A year after the selection of Matt Manning with their first round pick, the Detroit Tigers may have an outside shot at another intriguing and versatile prep player in the person of right-handed pitcher Sam Carlson. Physical projection and a very advanced repertoire for a high school pitcher make Carlson an intriguing option. There is an awful lot to like here. The only question is whether he is actually interested in signing later on in the first round. With the 18th pick, the Tigers would need a good read on that question to risk drafting him should he fall that far.
Carlson comes from an unlikely region for a prospective first round pick. Joe Mauer is the only prep player taken in the first round out of Minnesota who has succeeded at the major league level. Teams have only chanced a first round pick on a Minnesota high school product on rare occasions to begin with. Last summer, Carlson was notable, but probably a second rounder. The velocity he gained throughout the fall and into the spring season now has MLB Pipeline ranking him as the 15th best prospect in the draft. With those higher estimates may come higher expectations from Carlson himself.
There is a ton to like with Sam Carlson. Unlike so many highly touted prep arms, velocity isn’t his signature calling card. Instead, it’s the life on his pitches and the advanced command of a fine changeup and slider that really has scouts intrigued. His offspeed pitches give him a leg up on a lot of prep pitchers who only feature velocity and a nascent breaking ball. Carlson’s change-up is ahead of his slider but both flash plus. He also commands his full set of pitches to a degree that belies his years.
But don’t be fooled, Carlson can bring the heat too. Since last summer, the velocity on his sinker has climbed from the low-90’s closer to 94 miles per hour with the ability to max out a few ticks higher than that. He also has excellent life on the heater. It’s also attractive that, at 6’4, 195 pounds, Carlson is also still just building toward his full physical projection. That future potential, combined with an already refined repertoire and command for his age cohort, makes him a really attractive pick in the middle of the first round.
MLB Pipeline really likes the complete package.
He came out firing this year at 93-97 mph, and his heater already plays better than its velocity because it has sinking and running life and he commands it well.
Carlson also fills the strike zone with his slider, which also looks better than ever, and his changeup, which features fade and sink. Unlike most high school pitchers, he trusts his changeup and uses it liberally.
Minor League Ball’s John Sickels echoes these sentiments.
His secondary pitches are quite advanced especially given his background. His change-up is ahead of his slider but both flash plus.
There aren’t too many to speak of. The fact that Carlson’s changeup is already his best off-speed pitch undercuts a lot of the typical concerns about high school arms. By all accounts, Carlson uses the pitch heavily, and shows feel for using mixed speeds to unbalance hitters. Likewise, Carlson’s command also draws consistent 55 grades from most observers.
The weaknesses he has are simply those of any prep arm, and that’s injury risk. He doesn’t have a ton of mileage on his arm yet, and so how he’ll respond to an increased workload is still unknown. Carlson repeats his mechanics well, and has a relatively sound delivery already. He throws across his body to a degree, but so do a lot of successful pitchers, and there’s no data to actually prove a particular injury risk from doing so.
In several ways, Carlson is more advanced that either Beau Burrows or Matt Manning were when the Tigers selected them in the past two drafts. He also shouldn’t be labeled with the “typical Tigers’ flame-thrower with no control” tag. Nor should Burrows or Manning for that matter. However, it’s particularly true in Carlson’s case. He draws excellent reviews for his mound presence and intelligent approach. He throws a lot of strikes, and he already has a pair of off-speed pitches that regularly flash plus.
Carlson planned to attend the University of Florida, but it seems very likely that he’ll be drafted in the first round, with a high enough slot bonus to get him to sign with the team that selects him. Should he fall late in the first round, all bets may be off, but with the 18th pick, the Tigers will presumably have no trouble inducing him to change his plans.
Recent mock drafts from SB Nation and FanGraphs, have each slotted Carlson to the Tigers. Back in May, ESPN’s Keith Law and MLB Pipeline’s Jonathan Mayo were mocking him very late in the first round. That improvement in his stock as his velocity improved this spring may leave him just out of the Tigers’ reach at this point. While fans may wish for a bat, the relative weakness of the college bats available, and Carlson’s tantalizing potential, make him an ideal choice if the Tigers are fortunate enough to get a crack at him.