Most of the attention this spring regarding the Tigers upcoming draft class has been understandably focused on their first selection of the night. With the fifth pick overall pick, whichever player they draft will likely end up being a top-five prospect in the system and land on Top-100 prospect boards across the game. There’s some last minute drama regarding whether the Baltimore Orioles will select the obvious best talent in catcher Adley Rutschman, or if highly coveted first baseman Andrew Vaughn could slip to Detroit’s pick, but let’s take a step back.
In a recent mock draft, the experts over at FanGraphs predicted that the Tigers are going to spring for a different advanced college bat in the form of OF Matt Wallner. If the Tigers do choose to go in that direction, what does he bring to the table?
School: Southern Mississippi
Draft day age: 21
MLB Pipeline draft prospect rank: 60
Previously drafted: 2016, 32nd round
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: OF Matt Wallner
Wallner’s entire game revolves around his ability to make a baseball go long distances on command. In the batters’ box, he’s a real threat to go deep in every plate appearance. Tall and well-built, the lefty is routinely pitched around because opposing hurlers simply aren’t willing to challenge him with their best stuff in the zone. He recently set Southern Mississippi’s all-time record for career home runs in a game against the University of Alabama.
“I try not to think about stuff like that,” he remarked when asked about his approach to the record-breaking at-bat. “Otherwise, you’ll see me rolling over grounders to second. I try keep it simple. I try to relax my hands and relax my body and... see a pitch up. Fortunately, I got one.”
When it works, the results get rave reviews from evaluators. Baseball America notes that his swing produces “plenty of loft” and suggests that he has “plus power potential.” FanGraphs, who has the right fielder ranked as 44th on their draft board, used the phrase “huge power” and praised his high performance. In fact, Wallner has posted an isolated slugging mark north of .250 in every season as a collegian, including two above .300. In other words, he’s been phenomenal. The power is real.
In the field, Wallner is merely adequate with the glove. He does, however, fit in nicely in right field thanks to his arm strength. As a pitcher, he was able to reach fastball velocities up to 97 miles per hour and is able to use that ability to great effect as a defenseman. He is able to take extra bases away from runners with hard, accurate throws from all over right field.
In utterly predictable fashion, Wallner struggles to tap into all of his power at times because of an impatient approach at the plate. Fooled by pitches outside the zone, he has a tendency to strike out more often than you’d like to see from a top prospect. That can likely be attributed to an effort to showcase his power in every at-bat. While he has the potential to be a genuine middle of the order masher, he tries to force things and offers big rips at pitches that don’t deserve a swing.
Health will be a concern for teams taking a serious look at Wallner on Draft day. He missed time this spring with a forearm strain, after which he was completely shut down as a pitcher after being used both ways in previous seasons. After returning from his time on the shelf, scouts complained that his arm strength didn’t recovered to previous levels and are fairly sure he could be better than he has been this spring. The timing of the injury also makes it a bit difficult to discern which of his problems are ripple effects from being hurt and shut down or more deeply entrenched.
One issue that is distinctly separate from his ailments is slow footspeed, which is what triggered his move to right field this spring. Formerly a center fielder, Wallner isn’t a terrible defender, he simply suffers from a lack of the range required to handle a spot up the middle. The fact that he is locked into a corner caps his potential value, keeps the pressure on his bat, and reduces the number of paths he could take to the majors.
Draft Position: Second Round
Unless something drastic happens in very short order, which isn’t totally out of the question, evaluators have Wallner firmly cemented in the second round. His tools are too loud to ignore. At the time, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to project him as a first rounder after a statistically impressive season as a freshman. Numbers have continued to tell the story of an outstanding prospect, but health concerns clouds the picture enough to bump him out of serious consideration in the first round. While he has his warts, someone will be willing to bet on his power and reasonably high floor and take Wallner with their pick in the second round.