A Few Under-the-Radar College Prospects for the MLB Draft - Infielders

Here, as threatened, is another long post about intriguing college players eligible for the 2017 MLB amateur draft who are not generally regarded as top prospects. I've included players from lower-level schools in Division 1 as well as players from the top schools and conferences who haven't (yet) made a lot of waves in the prospect pool. A reminder: my approach begins with the players' statistical profile from 2016 (and '15 in the case of Seniors or players whose Freshman performances appear significant) but also incorporates as much other information as I can collect, including summer league data, scouting opinions when I can get them, and anything else relevant. The infielders:

Zach Kirtley (2B), Jr., St. Mary's -- Kirtley's 2016 showed a player capable of making quality contributions across the board: he made fairly good contact while still drawing walks (13% BB and Ks; his K/BB numbers were strikingly good as an 18-yr-old Freshman in '15 too), hit for excellent gap power, and showed a bit of over-the-fence power in a conference not especially conducive to that. He shows little evidence of speed, but his defensive numbers were excellent last year and have generally been good. His summer performances have been a mixed bag: He showed the doubles power, patience, and contact ability in the Cal Ripken League in 2015 but didn't hit homers, then hit a surprising 3 HR on the Cape last year but had significant contact issues. Small summer sample sizes produce a lot of this kind of noise; it's fair to state, though, that Kirtley has at different times over the past two seasons shown evidence of each of the broad range of skills that make him a potentially effective pro player. So far in 2017 the Ripken League power brownout is back, but his K/BB has been exceptional. Kirtley's biggest problem is lack of positional flexibility; he's apparently no SS, so utility work isn't a real option, and with little speed the OF also doesn't look likely. Like Johnny Giavotella, Kirtley is probably a "2B or bust" prospect; hopefully he'll prove better than Giavotella on defense.

Rylan Bannon (3B), Jr., Xavier -- Bannon has all the pluses you'd expect to see in a kid who shows well in these rankings -- good approach at the plate (14% BB, 16% K last year), solid power but not enough to land him on any top prospects lists (around 10% XBH, a third of them HR in '16), a few other attributes that nudge him to the front of the crowd (in this case, good-looking defense). Two other factors put Bannon over the top: a strong summer performance last year and a nice start in 2017. Bannon showed very well on offense in the Coastal Plain League, hitting .355 with the usual gap-type power and an excellent 34 BB (against 124 AB). So far in 2017 his Ks are up markedly but so is his power, and frankly the power helps his future projection more than a few more Ks hurt it. His 2017 defensive numbers have also been impressive. My method stresses defensive ability in 3B prospects, and Bannon's so-so fielding stats up to now held his '16 rating down a bit. This year, though, he's produced A and DP rates that look more like those of a 2B (box scores confirm he's still playing third). At 5'10", 180 he looks more like a 2B than a 3B. He'll be better off as a pro if he can either handle second or prove excellent at third, and this year's numbers suggest he might manage one or the other. In both his defensive development and the shape of his offensive performance Bannon reminds me of former Memphis 3B Jacob Wilson, who has made it to the cusp of the majors with St. Louis; Bannon has similar potential.

Taylor Braley (1B/3B/DH), Jr., Southern Mississippi -- Braley is, to put it mildly, an unusual player, and a challenge to evaluate. A 3B at Southern Miss, his 5'-11" 235-to-255-somewhere frame suggest he can't stay there just as clearly as the numbers do (F% generally doesn't tell us much, but I suspect Braley's .871 mark last year and the .857 number so far this year are telling the truth). His draft status depends on his offensive ability, where a Sophomore season cut off after just 121 PA by a knee injury and a limited summer data set (just 102 decent-but-not-thrilling Texas Collegiate League AB in 2015) don't make our job of analysis any easier. Braley's performance in those 121 PA, though, demands consideration. His plate approach, average, and on-base ability all looked good, but what set him apart was power. He placed 12th on the team in PA but just one off the team lead in HR, with 10. He hasn't quite replicated that power so far in '17 but he didn't really need to to remain a prospect; his 5 HR in 86 PA this year still represent an excellent performance. Obviously, Braley can hit; the question is if he has a position as a pro. It'd help a lot if he could find a way to be passable at third -- he has better athletic ability than you probably think, as he played some 2B in '15 and has enough arm to be pitching pretty well for the Golden Eagles this year -- but that would be an awfully optimistic projection. I mentioned Tyler White in my last post, as a comp for Bryson Bowman, and White blazed the trail Braley will probably have to tread as a pro. He'll be a bat-first 1B, even relative to normal 1B prospects, or a DH at the highest level. He'll have to hit enough to support that profile, and he might.

Brett Netzer (2B), Jr., Charlotte -- If you've heard of Netzer it's surely for his ability to hit for average; his .384 last year ranked 8th in Division 1 among qualifying Freshmen and Sophomores, per BA. The average looks to be for real, supported by an 8% K rate and enough hard contact to produce extra-base hits on nearly 10% of his PA. I'm not generally a fan of high-average players, and look more for secondary skills in a prospect, but Netzer's gap power (plus a few HR), touch of speed, and enough walks (10%) to push his OBP into the stratosphere (.461), combined with the truly exceptional average, make him too good an offensive player to ignore. His defensive numbers last year also look good (especially a DP-E ratio near six to one, more than half again the position average, granting that traditional fielding stats will bear only the slightest weight). I'm not sure those numbers really reflect his ability at second, though; he played LF as a Freshman and his 2B numbers have been relatively poor so far in 2017. Netzer's Cape Cod performance last year was also encouraging: his K/BB data slipped, as we'd expect in the wood-bat league, but wasn't too bad, he showed he could still hit for average (.283) and get on base (.360), and best of all carried the gap power over from Conference USA (8% XBH, including a couple of HR in 103 PA). Netzer is, in sum, a useful hitter and a viable top-10-rounds pick in June. If he proves to be an asset defensively at 2B he could be a major-league regular there; if he can handle brief exposures at SS he stands a very good chance of making it as a UT player, especially given his OF experience. If I have a concern, it's that Netzer's attention-getting skill at hitting for average will get him overdrafted.

You've probably noticed the lack of shortstops on this list. This year's crop of college shortstops looks pretty weak; of the quite a few who nevertheless are high-profile prospects (Zach Rutherford, Logan Warmoth, Devin Hairston, Clay Fisher, Kevin Smith, Dalton Guthrie, and others), most either are pro second basemen whose bats don't match up well with those of the actual second basemen (Warmoth, Hairston), good shortstops who can't hit much at all (Guthrie, Fisher), or both (Smith). If you must take a college SS this year, probably best to just trust the physical scouts and hope for the best (or draft a HS SS instead). With so many from such an unimpressive group on the radar it's tough to find exciting prospects still off it. If I had to choose, I'd go with Hartford Jr. Ben Bengston. Bengston is in his third year as Hartford's regular shortstop and has produced quality offense for the Hawks, spiking good overall numbers with an XBH% near 12. The bad news is he's done so at a very low level, and at 6'-1", 205 with mediocre-looking defensive numbers (I'd expect a shortstop's traditional fielding stats to look unusually good at his level of competition, and Bengston's are worse than average) he's probably a pro 3B. He looks like a fun organizational player, but no more than that.

Quick notes on a few more: Adalberto Carrillo (3B), Jr., USC (a little power, a little patience, and a lot of defense; he was awful in the Alaska Lg, somehow, 2 years ago, but has upped his power and finally started hitting for a little average so far in '17), Orlando Garcia (3B), Jr., Texas Tech (a SS/3B in Lubbock, defensive rep helped by the barrage of groundballs Red Raiders' infielders get but should be a legitimately fine pro glove at third; at bat he has a generic but low-average profile virtually indistinguishable from Adalberto Carrillo's), Colton Shaver (1B), Jr., BYU (I'm normally leery of BYU hitters, both because, altitude, and because they're often rather older than you think, but Shaver's a Junior of normal age whose So. and Fr. hitting numbers will survive any altitude adjustment you want to make, plus he bombed 8 HR in 144 Cape Cod PA, although he did have some contact issues. He's been awful this year, though, even beyond some serious BABIP troubles), Ryan Cleveland (1B), Sr., Georgia Southern (A big 4-year 1B regular in the easily-underrated Sun Belt, he strikes out too often but took his power/patience combo from interesting to dangerous last year; so far this year he's slashing .353/.511/.691, so obviously that's even better), and Seth Lancaster (3B/2B), Jr., Coastal Carolina (Coastal has long been a great place for offense, but Lancaster's blend of speed, power, and exceptional patience -- 18% BB -- showed great potential. His defense looked OK at second in '16, but at 6'-1", 210 he fit better at third, where he moved this year. Unfortunately, whether because of a knee injury suffered at the beginning of last year's College World Series, or because the move to third isn't taking, or because of the Chanticleers move to the Sun Belt in 2017, Lancaster is off to a poor start at the plate, and his defensive numbers are even worse. He's probably playing himself into being a 2018 Senior sign).

Well, to paraphrase Mark Twain, my fingers are tired, and your . . . you are tired, so I'll stop here for the time being. I'll post again in a few days about catchers (no doubt that one will be shorter). If you have any thoughts on these players or others you think belong up here, by all means share in the comments; research produces better results when everybody plays! Once again, thanks for reading.

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