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Better know a draft prospect: 2023 primer

The draft will be here before you know it

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Syndication: The Daily Advertiser SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network / USA TODAY NETWORK

The 2023 MLB Draft will take place July 17-19 in Los Angeles. While that is still over three months away, teams have already begun preparations as colleges and high schools around the country begin their spring seasons. In that spirit, we will also begin preparations here at Royals Review. In the months leading up to the draft, my colleagues and I will provide analysis of some prospects the Royals could look to target in the draft. I will focus on the college players as I will be watching many of them throughout the spring.

A year after picking ninth in the draft, the Royals’ top pick this year will be eighth. Kansas City will have four picks in the top 100, picking at #44, #66, and #75 after the first round. While quality players can come from those subsequent rounds, the bulk of our analysis will focus on players the Royals could target with their top pick.

Under Dayton Moore, the Royals did not display clear patterns in their top draft selections. Although they tended to demonstrate an old school approach favoring toolsy players, the demographics they targeted were inconsistent. That said, they did seem to favor college pitchers in the latter part of Moore’s tenure (A.J. Puckett in 2016, Brady Singer in 2018, and Asa Lacy in 2020).

This is no longer Dayton Moore’s team. This will be just the second draft with Danny Ontiveros serving as Scouting Director and the first with Jack Monahan serving as Director of Baseball Operations/Amateur Scouting. In Ontiveros’ first draft, we saw a college-heavy haul headlined by Gavin Cross out of Virginia Tech and Cayden Wallace out of Arkansas, as well as an intriguing late-round pickup of high-ceiling prep prospect Austin Charles. With such a small body of work to evaluate, it’s difficult to guess what strategy the team could employ in this year’s draft.

What sort of players will the Royals have to work with? Some very good ones evidently. Per Keith Law:

It’s an incredible draft class, the best probably since 2011, loaded with college position players and a nice batch of college arms, along with three high school position players who would have been in the mix to go first overall in 2022 (and one of them could still do that this year).

I’ll have plenty on prospects in the #8 range over the next few months, but today I’ll briefly discuss some of the players that probably won’t still be on the board at #8. A lot can happen between now and July, but barring something absurd, these guys will be off the board by the time the Royals pick.

All stats are through games played April 2.

Dylan Crews

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Pirates for getting Dylan Crews in the draft. It’s not complicated: Crews is the best amateur baseball player on the planet. He was getting early round buzz prior to the 2020 draft but pulled his name from the draft to attend LSU. He’s done nothing but hit since he set foot on campus. Starting in right field for the Tigers as a freshman, Crews slashed .362/.453/.663 with 18 homers. For a freshman to start for an SEC team and put up those kinds of numbers is exceptionally rare. He moved to center field for his sophomore season and upped his power and walk rate, slashing .349/.463/.691 with 22 dingers. He spent the summer with the USA Collegiate National Team and was damn impressive in the stars and stripes.

Crews entered the spring as the consensus best player in college baseball and has lived up to all the hype. We’re over a month into the season and he’s hitting .543/.664/.947 with over two and a half times as many walks (29) as strikeouts (13). The term “videogame numbers” doesn’t even do this justice. What Crews is doing at the plate is downright absurd, it’s not supposed to be this easy.

Scouts are divided about whether or not Crews will stick in center, but even if he ends up in right field, he has MVP-level talent. The bat is just that good. Alas, Royals fans, don’t get your hopes up. I am more likely to quantum tunnel through the floor than Crews is to reach #8 in the draft. The main reason I wanted to write this piece is so I could talk about Dylan Crews. Everybody should know him.

Wyatt Langford

Some evaluators have Langford above Crews in their rankings, which is baffling to me given Crews’s considerably longer track record. Anyway, Langford spent most of his freshman season at Florida riding the bench, garnering just four plate appearances. He spent the following summer tearing the cover off the ball in the Valley Baseball League.

Langford got a shot as a starter in 2022 and made the most of it. He went yard in his first plate appearance of the season and never looked back as he enjoyed a breakout campaign. He reached base in 59 of the 66 games he played and tied for sixth in the country with 26 homers. His effort earned him All-American and All-SEC honors.

2023 saw Langford get off to a torrid start before he went down with what I will simply call a lower-body injury. He recovered quickly, however, and returned this past weekend against Ole Miss. In 94 plate appearances this season, Langford is hitting .392/.550/.861 with eight homers and more walks (25) than strikeouts (12).

As mentioned above, some consider Langford and Crews to be a sort-of 1a and 1b situation. They’re both right-handed hitting SEC outfielders. Both could play center at the next level but are more likely corner guys in the future. Langford is toolsier, hits the ball harder, and makes more contact. Crews has a better approach at the plate, a swing optimized to produce hard contact in the air, and a longer track record of elite production.

Paul Skenes

Crews’s teammate at LSU has rocketed up draft boards since the start of the 2022 season. Skenes began his collegiate career at Air Force. As a freshman, he split time between catcher, DH, first base, and relief pitching. He excelled on both sides of the ball, posting a .410/.486/.697 line with 32 extra-base hits at the plate and throwing 26.2 innings with a 2.70 ERA on the mound.

Skenes took over as the Friday night starter for 2022 and continued getting time in the field as well. While he continued to hit well with a .314/.412/.634 batting line, it was his work on the mound that started to get the attention of scouts. He made 15 starts with a 2.73 ERA in 85.2 innings. He struck out 96 batters and allowed just four homers. That’s already very solid given that Division I baseball is an offensive league, but it’s even more impressive considering where he played. The Mountain West, where Air Force plays their games, is one of the highest-offense conferences in the country. In 2022, Mountain West teams collectively posted a 6.99 ERA in conference play. To twirl a 2.73 there is tremendous.

Sensing he could have a future in pro ball, Skenes transferred to LSU for his junior year. He has been almost untouchable so far in 2023. Hitters from Western Michigan and Samford obviously haven’t stood a chance, but he’s torn through strong, experienced lineups in Texas A&M and Arkansas as well. His numbers through seven starts are comical: 44.1 innings, 0.81 ERA, 19 hits allowed, eight walks, and a D1-leading 83 strikeouts.

A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle told reporters after Skenes mowed down the Aggies on St. Patrick’s day, “He’s pitching in the wrong league, I’ll tell you that. He needs to be in the American or National League.” LSU coach Jay Johnson echoed similar sentiments: “He could do it against a major league lineup right now and I believe that.” Skenes throws a riding fastball in the upper-90s, and he frequently hits 100. He also mixes in a solid changeup and a tight slider that’s really developed since arriving in Baton Rouge. He’s got room to improve the secondaries, but so far, he looks like the best pitcher in college baseball.

Chase Dollander

Entering the spring, Dollander was widely viewed as the best pitching prospect in this year’s draft class. Some outlets even had him as the top prospect overall. The righty pitching for Tennessee drew comps to Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, two of the best pitching prospects to come out of the college ranks.

Dollander wasn’t heavily recruited as a prep player and began his collegiate career at Georgia Southern. He made 12 appearances as a freshman and pitched to a solid 4.04 ERA, showing swing-and-miss stuff with 64 strikeouts in 49 innings. This performance put him on the radar for power conference teams and after the 2021 season, Dollander transferred to Tennessee.

On a loaded Tennessee pitching staff, Dollander opened the season as the Saturday starter. His first appearance as a Volunteer came against his former team. He struck out 11 batters in five innings. Dollander was even better in SEC play, allowing two or fewer runs in seven of his eight starts against SEC teams. He finished the season with a stellar 2.39 ERA in 79 innings, punching out 108 batters and walking just 13.

In 2023 Dollander has been solid, but disappointing given the expectations. He has a 3.92 ERA in 39.0 innings. The strikeout and walk numbers remain excellent (56-11), but his BABIP against is almost 100 points higher than it was last season. He’s only had one bad start, a clunker against Mizzou a few weekends ago.

Dollander features the prototypical arsenal of the modern ace: a fastball up to 99 that plays up in the zone, a tight sweeping slider, and a curveball and changeup that flash plus. His delivery is clean and he attacks the strike zone. Skenes has been better in 2023, but Dollander still has a high chance of being the first pitcher off the board.