Chicago Cubs Draft Preview: In-Depth Look at Five College Hitters Who Could Be Cubs’ Targets

Digging into the data

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing sense of comfort with video scouting, MLB teams have downsized their scouting departments ($). To compensate, teams have placed greater reliance on incorporating data in various calculations called draft models. These models assist in identifying ideal draft targets, with each target demographic (high school vs. college; position player vs. pitcher) carrying particular data points that individual teams weigh more heavily into their calculations. 

These draft models have far surpassed the historic Moneyball view of identifying on-base percentage monsters. They now feature batted-ball and biomechanical data, among many other proprietary features depending on the individual team. 

In an ideal world, hitters hit for power, walk often, and don’t strike out much. There are additional levels of nuance needed to evaluate offensive production fully, but, in general, hitters who succeed in those three areas are successful performers. 

Here we examine all three aspects with walk and strikeout rates listed from a player’s collegiate season, and max exit velocity, home runs, and slugging percentage corresponding to power output. Max exit velocity for each player was provided to me by scouts or publically available from the MLB Draft Combine.

Trey Sweeney, SS, Eastern Illinois University

.387/.505/.723, 14 homers, 24 Ks, 46 BBs
Max exit velocity: 109 mph
Walk rate: 20%
Strikeout rate: 11%

Report: Sweeney is a big-time pop-up prospect who sports top-of-the-line hitting data. Sweeney both hits the ball hard and also does not whiff often (87% contact rate). He plays SS for Eastern Illinois University but is likely a 3B (or even 2B) at the next level. Some organizations may shy away from Sweeney due to his program strength or just because they couldn’t get enough evaluators to see him to draft Sweeney high enough. Sweeney has a chance for an above-average hit and power tool.

Jud Fabian, CF, Florida

.249/.364/.560, 20 home runs
Max exit velocity: 111 mph
Walk rate: 15%
Strikeout rate: 29%

Report: An above-average CF at the next level, Fabian has consistently performed against older competition. He checks off all the boxes as an up-the-middle defender, performer using wood bats on the cap, and solid hitting mechanics. This spring, his swing-and-miss qualities have pushed his strikeout rate (K%) above the threshold for him to remain atop talent in the draft. Fabian’s K% has leveled off at 29%. An organization may gamble they can make the necessary improvements to get him to a modest strikeout rate.

Connor Norby, 2B, Eastern Carolina University

.415/.484/.659, 15 home runs
Max exit velocity: 108 mph
Walk rate: 12%
Strikeout rate: 12%

Report: Norby features the top hit tool in the college ranks. He shows average skills for all other grades (power, defense, arm, speed). Ultimately, Norby should be coveted by teams this July due to his well-rounded skill set. He would benefit most from going to an organization that can help him drive the ball more, but even if he doesn’t, his profile is one that is successful at the next level.

Alex Binelas, 1B/3B, Louisville

.256/.348/.621, 19 home runs
Max exit velocity: 109 mph (MLB Draft Combine)
BB%: 9 %
Strikeout rate: 22%

Report: Binelas begins his swing with an arm position tight to his body, but he does tend to get into a good hitting position consistently. While the plus in-game power is impressive, Binelas has a below-average hit tool, which may hold him back at the next level. A team drafting him high would be silly not to run him out at 3B. He’ll showcase enough fluidity that he looks like he could be passable at the hot corner. The biggest question is whether he can succeed with the significant number of strikeouts.

Denzel Clarke, CF, Cal State Northridge

.324/.445/.570, 8 home runs
Max exit velocity: 104 mph (MLB Draft Combine)
Walk rate: 15%
Strikeout rate: 23%

Report: If you prefer players who incorporate power and speed, Clarke is a player to watch. He was the Big West’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year as a centerfielder for Call State Northridge. Clarke’s power is still raw, but it appears after his performance in the MLB Draft Combine, that he’s starting to realize that power. What does stand out with Clarke is his plus-run tool, which can only help his chances of staying in centerfield long term. Clarke is a mammoth of a man, standing 6’5″ and 220 pounds. He’s gaining a lot of buzz and should go on day two of this year’s draft.

Cubs Ties

Sweeney not only fits the Cubs geographically as a local player, but he also combines all three offensive qualities listed to a high degree. Norby is a similar player to Sweeney with a slight trade-off of power for the best hit-tool in the college class. Sweeney and Norby fit the Cubs’ (and many other teams) ideal offensive qualities and could be on the Cubs’ radar as early as the first round.

Fabian and Binelas both excel in the power department and Fabian, in particular, has been linked to the Cubs by Kiley McDaniel ($). However, both players incorporate significant swing-and-miss. We have seen the Cubs gamble on upside, but last year’s example, Jordan Nwogu, only had an 18.2% K-rate in his entire collegiate career for Michigan. If you’re looking for a sleeper pick, Clarke is an emerging player who could fit the Cubs in rounds 3-5. 

Max exit velocity: The highest exit velocity of a baseball recorded in a given amount of time. For this discussion, the time is either during the entire 2021 season or the MLB Draft Combine.

Walk percentage: The percentage of a batter’s plate appearances that result in the player being walked. 

Strikeout rate: The percentage of a batter’s plate appearances that result in the player striking out. 

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