Blake Rutherford, OF, Chaminade (CA) Prep
Rutherford was the headliner position player at the NHSI, drawing the amount of scouting directors, national-level crosscheckers, and front-office decision-makers you’d expect from a consensus top-10 selection. He had a solid, if unspectacular, NHSI—doing little to hurt his stock, but probably also keeping it right where it was entering the tournament as well.
The maturity in his pre-game preparation was impressive, consistently working on the things he needed to do to prepare for a game, as opposed to trying to launch balls with sold-out swings for the scouts on hand. With an easy and balanced left-handed stroke, Rutherford showed MLB-caliber liners off the barrel in BP—adeptly using both fields and working on different aspects of his swing in each round. Accordingly, he didn’t show monster raw power in batting practice, but from my looks at him this past summer and with Team USA, I’m confident that at-least average raw is in the tank, if not a tick more. It was more impressive to see him stay within himself and know his game; he’ll have every opportunity to impress scouts down the stretch this spring.
In the field, Rutherford is right on the fringes of being able to project as a true big-league center fielder. His straight-line speed is solid-average or a tick above, but if he continues to add strength to his frame, there’s a likelihood that he will have to shift to a corner. His routes were playable, but there were a handful of challenge plays where even now, he looked just a step short of what you want to see in order to project a surefire middle-of-the-diamond defender. He has great polish and instincts, though, and as such, no one should prematurely move him off the position.
While he showed the ability to work the opposite-field gap with consistency in batting practice, the majority of his game contact game to the pull-side. If there is a hole in his swing, it is a propensity to leak his front side open, and pull off pitches from left-handed pitching, especially on secondary offerings. Even so, there aren’t a ton of discernable raw points in Rutherford’s swing; he has the type of swing and track record of production that inspires confidence in his hit tool.
On the whole, Rutherford is clearly one of, if not the most polished and high-floor high-school prospects in this class. He has a quiet confidence that is well beyond his years. It isn’t Rutherford’s floor or risk that’s the point of disparity between clubs, though—it is how much better he will get from where he presently is. Rutherford will be 19 at the time of the draft, with a frame and offensive approach that are nearing their likely ceiling. His best chance of elevating his ceiling is improving his chances of sticking in center field.
Carter Kieboom, SS, Walton (GA) High School
Aside from Rutherford, Kieboom was the next most scrutinized position player at the event. He showed the same projectable frame and tools that he has since last summer at NHSI. He has bloodlines in the game, with an older brother in the Nats’ system, as well as another at Georgia. Carter is built differently than his brothers, featuring more athleticism, and a wiry frame compared to his siblings.
He holds a 6-foot-2, 185-pound listing athletically, with trim, tapered features. Seeing him up close, he’s a fair bit leaner than I recollected, with a high waist and long arms for his build. Despite being a hair taller, Kieboom reminded me of Dansby Swanson, at the same age. As such, while it’s likely he will continue to fill out, and ultimately move to a different position, he does move well for a kid his size and should have no trouble sticking on the infield dirt.
At the plate, Kieboom’s mechanics haven’t changed much since last summer. He stands upright before the pitch with average width to his hitting base, his feet starting slightly open. He has great natural hitting tools, but the aspect of his swing that could cause is a leg kick that can get large, paired with a hitchy hand-load as he’s closing off to start his swing. Because he is head-and-shoulders above his competition in terms of pure hitting right now, this hasn’t caught up to him, though the hand-load elongated his swing at times, and could give him issues with pro-caliber pitching down the road. This isn’t a huge fix, though, and it’s important to mention his natural calm and presence in the box.
The balance, barrel-quickness, and fluidity of Kieboom’s hands through his stroke can’t be taught. His best swings feature impressive bat speed and extension. The offensive toolset is enough to draw above-average hit tool grades from scouts, with projectable loft and lines off the barrel. There’s natural leverage in the swing, but not a ton of present strength. His swing can lengthen out at times as his head pulls off pitches, but that’s both correctable and not uncommon for a young hitter. Kieboom presented a polished approach, consistently working counts and staying within himself with two strikes.
Defensively, he showed good feel for finishing plays throughout the tournament, with an arm that—while probably more 50 than 60—shouldn’t prevent him from staying on the left side of the infield. Like Rutherford, he might already be a half-step short for a true big-league center-diamond profile—especially as he fills out. Specifically, his first step to the backhand side, and the ability to clear over the bag turning a double play were where he was a hair behind in regards to footwork and range. That said, he makes his bones with the lumber, so if he continues to add strength and power, sacrificing some defensive value for more offensive output is fine.
If there was more present home run power—regardless of whether teams see him as a SS or a 3B—this kid would be in the same echelon as the tip-top prep bats in the class. Given how easy it is to see that there’s more power on the way, it shouldn’t surprise if a handful of teams quietly considered him there already.
Daniel Bakst, 3B, Poly Prep (NY) High School
Bakst is the rare Northeastern prep hitter that is drawing attention this spring. He was all over the showcase circuit last summer and played for Team USA. His high school is not as far along in their season than many of the Sunbelt high schools in attendance at the NHSI, but even taking that into account, Bakst really struggled throughout the event. He showed a lot of swing and miss while failing to bring hard contact into games. His body language and demonstrated attitude appeared petulant at times, when things weren’t going his way, though it’s important to remember these are very young people we’re assessing here—scrutinized in the public eye more than any 17- or 18-year-old ever should be.
The Stanford commit has added good strength since the summer, looking broader across his upper-half with more developed muscularity in his base. He has a frame that looks the part at third base, and he showed a very strong arm across the infield that wouldn’t raise eyebrows with a 60 future grade attached to it. Bakst hits from a wide, knee-bent hitting base, with a quiet load and minimal movement before he starts his swing.
Watching Bakst prepare for games in BP and comparing those swings to his in-game cuts, he clearly has a good concept of what he should be doing. He appeared meticulous in his preparations, though he wasn’t always able to bring the same swing with him into game action. Offensively, he did things when the game sped up that he wasn’t doing in the cage, such as getting much longer to the ball or drifting the majority of his weight forward to his front foot. Though it is a quiet load with limited movement, Bakst’s swing still looked geared to hit one pitch in one spot throughout the week. He flailed at off-speed pitches and had difficulty covering the outside part of the plate. When evaluating, it’s much more important to concern oneself with process as opposed to outcomes—however, Bakst’s .233 average throughout the week is a fair representation of the difficulty he had in front of plenty of decision-makers. Using a wood bat throughout the tournament, the contact he did make was fairly soft and to the pull side. I walked away with some questions about how much bat speed is left to gain while wondering simultaneously about his ability to track secondary pitches.
While Bakst was undoubtedly shaking off some rust as he’s preparing for a Northeast season that is just getting started, this was a tough start to his season from a “performing for scouts” standpoint. Already with a commitment to Stanford that will scare some teams away, he likely only took a step closer to making it to campus with a trying showing at the NHSI.
JC Flowers, OF, Trinity Catholic (FL) High School
Flowers also appeared in my piece on the arms at NHSI, and the Kentucky commit has drawn plenty of interest both as a pitcher and as a center fielder. He’s an exciting athlete with legitimate tools on both sides of the ball. While both his offensive game and his pitching are a bit raw, the natural athleticism he possesses immediately jumps out.
Flowers has a classic quick-twitch, wiry build, and definitely passes the eye test as a guy with the frame and natural actions to profile in center field. He hits with a fairly wide base that starts square to the pitcher. He’s pretty spread out once he is through his load, as he takes another step forward from his front foot’s starting point through a smaller leg-lift trigger. Flowers draws his hands very far behind him before he begins his swing; while there doesn’t appear to be tons of movement before the pitch, the degree his hands start from behind his body bars out his front arm and prevents him from staying short to inside pitches. Even so, he showed bat speed and fluidity through his swing, though he had an inconsistent swing path—sometimes working with a slight uppercut allowing more leverage, other times working very much down on the ball. His best game contact was on swings where he maintained the level or slightly-uphill path to the ball and the natural leverage his long arms allow.
Throughout the tournament, Flowers showed great athleticism in all facets of his game—though there’s some inconsistency to his hit tool from a frame that might be best-suited for speed and line drives. That said, Flowers put a really impressive swing on a ball he drove deep to his pull side for a triple, showing that there is at least some raw power in the tank, even if he doesn’t stay in his best swing enough to get to it frequently.
Both on the bases and in the outfield, Flowers showed easy plus speed from an effortless long stride. His frame is well-built to maintain his wheels on both sides of the ball, even as he continues to fill out a lanky frame. He made a big-league play robbing Carter Kieboom of (at least) a double, taking a great route to track down a challenge play deep in the left-center gap.
It’s unclear whether the he will be selected as a pitcher or hitter, as there’s a compelling argument for him to develop at both spots. Athletes that require such significant projection have a high rate of attrition, no doubt, but the best-case ceiling is that of a classic big-league center field profile. The question will be how hard a club is willing to squint to throw that projection on Flowers.
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