After the Cubs landed “the complete package” by taking lefty starter Jordan Wicks with their first pick in the MLB Draft, the organization immediately began to target high-upside talent in the early rounds of Day 2. Since teams have to operate within a set pool of bonus money assigned to each organization, any upside player selected comes at a cost requiring some additional flexibility in later rounds.
This flexibility often comes from so-called “senior signs,” where players with reduced leverage from a lack of remaining college eligibility sign for less than their assigned slot. We saw Cubs VP of Scouting Dan Kantrovitz target both demographics on Tuesday.
First, let’s take a look at some of those upside plays.
Round 2: James Triantos, 3B, James Madison HS (VA)
Triantos was a name on the rise and has been associated with the Cubs for the past few weeks. The Virginia high school SS/RHP was a name featured in the Cubs Insider Draft series as a potential target in large part due to his hitting data.
According to draft guru Mason McRae on The Rant Live’s MLB Draft Special, the Cubs had a higher internal grade on Triantos than Kahlil Watson (Miami Marlins, 16th overall). Excited yet? Apparently, Triantos is ready to begin his professional career.
#Cubs 2nd-round pick, James Triantos, after being drafted earlier today: "I plan on signing."
— Savermetrics (@Savermetrics) July 12, 2021
As a fun note, Triantos was the second-round pick by Bryan Smith and me in the Prospects Live’s Community Mock Draft. It’s a bit self-serving, but it’s fun to nail a pick in the rare situations it happens.
— Matt Clapp (@TheBlogfines) July 12, 2021
Round 3: Drew Gray, LHP, IMG Academy (FL)
Gray, who began his high school career in Illinois before transferring to IMG Academy was announced by the Cubs as a pitcher but was listed on the MLB tracker as an outfielder. Despite the early confusion, Kantrovitz later confirmed to MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian that Gray is indeed a pitcher. He showcased elite pitch metrics in limited viewings, especially with a fastball that topped out at 2800 RPMs and had “natural arm-side run and plus movement,” according to Kantrovitz.
2021 LHP/OF Drew Gray flashed a plus FB back in October at WWBA, and even more consistency last night in Vero. Ran it up to 94, sitting 90-93 with almost 2800RPM(!). CB showed tight shape with some ugly swings. Uncomfortable ABs. Big night for 2021 LHPs. #Arkansas commit. pic.twitter.com/HzHN1FS9mK
— Ian Smith (@FlaSmitty) February 11, 2021
Gray is also lauded for his “hammer curve,” which is a pitch the Cubs utilize heavily in their pitching development, and there shouldn’t be a lot of wear and tear on his arm because he’s relatively new to pitching. Gray is committed to Arkansas so don’t expect an underslot signing. However, it’s unlikely the Cubs gamble on drafting the lefthander unless they have a good idea of his bonus demands.
Round 4: Christian Franklin, OF, Arkansas
Perhaps no player in this class exemplifies the upside in this category like Franklin. The Arkansas centerfielder began the year ranked comfortably in the top 50 players in the draft class by some outlets. The challenge with Franklin is that the strikeouts piled up and, like Jud Fabian (Florida, CF), scouts became concerned over the vast quantity of Ks. Throughout this season, Franklin displayed power (13 home runs, .544 SLG) and speed (11 stolen bases) that couldn’t completely offset that 28.4% K%, which is a concerning statistic.
We don’t deserve Christian Franklin.
He did this to end the frame + save runs.
Then tied it with a solo homer leading off the bottom of the inning 😳
— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) June 4, 2021
He plays a strong centerfield and the Cubs should be able to live with strikeouts if they can get that strong production everywhere else. Ultimately, this is a gamble on the Cubs’ hitting infrastructure, led by Director of Hitting Justin Stone. It’s not easy to find a hitter with Franklin’s tools, experience in the SEC, and centerfield proficiency this late in the draft.
Best pick today was definitely Christian Franklin, and that’s not because of how much I like him. He gets to work w/ Justin Stone, one of the best hitting coaches. Some changes w/ swing path need to be made as he doesn’t adjust on 2K to improve contact rate in high-FB counts.
— 📊 (@mason_mcrae) July 12, 2021
Now we get into some deeper cuts. After going for some likely overslot players who are going to require a bit more to sign, the Cubs had to save money in the bonus pool. This is where it’s vitally important to trust the area scouts who scour every ballfield looking for the next “steal of the draft.” If you listen to the Cubs’ own assessment of these picks, you might think they’ve found a few along the way.
Round 5: Liam Spence, SS, Tennessee
Spence (23 years old) is a clear senior sign, but he brings legitimate skills that Cubs fans have craved. The Tennessee shortstop is a wizard with the glove and features a contact-oriented approach at the plate. He also takes his walks and had a 50-game on-base streak for Tennessee this past season (fact courtesy of Nathanael Rutherford @Mr_Rutherford on Twitter). While he gets praise for his contact bat, Spence can put some runs on the board by himself. Don’t count on big-time power, but he did hit five home runs this past season.
And so it begins, Liam Spence hits a lead off home run and the #Vols are on the board already.
Tennessee 1, Liberty 0 pic.twitter.com/SFZUzxkgSk
— Kellyanne Stitts (@KellyanneStitts) June 5, 2021
Defensive stud on the infield, contact bat, and probably a killer accent, the native Australian just may have all the skills necessary to become a fan-favorite in short order.
Round 6: Riley Martin, LHP, Quincy University
If you’re looking for a small-school (Division-II), strikeout machine, you don’t need to look any further than Martin. While the competition isn’t the same caliber as the SEC, Martin put up an absurd 17.39 K/9 as a starter for his team. His most prodigious outing was May 7, when he struck out 19 over seven innings, allowing one run on three hits and four walks.
According to Kantrovitz, Martin’s fastball-slider combo paved the way for him this past season, but the Cubs are also encouraged by a changeup that he rarely needed. The Cubs had high internal grades on his fastball and slider, but if you’re looking to give grades for moxie, Martin has that in spades as well.
— Robert Frey (@RobertFrey40) April 18, 2021
Round 7: Parker Chavers, OF, Coastal Carolina
Another player from area scout Billy Swoope’s part of the country, the Coastal Carolina outfielder was draft-eligible last year but decided to return to school. Unfortunately for Chavers, injuries limited him throughout his final college season. While the .318/.407/.477 slash line doesn’t jump off the page, the Cubs may feel he has a better chance to reach his ceiling with better health. The outfielder isn’t as dynamic as Franklin, but should get a run at centerfield.
.@CoastalBaseball CF Parker Chavers with a nice grab in CF early in Sunday's game. Solid overall profile. Top 80 Draft Prospect on my board right now.
— Jake Tillinghast (@JTillinghast27) March 9, 2021
The nearly 23-year-old possess solid on-base skills and can play all over the outfield. It never hurts to prove to scouts that you can hit with wood bats and Chavers had a .270/.359/.467 slash line in the Cape Cod league in 2019.
That's a walk-off grand slam for Parker Chavers and Coastal!pic.twitter.com/WcUsXjYZOT
— College Baseball Nation (@CollegeBallNat) February 21, 2021
Round 8: Casey Opitz, C, Arkansas
If you wanted to pick one surefire major league player from rounds 5-10, Opitz would be an excellent choice. He isn’t a huge asset at the plate (.257/.367/.346), but what he did behind it for one of the strongest pitching staffs in college baseball at Arkansas is downright impressive. Optiz has a strong, accurate arm and is lauded for his work with the pitchers.
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) May 28, 2021
That work garnered national attention from none other than Pitching Ninja, who featured Opitz prominently. This is a likely future backup catcher in the big leagues and that’s great value in the 8th round.
Arkansas vs Ole Miss…18-14 game?
Better call the Kopps. 🚓🚨🚔
Kevin Kopps Filth to close it out.
Casey Opitz is an electric factory behind the plate too. ⚡️⚡️ I'm not CatchingNinja, but I love watching that dude. pic.twitter.com/z3KKhwLoeZ
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 11, 2021
Round 9: Chase Watkins, LHP, Oregon State
Watkins was a total surprise, but he’s apparently been on the Cubs’ radar for a while now. He is a 6-foot-4 lefty who only pitched in relief (4.88 ERA, 38 Ks in 31 innings) for Oregon State while sporting an upper 80s/low 90s fastball that he set off with a curveball. Perfect Game’s Brian Sakowski also notes a new slider, which can only help his future profile.
Cubs grab Oregon State LHP Chase Watkins. Big lefty, lots of angle to FB at 88-92 mph, CB spins well with good depth, newer slider is good for him as well. Good pen piece, ingredients to try as starter. #PGDraft
— Brian Sakowski (@B_Sakowski_PG) July 12, 2021
Though some analysts feel he could start, the Cubs view him as a reliever at the next level.
“You don’t want to pigeonhole somebody if they have the chance to potentially start or go three times through an order. But I think the trend with him probably suggests that [the bullpen] is probably his best fit for now.” — Kantrovitz via Jordan Bastian
Round 10: Peter Matt, OF, Duke
After four years at Penn, Matt had a choice to make: He could take his chances as an undrafted free agent or he could take the additional year of eligibility the NCAA granted all players due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He chose the latter and a year later finds himself drafted in the top 10 rounds. This is a definite senior sign as a fifth-year player, but Matt also had his strongest full season in a college uniform.
His .297/.358/.566 slash line included a career-best 15 home runs, so the Cubs are clearly banking on the power improvements to be a real development. The Duke Chronicle had a fantastic piece on Matt that detailed his experience leaving Penn and going to Duke for one final year of eligibility. But the Duke outfielder also provides a self-scouting report.
“I think this year I’ve tapped into my power a little bit more than I have in years past, but I like to think that I can hit for average, I can run a little bit, I can play good defense in the outfield,” Matt said. “So I try to pride myself on being a well-rounded baseball player and not getting caught up in too much of one aspect of the game.”
Day three preview
The draft isn’t over yet, as there are 10 more rounds to go. Picks from rounds 11-20 can be offered up to $125,000 without counting against the bonus pool. Any dollar over that limit does get counted against the pool, however, so there’s some definite strategy involved. Look for the Cubs to take college juniors throughout the day, with maybe a select high school or junior college player.