Prospects Worldwide

An Early Look at the Low and Mid-Major Conferences (West): 2021 MLB Draft

Written By: Zack Silverman
Follow Him on Twitter: @ZackMatt4
Follow Prospects Worldwide on Twitter: @ProspectsWorldW


Last time, we talked about the loaded crop of mid-major talent east of the Mississippi River, from pitchers Sam Bachman and Mason Black to bats Ethan Wilson and Hunter Goodman. The west side of the river isn’t quite as fertile at this point, especially beyond Sam Houston State’s Colton Cowser, but it should be interesting nonetheless. The states of California and Texas dominate here, combining to produce eight out of the ten names. If the list had gone to thirteen, it would have been eleven of thirteen. This is also a pitcher-heavy group, as after Cowser, slots two through six bring five arms in a row.

1. OF Colton Cowser, Sam Houston State

Bat: L. Throw: R. 6’3″, 195 lbs. Born 3/20/2000. Hometown: Cypress, TX
2019-2020: 8 HR, .339/.436/.554, 14 SB, 38/34 K/BB in 70 games.

Cypress Ranch High School in the Houston suburbs had quite the team a few years ago. Pitchers J.J. Goss and Matthew Thompson went 36th and 45th overall in 2019 to the Rays and White Sox, respectively, while another pitcher, Ty Madden, ended up at Texas and is a potential first round pick in 2021. Outfielder Colton Cowser was probably the fourth best player on that team and headed to Sam Houston State. However, after slashing .361/.450/.602 with seven home runs and a nice 29/26 strikeout to walk ratio in 56 games as a freshman, he rocketed himself into the national conversation. An unremarkable start to 2020 (.255/.379/.364, 1 HR, 9/8 K/BB) may not have built his case further, but it didn’t do much to damper it and he’s easily the best mid-major prospect west of the Mississippi River.

First and foremost, Cowser stands out for his feel to hit. He has struck out in just 11.9% of his plate appearances at Sam Houston State, keeping low swing and miss rates and low chase rates on not only fastballs but offspeed pitches as well. It’s not just pure bat to ball skills with Cowser, as he also shows plus feel for the barrel that enables him to consistently drive the ball into the gaps and pop for some home runs too. He’s an above average runner who has stolen 14/16 bases for the Bearkats and should stick in center field, further adding to his leadoff profile.

At a wiry 6’3″, some evaluators think he can grow into above average power. He knocked 31 extra base hits (including seven home runs) as a freshman and added three doubles and a homer in 2020, all despite utilizing a flat swing that has led to a 46% ground ball rate. His proponents see that plus feel for the barrel, room to grow, and potential to add loft and can see 20-25 home runs per year. Some pessimists, however, don’t think he’ll get much bigger and will point to unremarkable exit velocities to say he projects for closer to 10-15. Regardless, it’s a first round profile for the Houstonian, one that can sit atop a big league lineup for years.

2. LHP Rodney Boone, UC Santa Barbara

Bat: L. Throw: L. 6’2″, 175 lbs. Born 4/9/2000. Hometown: Orange, CA
2019-2020: 10-1, 2.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 111/40 K/BB in 102.1 IP.

Some people really, really like Rodney Boone, while others aren’t as impressed. Regardless, it’s one of the more interesting profiles in this year’s draft. Boone has been as steady as they come for UC Santa Barbara, winning ten of eleven decisions and posting a 2.73 ERA across more than 100 innings, striking out 111 and walking 40 along the way. Now, the school that gave us Shane Bieber, Dillon Tate, and Ben Brecht in recent drafts has another potential Day One arm.

Boone is unique among Day One hopefuls in that he does not throw hard at all. Throughout his time in Santa Barbara, his fastball has typically sat in the mid to upper 80’s, but his stock has risen lately with reports he was hitting 90 this fall. Even with the velocity bump, he’s still fringy in that regard, but he gets good spin rates on the pitch and hitters don’t seem to pick it up. The Orange County native also adds a potentially plus changeup that generates a ton of whiffs, tunneling very well off his fastball and again proving difficult to pick up. His curveball is his third pitch for now, as he tends to bounce it. Hitters haven’t chased it much to this point, but they often swing and miss when they attempt at it, so getting more confident in the pitch could help him take another step forward.

Boone has some work to do, considering his fringy velocity gives him very few benefits of the doubt. First and foremost, he needs to maintain this slight uptick in velocity and perhaps even add another tick this spring, as 88 with good pitch data is still 88. His control also still stands out ahead of his command, which will be important when he can’t sneak as many 88 MPH fastballs by pro hitters as he can in the Big West. That’s another reason maintaining and improving upon his velocity gains will be important. The ceiling here is very interesting, however, with a very deceptive lefty who could potentially sit low 90’s with two above average secondary offerings and above average command.

3. RHP Trenton Denholm, UC Irvine

Bat: R. Throw: R. 5’11”, 190 lbs. Born 11/29/1999. Hometown: El Dorado Hills, CA
2018-2020: 15-14, 2.96 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 166/55 K/BB in 197.2 IP.

Sticking with crafty arms in the UC system, we’ll turn next to Irvine’s Trenton Denholm. The Anteater ace was eligible in 2020, but he was extremely young for his class and returns to campus for a fourth year while fitting right in age-wise with many other first-time eligible college players. Denholm has been absolutely lights out since the end of his freshman season, putting up a 1.90 ERA, a 0.84 WHIP, and a 118/30 strikeout to walk ratio over 123.1 innings for UC Irvine the last two seasons while also shoving for 32.2 (!) shutout innings (one unearned run) over two summers on the Cape. Now, with a similar birthday to much of this year’s college class, he has one of the best overall track records of all.

Denholm’s stuff isn’t explosive, but he still leaves hitters shaking their heads. The fastball sits around 90, usually a tick above up to about 92-93. He throws a distinct curveball and slider, both of which are solid average pitches. His plus changeup is his best pitch, just fading and fading away from the left handed batters into some dark abyss. The Sacramento-area native shows above average command, but even that plays up because he’s absolutely fearless on the mound and will pound the zone with everything he has.

Denholm is far from the most physical arm in California, listed at a skinny 5’11”, but that hasn’t stopped him. Though he doesn’t project to add much velocity, it’s really easy to fall in love with his feel for pitching and bulldog mentality, and the results back it up. Denholm projects as a back-end starter or a long reliever due to his lack of velocity and swing and miss breaking stuff, but I wouldn’t bet against him.

4. RHP Dominic Hamel, Dallas Baptist

Bat: R. Throw: R. 6’2″, 205 lbs. Born 3/2/1999. Hometown: Chandler, AZ
2020: 2-0, 4.58 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 27/7 K/BB in 19.2 IP.

Interestingly, Dominic Hamel is actually draft-eligible for the fifth year in a row in 2021. After graduating from Hamilton High School in the Phoenix suburbs in 2017, he spent two years at Yavapai JC, then transferred to Dallas Baptist for the 2020 season. Hamel started off strong, allowing one earned run while striking out 19 over twelve innings against South Dakota State and UNC, but faltered against Arkansas State and Oral Roberts by allowing nine earned runs in 7.2 innings. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to get drafted in the shortened event.

Hamel really interests progressive clubs that are confident in their pitching development (hint hint, @Rays). To this point, he hasn’t quite put everything together, but he does have a lot going for him. The Phoenix-area native sits comfortably in the low 90’s, topping out around 96, but makes the pitch play up significantly with great extension. He adds a pair of high spin breaking balls in a curve and slider, both of which can flash above average, though they’re inconsistent to this point. Hamel’s changeup isn’t much of a factor yet.

The 6’2″ righty has a sturdy, athletic frame, and his strike throwing ability has improved to near average. A data-savvy team will be eager to get their hands on his high spin stuff, and they could have a lot of fun tinkering with ways to play one pitch off another. Improving his consistency and adding a changeup will be key to raising Hamel’s floor, especially given that he’ll be 22 in March. The ceiling, though, is that of a mid-rotation starter, with a fallback option as a two or three pitch reliever that could sit more consistently in the mid 90’s with a true plus fastball.

5. RHP Tanner Bibee, Cal State Fullerton

Bat: R. Throw: R. 6’2″, 190 lbs. Born 3/5/1999. Hometown: Mission Viejo, CA
2018-2020: 9-15, 3.92 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 169/52 K/BB in 181.1 IP.

Cal State Fullerton is a talent pipeline that has recently churned out tons of pitchability-types including Tom Eshelman, Connor Seabold, John Gavin, and Colton Eastman, and now Tanner Bibee looks to be next. He was steady over his first two years (4.15 ERA, 136/47 K/BB in 151.2 IP) and took a nice step forward in 2020 (2.73 ERA, 33/5 K/BB in 29.2 IP) against a pretty strong non-conference slate that included Stanford and Texas. He also showed well in the Cape Cod League in 2019 (3.38 ERA, 19/4 K/BB in 18.2 IP), giving himself a pretty strong track record to compete with arms who might have louder stuff.

Bibee hangs out in the low 90’s with his fastball, topping out around 93. The pitch plays up because he puts tough angle on the ball, pitching from the far third base side of the rubber and hiding the ball well from a closed off delivery. His slider is probably his best pitch, coming in around 80 with late tilt and flashing above average. At this point, the changeup grades out as below average, looking pretty flat most of the time. With above average command and pitchability, everything works together well.

It’s a pretty safe back-end starter profile for the Orange County native. While Bibee doesn’t possess even an average changeup unlike many of his peers in that demographic, he stands out a bit for his above average breaking ball. Teams looking to get a quick-to-the-big-leagues arm and perhaps save a little money in the process will be very interested in the 6’2″ righty, who was off to a hot start in 2020.

6. RHP Braden Olthoff, Tulane

Bat: R. Throw: R. 6’4″, 220 lbs. Born 3/12/1999. Hometown: Vista, CA
2020: 4-0, 0.32 ERA, 0.54 WHIP, 47/3 K/BB in 28 IP.

Few pitchers can match Braden Olthoff’s meteoric rise in recent years. A lightly recruited high school hitter, he picked up pitching as a senior and landed at Palomar College with a mid 80’s fastball. Two years later, he transferred to Tulane with increased velocity and shoved; over four starts, he allowed one earned run and just fifteen baserunners while striking out 47 of the 101 batters he faced, good for the third best ERA, third most strikeouts, and fourth best WHIP in Division I (min. 20 innings). He went undrafted last year, but has a chance to continue his climb in 2021 (though I’m pretty sure he’s reached his ceiling as far as performance goes). Though he didn’t face the strongest competition, he did out-duel Tanner Bibee with a complete game, sixteen strikeout shutout against Cal State Fullerton.

Since high school, the 6’4″ Olthoff has added about six or seven miles per hour to his fastball and now sits in the low 90’s, topping out around 94. He mixes in an average curveball with nice depth that he can also morph into a slider, working well between the two. Olthoff’s best pitch is probably his changeup, which gets above average grades and plays well off his other three pitches. Of course, everything plays up due to plus command and pitchability, as well as the ability to hide the ball behind his 6’4″ frame. Also going in the San Diego-area native’s favor is durability, as he throws almost effortlessly and is built like a prototypical starting pitcher.

Once you get to Day Two in the draft, it can get difficult to differentiate between a glut of pitchability arms. Olthoff stands out due to his 2020 performance, first and foremost, but also due to his trajectory. He has not only improved, but leapt forward every year since high school. It might be hard to project yet another big leap in 2021, but slight improvements to his breaking balls or perhaps another tick on his fastball could push him into top 100 consideration, especially if he goes out and shoves like he did in 2020.

7. C Shane McGuire, San Diego

Bat: L. Throw: R. 6′, 195 lbs. Born 4/12/1999. Hometown: Kent, WA
2018-2020: 3 HR, .320/.442/.407, 7 SB, 65/75 K/BB in 117 games.

Shane McGuire gives us a sixth straight player who was eligible in 2020 but returned to school. The younger brother of Blue Jays catcher Reese McGuire, Shane won’t match his brother’s first round pedigree but has a chance to be a similar player. He has improved every year at San Diego and was off to a blazing start in 2020, slashing .469/.561/.688 with one home run and just two strikeouts in twelve games. That came on the heels of a .325/.444/.401 sophomore season and he has a great track record with wood bats, which is made even better by the fact that he will likely stick behind the plate.

McGuire stands out most for his plate discipline. After striking out in 16.7% of his plate appearances as a freshman in 2018, he cut that to 10.6% in 2019 and then just 4.9% in the shortened 2020 season, all while walking a combined 14.8% of the time over three years (vs. a 12.8% overall K rate). McGuire works counts, selects hittable pitches while letting the bad ones go, and makes contact with the ones he does select. He has some loft and whip in his left handed swing, though to this point his power plays well below average despite his feel for the barrel. Learning to get a little more extension could perhaps get him closer to 45-50 grade pop.

The Seattle-area native shows a strong, accurate arm behind the plate that helps him control the running game. His glovework is a bit choppier, but he’s gotten better in that regard and being the brother of a big league catcher will continue to work in his favor. Unless he really improves his power output, it’s hard to project McGuire as a future starter, but his elite plate discipline and long track record of getting on base give him a high floor. He’s one of the safer-bet backup catchers in this year’s draft once you get into Day Two of the draft.

8. SS Wyatt Young, Pepperdine

Bat: L. Throw: R. 5’7″, 160 lbs. Born 12/5/1999. Hometown: Honolulu, HI
2019-2020: 2 HR, .311/.357/.350, 5 SB, 44/17 K/BB in 64 games.

Listed at 5’7″, 160 pounds, Wyatt Young is one of the smallest players in this year’s draft and will earn plenty of comparisons to former Oregon State shortstop Nick Madrigal. He’s put up a nice track record over two years in Malibu, slashing .311/.357/.350 over 64 games, and he also put up an impressive .340/.413/.440 line over 42 games in the Cape Cod League in 2019. With Eric Thames signing to play in Japan and Zach Vincej floating around the upper minors, there are no former Pepperdine Waves in MLB, so Young will look to change that (if A.J. Puckett doesn’t beat him to it).

As with Colton Cowser at the top of this list, Young’s selling point is his bat. He makes extremely easy contact, having struck out in just 14.5% of his plate appearances at Pepperdine and 16.3% on the Cape. However, unlike Shane McGuire just ahead of him on this list, it’s more of a product of pure bat to ball skills than strong plate discipline. Young routinely puts the ball in play early in the count, which to this point has limited his walk rate to 5.6% for the Waves. While he’s adept at finding holes in the defense and poking the ball into gaps, especially to the opposite field, he lacks the physicality to drive the ball to the wall, leading to pretty empty batting averages overall. Defensively, he mans shortstop for Pepperdine, but more athletic and more physical defenders will likely push him to second base in pro ball.

Young’s plus bat to ball skills give him a very high floor in pro ball. He will have no problem putting the ball in play against advanced arms, and on the Cape he showed that he can still find the gaps against those kinds of arms. The Honolulu native’s lack of power likely limits his ceiling, so his path to a full time big league job will rest on getting more patient at the plate and upping that on-base percentage. Still, he likely profiles as a bench option and appeals most to old school teams.

9. RHP Owen Sharts, Nevada

Bat: R. Throw: R. 6’1″, 175 lbs. Born 11/23/1999. Hometown: Simi Valley, CA
2019-2020: 3-11, 5.70 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 72/42 K/BB in 90 IP.

As of 2018, Owen Sharts was probably the best prospect of these ten players. A potential top five rounds pick, he instead enrolled at Nevada and struggled as a freshman, putting up a 5.96 ERA and a 40/35 strikeout to walk ratio over 68 innings. In 2020, he was hit around by Portland and Cal Baptist (combined 9 IP, 10 ER, 18 H), but also showed progress by dominating Oregon and Hofstra (combined 13 IP, 2 ER, 19/3 K/BB). Reno can be a tough place to pitch, and while the ERA hasn’t quite been there, he has done a good job controlling the strike zone and finished with a 32/7 K/BB in 2020. He also looked very good in the Cape Cod League in 2019, his 4.82 ERA hiding the fact that he looked dominant in all but one very rough outing.

Sharts joins the glut of back-end starter types in this group, coming in with a wide array of strengths but no true differentiators. His fastball sits in the low 90’s and he does a good job of holding that velocity, while his downer curveball and changeup project as average while flashing a few 55’s. The command isn’t pinpoint, but the Los Angeles-area native controls the strike zone well by going right after hitters with three big league pitches. He’s not built like a true horse, listed at 6’1″ and 175 pounds, but he has a clean delivery and repeats it pretty well.

To this point, I don’t think Sharts has really differentiated himself like Tanner Bibee has with his slider or Braden Olthoff has with his changeup and performance. In 2021, Sharts could use a little more consistency, as he has a tendency to get blown up when his stuff flattens out. Otherwise, with three big league pitches, good control, and no major red flags, he profiles as a safe bet back-end type for Day Two.

10. RHP Cade Winquest, UT Arlington

Bat: R. Throw: R. 6’2″, 205 lbs. Born 4/30/2000. Hometown: Haslet, TX
2019-2020: 6-2, 5.28 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 61/35 K/BB in 59.2 IP.

The University of Texas at Arlington, sitting in the shadow of Globe Life Field and AT&T Stadium, has also sat in the shadow of better Sun Belt programs like Coastal Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette, and South Alabama. Their crown jewels are John Lackey (1998), Hunter Pence (2003-2004), and Michael Choice (2008-2010), but no Maverick has gone in the top eight rounds since Zach Thompson in 2014. Cade Winquest may not match Thompson’s fifth round selection, but he’s trending in the right direction and could break out in 2021. He held his own as a freshman starter in 2019 (5.01 ERA, 49/24 K/BB) but never quite got going in 2020 (6.75 ERA, 12/11 K/BB). Only set to turn 21 at the end of April, he’s relatively young for a college junior.

To this point, Winquest has been a starter for the Mavs, and even in that role he’s shown flashes of big potential to go with inconsistency. In short stints, the Fort Worth-area native’s fastball sits in the mid 90’s and can touch the upper 90’s, playing up due to extension well beyond what you’d typically see from someone 6’2″. His high-spin curveball needs more consistency, but it flashes plus regularly and could eventually earn a true 60 grade. He recently added a slider and a splitter, which haven’t been seen much in game action. The command comes and goes, anywhere from fringe average to well below given the day. He walked a reasonable 10.9% as a freshman, but that jumped to 23.4% as a sophomore and 23.2% over the summer.

It’s unclear where Winquest’s future lies. On one hand, he looks like a reliever with two big pitches and very inconsistent command, and that likely tickets him to the bullpen. However, if he can clean up that command a little bit as a junior and show that even one of his two new pitches are for real, we could have a legitimate starting prospect on our hands. It’s still more exciting to picture the Texan in a big league bullpen at this point, where he could throw two legitimate 60-grade pitches (the fastball perhaps reaching 70) and worry less about pacing and command. There will be a lot of eyes in Arlington in 2021.

Other Interesting Low/Mid Major Options in the West

California

Three Californians just missed the list. Perhaps the closest was catcher Wyatt Hendrie, who transferred to San Diego State after a strong career at Antelope Valley CC. The Palmdale native is athletic for a catcher and runs well in addition to showing a strong arm, giving him a chance to continually improve behind the plate. His compact swing produces a lot of line drives and balls in the gaps, though to this point we haven’t seen much in the way of over the fence power. Hendrie controls the strike zone well and since he’ll be 22 in February, he could be a cheaper sign

At UC Riverside, Troy Percival‘s son Cole Percival has one of the better right arms on the West Coast. He sits in the low 90’s and touches 94-95 as a starter, getting nice sinking action on the fastball that proves difficult to pick up. Percival also adds an average slider and a fringy changeup. The 6’5″ righty throws strikes but his control is ahead of his command, and his fastball/slider combination would likely play up better in the bullpen. Percival was eligible in 2020 and will turn 22 in February.

Lastly, Michael McGreevy has been lights out for two years at UC Santa Barbara (7-1, 1.64 ERA, 79/20 K/BB), and since he won’t be 21 until July, he’s much younger than Hendrie and Percival. The Southern Californian sits around 90 with his sinker and adds a 12-6 curveball with good depth as well as a decent slider and changeup. Nothing pops out, but he throws strikes with all four pitches and his easy delivery portends well to a future in the rotation, while his projectable 6’4″ frame could help him get more consistently into the low 90’s.

Texas

A couple of Lone Star catchers stand out, including Dominic Hamel’s battery-mate Ryan Wrobleski. The Minneapolis-area native transferred in from Northern Iowa Area CC and has a lot to like. He’s a sound defender behind the plate who will stick, which makes his bat more attractive. Wrobleski generates above average raw power from a forceful right handed swing that can get long at times, and with seven home runs in the Northwoods League and three in fourteen games for Dallas Baptist, he has tapped it in games. Evaluators will want to see him tap that power over a full season in 2021 and keep the swing and miss down, especially on offspeed pitches.

Rice’s Justin Collins has a similar profile, though he’s already 22 and was eligible in 2020. The Houston native popped 13 home runs and slashed .262/.380/.403 over his first two seasons with the Owls, but slumped to .190/.352/.214 in 2020 and went undrafted. Collins has a bit of a noisy setup and can be streaky, showing a patient approach but swinging and missing a lot when he gets out of whack (42.6% K rate in 2020). His glove will require more work than Wrobleski’s, but he has the ability to stick with good coaching.

Elsewhere

Texoma area scouts are well acquainted with Adam Oviedo, who was a top five round prospect coming out of high school south of Fort Worth in 2017. Oviedo first played at TCU, where he rebounded from a rough freshman season (.228/.319/.257) to show well as a sophomore (.291/.379/.429). Transferring to Oral Roberts, he went undrafted in 2020 despite a hot start (.302/.353/.556) and will return for another year. He has a broad base of skills but no carrying tool, showing a simple, quick swing and a patient approach, but well below average power for most of his career until he hit five home runs in fifteen games in 2020. He’ll likely slide to second base in pro ball, so proving his 2020 home run barrage was at least somewhat for real rather than a fluke will be his key to becoming a big league role player.

Over at Arkansas-Little Rock, we have another undrafted returnee. Aaron Funk rebounded from an awful 2019 (11.45 ERA, 16/20 K/BB) to look lights out in 2020, putting up a 2.01 ERA and a 37/8 strikeout to walk ratio over 31.1 innings (including a 17 strikeout complete game against North Alabama). The Lawrence, Kansas native sits around 90 with his fastball, but it plays up due to the nice extension he gets from his 6’5″ frame. He also flashes an above average curveball with great depth. Funk’s delivery can get a bit rigid, so smoothing it out might help him peak into the low 90’s more often. He probably profiles better as a reliever, where his fastball could get another boost and his inconsistent command won’t be as much of an issue.


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