Five Tool 55: Discussing the toughest ranking decisions

 

You’re kidding yourself if you think putting together a rankings list is easy. Make no mistake, it’s fun. Tedious and challenging mentally in unique ways, but it’s fun. Putting together the first Five Tool 55 for the 2022 class in Texas – and the first Five Tool 55 ever – required making some tough decisions that won’t truly have an answer for years and decisions that will be revisited during the future updates. Let’s take a look:

STARTING AT THE TOP…
Perhaps the only consistent thing shared among the professional evaluators I spoke with is there isn’t a clear-cut top player in the state of Texas currently. I agree. I really struggled with the top spot because there isn’t much separation from infielders like Jett Williams, Jalin Flores, Jayson Jones, Jared Thomas and even Travis Sanders and Justin Vossos. They’re all different, but the package of tools and performance put them all in a similar tier. In the end, Williams earned the nod after his terrific Area Code performance when he distanced himself as the Rangers’ top performer, leader and he’s a skilled player who has the tools to match the performance.

 

Braswell star Jones is one of the most famous high school position players in the country and considered by many to be the No. 1 player in Texas. With plus-plus raw power that can lead to jaw-dropping batting practice sessions and huge exit velocity, Jones profiles as a future power hitter with the type of confident, clean infield actions and loose arm to confidently project a smooth move to third base as his already physical frame continues to grow and possibly into first base or a corner outfield spot. Basically, he’s really, really good and absolutely has a chance to be a future first-round pick. 

 

So, why wasn’t he No. 1? Area Code, the best collection of amateur talent and competition in a single event, proved a tough environment for Jones with the bat, which included striking out his first five at-bats and a lot of surprising swing and miss issues. It happens. As the saying goes, baseball is a game of failure, and for top amateurs like Jones, the summer can be a grueling experience of travel and games against good arms, which is why it’s unwise to place extreme value in summer performance for high school players. Plus, Jones’ future is on the corner of the dirt or in the outfield whereas Flores and Williams are middle-of-the-diamond players. 

 

Imagine flying all around the country in the summer and playing non-stop. It can wear you down. Evaluators – myself included, although I don’t pretend to lump myself into the professional group – will look to see if Jones can bounce back with the bat to prove the hit tool can rank up there with the power. All that said, ranking Jones fourth in the state is essentially saying he’s strongly in consideration to be a future millionaire out of high school and easily a top 50 high school player in the country.

 

Flores’ placement at No. 3 is an aggressive bet on projection and ability to stick at short that I’m okay with. He measured 6-2, 179 pounds at Area Code and his physical build, skill set and talent scream, “upside!” Lamkin doesn’t have the type of quick arm that immediately pulls scouts up in their seats, but watch the young lefty enough and the best bet, currently, for the total package on the mound emerges.

ONE OF THE BEST MIDDLE INFIELD GROUPS EVER…
I can’t recall the last time the state of Texas produced as many talented infielders and specifically middle infielders. That’s not a bad problem to have but it does create a bit of a rankings headache trying to separate the best when so many of them are really, really good and at the same time unique in their own ways. You know who is loving it? College programs in Texas. Texas A&M, Texas, TCU, Baylor, Texas Tech, Texas State and UTSA all have middle infielders on the list and some have a few. 

 

How much will the middle infielder pecking order change? We’ll see. It could change a ton and perhaps not at all. Regardless, it’s a really, really deep group and the top features a few guys who could play their way into big bonuses after senior seasons.

THE CATCHERS…
Confession time: catcher is the position I view as the most difficult to evaluate. A big part of that is simply the nature of the position and we often don’t see catchers work with the type of velocity and stuff they will in college or professionally. So, they’re not really challenged defensively like they will be at the next level and the nature of select baseball – a lot of heat and a lot of games, including doubleheaders routinely – can be brutal for catching legs. 

 

I do think sometimes evaluators can get too caught up in whether a guy can catch or not with the bar for catching being a good professional bar rather than being passable in college and able to stick there for at least the immediate future. There are MLB teams currently who start catchers who aren’t good at the whole defense thing. That’s why when a big-time prospect emerges legitimately good at both hitting and catching, like Adley Rutschman, he’s fairly treated as a unicorn. 

 

Speaking of unicorns, I can already tell you Blake Mitchell will be our No. 1 player in 2023 and good luck finding a better player nationally. Back on topic. Look around professional baseball. There aren’t many MLB catchers who can truly hit and catch at a high level. It’s much easier to find the .220 hitter with a little juice who can catch and throw enough to stick behind the plate. 

 

In Texas this year, there is a cluster of good catchers. Currently, I don’t think there is one that stands out above the rest, although Dylan LaRue has the best case currently. There are a few I like more than others currently and each have their own unique strengths, weaknesses and projections. I think the list is filled with guys with a legitimate chance to become solid or better college catchers, but ask me a month from now to rank these guys again and it might change. 

THE PITCHING…
Like the middle infielders, there isn’t a clear top dog among starting pitcher prospects in Texas currently. Poll a handful of evaluators and you won’t find a consensus on the order. But unlike the middle infielders, there is seemingly a top tier and then a more plentiful second tier with three arms clearly distinguishing themselves at the moment: Justin Lamkin, Chase Shores, who just announced his decommitment from Oklahoma State, and Cole Phillips. Don’t be surprised if at least one other joins that tier. It almost always happens in Texas. Guys get stronger, velocity and stuff tick up, consistency can improve, etc. 

 

Shores can light up the radar gun, he was up to 96 MPH at a Five Tool event and I’ve received reports of him being up to 97 MPH with some sink, and depending on the day you watch, the breaking stuff can flash. He’s a fantastic example for kids freaking out about their velocity as a 14U player. Shores grew, added some good weight, and his velocity jumped something like 15 MPH naturally. For a tall player with long limbs who went through a big growth spurt, Shores moves well on the mound. That said, improving the command and getting to the breaking ball consistently will be next steps and if those tick up, he could pitch himself into a first-round selection. 

 

Lamkin was rated ahead because he’s currently the best bet to feature a three-pitch mix of future above-average or plus offerings – fastball, curve and change. Right now, the lefty from Calallen is the best total package of stuff, pitchability, control/command and although his arm speed isn’t going to wow like some others, his easy, repeatable delivery and arm action help his stuff play up. He doesn’t light up the radar gun like Shores, but his fastball plays like it’s mid 90’s regularly. 

 

The summer ended on a high note for Phillips, who participated in USA Baseball’s Prospect Development Pipeline league and threw well. His appearance at Area Code was rocky as he was too amped up in the first inning and couldn’t throw strikes, but he showed some mental fortitude by settling in to complete his innings with competitiveness and keep his team in the game. With a live arm and fastball up to 96 MPH, there’s some strong hints at a future three-pitch mix scouts could really like in the spring of 2022. 

 

Down the list, keep an eye on arms like Max Grubbs, Blake Binderup and Luke Jackson because they have the ingredients and upside to make a big jump during their high school seasons. Among the toughest things with pitchers is balancing the performance/pitchability-type arms who might not have the upside of other arms on the list. Guys like Griffin Herring, a longtime good performer in high school and summer competition, fall into this area. Performance absolutely matters and figuring out how much value to place in the results over the upside of others can be tricky.

THE OUTFIELD…
From No. 23 Jeric Curtis through No. 14 Max Belyeu, I really, really like the outfield group in that section and would probably be a surprise if at least one of them doesn’t emerge as a major, major dude in 2022. Belyeu might be the best collection of hit tool and power in the state and Curtis, Brenner Cox and Jack Little all have a rare combination of impressive athleticism, speed, makeup and upside. The goal is to get it right at the end, and it’s possible – perhaps even likely – a couple of these guys loudly moves his way up the list.

Dustin McComas – Follow me on Twitter
Senior Editor
Five Tool Baseball

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