No prospect is generating more buzz right now in Spring Training than Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. or in college baseball than Vanderbilt right-hander Jack Leiter. So naturally, the Pipeline Inbox has questions about both of them.
There has been the Witt vs. Abrams debate, but let me pose the Witt vs. Franco debate — if you had to take one shortstop right now to build your franchise around, who would it be? And while it was a small sample size, would Witt’s spring have impacted his Top 100 Prospects placement at all?
— Joe L., Easton, Md.
I tackled the under-21 shortstop debate of Bobby Witt Jr. (Royals) vs. CJ Abrams (Padres) vs. Marco Luciano (Giants) in a Pipeline Inbox last month, and I’m game for breaking down the top two shortstop prospects in baseball. Wander Franco (Rays) ranks No. 1 on our Top 100 Prospects list, six spots ahead of Witt.
Franco is nine months younger and already has excelled in High Class A, while Witt had a so-so pro debut in Rookie ball, but this is still a tough call. I’ll go with Franco because when two prospects are close, I’m going to bet on the superior hitter, and Franco has an 80-grade bat. He’ll get every bit out of his plus raw power, he has solid speed and arm strength and he’s a capable shortstop, even if he’ll probably move to a different position because Tampa Bay has better defensive options there.
All that said, it’s hard to pass on Witt, who has the best all-around shortstop tools to come out of the Draft since Alex Rodriguez. Beyond his hitting ability, which is at least solid, his tools are all better than Franco’s. He has well above-average raw power; his speed, arm and defense all grade as plus; and he’s not moving off shortstop.
As impressive as Witt was in big league camp, where he hit three home runs (including a 484-foot shot off Yusmeiro Petit), I don’t read much of anything into Spring Training statistics because of the widely variant levels of competition and the small sample sizes. So if we were doing the Top 100 today instead of in January, he’d still rank seventh.
With Joe Rock and Jack Leiter throwing no-hitters, how much will their Draft stock be impacted? Is Joe Rock a first-round pick after his no-hitter? Does Jack Leiter have a legitimate chance to go first-overall?
No-hitters from Leiter (No. 6 on MLB Pipeline’s preseason Draft Top 100 and Ohio left-hander Rock (No. 56) have been two of the highlights from the first month of the college season, but one game won’t affect a player’s stock. If he demonstrates a new level of skill, that would be notable, but he’d have to keep doing so in more than one contest.
The best thing about Leiter’s no-hitter last Saturday against South Carolina was his control. After walking 18 batters in his first 35 2/3 college innings, he issued a free pass to the first Gamecock he faced and then retired the next 27 hitters — 16 on strikeouts, with all of the whiffs coming via fastballs. He sat around 93-94 mph and repeatedly hit 96-97, dominating without his best breaking stuff.
Rock battled the strike zone as a freshman in 2019 and was academically ineligible last spring, but he impressed in summer and fall action. He spun a seven-inning no-hitter against Morehead State in his second start of 2021 and hasn’t surrendered an earned run in two starts since. His fastball and slider have been plus pitches even if his velocity has been down a tick from the fall (in part because of cold weather), and he still has a lot of projection remaining in his 6-foot-6 frame.
Coming into 2021, Leiter was in the discussion to go No. 1 overall to the Pirates and Rock looked like a second-round pick. At this point, that’s still true for both pitchers. If they continue to pitch like this, Leiter very well could become the No. 1 choice and Rock could push himself into the first round.
Where would the Pirates system rank currently with Kumar Rocker?
Speaking of Vanderbilt right-handers, Rocker has been just as spectacular as Leiter this spring after ranking No. 1 on our Draft Top 100. The Pirates came in eighth in our new farm system rankings, and adding Rocker (or a comparable talent worthy of the top selection) right now would push them up to fifth in my mind, between the Marlins and Orioles.
Of course, Pittsburgh won’t add the No. 1 choice to its system until July, when Baltimore also will gain a blue-chip prospect with the No. 5 pick. And by then, Ke’Bryan Hayes almost certainly will have graduated from rookie/prospect status, counteracting the arrival of the No. 1 selection. So I suspect when we update our system rankings in August, the Pirates will sit about where they do now.
Where does Justin Lange land in the Padres’ system with the restructuring of the Minors and does he look to project as starter or reliever/closer? Thanks.
— Jeff M. Chula Vista, Calif.
Lange rocketed up Draft boards as a Texas high schooler last spring, when his fastball jumped into the mid-90s and routinely hit the upper 90s while peaking at 100 mph. A quick-twitch athlete who also flashes a plus power slider, he signed for $2 million as a supplemental first-rounder.
In a normal year, Lange would have made his pro debut last summer and jumped to low Class A in 2021. But 2020 wasn’t a normal year, and he only got in some brief work at San Diego’s alternate training site and instructional league program.
The Padres did make Lange a non-roster invitee to Spring Training, so that theoretically should help his cause in making the Opening Day roster at low Class A Lake Elsinore. Even if he doesn’t open the season with the Storm, he should join them at some point this year.
Teams don’t take high school pitchers that early to turn them into relievers. Lange does come with a lot of bullpen risk because his secondary pitches are works in progress, his control and command are unrefined and his low arm slot with a high elbow raises red flags. We won’t really know what he’s going to become until he gets a couple hundred Minor League innings on the mound.