In Part 2 of our draft series we chat with Keith Law, who writes for The Athletic on the minor leagues, baseball prospects and the MLB Draft. Previously he held the same role at ESPN and before that, he worked in the Toronto Blue Jays front office.
Before the draft, Keith put out several mock drafts along with his Top 100 draft prospects based on his conversations with scouts and personal scouting of individual players.
All of us subscribe to The Athletic and we recommend it, not only for Keith’s analysis and reporting, but also for Dennis Lin’s unique and interesting beat reporting on the Padres.
The following interview has been lightly edited.
I know you always try to get the best players available, but the current top players in the Padres system Robert Hassell III, James Wood, C.J. Abrams, and Jackson Merrill, are all position players. San Diego’s first four selections this year were all pitchers.
Is there anything you believe where San Diego could have tried to emphasize pitching more to address an organizational need?
Keith Law: I would not, and I don’t think the Padres did that this year either. You can make a pretty good argument, with at least the first three selections that they took the best player on the board, by my rankings or something very close.
I believe that you said in a chat or on Twitter that at number 15, where the Padres picked, Dylan Lesko was the best player on the board, whatever you may have needed.
Keith Law: If you weren’t in the Cam Collier market – and he was a pretty divisive guy because there weren’t any historical comparisons for him – then you can make a pretty good argument that Lekso was the best guy available. If Lesko hadn’t gotten hurt [Dylan Lesko underwent Tommy John surgery in April], he would have been in a top five pick. This is a very AJ-way to think; this guy doesn’t get to our pick in a normal circumstance. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of this opportunity if we were willing to accept the risk?
If you think Lesko was a top five talent, and you are getting him at 15, then that is an acceptable risk. Your opportunity cost to pick him at 15is a lot lower, you are going to pay him less, so I understood the pick, and even with the historical data on high school pitchers. I caught him in his last start just before he got hurt, and he’s one of the best high school pitchers I have ever seen.
Even though you had Jacob Berry to the Padres in your last mock, you had Lesko as your 15th draft prospect, which is where he went. If you were AJ, is that the player you would have grabbed with the players that were off of the board?
Keith Law: I would have taken Collier, but I am a Collier guy. I had no problem with the Padres taking Lesko, and I think I may have had three guys above him when they took him, but it was a good pick.
He was the top pitcher on my list, and I absolutely would have taken him over Kumar Rocker or Cade Horton. Horton is basically how much do you want to weigh the month before the draft? If the universe had started on June 1, Horton is a first-rounder, but it didn’t, and I have a problem throwing out that much data. So, I think the Padres argue that they got the best pitcher in the 2022 draft class.
What makes Lesko ‘one of the best high school pitchers’ you’ve ever scouted?
Keith Law: I had him around 92 to 95 mph in the particular outing that I saw. It’s a 70 changeup and is one of the best high school changeups that I have ever seen. I did not see Cole Hamels as an amateur and I was told that his was comparable.
In the last outing, he showed the best curveball he’s thrown, according to other scouts I spoke with. We will see if it’s still there when he returns? I don’t know, but it had an incredibly high spin rate, sharpness, depth, and angle – everything you could have wanted. He only threw a couple, so I don’t want to say it was a plus curve, but it is probably in there. I think that’s the reasonable answer.
That was reason enough to say he’s the best high school pitcher out there; no one will pass him. As the season went on, no college guys were going to pass him either.
So Lesko should pitch in mid-2023?
Keith Law: That’s my assumption. An April Tommy John surgery should put him on the mound when the Arizona Complex League starts next year – mid to late June. I don’t think they will rush him. He can make his debut in the ACL at 19; he’ll be fine.
I read your report on Robby Snelling, who you had at #31 and ended up being selected at 39, who pitched in Northern Nevada, which is not a hotbed of prospects. I know it’s a pitcher, and you are looking at velocity and shapes of breaking pitches, but is it tougher to evaluate prospects when they aren’t playing top competition, or did the showcase circuit negate those concerns?
Keith Law: The answer is very different for position players and pitchers. For position players, we do need to see them against good pitching if at all possible. For pitchers, you mainly go off of the pitcher himself in isolation. You have the radar gun; in showcases, you will have TrackMan-type data, and you can watch the pitcher’s delivery from many angles. You can see whether or not they are throwing strikes and their command, most of which is independent of the hitter.
There are some handicaps like if the coach calls all the pitches, you might not see everything you want. I think in this case, you can do the work on Snelling.
Also, he was a football guy, so he did some summer baseball stuff, but not as much as his peers who just played one sport the whole way through.
For the next two picks, San Diego took a pair of college pitchers, Adam Mazur of Iowa and Henry Williams of Duke. Williams is still recovering from Tommy John, while Mazur can go now. How would you compare and contrast the two?
I t seemed from your pre-draft analysis that Williams is more of an upside guy while Mazur has a higher floor.
Keith Law: I like Mazur quite a bit. I thought he was a late first-round talent. I wonder if he wasn’t more highly thought of going into the year because he was at South Dakota State before the year, and no one had a lot of history with him.
He has a good delivery and a slight build, he held his velocity late into the year and deep into games. He has a bunch of average to above-average pitches and throws strikes. Sometimes that adds up to a little more than the sum of his parts, and sometimes it doesn’t. In the second round, that is a no-brainer to take and a higher probability or floor than they have with their first two picks.
With Williams, not only did he miss all of this spring, but he pitched less than half of the previous year with elbow and forearm stuff, less than 40 innings. There isn’t a lot of video on him – there is some I’ve seen – but folks who saw him say there is a chance for two plus pitches with him – a slider and a changeup – they will have to know where the fastball goes.
That’s the type of pitcher that you have to wonder if they are hoping he does what Walker Buehler did – add some core and leg strength to boost the fastball because the secondary stuff is there. Walker was kind of like that as an amateur – he threw harder than Williams – but those questions about him were whether he could throw hard enough and be physical enough to hold up. That ended up working out all right, and Williams doesn’t have to throw 99 in his rehab, but if he bumps up another half grade in his velocity, then you have something.
Again, it’s about the opportunity cost. What else are you getting in the third round? A low probability high school or a low-ceiling college guy. So, Williams is a good pick, and it’s about where I had him ranked.
You wrote that some scouts see Lamar King, Jr. as – if I got this correctly – a power over hit guy but can stick behind the plate. Was that selection a surprise, and if so, why?
Keith Law: I would say it was a little bit of a surprise because he wasn’t on the radar of the area guys around here – I live in Delaware – so I didn’t see him even though he was in Maryland. No one talked about him as a prospect because they thought he was going to Georgia Tech. There was enough commitment, plus he wasn’t that advanced of a hitter.
For now, it is power over hit; however, if that kid is willing to sign, I will take that in the fourth round. There is some athleticism; his Dad was in the NFL. Honestly, if he is a catcher with some power and he can hit a little – say a batting average of .230 and get on base enough to get to that power, that’s a pretty good player as long as he can catch.
Even the scouts that weren’t high on him thought he could catch; the question was, how much can he hit?
We looked it up; this is the first time since AJ Preller took over that he’s taken a first baseman in the first ten rounds, and this year he took two. Both are four-year college players;Nathan Martorella signed for close to slot in the fifth round, while Griffin Doersching was a fifth-year transfer. Is it anything more than this is the best available players?
Keith Law: The Padres would have to move some money around to pay their first couple of picks; with Martorella, that was a little bit to buy him out of his senior year. I know a few scouts who like the swing but would like to see more power – but he’s fine for that spot. Doersching was a money saver, and you must do some of those things to draft someone like Snelling. There is some power there, but he’s also going to be 24.
Last year you made some interesting comments on James Wood with us; mainly, you weren’t sure that he was motivated or if he could hit. He’s done pretty well since then in the Arizona Complex League and Cal League. Has anything changed from what you initially thought?
Keith Law: I give the kid a ton of credit. He lost a bunch of weight in the offseason and is in better shape. He’s played harder. I’ve spoken to people with the Padres and other organizations, and they all say that he has shown real effort on the field and looks pretty motivated. I had someone say that if you watch him walk from the dugout to the plate, you may think he is just taking it easy – but that’s his demeanor. However, in the box and the field, he’s playing aggressively.
I don’t know what happened to him last spring because I stand by what I wrote and said here. I just heard that from many people, and I don’t usually write or say that stuff, but when multiple people say that it was the reason I wrote and said what I did. Guys would go in for a weekend to see him and say, ‘I just saw James Wood strike out six times.’ You don’t see high school prospects that strike out six times on a weekend in the regular season.
Multiple things changed and were good for him. I have a teenager who changes all the time. I doubt it was anything that I said, but someone with the Padres obviously at some point said these are the things that you need to do to be successful, and he is doing it.
Right now, I think he is a Top 50 prospect in all of baseball, and to go from what I was hearing last spring – and some of the same guys that I was talking to then can’t believe what he is doing now – is a combination of how we missed and good for the kid.
We should all be so good at self-reflection.
A comp on James that always comes up to me is Manny Machado, who looks like he isn’t trying, and some uninformed people claim that he’s lazy, and it’s only because he has so much athleticism. In reality, Machado is one of the hardest-working players in the game.
When I watch James, he makes so many things look much easier than they are because he is so athletic. When we interviewed James this spring, he spoke about how he could relax after the draft and worry about playing baseball.
Keith Law: I will fully acknowledge that this characterization comes up with players of color much more than white players. Hopefully, I was not just buying into that bias. Still, it’s possible that I fell for it, and it would bother me more than anything else that I was reflecting the subconscious racial bias of the people I was talking with.
I have to be aware of that possibility because I have talked about subconscious racial bias in scouting, whether it’s effort level, intelligence, or perceived athleticism – he’s a good athlete, not a skilled guy.
I hope I didn’t, but there is a possibility that I did.
Another thing is that I wanted him for the Future’s Game – I thought he would have been a great choice. He needs to be a year older and closer to the big leagues, and I hope he’s in it next year as long as he’s healthy.
You and I both have degrees in economics; I thought you would drop the famous John Maynard Keynes quote on James. Keynes’ detractors claimed that the opinions he expressed changed over the years. Keynes replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
Keith Law: That is true with James, a quote perfectly apt to this discussion. He is a different player now, and I am fine saying that I didn’t see this coming. I did not see this coming, but I also don’t want my wrongness to detract from a player’s actions.
When people point out that I was wrong on Austin Riley, look at why. Riley did the work, and all the things I said were true, and he made them not true, which is to his credit.
Nothing should take away from a player putting in work.
Finally, the last question: do you see the Padres making the proposed Juan Soto trade for nearly all their top prospects?
Keith Law: The honest disclaimer is that I don’t follow that market and talk to those involved. I have known AJ for a long time and many of his top lieutenants, and if Juan Soto is traded, the Padres will be involved. They may not get him, but they will be there.
It’s the same way with [Shohei] Ohtani; AJ will step up and make a real offer. They may not get either, but it will not be for lack of trying. The system is top-heavy and not as deep as it once was, but could they put together a five-player package comparable to what the Dodgers could do? Probably not, but AJ will try.
The Padres will try. They are not going to sit that out, and maybe, in the end, the costs might be too much, and they value their prospects more highly, or someone tops them.
They will be in that market.
Kevin Charity will conclude our draft series with Carlos Collazo of Baseball America.