Cole Wilcox in action with the University of Georgia. Photo Credit: georgiadogs.com

Former Toronto Blue Jays executive Keith Law, served as a long-time columnist for ESPN before joining The Athletic. Before the draft, he put out a list of the Top 100 prospects available and afterwards reviewed how each major league club performed.

If you don’t yet subscribe to The Athletic, we highly recommend it for Keith’s work, Dennis Lin‘s fantastic coverage of the Padres, and some of the best national writers on baseball.

The following interview has been lightly edited.

MadFriars: When the Padres drafted Cole Wilcox, much of Padres Twitter seemed to lose their collective minds over whether the club would be able to sign him. Why is that not a concern?

Keith Law: They are not taking that guy unless they know they can sign him, right? I don’t think any of the teams at any point in this draft took anyone that they had any doubt that they could sign, especially this year’s draft only being five rounds.

Keith Law believes that Georgia’s Cole Wilcox has first-round talent. (Photo: University of Georgia)

Of course, they are going to sign him, unless he flunks his physical – which is possible – or backs out of any possible prearranged deal, which is also rare.

The people that are “if they can sign him” on the day of the draft and act like they know how it works because they parachuted in on the days of the draft can annoy me. There are plenty of us who do this every year and we keep telling you – and it’s not just me – that nearly all of these guys will sign. The deals are largely done in advance. They could be done well in advance, or five minutes in advance, but they are done in advance.

The Padres are not going to throw away a pick unless they are absolutely confident they can get him signed.

You had Cole as your #14 overall prospect, higher than anyone else’s ranking. I thought your analysis was interesting because you pointed out a lot of things that he doesn’t do well; a fastball that plays down from its velocity, and a slider and changeup that are good – but need to be developed more.

Did you rank him so highly because of his ability to hold his velocity and a belief he could become a lot better as a pro?

Keith Law:  Yes, and I think the breaking stuff is really good. I think he competes and not everyone loves the arm action, but I think it’s fine. There are so many worse arm actions in the draft and if we are grading them on a curve, his was at least at the middle and maybe above.

He repeats his delivery well and throws strikes. He does not really command his fastball yet, but there is no reason he can’t get there. I just don’t think he has had a lot of advanced coaching. The Georgia guys have their game plan and it may have worked better for [Emerson] Hancock [the number six overall pick in the draft by the Seattle Mariners] than it did for Wilcox.  I think getting him into a different system with a different approach will help quite a bit.

I look at him as a college guy that spent two years there and really competed his ass off there and in high school – he was a first-round talent coming out of high school – he’s still a first-round talent and if anything, he has gotten better.

You just don’t see this type of arm strength and raw stuff in college guys available outside of the first half of the first round.  I think because of how Wilcox was used, and the results don’t quite match the stuff, in addition to some of the secondary stuff teams look at on fastballs that Wilcox wasn’t great on; but that is why he was available where he was, which was to the Padres’ benefit.

They did what they should be doing, they are looking for value.

You had Robert Hassell at number nine overall, and the Padres selected with at eight. One thing I noticed was that San Diego seems to be shifting to putting less emphasis on raw athleticism and more value on baseball-related skills; such as the hit tool.

Did you see the same thing?

Keith Law:  Yes, I think the Padres are trying to get away from just raw athleticism.  A.J. [Preller], Logan White, Dave Post and some of the other guys are seen as old school scouts who love big tools but are still moving towards big athletes, just ones that aren’t that raw.  They are toolsy but can hit some.  The same with pitchers, they have big stuff, but have some feel to pitch.

I do think they have switched the focus because they used to just roll the dice on those types of players in the second round – Michael Gettys, Buddy Reed were taken in those rounds in the past – they didn’t do that this year.

Did they do that because of a shortened draft or a changed approach?  I think they changed their approach. I think it was a bit of a compromise from some of the voices in the room.  We can take these toolsy guys but they have to have some present baseball skills so we don’t end up with guys that can’t hit.

Justin Lange seems a little bit like Hudson Head from last year, another Texas high school pick that was a kind of pop-up. But I wanted to make sure that I read this correctly, you wrote that he put on 50 pounds of muscle from last year?  Have you ever heard of anything like that?

Keith Law:  Yes, Justin, or people he worked with, posted photos on Twitter of his weight gain. That is how you go from throwing 89 to throwing 99 in a year. People are asking, ‘is that natural’ or is ‘he on something’ – look at the photos.

Justin Lange topped at 100 mph this past season. (Photo: Art Dlugach, The Llano News)

He’s a big kid, big frame – so it’s not surprising he put the weight on. What is surprising is that he put the weight on, and it resulted in an increase in velocity. There are quite a few guys that can put on that type of weight and it does not result in that kind of increase.

He’s athletic, has size, velocity and arm speed and he is a little raw. He’s not wild, his secondary stuff is just not that advanced. But then again he hasn’t been pitching like this for very long either. He had a couple of starts and then everything got shut down. He had trouble throwing strikes last fall, but he is a new guy now.

There is no reason that he can’t throw strikes and should end up with a pretty good slider. If you can spin the ball at all you should be able to throw a pretty good slider. So we will see. He is a bit of a project, more of one than Hassell or Wilcox but he also has the raw ingredients that could become ridiculously good.

Owen Caissie can appear to many Padres’ fans – the ones in a very optimistic mood – as the Canadian Zac Veen. What do you think?

Keith Law:  I don’t think he is quite as athletic as Zac Veen, but many people really like the swing and think he is going to come into quite a bit of power. I have just seen video of him, but a lot of people that I really trust said that San Diego got a really good one with that pick.

Usually, the top Canadian prospects come down and play teams in Spring Training and then come again in early May for Extended Spring Training games. They are scouted against better competition than most amateur kids are playing and it has vaulted a lot of them into the first round, like Brett Lawrie and Kellin Deglan. All of these guys really performed when a lot of scouts were watching.

Owen Caissie in action with Team Canada. (Photo: Daniel Lusignan).

Caissie started doing that and then the season ended.  I really got the sense that he was going to go a lot higher because he looked very good in very limited time against professional competition. We just didn’t get a chance to see him enough. If he kept doing that all spring, he probably would have gone much higher in the draft.

I was actually supposed to see him on a trip that I had to cancel in mid-March because of COVID-19. That Canadian team was in Florida with David Calabrese, who went in the third round to the Angels.

Turning to the last two picks, your description of Levi Thomas seems to be about getting a value pick more than just freeing up bonus pool money. The final selection, Jagger Haynes appears to be – as you wrote – a possible sleeper in value because of his age and athleticism.

Keith Law:  It’s kind of lot what the Mets did in 2019 when they took Matt Allen and it was clear that they were going to have to go senior-signs the rest of the way. But the way they looked at it was that they didn’t have to take players that weren’t good, they just had to take players that were willing to play for the limited amount of money that they had left.

I think that is what the Padres did.

Levi Thomas earned second-team All-America honors as a junior. (Photo: Troy University)

If Thomas gets to the majors he is more of a middle relief pitcher and Haynes is a bit of a ways off, but interesting raw material certainly and for 300 grand this is what you get. I like the approach.

Would I have done the same thing with Wilcox on the board?  Hell, yes. You can make a good argument that in this draft San Diego may have gotten three first-round talents depending on where you rank Lange, who I had at the fringe of the first-round, Wilcox and Hassell.

The fact that the two money-saver picks -and that is what they were obviously – are still interesting enough to talk about.  There were plenty of senior signs and org players that were there to save money, and that is fine that I didn’t write-up in my team analysis after the draft because they are not prospects.

Thomas and Haynes are prospects in addition to being a way to get Wilcox signed.

Last question.  I was on the Darren Smith Show last week, which you also appear on, and he made the point that AJ Preller and his staff have really seemed to master how to manage the bonus pools to get talent; to get the most value out of the money they are allocated.

I agreed with him, but since you have much more of a national perspective than I do, what do you think?

Keith Law:  I would say it this way; their strategy is good, it works, and the history shows it.  They have drafted very well and have gotten value from later picks. To me, there is no greater compliment you can give to a scouting staff than to tell them that they are doing really well after the first round.

It’s not that hard to hit on a first-rounder, relatively speaking, but once you even get into even the second-round your odds of finding a successful big leaguer drop pretty quickly and the Padres are still finding value or creating prospects.  It is still a little early to have a lot of big leaguers, but some of them have already gotten to the big leagues and had some trade value if there wasn’t room on the big club.

I’ve been bullish on them since Preller took over and especially since he started the rebuild after year one.  They draft exceptionally well.

 

Posted by John Conniff

John grew up in Poway and has written for MadFriars since 2004. He has written articles for Baseball America, FoxSports San Diego, the El Paso Times, San Antonio Express-News, Amarillo Globe-News, Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette and Pacific Daily News in addition to appearing on numerous radio programs and podcasts. He can also break down the best places to eat for all five of the affiliates. There is no best place to eat in Peoria, Arizona.

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