the second round, though it’s more likely he comes of the board early on Day Two. If he slips too far and proves unsignable, he’s a potential impact bat as an underclassman and could reemerge as an early-round selection as a draft-eligible sophomore in 2019.
Sam McMillan, C, Suwanee (Suwanee, FL)
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/195 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 18y, 6m
One of the quietest receivers in the class, McMillan boasts a balanced profile devoid of a glaring weakness but also lacking in a standout plus tool. He moves well behind the plate, shows solid arm strength with a clean release, and generally handles himself well as a field general. In the box, there’s some drag in the barrel and the swing lacks finish, limiting his ability to lift and drive the gaps. While he’s done a solid job of squaring the ball up and producing hard contact this Spring, there are some concerns among evaluators as to how much ceiling there is in the stick.
McMillan is a Florida commit who could be tough to buy out of his commitment to the Gators if he slides to deep in the draft, and the lack of a standout tool anchoring the profile could prevent teams from splurging on the Florida prep product before the third or fourth round. Should he wind up in Gainesville, he should be able to jump in and contribute right away.
One of the older prep positional talents in the class, Clarke draws high praise for his feel for the barrel and ability to produce big time power at the plate from the left side. He generates good exit velocities through a strong core and above-average bat speed, and has little trouble elevating the ball and carrying the gaps and outfield fence alike.
Defensively, Clarke is raw behind the dish and many think the combination of somewhat stiff actions and fringy arm strength will push him out to first base as a pro, whether that’s later this summer or after two years at Vanderbilt (he would be a draft-eligible sophomore after the 2019 season). His profile fits comfortably as a third- to fifth-round talent, though it’s widely believed he will tough to sign away from Vandy if selected in that range.
Chris Williams, C, Clemson Univ.
Ht/Wt: 6’1”/220 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 20y, 5m
After spending time at both corner infield spots last season in deference to Chris Okey (Reds), Williams has done well to fill the void of the departed 2016 second rounder. On the season, Williams has slashed .270/.330/.592 and has tied underclass slugger Seth Beer for the team lead with 14 home runs. There’s enough strength to envision 15 to 20 home runs at maturity, provided he is able to make enough contact for the power to play up (a proposition that has raised the eyebrows of some regional evaluators).
Though he’s raw and inexperienced defensively, Williams has provided leadership behind the plate while utilizing a strong arm to throw out 50% of would-be basestealers. Williams hurt his throwing shoulder shortly before the postseason, relegating him to pinch hit duty in the ACC Tournament, and has still not returned behind the plate as of this writing. He fits well in the third to fifth round and profiles as a bat-first backup or quasi-utility option who can pitch in a little at catcher, first base and even left field. One evaluator notes that his age (Williams won’t turn 21 until next winter) could help him to get selected one or two rounds earlier than most expect.
Mike Rivera, C, Univ. of Florida
Ht/Wt: 5’10”/200 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 21y, 6m
Rivera is a long-time alum of the USA Baseball program, standing out for his on-field leadership and defensive chops with both the 18U squad in high school and most recently as part of USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. The Florida backstop has above-average arm strength and quickness in his lower half belied by his stocky build. Already a capable receiver when he came to Gainesville, Rivera has developed into a strong all-around defender in his three years with coach Kevin O’Sullivan and the Gator staff and should transition seamlessly into pro work after handling high-caliber arms over the duration of his collegiate tenure.
The offensive profile is a much larger question for Rivera, who has scuffled through 2017 with a .238/.338/.349 slash line. While Rivera controls the strike zone well, he can get passive at times and his failure to produce much in the way of damage has allowed pitchers to get aggressive with him in the zone. He fits comfortably in the fourth-to-sixth round range and could develop into an able backup or second-division regular if he can get his offensive game back on track at the next level.
Steven Williams, C/OF, Deerfield-Winsor (Albany, GA)
Ht/Wt: 6’3”/215 B/T: L/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 18y, 3m
Williams, an Auburn commit, can flash above-average raw power to go along with a decent approach and solid bat speed – all of which culminates in an offensive profile that could be enticing enough for a pro team to move him to the outfield immediately in order to allow him to focus his developmental attention on the bat. The Georgia prep standout has a firm, thick, athletic build with some width to his frame, but moved well enough to handle center field at the high school level and, thanks to his plus arm strength, could be at least an average defender in right field at the next level.
Behind the plate, Williams lacks refinement and will require a great deal of instruction and reps in order to grow his receiving skill set, as well as both his blocking and his footwork on throws. A team that believes Williams can reach his ceiling as an above-average power bat with at least a fringe-average hit tool could pop him as early as the third round.
David Banuelos, C, Long Beach State
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/205 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 20y, 8m
Banuelos has a thick build and reputation for hard-nosed play to go with an above-average defensive profiles that includes smooth side-to-side actions, above-average presentation, and a solid catch-and-throw game with pop times hovering consistently around 1.9 seconds. Offensively, the swing is compact and flat, playing well to the gaps but lacking in impact. A team that really likes the glove and arm could pop him early on Day Two, envisioning an everyday player with above-average to plus defense and a down-order stick that will produce enough so as not to be a black hole.
Spencer Smith, C, Northern (Durham, NC)
Ht/Wt: 6’1”/200 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 18y, 6m
Smith is a burly, athletic backstop who can flash above-average raw power and enough bat speed to catch up to and drive big velocity. There’s a lot going on in the swing, including a deep load and exaggerated leg kick, affording advanced arms myriad opportunities to disrupt timing and draw empty swings last summer on the showcase circuit. This Spring, Smith has feasted on less advanced high school arms, putting fresh into the minds of evaluators the upside he has as a potential power-hitting catcher.
He’s capable behind the dish and has enough arm strength to carry the position at the next level, though like most high school catchers he’ll need continued reps and instruction to grow and refine his overall defensive game. Smith should fit somewhere between the fourth and sixth round on Day Two of the draft, with a chance to go early to a team that believes it can smooth out the swing without hampering the explosiveness and easy lift.
Kolby Fitch, C, Univ. of Louisville
Ht/Wt: 6’1”/200 B/T: L/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 21y, 10m
Fitch has a compact swing from the left side capable of producing hard contact to the gaps and low double-digit home-run pop at the next level. Defensively, Fitch is best described as capable, with some work still to be done cleaning up his side-to-side movements. He’s an able catch-and-throw talent who should see a solid bump in his consistency and accuracy with some tweaks to his footwork. Overall, Fitch fits as a fourth- to sixth-round talent with an adequate defensive profile and chance to provide gap-to-gap pop and some on-base production. He could be a bit of a bargain if he slips too far due to his mid-season slump.
Adam Kerner, C, Oaks Christian (Westlake Village, CA)
Ht/Wt: 5’10”/175 B/T: R/R Age (as of 2017 MLB Draft): 18y, 10m
Kerner is a potential impact player behind the dish, showcasing smooth athletic actions and a strong arm capable of producing sub-1.9 pop times on the regular. He lacks fluidity in his swing and can get tight, particularly in his upper half, through contact. As the body continues to mature and his physique tightens, there’s a chance for solid gap power to emerge. With teams more frequently shying away from ‘glove-only’ high school backstops, the odds are favor of Kerner making his way to the University of San Diego next fall, where he could greatly improve his future draft stock with a little more offensive development.