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2018 BYB Tigers prospect #14: The Tigers invested heavily in Sam McMillan

The Florida teenager has the raw tools to develop into a starting catcher.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Sam McMillan was probably the most intriguing player in the Detroit Tigers’ 2017 draft class. Widely expected to head to the University of Florida, McMillan’s selection in the fifth round turned a few heads. The Tigers pulled together a million dollar bonus for him by signing several college players under slot, illustrating a serious commitment to the young catcher. It was enough. McMillan passed on becoming a Florida Gator, and was soon swinging a good stick in rookie ball.

Like any 19 year old, McMillan is a long way from a finished product, and tricky to project. He has the hit tool and raw ability behind the plate to potentially reach average or better grades as he develops. At the moment, however, McMillan is more jack of all trades than a master of any. He’s well rounded, but won’t drop your jaw in any facet of the game either.

The Tigers added three legitimate catching prospects last season. While he is the furthest away from the majors by far and a fairly risky draft pick, McMillan may have the highest ceiling of the group.

Background

McMillan is a Florida native hailing from Live Oaks. While he wasn’t exactly sought after due to a seemingly strong commitment to the Gators, McMillan was certainly on teams’ radar heading into the draft. Still, he didn’t seem particularly signable until the Tigers were willing to really up the ante with a huge bonus for a fifth round pick.

The young catcher’s maturity and mental fortitude helped him persevere through what was a difficult senior year of high school for him, both personally and physically. In November of 2016, McMillan’s father Filmore died suddenly. While dealing with that blow, McMillan also struggled through shoulder tendinitis during his season that led some observers questioning his arm strength and accuracy. High school catchers are already risky. Concerns about his arm health and strength were rough on his draft stock at a point where McMillan had his family’s long-term security to think about.

When the first two rounds of the draft passed him by, McMillan was discouraged, but the Tigers and a few other interested teams reportedly kept in touch to reassure him of their interest. McMillan eventually got his wish and the type of bonus he’d hoped for, while the Tigers acquired a talented, mature young baseball player who is a very good bet to give everything he’s got to succeed.

While McMillan was technically a fifth round pick, the proof is in the bonus. A signing bonus of that size makes him a second rounder in practice. He will require years of patience, but one hopes that eventually the Tigers will have a plus defensive catcher with an average MLB bat on their hands.

Strengths

McMillan stands 6’1, 195 pounds, packs an above average arm, and should add some muscle in pro ball. He didn’t need any extra during his Gulf Coast League stint after the draft. McMillan drew more walks than he struck out, hit for legitimate gap power, and posted an .873 OPS during his first two months as a pro.

McMillan has a somewhat advanced hit tool for his age and displayed good discipline for his level in rookie ball. His is a fairly educated approach for a recent prep prospect. The young catcher shows off a balanced, compact swing, and does a pretty good job keeping his bat in the zone. He has the bat to ball skills to produce quality contact, and has decent gap power, particularly to the pull field. As he fills out, he’ll tap into more power if his bat speed and ability to drive the ball in the air develop as hoped.

McMillan’s defensive skills are likewise solid, but he’s not yet outstanding in his receiving, blocking, or fielding. His motions behind the plate are schooled, but still somewhat blunt and unrefined. There was some question about McMillan’s arm strength during his senior year, but as he recovered from his shoulder injury, he was again showing an above-average arm last summer. It’s a collection of solid skills for his age, but they will all need plenty of refinement to really turn him into a standout prospect.

Weaknesses

One of the reasons so few high school catchers really succeed is that there is just so much to learn and improve on to be ready to catch at the major league level. It’s very difficult to project all but the rarest of high school catchers’ future defensive ability. College catchers are much closer to finished products defensively, and less risky as a result. McMillan is advanced for his age, and most scouts seem to believe he’ll progress well behind the plate, but there is a lot of refinement needed.

At the plate, McMillan’s ceiling seems to be as an average hitter. While he makes a lot of solid contact now, and doesn’t have any major flaws, some evaluators don’t see as much potential as others. His pro debut saw a lot of hard ground balls, without the bat speed and finish to drive the ball on a line as often as you’d like to see. 2080 Baseball was rather sanguine back in June in their report on his bat.

In the box, there’s some drag in the barrel and the swing lacks finish, limiting his ability to lift and drive the gaps. While he’s done a solid job of squaring the ball up and producing hard contact this spring, there are some concerns among evaluators as to how much ceiling there is in the stick.

McMillan also isn’t particularly big for a catcher, and his speed already grades out poorly. Pro conditioning and workload should help him to add strength without losing agility behind the plate, but it remains to be seen how his physical development will affect his skills. He also has to prove that his body can hold up to a catcher’s workload. One also has to hope the shoulder tendinitis he experienced last year isn’t indicative of any long-term issues. These are the inherent risks in projecting any teenager at such a demanding position.

In the end, McMillan is intriguing, but will require a lot of patience. The mental component of playing catcher often develops at a very different rate than physical skills, further complicating a long development track. The Tigers have had good success developing college catchers over the past decade. Bringing a catcher all the way from high school to the majors is a different beast. They will need to balance the necessary patience, with the need to challenge him over what could well be a four or five-year stint in the minor leagues before he’s roughly a major league ready product.

Projected 2018 team: Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps

McMillan would do best with a year of stability. The Tigers won’t slow play him in rookie ball when he’s already shown some ability to thrive against pitching at that level. Expect him to head to West Michigan and stay there even if he’s swinging the bat well.

With the Whitecaps, McMillan will have the opportunity to settle in and work consistently with a collection of pitchers and coaches for a full season. He’ll also have Lance Parrish as his head coach and mentor. The bat should be ready to play there with McMillan’s good approach, and his development on both sides of the ball will point the way to his next step in the Tigers’ farm system.