When it comes to covering the major league draft, there are experts and then there is Jim Callis. Callis has been covering the draft for 20 years and has worked for Baseball America, ESPN, and MLBPipeline. After serving as executive editor for Baseball America, Callis moved to be a senior writer for MLB Pipeline.
You can now catch him all over Twitter (@JimCallisMLB) on MLB.com and on the MLB Network. Despite being just a week away from the draft, Jim was willing to spare a few minutes to talk about the upcoming draft and who the Padres might select with the number seven, thirty-eight and after the trade with the Minnesota Twins, the number seventh-four selection.
With the draft a week away how does the top of this year’s draft compare to last year?
Jim Callis: I don’t think it is as strong compared to last year. They had a pretty formidable top five last year. This year we don’t see that same strength at the top. If you polled all 30 teams, Casey Mize is probably the consensus top pick, But there probably wouldn’t be much consensus as to who the next few guys are behind him.
Most mock drafts including your own and Jonathan Mayo’s look virtually identical at the top of the draft (Top 5-10). Is this due to a clear separation of talent, or are teams more willing to identify who they are going after?
Jim Callis: It is definitely not a separation of talent. I look at other mock drafts too, I think we have all virtually had the same top three all year, and I know in my most recent mock, it looks almost identical to my previous one with the exception of flipping my fourth and fifth picks. It is now almost identical to Jonathan’s [Mayo] with the exception of the number eight pick.
I know the draft isn’t as locked in as it seems even though we are all giving similar mock drafts. I just think that if we think Casey Mize is going number one and we are hearing the same names going to the same teams it locks in an order. I definitely do not think it is set and at the same time it only takes one team to select a different player and it snowballs from there.
Most mocks, including yours, have the Padres targeting two guys, Matthew Liberatore and Carter Stewart. What can you tell me about each player?
Jim Callis: Everyone hears prep arms when it comes to the Padres, and I think that is probably where they go. I would also throw in Ryan Weathers and Cole Winn into the conversation. I think it is four guys and not two guys. I think Travis Swaggerty out of South Alabama is also in play for them.
Of the two players you mentioned, the Padres would be choosing from the best high school lefty and the best high school righty in the draft. Liberatore is the best lefty in the draft and probably the most polished high school guy. His polish more resembles a college guy than a high schooler. His stuff is really good too. He is someone that could have four plus pitches by the time he reaches the majors. He primarily pitches in the low 90s, but he’s hit 97 a few times this spring. He can really compete. I loved what I saw when he pitched multiple innings at the Under Armor game last summer, and if the Padres were asking, which I know they aren’t, he would be my pick for the top high school pitcher.
Stewart is really interesting too. He has a super spin rate curve, that has a higher spin rate than the best spin rate in the majors – not that we have years and years of data. It is an absolute hammer. He has also hit some 96-98 on the gun. He throws harder than Liberatore and has room to add strength at six-foot-six. He has fallen a bit, as his last few starts this spring were not as strong as his earlier body of work. His momentum is probably trending down right now while guys like Grayson Rodriguez and Cole Winn are trending up.
I know when I do my mock drafts I keep putting him at 15, and he is better than 15, but high school right-handers don’t usually go as high as they are rated because of the risk, and I can see him dropping a bit. I can see him going seven to the Padres or eight to the Braves, or dropping to the mid-teens.
Do either of them compare to the top high school pitchers drafted last year in Gore and Greene?
Jim Callis: No, they are probably a solid step below them. I love MacKenzie Gore as much as anyone, and I think there would be no question that he would be drafted ahead of all these guys. I do have some reservations about Hunter Greene being able to stay healthy. I know he is super athletic, but when you see a guy throw that hard that early on, it raises a question. For that reason, if you wanted to argue taking Liberatore or Stewart over Greene, I would think the consensus wouldn’t agree with you, but I could see the argument. I would take Mackenzie Gore over all of them, blister or no blister.
While the Padres have leaned high school heavy early on, do you see any chance that someone like Jonathan India drops to the Padres, and would they select him over a prep pitcher?
Jim Callis: I think if someone fell they might, but I don’t think they would take India. He would be the most likely one to fall as I already have him going sixth, and I can see the Mets taking Liberatore. Right now it looks like they are leaning college, but I can see them making the switch. The Mets could also take Swaggerty or Jarred Kelenic.
I would say no to India. If we are going to pigeonhole analytics versus scouting, I think the Padres are on the big tools side more than the typical club. India was the SEC player of the year and a very good player, but I don’t know if there is a lock plus tool, but rather solid tools across the board. If someone like Joey Bart fell then maybe. Catchers are always hard to come by. If it was Nick Madrigal, who can really hit and run and play great second, then I could see that too. Across the board no one expects any of those players to get to seven, so I haven’t and don’t know who has, run names like Madrigal and Bart by the Padres people to gauge their interest.
Last year at this time, Seth Beer was the talk of the 2018 draft. What happened to Seth to cause him to fall so much?
Jim Callis: I don’t know if last year at this time I would have had him going as the overall top pick. With Seth, he is so polarizing as a player. He came out early, graduated from high school a semester early, and enrolled in Clemson, and had an unbelievable freshman year. People knew who he was as a prospect, and some thought he might be a first-round pick out of high school. I think third through fifth would have been more accurate, as people like to embellish to look better, but he did have an unbelievable year. He hasn’t matched those numbers since. He has still put up good numbers but they haven’t been as good as freshman year.
Second, there is this dichotomy where if you look at his production the last few years he is up there with anyone. He has almost twice as many walks as strikeouts, which is one of the go-to numbers for analytics. The flip side of that is if you look at his numbers with Team USA the last few summers where they use wood bats – and I believe they still use wood bats at the major league level. Seth Beer hit .208 and slugged .287 with wood bats in two years. Granted it wasn’t a ton of at-bats but its still a concern. Go back to high school on the showcase circuit and he struggled with wood too.
If you like Seth Beer you bring up his production at the college level. If you don’t like him you bring up the fact that no one has seen him do anything with wood. Not to mention his defense. I don’t see any chance he can play a passable left field at the big league level, which means he is first base only. If you are worried about him hitting if he doesn’t hit he is giving you zero value.
He is polarizing. I would say most teams see him as way too big a risk to take in the first round, but there are probably a good handful of teams who see him as an obvious top 15 talent. I see him going somewhere in the back half of the first round, but can see him going in the top 15 or dropping to the second round.
Is there a player who you think Padre fans should keep an eye who could fall to #38? Maybe someone like Noah Naylor, Jameson Hannah, or Brice Turang?
Jim Callis: Yeah there are a number of guys. I draw the line for my mocks at 35 as that is the end of the first round, but there are a lot of good players that will be available. I think there is a chance that there will be a really good player available at thirty-eight. For one there is a lot of depth with high school right-handers this year, and as we stated before they never go as high as they are ranked. You also have three guys in Ethan Hankins (MLB #21), Mason Denaburg (MLB #24), and Mike Vasil (MLB #25), who was going to go really early but had some physical issues this spring. But they could go lower than expected, and it might make more sense for them from a financial standpoint to try and force their way to the Padres at #38 than get drafted at the back end of the first round.
I could also see some of the healthier high school right-handers like Kumar Rocker (MLB #23) or JT Ginn (MLB #34) who has arguably the best fastball/slider combo in high school, but is also not the biggest guy in the draft, he is 19, and some think he has more of a reliever delivery. So a first-round arm, but a few questions. Guys like Ginn and Rocker could find themselves pushed down simply because not all teams are going to take a high school righthander.
You mentioned Brice Turang, and literally, they had me do a mock draft the day after last years draft ended, and I had him going number one. He was described to me as a Christian Yellich but at shortstop. But he just didn’t hit at the showcase circuit like people would have hoped. I can’t figure out where he is going to go. He is not really a shortstop. He is a plus runner with a good bat to ball skills. And again, like the pitchers mentioned earlier, if I am Brice Turang I would probably go later to a team with a larger bonus pool then go in the 20’s.
It’s not like the old days where you can easily make yourself go further down by demanding a large number. Now with the bonus pools, teams aren’t as worried. They will say “hey this is what we have to pay you, take it or leave it,” so you cant steer yourself as well as before. Teams do want to know your asking price so they can see what they have left over for other players, and if they think you are serious with your demands they might pass you by. AJ Preller has already shown the ability to give players drafted outside the first round, first round money. So I cant tell you who is going to be there, but I know there will be quite a few top-30 talent players available at thirty-eight.
The one caveat I will throw out there is the two biggest bonus pools belong to the Royals and the Rays thanks to two extra first-round picks for losing free agents. Both teams could select those type of players with their picks (31/32 for the Rays and 33/34 for the Royals).
With so many really good prep players, and as you mentioned not all of them can be selected in the first round, can you see a scenario where a team goes beyond their five percent and takes top 100 guys and gives them first round money with their first six or seven picks?
Jim Callis: Not really. If you go over five percent you lose a first-round pick. You’ve seen teams go right up to the line but not over. One of the biggest reasons why I don’t think so is because as I already alluded to, you don’t know who is still going to be available at pick #38 let alone in the 60s or the third or fourth round and beyond. You can have this great desire to spend the money, but the players have to be there who are worth the picks.
The one instance I can see where this would work would be if you have someone like Bryce Harper in the draft but his demand and leverage is enough that teams in the top half of the draft don’t take him. I guess you could see another team take him, give him the 10+ mil he would want and then try to sign other players as well. Even then if someone takes him in the top five, and gives him 7+ million, it would be hard to pass up as a player. Even then with a slot, I don’t see it happening.
Every year you have arguably the most accurate mock draft, especially the first 10 picks. What do you do to get such accuracy year in and year out?
Jim Callis: Well I didn’t get the number one pick right last year. One, I try to talk to as many people as I can. Sometimes it might be too much information and talk yourself out of something you had. I do try to talk to as many people as possible, and coming up with my final mock I might talk to another 50 people.
Second, its weird but I am very competitive. I don’t keep score, but I do with Jonathan Mayo. I am competitive, and I do want to get them right. It is somewhat of an impossible task as you miss one and it snowballs on you. I do care. I will make the extra care. We have an earlier deadline for a final mock draft so I am handicapped a little now compared to when I was with Baseball America. I want to get as many right as I can so I will leave no stone unturned.
Fortunately, this isn’t the NFL where you can trade picks, and they basically just lie to each other all the time. People are pretty good with information, and they know I won’t out the sources.
Last question, now that you have successfully transitioned yourself to an on-air personality. What does draft day look like for you, and how has it changed since MLB started televising the draft?
Jim Callis: Back when I started, there was no MLB Network. It’s interesting, the day before the draft is busier than the actual draft. I’ll stay up late the night before working on and doing the mock. Draft day we don’t do much during the day outside from a few updates on MLB until the pre-draft show an hour before. Once the draft starts we do 78 picks, then the draft ends around midnight. I will write a few articles then get to sleep.
Day Two is busier, with only a minute between picks and rounds three through ten. It is extremely fast-paced, and usually starting with the third round a team will select a player that I know very little about. I have notes but sometimes I don’t know a guy. I have half the country and Mayo has the other half so we get a good amount of players. Even then, we will see a player taken from a small town or a small JC that we don’t know about. When that happens we scramble to figure out whatever we can about a player, and sometimes we will give information on a player a good five to ten picks after it happens.
Day Three is easier, as there isn’t a show as much as it is still a conference call. We will give quick updates between rounds, but that is about it. When the draft is over, it immediately becomes about making lists, doing interviews, and more work. The draft itself is a lot of work but it’s one of my favorite days in the year.
Editor’s Note: The day after Callis spoke with us, Mike Vasil announced publicly that he would withdraw from the draft to attend the University of Virginia.