2015 MLB Draft Prospects: Ranking the Top Sleeper at Every Position
With the NCAA regionals set to begin on Friday, fans will soon have the opportunity to view some of the top draft prospects in the 2015 class, whether it is college shortstops Dansby Swanson and Alex Bregman, prep outfielder Daz Cameron, left-handed pitcher Tyler Jay or right-hander Carson Fulmer.
However, this year’s crop of talent—which we explored in depth earlier this week—extends far beyond the aforementioned college standouts, and with 40 rounds of drafting over a three-day period, teams will have plenty of opportunities to find value where others don’t.
With that in mind, we're going to break down the top sleeper candidates for the upcoming draft, focusing on one prospect at each position who isn’t getting the publicity or fanfare he deserves but projects well at the next level.
C: Taylor Ward, Fresno State
Taylor Ward entered the spring with a real chance to improve his draft stock in a class that is painfully thin on catching.
An unsigned 31st-round pick of the Rays out of high school in 2012, Ward struggled as a true freshman in 2013 but enjoyed a breakout campaign last season as a sophomore, batting .320/.395/.438 with six home runs, eight doubles and nearly as many walks (28) as strikeouts (29).
Ward’s strong showing at the plate earned him a spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer, and he also played seven games in the prestigious Cape Cod League.
This spring, the 21-year-old backstop continued to improve on all fronts, setting career highs in OPS (.899), isolated power (.182), home runs (seven), doubles (14) and RBI (42), and he also posted a 34/35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 261 plate appearances.
Ward has shown more power each season at Fresno State, and he has good raw pop to his pull side, but there are questions as to whether his hit tool will develop enough to allow him to utilize it in games. Ward should still be able to provide value with his on-base skills even if that turns out to be the case, as he has a consistent approach that allows him to work deep counts and coax walks.
The 6’1”, 190-pound Ward is an excellent athlete behind the plate but only a tick above average as a receiver. Luckily, he’s an outstanding catch-and-throw backstop with an accurate, plus arm evidenced by caught-stealing rates of 40 and 33 percent in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Ward would be an intriguing draft prospect in any year, but the dearth of capable catchers in the 2015 class has him set up to come off the board early, possibly somewhere in Rounds 2-4.
1B: Isiah Gilliam, Chipola JC (Fla.)
If Isiah Gilliam’s name sounds familiar, it’s likely because the Cubs took a run at him in the 23rd round of the 2014 draft, after he moved up his high school graduation year to become draft-eligible. Gilliam didn’t sign, obviously, choosing instead to attend Chipola College (Fla.) with the hope of improving his draft stock.
Well, it’s safe to say the 18-year-old accomplished that much this spring, as he batted .362/.421/.548, hit five home runs and led his team with 20 doubles and 52 RBI.
A 6’3”, 215-pound switch-hitter, Gilliam possesses above-average raw power, but right now it’s more gap power than legit over-the-fence pop. He shows more power potential from the left side of the plate thanks to a lofty barrel path, while his right-handed stroke produces more consistent line-drive contact. Given his frame and strength, however, it’s easy to envision Gilliam parking balls from both sides of the plate at maturity.
Gilliam was a first baseman in high school but manned left field for Chipola this spring. He might be given a chance as a professional to stick at the latter position, but his size and bat scream long-term first baseman.
2B: Brandon Lowe, Maryland
Brandon Lowe put himself on the draft radar last year as a sophomore, batting .342/.464/.464 with 16 extra-base hits and considerably more walks (34) than strikeouts (20) in 238 plate appearances. The only thing he didn’t do was hit for power, as only one of those 16 extra-base hits left the yard.
This spring, however, the 20-year-old Lowe showed more consistent pop, batting .342/.442/.564 with nine home runs, 17 doubles and four triples. He also posted another outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio (28/35 K/BB) and stole 10 bases in 12 attempts.
Lowe’s bat speed and looseness produce an effortless swing from the left side of the plate. He keeps the barrel in the zone for an extended amount of time, and that enables him to consistently hit to all fields.
Lowe, despite his improved home run total this season, is likely to offer mostly gap power as a professional, but his excellent contact skills and approach should continue to yield high batting averages and on-base rates.
3B: Travis Blankenhorn, Pottsville Area HS (Penn.)
The first thing you need to know about Travis Blankenhorn is that he’s a great athlete. In addition to his success on the diamond at Pottsville Area High School (Penn.), the 18-year-old was also a standout in both basketball and football, though he did give up the latter after his junior year.
The other thing you need to know about Blankenhorn is that he rakes. A 6’1”, 195-pound left-handed hitter, Blankenhorn has outstanding bat-to-ball skills that cater to his ability to hit for average, and there’s enough strength and leverage to his swing to project for usable power as well.
Blankenhorn played shortstop in high school but will likely move off the position as a professional on account of his average speed and range. However, his solid glove and promising offensive profile should fit nicely at the hot corner.
Basically, there’s a lot to like in Blankenhorn’s package of athleticism, tools and baseball skills, and it wouldn’t be a shocker if the prep third baseman snuck into the first sandwich of comp rounds.
SS: Kal Simmons, Kennesaw State
If the 2015 draft class is lousy with one thing, it’s shortstops. But with most national coverage focusing in on top dogs Brendan Rodgers, Dansby Swanson and Alex Bregman, it is easy to overlook potential sleepers such as Kal Simmons.
Simmons has always stood out at shortstop defensively, showing excellent athleticism, plus range and more than enough arm strength—there’s little doubt about him sticking at the position as a professional.
However, it was the 21-year-old switch-hitter’s improvement at the plate this spring that boosted his draft stock, as he batted .269/.380/.443 with a career-high 10 home runs in 257 plate appearances. Between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, Simmons tallied just one long ball in 525 plate appearances.
While he’s unlikely to come off the board on Day 1 of the draft, Simmons could be a great grab for a team within the first 10 rounds, especially if it believes his 2015 showing was just a sample of his potential.
OF: Chad Smith, South Gwinnett HS (Ga.)
Chad Smith’s athleticism and tools make him one of the more dynamic prep outfielders in this year’s draft class, and the fact that he won’t turn 18 until Sept. 30 makes him particularly appealing from a long-term development perspective.
At 6’2”, 200 pounds, Smith has a loose, fluid stroke from the left side of the plate as well as a knack for creating a favorable contact point, as he takes a direct route to the ball and follows it with good extension.
He hasn't learned to tap into his raw power yet, which is both commanding and understandable, but his swing suggests it should at least be a notable aspect of his game at maturity. Smith is mostly a gap hitter right now, though it does allow him to utilize his plus speed.
Defensively, the Georgia commit has all the makings of a big league center fielder, as his speed translates to plus range and enables him to close quickly. If, for some reason, Smith were forced off the position, then his arm strength should still play at either corner spot.
A huge gap exists between Smith’s present ability and future potential, but the upside is undeniably tantalizing and could lead to an earlier-than-expected selection for him in this year’s draft.
P: Antonio Santillan, RHP, Seguin HS (Texas)
Right-hander Antonio Santillan is arguably the biggest wild card among prep pitchers in this year’s draft class, as his stock took off this spring despite an inconsistent performance on the mound.
The fast-armed Santillan works in the 93-96 mph range with his fastball and will scrape a few ticks higher, but his velocity comes with a caveat in that it’s almost completely dependent on the functionality of his delivery.
At 6’3”, 240 pounds, Santillan has a habit of ripping open with his front shoulder, which usually is a result of him trying to overthrow. The fastball is electric when he’s right, however, and it makes his hard, knee-buckling curveball and nascent changeup all the more effective.
Santillan will be a project for the team that drafts him, but there are few righties in this year’s class, let alone preps, who can match his upside.