After fans find out which of their teams’ draft picks signed, the conversation immediately shifts to which players got away. When a team fails to agree to terms with a first round pick, the reaction is anger–a player was right at the franchise’s fingertips yet they failed to reel him in. When a later-round pick fails to sign, however, people aren’t mad, they are just curious. Will that 35th round pick who had talent but was very raw turn into something when he’s draft-eligible two or three years later?
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As it turns out, two ex-Tampa Bay Rays draft picks placed among the top 150 prospects in this year’s draft according to Baseball America: catcher Taylor Ward (70th) and second baseman Willie Calhoun (147th). It is not as though the Rays made a mistake with either of them as Ward was just a 31st round pick in 2012 while Calhoun was selected in the 17th round in 2013. They took fliers on a pair of talented high schools players, and as is usually the case that late in the draft, the maneuvers didn’t work out. Now it will be interesting to talk about where they end up and whether the Rays could select either of them again.
Ward, 21, just wrapped up a three-year run as Fresno State’s catcher. Overall, he hit to a .288/.384/.437 line including a .304/.413/.486 mark with 7 home runs and more walks than strikeouts in his junior year. It is behind the plate, however, that Ward truly shines. His throwing arm ranks among the best in the draft class and it is good enough that he could be converted to the mound if catching doesn’t work out. His receiving needs more work, but his arm and athleticism give him a chance to be a plus defender at catcher with more refinement.
Ward has made major strides in all facets of his game since heading to college, but the bat hasn’t come as far along. He has a little bit of raw power, but scouts don’t like his bat speed and pitch recognition very much despite his solid collegiate numbers. Luckily for him, the standard for offense at catcher is low, and it would be almost nonexistent if he started pitching.
Ward can’t be called a safe pick because he may not hit at all and we have yet to see how the mound would treat him, but scouts can look at him and see a player who can make a big league impact in a couple of different ways. A team that is high on his bat could draft him as early as the supplemental first round, but the second or third round looks likelier.
Calhoun, 20, spurned the Rays to go to Arizona, but he wound up transferring from the Wildcats’ program after just one season. He is draft-eligible again after a huge season at Yavapai JC in Arizona. Calhoun stood out coming out of high school for good bat speed and solid power potential. Since then, the bat speed has looked just as good while the power has taken a step forward. As noted by Baseball America, he led all Junior College Division I players with a ludicrous 31 home runs in 61 games.
We can be skeptical of his ballpark and competition, but scouts believe that Calhoun’s power has truly ticked up. He has made more of an effort to turn on pitches after being more of a gap-to-gap hitter in high school, and the results have been spectacular. Calhoun may now be a threat to hit 25 to 30 home runs, which would be special if he could stick at his current position, second base. Calhoun is unlikely to be picked too high in the draft, however, because of some concerns about his plate approach, perceived attitude problems, and major questions about his defense.
Calhoun has a good arm, but Baseball America remarked that “Second base is his preferred position but he hasn’t dedicated himself to getting better there.” He has the defensive chops to play left field and possibly third base as well, but he could be a major sleeper in the draft if he puts in the reps to be even an average defensive second baseman. Teams would always rather draft shortstops over second basemen or at least go with second basemen who could move to centerfield, but a team that loves Calhoun’s bat could select him in the fourth or fifth round nonetheless.
Over the years, the Tampa Bay Rays have drafted a few different players twice, with one prominent example being Dylan Floro. It seems unlikely that they will bring in Ward, who would give them yet another defense-first catcher, but Calhoun could be more interesting. The Rays selected Kean Wong, another second baseman not known for his athleticism, in the 4th round of the 2013 Draft, and Calhoun is more interesting because of his power potential. He may just be the Rays’ fourth or fifth pick when it is all said and done.