The first questions I get asked about a draft class every year are the same: Who is the best player this year? Is he one of those Bryce Harper-level guys who could be the best prospect in a decade? The 2010 No. 1 overall pick is still a touchpoint for even casual baseball fans, the LeBron James of his sport. Like James, Harper was hyped very early (an SI cover as a high school junior baseball player) and has largely lived up to it (two MVPs, a $330 million deal, and two-thirds of a Hall of Fame-level WAR while still in his 20s).
When I was asked that question about the 2022 draft at this time last year, the answer was “maybe,” but it was Florida prep CF Elijah Green who demanded that kind of hype at age 16. He was and is showing that level of raw tools, but his hitting ability hasn’t allowed him to reach Harper heights and he sits third on my board.
Now, the answer to that question is “yes,” depending on your definition — but I’m speaking about the No. 1 prospect on my draft board, Georgia prep CF Druw Jones (son of Atlanta Braves star Andruw). Jones had his viral moment last week and luckily I was there:
Saw Druw Jones tonight (son of Andruw), my top prospect for the 2022 draft.
Hostile road crowd and faced 90-93 mph from Georgia State commit Brady Jones.
Amidst chants of “overrated” he hits a rocket dead central. Friend helped me with a side angle @espn @jones_druw pic.twitter.com/8huUGVhFUG
— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) March 3, 2022
I watched Jones play the day before as well, as he wrapped up a blistering first month of scrimmages and games to start his season. National scouts have been telling me they were turning in lofty scouting reports from his early spring games. I can confirm — after about two years of scouting Jones — that he’s turned the corner, and after spending the last week talking to more than two dozen scouts about him, I haven’t found one who has another player atop their list. Most give Jones a significant lead over the next best player, fellow Atlanta-area prep 2B Termarr Johnson.
Jones is unique because of his ability and bloodlines, but he’s also the rare elite prospect who doesn’t have a clear comp. He’s a lanky — 6-foot-4, 180 pounds — right-handed hitter and thrower who is a plus-plus defender in center field (many scouts said he could be above-average in the big leagues right now) and a plus-to-plus-plus runner (particularly once he gets moving), with a plus-plus arm. He could also be an average major league defensive shortstop if he spent more time playing there.
At the plate, he projects for plus raw power (that converts to roughly 25 homers annually) if he doesn’t already have it, and you could squint and see a 30-plus-homer threat as he’s a candidate for significant added strength. He’s a plus hitter who has made contact consistently against good pitching for years, with plus bat control and a good sense of the strike zone. As is typical for a longer-limbed player, he doesn’t consistently show in-game lift — it’s the weakest current aspect of his game — but all the markers are there for it to come.
Scouts tend to do comps by finding a player with a similar build, handedness, toolset and usually even something as specific as a batting stance or how they move. The above scouting report hasn’t been written before; scouts couldn’t even think of another projected solid defensive major league shortstop where that ability was an afterthought. The lanky, advanced prep hitter where you can dream on strength and in-game power reminds me of Christian Yelich at the same point — but that’s not considering the shortstop element, the eliteness of his center-field defense, his overall track record or the handedness difference. You can scroll through Baseball Savant and find players who are one to two standard deviations above average at almost everything — and they’re basically the same players as the major league MVP voting results.
There isn’t a perfect comp, but the question I have drilled scouts on since they declared Jones the top player on their board by a good margin is: “How far back you have to go to find a player clearly better than him?” This is where things get a little tricky.
The today version of Jones would go first in most, if not all, recent drafts for most scouts. The players most mentioned as peers come from the 2019 draft (Adley Rutschman and Bobby Witt Jr., though some mentioned Riley Greene and C.J. Abrams), 2012 (Byron Buxton) and 2011 (Gerrit Cole), with some stray mentions of other players also on this tier.
I’d say about a quarter of the scouts called Jones the best draft prospect since Harper was drafted in 2010; the other three-fourths either took one of those other players or thought there was a multiway tie. There are three other former No. 1 picks — Stephen Strasburg in 2009, David Price in 2007 and Justin Upton in 2005 — who join Harper as the only four prospects in recent memory to clearly top Jones.
I’m still in the majority in that I think Jones is on that secondary tier with Rutschman, Buxton & Co., but we’ve still got the rest of the spring for that to shake out. If Jones turned pro right now and needed to be slotted on my Top 100 MLB prospects list, I’d rank him in the 60 FV tier, in the 10-to-21 range overall.
Other moves on the draft board
High school hitters
I posted a top 50 two weeks ago and there’s already been a good bit of movement. Georgia prep 2B Termarr Johnson has held strong in the second spot, while Elijah Green has also held strong at third. For me, it’s a pretty clear one, then two, then three and then a bit of a dropoff. The next prep hitter is Oklahoma prep SS Jackson Holliday (yep, son of Matt) who is now in the back of the top 10 after a hot start. Beyond this group, the next prep position player probably doesn’t come off the board until picks 15 to 20.
It seems like every spring scouts complain about the lack of good college hitters — in part a pat on the back to the industry for signing the good ones out of high school and in part a pointed finger at college baseball for not developing what they’re given. Both factors are certainly relevant to the recent rut, but — while I think it’s really unlikely that a college position player will crack the overall top three — there are a ton of college position players of first-round quality.
From the No. 4 slot to about the 20th pick I have 11 pretty similar college position players who could go (in no particular order): Cal Poly SS Brooks Lee, LSU 3B Jacob Berry, Texas Tech 2B Jace Jung, Stanford CF Brock Jones, Florida LF Sterlin Thompson (a huge early-season riser from 39th in my initial list), Cal RF Dylan Beavers, James Madison RF Chase DeLauter, Tennessee LF Jordan Beck (another big riser from this weekend’s tournament in Houston), Virginia Tech RF Gavin Cross, Georgia Tech C Kevin Parada and Chipola JC 3B Cam Collier.
Since this group is so corner-heavy, a couple of bad weeks at the plate could move one or two of these hitters out of this tier, but there’s more knocking on the door. In the top 30 for most teams are Arizona C Daniel Susac, Arkansas 2B Robert Moore and LSU 3B Cade Doughty, which would mean college hitters could ultimately make up almost half of the first 30 picks. If you don’t like someone in that group, there are another six to 10 candidates behind them who probably have homes in the top 50 picks. I’m not sure there’s an All-Star in the bunch — there’s a real chance none of those players are above-average defenders at any of the up-the-middle positions other than the underpowered Moore — but there are solid big leaguers, all in the safest of the four demographics (college hitter/pitcher and prep hitter/pitcher).
On the flip side, the college pitching class is about as bad as I can ever remember one being. It’s seems to be getting worse a weekly basis — with many of the best prospects out rehabbing Tommy John surgery (Alabama LHP Connor Prielipp, Arkansas RHP Peyton Pallette, UConn LHP Reggie Crawford) — and we have our fingers crossed it’s just a minor injury from this weekend for Mississippi State RHP Landon Sims. Among the other stars of the class: East Carolina LHP Carson Whisenhunt, currently suspended as a result of breaking team rules, and RHP Kumar Rocker, expected to join an Independent League club in a month or so.
All of those players are still top-50-pick talents (Prielipp was a potential top-five pick before his injury) but what remains is probably headlined by three lefties from the state of Florida: Gators LHP Hunter Barco and Seminoles LHPs Bryce Hubbart and Parker Messick. Barco and Hubbart both look like back-half-of-the-first-round types and Messick seems to fit for picks 30-45.
The only other two active college pitchers with top-50-pick buzz are Campbell RHP Thomas Harrington and Oregon State LHP Cooper Hjerpe, with some solid depth in the back half of Round 2 and beyond. The best players of that group were in the “others of note” in the last rankings, but the popup name working into that range is Tennessee’s rocket-armed righty Ben Joyce, who has basically been sitting 100 mph all season in relief. I first saw him two years ago, but he was sidelined by injuries in the interim.
High school pitchers
The prep pitching class is one of the better ones in years, with Georgia prep RHP Dylan Lesko well out in the lead. He’s on the Jackson Jobe/MacKenzie Gore/Hunter Greene level of pitching prospect, with some active debate amongst scouts on whom they prefer. Where Lesko gets drafted is more a function of the risk tolerance for the teams picking in the top five for the riskiest demographic in the draft; he seems sure, barring injury, to find a home in the top 10 picks.
Beyond Lesko, Elijah Green’s IMG Academy teammate LHP Jackson Ferris and South Florida LHP Brandon Barriera are next and probably both go in the top 20 picks, with opinions diverging after those three consensus talents. The depth of this group is defined by that next tier, since there’s as many as a dozen prep pitchers who scouts think could go in the top 50 picks. Given the volatility of prep pitching and asking prices that will push some to college, there won’t be that many drafted in the top 50, but there’s plenty of variety for clubs to choose from.
The hot name in this group that wasn’t mentioned in the recent rankings is RHP Jacob Zibin, a 2023-eligible, Canadian-born prospect going to TNXL Academy in Florida and also playing for travel team Langley Blaze out of Canada. He’s petitioned to reclassify to the 2022 class, and scouts are operating under the assumption that he will once he graduates later this spring; his velocity has spiked into the upper-90s recently and should have packed houses at his remaining starts, including tonight.
With the weak college-pitching class and more certainty from advanced data and years on the showcase circuit, clubs may be more comfortable with taking prep arms early than in past years.