Thanks to the wide range of prospects available and their distance from the highest levels of baseball, the MLB draft is notoriously difficult to predict. Players emerge out of nowhere as possible first round picks (or even top five selections), while others slated for stardom start to fall down draft boards. We saw this with current Detroit Tigers prospect Kyle Funkhouser a few years ago; his performance suffered a bit during his junior season, and he ultimately returned to school before the Tigers grabbed him in the fourth round.
Duke outfielder Griffin Conine is a similar case. The son of former big leaguer Jeff Conine, Griffin had a monster sophomore season in 2017. He hit .295/.425/.546 with 13 home runs in 218 at-bats, and added nine stolen bases for good measure. He followed that performance with an excellent run through the Cape Cod League. Entering the 2018 season, Conine was expected to sit firmly within the first round, with a chance at moving into the top 10 (or even five) with another big season.
The opposite seems to have happened. Conine struggled out of the gate and has all but fallen off draft boards. He isn’t appearing on any mock drafts, and has fallen significantly on multiple draft prospect rankings list. Though his numbers have rebounded — he’s now hitting .280/.406/.602 with 15 homers — his stock seemingly hasn’t. The Tigers seem set on taking a prep bat with their second round pick, according to FanGraphs, but could they change their tune if Conine is available at No. 44 overall?
Draft day age: 20
MLB Pipeline prospect rank: 65
Previously drafted: 2015, 31st round
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: OF Griffin Conine
When Conine is at his best, he’s a well-rounded corner outfielder who will hit for average and power. He looked like one of the most polished college bats in America last summer, when he put up gaudy numbers in the normally pitcher-friendly Cape Cod League. There, veteran scout Ted Lekas got a good look at Conine, which he shared at 2080 Baseball.
Athletic right fielder with plus bat and power potential; good, sound approach at the plate from a slight open stance; good balance; plus bat speed with quick hands and quick wrists; plus barrel control, barrels up balls and projects as a plus hitter; present strength; loft and leverage to all fields, projects to plus power; below-average run; did not produce home-to-first run time; above-average arm strength (55) with good carry; average defensive actions; tools to be above-average major league regular contributor.
Conine should be a solid defender with an above-average arm in right field, but the bat is the carrying tool here. Conine has plus bat speed, along with the plus barrel control noted above. College Baseball Daily said “I really love this kid’s hands as there is very little movement” when they ranked him the No. 9 college player in the country heading into the season. Baseball America wasn’t far behind, rating Conine 11th among draft-eligible college prospects.
Though they have since dropped him in their rankings, they still like what he brings to the table offensively, saying, “When he does hit the ball, he usually hits it hard. The plus raw power that he possesses hasn’t disappeared.” 2080 Baseball’s Burke Granger said similar things when he saw Conine play in an early season viewing.
He remains balanced throughout his left-handed swing, combining plus bat speed with natural loft to drive the ball over the fence in batting practice and games alike. He projects as an above average hitter, with feel for the strike zone and ability to control the barrel.
MLB Pipeline echoed these sentiments, saying “[Conine] is still one of the better power hitters available in the 2018 Draft, capable of driving the ball out to all fields.” They gave his power an above-average grade, but if concerns about his hit tool disappear, that will play up into the plus range. D1 Baseball’s Frankie Piliere also praised Conine’s power stroke, calling it “easy 60 to 65 raw power...that already easily translates into game action,” though this came after Conine’s performance on the Cape, the high point of his draft value.
While he has been praised as a good athlete, Conine doesn’t run particularly well. MLB Pipeline graded his speed as a below-average (40) tool. They added, “He can flash average run times but hasn’t showed that kind of speed this spring.” They, and others, don’t believe it will hinder his ability to be an above-average defender in an outfield corner, but he won’t be a threat to swipe five to 10 bases in any given year (he’s 0-for-1 at Duke this season).
But that’s burying the lede. Conine’s draft stock has plummeted not because of his speed, but because of serious concerns about his ability to make contact at the plate. He has fanned 57 times in 229 plate appearances this season, a 25 percent clip. This may not seem like much in today’s MLB game, but it’s quite high for an elite college bat (Florida’s Jonathan India is around 18-19 percent, for example). Things were even worse at one point, as Baseball America noted in their updated rankings.
His junior campaign has been disappointing, however, as Conine hit just .211/.344/.436 through his first 38 games with significant strikeout concerns. In that same span of games, Conine has struck out 45 times (27.6 percent) and has struggled to make contact with offspeed offerings of varying quality, frequently expanding his zone and swinging over the top of pitches below the strike zone.
It seems like Conine has straightened things out. He has fanned just 12 times in the past 15 games, and is now hitting .280/.406/.602. However, this recent uptick in contact and overall production hasn’t quite reached the mainstream. MLB Pipeline has also expressed concerns about Conine’s contact rate, but noted that he is selling out for power. FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel expressed similar concerns earlier this spring.
He’s gone from a well-rounded power hitter to a real three-true-outcomes monster, having sold out for power to an extreme degree. His swing is technically sound but features too much effort for him to remain under control, allow the ball to travel, give him time to read spin, and make mid-swing adjustments. It’s getting into softball-swing territory.
If a team thinks they can keep Conine’s strikeout rate under control, he could be a valuable pickup in the second or third round. He has everything else you like to see in a high draft pick, including MLB bloodlines, and might just be a mechanical adjustment away from being an above-average starter for years to come.
Draft position: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Conine entered the season as a surefire first round pick, but has seen his stock crater after an up-and-down season for the Blue Devils. His numbers have looked just fine, but he hasn’t appeared on any recent mock drafts, including FanGraphs’ 43-pick mock from last week. He has dropped to No. 64 on MLB Pipeline’s rankings, and dropped to No. 49 on Baseball America’s most recent list after coming in at No. 16 back in January. His numbers have taken a turn for the better lately, though, which might be enough to vault him back into second or comp round territory. There’s also a risk he could return to school if he falls too far down draft boards, especially after the second round.
h/t FanGraphs, 2080 Baseball, and Baseball America for the videos