One could say that 2014 first-round draft pick Casey Gillaspie was born to play baseball.
The Tampa Bay Rays selected Gillaspie out of Wichita State with the No. 20 overall pick this past June, targeting the switch-hitter’s advanced approach and big-time power. Plus, it certainly didn’t hurt that he also came from a baseball family.
Gillaspie’s father, Mark, was an All-American outfielder at Mississippi State before spending eight years in the minor leagues, reaching the Triple-A level with two different teams before hanging up his spikes after the 1988 season.
Though he never played in the major leagues, Mark still had a solid eight-year career, batting .287/.421/.503 with 138 home runs, 604 RBI and more walks (692) than strikeouts (676) in 880 games.
Casey’s older brother, Conor, has been the most successful Gillaspie to date. The Giants selected Conor in the first round of the 2008 draft out of Wichita State, and by the end of the season, he was in the major leagues. After that, however, he appeared in only 21 games with the team over the next four seasons, prompting the Giants to trade him to the White Sox prior to the 2013 season.
With the White Sox, Conor has served as the everyday third baseman for the better part of two seasons, batting a combined .275/.331/.419 with 18 home runs and 43 doubles in 233 games, good for a 1.8 fWAR, per FanGraphs. On top of that, the 27-year-old is currently enjoying a breakout campaign, with a .309/.360/.452 batting line (.812 OPS), five home runs and 29 doubles through 99 games.
That brings us back to Casey, who, as a power-hitting first baseman, is a much different player than both Mark and Conor. However, don’t discount the 21-year-old’s potential just because his father and brother failed to meet expectations during their respective careers.
After going undrafted out of high school, Gillaspie made an immediate impact for the Shockers as a freshman in 2012, batting .274/.378/.442 with 10 doubles, eight home runs and a respectable 43-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 59 games.
The following year marked Gillaspie’s coming-out party, as he jumped on the draft radar with a .299/.447/.517 batting line, 16 doubles, 11 home runs and 46 RBI in 66 games for Wichita St. More importantly, his drastically improved approach and plate discipline produced 62 walks against 35 strikeouts on the season.
Gillaspie’s eye-opening performance would carry over into the prestigious Cape Cod League that summer, where he raked to the tune of .321/.402/.521 and paced the circuit with eight home runs. Amazingly, Gillaspie’s 2013 season turned out to be a warm-up for his junior campaign.
The switch-hitter’s production this past spring ranked among the best in Division I baseball, as the 21-year-old posted a robust batting line of .389/.529/.682 to go along with a career-high 15 home runs, 50 RBI and 28-to-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 59 games. Overall, he finished second in the nation in walks and on-base percentage and ranked fourth in home runs and slugging percentage.
After signing for slot value ($2.035 million) a few days after the conclusion of the draft, Gillaspie was assigned to the Short Season Hudson Valley of the New York-Penn League to begin his career. While he hasn’t knocked the cover off the ball this summer as some folks expected given his impressive amateur resume, Gillaspie has still put together a solid professional debut, batting .268/.360/.433 with seven home runs and 14 doubles through his first 59 games.
Gillaspie’s performance this summer earned him a trip to the New York-Penn League All-Star Game, which was played Tuesday night at MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones.
At the game (and after), I spoke with several different scouts who shared similar opinions about Gillaspie.
“We liked him as a potential comp-round guy but wouldn’t have gone after him that early with our first pick as Tampa did,” said an AL amateur evaluator. “However, nobody was surprised he came off the board when he did given the lack of projectable college hitters in the class.”
As a 6’4”, 240-pound switch-hitter, Gillapsie has always featured more power from the left side of the plate—which is expected considering he faces mostly right-handed pitchers—thanks to a swing that’s longer and more leveraged compared to his relatively compact stroke as a righty.
One scout was quick to mention his concerns regarding Gillaspie’s left-handed stroke, but he still acknowledged that the 21-year-old is likely achieve the highest level during his career.
“His left-handed swing plays a bit long for my liking and produces too many ground balls, and I’ve never been wowed by the bat speed from either side of the plate," the scout said. "But the overall approach is legit and gives him a high probability of reaching the major leagues."
For somebody viewed as a power hitter, Gillaspie’s 1.90 groundout-to-flyout ratio this season is worrisome. Meanwhile, his heat map (from both sides of the plate) helps put the issue into perspective.
Another amateur evaluator offered similar praise of Gillaspie’s approach and plate discipline, but he, too, was skeptical of the first baseman’s offensive potential.
“The approach is great,” he said, “but I have my doubts as to how the swing and power frequency will translate against upper-level pitching. I don't think he'll need much time in the minor leagues, but those expecting a star-caliber first baseman are going to come away disappointed. Ironically, I could see him becoming a switch-hitting version of James Loney.
Specifically, I worry about his ability to hit high-end velocity, but he knows how to work counts and, for the most part, does a good job keeping his weight back in order to barrel secondary pitches.”
While Gillaspie went 0-for-1 and didn’t put the ball in play during Tuesday’s All-Star Game, he did showcase his advanced approach by coaxing a walk and seeing a combined 14 pitches over two plate appearances, both from the left side of the plate.
It was easy to see what the scouts were referring to regarding the length of Gillaspie’s swing, as there were multiple instances when his timing mechanism was noticeably behind fastballs and seemingly prevented him from initiating a swing. That being said, Gillaspie likely would have been all over a secondary offering had he gotten something to handle, as it in theory would have sped up his bat.
The good news is that Gillaspie’s weaknesses, much like his strengths, are already apparent, which is a huge advantage. This way, he’ll be able to address those specific issues moving forward rather than dealing with them once they intensify at higher levels.
The overall consensus on Casey Gillaspie is that he’s likely headed for a career in the major leagues. However, based on the opinions of scouts contacted for this article, the 21-year-old’s ultimate ceiling remains up in the air. Even if he fails to reach his offensive ceiling, all signs still point to Casey becoming the most accomplished ballplayer in his family’s history.