The prevailing wisdom in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 MLB Draft was that the Dodgers worked to restock the middle of the field with solid-to-safe everyday players while amassing a collection of intriguing if fairly unknown arms. While this is by and large still true after the class has completed its first professional season, a couple of the arms made significant impressions to up their profile heading into 2017. Perhaps most importantly, the bats were as advertised and a handful even surprised, suggesting that the 2016 draft class could be one of the deeper classes in recent Dodgers draft history.
First-rounders play up to expectations
Like the 2015 draft, the Dodgers made a surprise first round selection this year, though this time the pick was not a sliding top prospect but a late rising “safer” bat in Louisville catcher Will Smith. The other two selections, Wisconsin prep shortstop Gavin Lux, and Vanderbilt right-hander Jordan Sheffield were taken in line with their pre-draft grades.
Smith climbed the furthest in his first pro season, reaching High A with Rancho Cucamonga, though that may have been a little too much too fast. Smith’s combined slash line of .250/.360/.333 looks fairly nondescript, but the quick ascension speaks to the promise in his tools. Smith’s walk percentage of 12% held firm at each level, and though his strikeout percentage jumped to 26% in High A, controlling the strike zone should be a feature of his offensive profile.
Smith’s swing is short to the ball and level through the zone, which should portend to lots of contact. Smith did not hit for much power in his debut and primarily put the ball on the ground in High A, so he could stand to add loft to his swing. He’s a wiry strong 6’0 190 lbs. athlete, so power isn’t likely to be a major factor in his game, but he’s capable of playing the gaps and could reach 8-10 home runs annually. As a superior athlete for a catcher, he should also have more value on the basepaths than the typical player at the position.
Smith’s reputation as a defender behind the plate is quite high, and in brief video looks you can see evidence why. He’s a quite receiver with little wasted movement behind the plate and with the low set-up and wrist flexion to frame the low strike. Smith’s release is quick and he’s accurate enough to be an asset in the running game. Smith is athletic enough to provide versatility in the field, with starts at third and second base this season.
There’s an open question as to how much offensive upside Smith has, but his athleticism, defense, and positional versatility give him a high floor as a future bench option. Smith will likely return to Rancho Cucamonga in 2017 as one of their top players to follow and with Austin Barnes and Kyle Farmer ahead of him in the system, the Dodgers should be in no rush to push Smith up the ladder.
This year’s draft was deep in middle infield prep prospects, and Gavin Lux was seen as one of the safest and most likely to stay at shortstop. Lux’s pre-draft outlook suggested a player that may lack a standout tool but instead had the aptitude to get the most out of his skills. From a statistical standpoint, this by and large held true in his first professional season.
Lux’s final combined slash line of .296/.378/.403 between Arizona and Ogden speaks to his polish and advancement as a prep prospect. Lux started slow but came on late with improved contact with the complex team before a twelve-hits-in-eight-games Ogden cameo. Lux’s contact and walk rates also held firm after the jump, though the sample size is quite small.
Despite a high floor, Lux still has a ways to go to reach his eventual ceiling, with most of his needed development being physical. Listed at 6’2 and 190 lbs., Lux’s frame appears more slender and he should add strength as he matures. He’s a good athlete with above average quickness and speed, though he’s likely to slow as he fills out. His defensive strengths are tied to his advanced footwork, soft glove, and quick release on the throw, making him a safe bet to stay at shortstop.
In addition to body development, Lux’s offensive profile has room for growth. Lux was not considered a major power prospect before the draft and he failed to homer in his professional debut. Video from his spring shows a swing that had been cleaned up from the summer circuit, with Lux now shorter to the ball and lacking the hitch it had previously shown. Lux has above average bat speed and his numbers suggest a feel for contact, but he likely needs more loft and strength to be more than a 5-10 home run hitter in the future.
Lux is likely ready for a full season assignment to start 2017, but could suffer from the dampening offensive environment of the Midwest League (despite a standout prep career in Wisconsin). He’s an advanced high school hitter, but I don’t put his hitting tools at the caliber of Alex Verdugo, and don’t expect him to move as quickly through the system as he has thus far. With Corey Seager manning the position at the big league level, the Dodgers can exercise plenty of patience in developing Lux.
Midway through the 2016 college season, suggesting that the Dodgers would be selecting Jordan Sheffield in the supplemental first round may have been laughable. Sheffield slumped down the stretch, however, and re-opened concerns over his long term role. Given his late season fatigue, it’s not surprising that Sheffield pitched so sparingly for Great Lakes, though the plus to double plus stuff did show in his brief innings.
Having pitched just 9⅓ professional innings, the story on Sheffield remains largely unchanged from after the draft. Sheffield is a power arm in a slight frame that may lack the command and stamina to serve in a traditional starting role, but has the upside to close games as a fallback option. Sheffield will likely return to Great Lakes to start 2017 as the Dodgers work to get him acclimated to starting every fifth day. The Dodgers will likely need to watch his workload for another season before pushing him in 2018, but he might still reach High A at some point next season.
Unsung pitching prospects stand out
After the first round, the Dodgers focused on pitching with three of their next four picks, and the first two may have made the most impressive professional debuts in this draft class. Second rounder Mitchell White was a late riser as a sophomore eligible signee out of Santa Clara, with only Baseball America posting a scouting report on him ahead of the draft and no video to evaluate him.
White is still a relative unknown, but the little we do know is already impressive. White reached High A in his first season and allowed only one run across three levels in 22 innings. One of the top strikeout rate collegians in the draft, White continued his swing-and-miss form with a combined strikeout percentage over 37 percent.
When White wasn’t getting strikeouts, he was forcing hitters to pound the ball into the ground, with a professional ground ball rate over 70 percent. White attacks primarily with a three pitch mix from a high three-quarters slot. His curveball might be his best pitch and has tremendous depth. White also has an above average cut fastball that bores in on left handed hitters, and can sink his fastball for another look.
White likely will return to Rancho Cucamonga to be stretched out as a starter. His strikeout stuff and above average velocity could make him a fast moving relief prospect, and should a need arise he could be pushed quickly despite limited mound exposure.
The Dodgers will likely be much more cautious with third rounder Dustin May. The lean and lanky Texas prep was not much of a summer circuit name, but was noted for his projectability and high breaking ball spin rate. May’s performance in rookie league suggested more polish than scouting reports, walking just four in twenty-seven and a third innings while striking out thirty-one.
Despite the numbers, May still shows signs of youth and inexperience. His slider flashes plus and carries a future plus grade, but the break can be inconsistent and get slurvy. May throws from a low arm slot that helps generate sink, but the slot and release point can wonder on the breaking ball which can hinder its effectiveness.
May will continue his development in Great Lakes in 2017, though the Dodgers may opt to hold him back early to limit his innings and exposure to the colder part of the Midwest League season. His ceiling is arguably the highest of the arms in this Dodger class, but he’s one of the furthest from the big leagues as well.
In the fifth round, the Dodgers selected JuCo left-hander Devin Smeltzer, two rounds ahead of where I actually selected him in my mock draft. Smeltzer entered the system after a heavy workload in route to the JuCo World Series, and the Dodgers held him to just 10⅔ innings. Smeltzer’s profile as a three pitch lefty with no straight pitch but lacking in average velocity remains unchanged from his draft point and it remains to be seen if the Dodgers start him out in the Great Lakes rotation or fast track him in relief next season.
Much like 2015, the Dodgers reserved some of their draft budget to make a successful run at a day three prep arm. This year’s bonus baby was A. J. Alexy, and the right-hander shares some similarities with last year’s big day three arm Imani Abdullah. Like Abdullah, alexy is a tall, lean projectable body with above average feel for spin and improving velocity. I’m not sure Alexy’s ceiling is quite as high as Abdullah’s, but his brief exposure to and relative success in the Arizona League suggests he could make an appearance with Great Lakes later in 2017.
Collegians round out the depth of the class
The Dodgers spent the bulk of their day two picks and extra bonus money on day three on collegiate prospects, with several already shaping into solid prospects. D. J. Peters was the team’s fourth-round pick, and the hulking slugger was a stalwart in the middle of the Ogden lineup. Peters is a better athlete than you would expect from a listed 6’6 225 lbs. outfielder and has the potential to develop into an everyday right fielder. Peters is more than just a slugger, with good bat speed and barrel control.
Oklahoma outfielder Cody Thomas perhaps had the most surprising debut, as the former Sooner quarterback had 16 home runs between the Arizona and Pioneer League. Thomas took a year off before returning to baseball this past season and his athleticism helps make up for his unrefined tools. Thomas’ swing can get long and he struck out over thirty-five percent of the time with Ogden.
The Dodgers went above budget on UNLV right-hander Dean Kremer in the 14th round. I don’t have a scouting report or video on Kremer, but held down a six-percent walk rate across two levels and helped pitch the Loons to the Midwest League playoffs. College speedsters Darien Tubbs and Saige Jenco also made an impact on the Great Lakes stretch run, with the two combining for 31 steals in 34 attempts at Low A.
The Dodgers also padded their shortstop depth with Mississippi’s Errol Robinson in the sixth round. Robinson’s helium was higher after his 2015 Cape season, but a down offensive season pushed him down the board. He has the defensive reputation to stick at shortstop, but the Midwest League will be taxing on his limited offensive tools.
2015 Draft already paying dividends for the big league club
A year later, the Dodgers have already dipped into their talent haul from last year’s draft to augment the major league team. Arms Philip Pfeifer and Tommy Bergjans were moved in packages for Bud Norris and Carlos Ruiz respectively, but the 2015 class still has an abundant amount of depth remaining.
It took more than a year after he was selected in the first round, but Dodger fans were finally able to see a glimpse of Walker Buehler’s potential. His velocity has reportedly come all the way back from Tommy John surgery, and he has the talent to move quickly in 2017. Mitchell Hansen rebounded nicely after a rough debut, and showed a well rounded offensive profile with Ogden and should be ready to make his full season debut in 2017.
Josh Sborz has resisted a move to the bullpen and was announced as the California League pitcher of the year for 2016. He has a mid-rotation upside, but could still eventually take his tough slider to the back of the pen. Willie Calhoun might have improved his standing the most from his draft day, starting the year with Double-A Tulsa and more than holding his own with the bat. Calhoun is one of the system’s better power prospects, but needs to improve his quickness and infield actions to stay at second base. Calhoun’s star rose quickly in 2015, but Edwin Rios’ rose in 2016, as he slugged his way to Tulsa and was the organization’s top offensive performer. While Rios didn’t look completely out of place at third base, his best path to the bigs might be in an outfield corner and has some similarities in build and performance to Mark Trumbo.
Imani Abdullah might have been the breakout arm from the 2015 class, showing more polish in his first full season than I had expected. His ceiling is second to Buelher’s for arms in this class. Andrew Sopko beat Sborz to Tulsa and looks like one of the more durable arms in the organization. His ceiling is not the highest, but he can throw strikes with three pitches and is deceptive with his slot, arm speed, and spin. His performance didn’t stand out compared to his draft class peers, but Brendon Davis stayed afloat in his first full season experience and was one of the Loons’ better hitters in the playoffs. He still needs more physical maturity but offers plenty of upside with development.
In just two years at the helm, Dodgers director of amateur scouting Billy Gasparino has helped transform the system into one of baseball’s deepest by targeting standout college performers and complementing them with a small handful of prep prospects that mix tools and polish. The Dodgers have recovered nicely from the Kyle Funkhouser debacle by using the compensation pick on Will Smith, who is already seeing time at High A. Additionally, strategic spending/late finds like Imani Abdullah and AJ Alexy have made the system’s pitching depth deep enough that it has been able to trade from it to add critical pieces to the 2016 playoff roster. The two Gasparino drafts likely won’t produce the club’s next Corey Seager or Julio Urias, but the depth of talent added gives the parent club greater flexibility in deciding the course for building playoff bound rosters in the not-too-distant future and should make the club even less reliant on the free agent market.