Baseball players who grow up far from the draft pipelines of warmer weather states sometimes fly under the radar. They don’t get the same exposure, and their draft stock is often undercut by a perceived — or actual — weakness in their competition. There often isn’t enough information to confirm or deny those assumptions. Some tools can be measured and provide objective data, but players from the Midwest will always have a bit of an uphill battle to reach widespread recognition.
Wisconsin prep star Jerred Kelenic could have been overlooked for those reasons. Only seven Badgers have ever been selected in the first round. Yet, even in the preseason, MLB Pipeline had him ranked 12th with the potential to be the first ever top 10 pick from his state. After a fine senior season and more exposure on the tournament circuit, Kelenic now looks like a lock to go in the first 10 picks. He has even picked up momentum as the player with the best chance to unseat Auburn ace Casey Mize as the Detroit Tigers’ first overall pick in the 2018 amateur draft. When you consider a late start to the season, some horrific weather conditions and an illness that kept Kelenic off the field briefly, he has overcome a lot to get to this point.
School: Waukesha West High School (WI)
Draft day age: 18
MLB Pipeline prospect rank: 8
Previously drafted: Never
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: OF Jerred Kelenic
Obviously, the bat is the key selling point here, but Kelenic is a versatile, toolsy sort, and brings quite a bit to the table as a prospect. A centerfielder by trade, Kelenic is also a pitcher who will bring a strong throwing arm to any position in the outfield. Opinions vary as to whether he will be a plus runner as he fills out, but right now he combines plus speed with good instincts both in the field and on the basepaths. Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs love the all-around package.
Kelenic makes so much look easy that you forget how tooled-up he is. He’s a 60 runner with a 70 arm, but Kelenic’s advanced feel for loud, all-fields contact is what has him up here. He could hit, hit for power, and stay in center field.
There is widespread love for Kelenic’s contact abilities and advanced approach for a prep hitter. He has a very mechanically sound power stroke from the left side, augmented by good hands and an advanced ability to keep the bat on plane through the hitting zone. As John Sickels of Minor League Ball reports, Kelenic is considered one of top pure hitters in the draft.
He’s universally considered one of the best pure hitters in the class, with good feel for the strike zone and a mechanically-sound swing that he repeats well. His hitting skills are quite polished, especially for a cold-weather bat.
Here’s a look at that stroke in batting practice.
John Eshleman of Baseball Prospectus filed this report from the Tournament of Stars showcase for prospects late last summer.
Kelenic was plus power, hitting an absolute bomb with a 109 mph exit velo, and rips line drives pull-side and up the middle. Both myself and the scouts I sat with loved Kelenic’s BP, backspinning balls out and driving through for hard contact all over the field.
Kelenic is going to have a lot of eyes on him in the coming month. He has gotten out on the showcase circuit a bit more over the past year, but final looks are going to be important as teams try to decide just how much power potential he holds in his 6’1, 195 pound frame. He has rocketed up draft boards in recent weeks, in part because of a report from McDaniel stating that the Tigers are highly interested in Kelenic as an alternative to Casey Mize. But Detroit is far from the only team in the top 10 seriously considering drafting Kelenic should he fall far enough for them to have the opportunity. His intensity, maturity and work ethic all draw high marks, so there are no apparent makeup issues in play here.
Kelenic was in Lakeland, FL to see a spring training game at the Tigers facility on March 6th, which is when I first heard this was a possibility.— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) April 9, 2018
Calling them weaknesses may be an exaggeration, but there are a few nagging issues with Kelenic, especially as a potential top five pick. Scouts are still torn a bit on his power potential, for one thing. He appears to have plus raw power potential, but his frame isn’t so large that one can easily project big-time power down the road. Still, his contact abilities should allow him to maximize his raw power, regardless of how that particular tool shakes out over time.
Another key issue is a debate around whether or not Kelenic will be able to stick as a full-time center fielder as he fills out. He’s not a tweener, as he seems a lock to have average power at minimum. His arm would be a fine asset in a corner spot, and should he approach his ceiling there should be more than enough pop to profile anywhere in the outfield. It’s just a question of how well his speed will hold up as he matures. If a team believes in his defensive ability and speed, and thinks he will carry that bat to an eventual starting role as a centerfielder, he’s going to look far more attractive as a high draft pick.
The other issues making teams wary of taking Kelenic too high revolve around his age and competition. He hasn’t gotten as much exposure as other fast rising draft prospects simply because weather conditions have prevented it. Kelenic is also older than most prep prospects, as he will turn 19 this summer. The tools are undeniable, but he has been smashing weaker, younger competition far from the prospect hotbeds in the south. That may leave a bit of skepticism in the mind of some amateur scouting directors around the league.
Draft position: top 10, with the potential to go as high as 1-1
At this point, Kelenic would probably have to stumble badly to fall out of the top ten. The Tigers are presumed to be set on Mize unless thoroughly wowed over the five weeks left before the draft. Yet, if McDaniel is right, there is likely an advocate or two in the Tigers’ front office pushing them to continue to considering Kelenic as the number one overall pick. The White Sox are thought to be keying on college bats that align with the window they expect to open in their ability to contend with young players like Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, and could be in play. FanGraphs’ recent mock draft has Kelenic headed to the Cincinnati Reds with the fifth overall pick. Perfect Game’s most recent mock slates him as the likely pick of the San Francisco Giants as the second overall pick.
One way or another, you probably won’t wait too long for Kelenic’s name to be called, particularly if he goes on a tear in May. He is committed to play college ball at Louisville, but unless his stock takes a sudden turn, he appears to be a relatively uncomplicated signing for whichever team calls his name in June.