Minnesota has a fantastic farm system, both in terms of top-end talent and depth. If there's one hit against the system, and we're really picking nits here, it's that there is no bona fide ace prospect. Perhaps there are pitchers who are part way there in Alex Meyer and Jose Berrios, but there isn't a David Price or a Stephen Strasburg. Understanding this, what better place to start than the top-ranked pitcher in the draft according to Baseball America: Dillon Tate.
School & Player History
After acting as UC Santa Barbara's closer as a sophomore (and Team USA's closer), this year Tate was transitioned to the bullpen. He's been so impressive that he's rocked up the charts to become Baseball America's top-ranked pitcher in the upcoming draft and is a common choice to go number one overall in mock drafts. He's made 12 starts for the Gauchos so far this year, allowing just 52 hits in 88.1 innings while striking out 92 and walking 26. If the 1.73 ERA isn't impressive enough, Tate has yet to allow a home run this year. If you're allowing a fraction of a base runner per inning, you're doing something right.
UC Santa Barbara grows draft picks, although few of them have turned into stars. Skip Schumaker was a Gaucho, and is the only draftee currently in the Majors. Michael Young, who retired after the 2013 season, was selected by the Blue Jays in 1997. Barry Zito began there before transferring to USC. Virgil Vasquez spent a couple of years in Minnesota's farm system, but the most recent Twins draftee from UC Santa Barbara is first baseman Tyler Kuresa (16th round, 2014).
There's a belief, in spite of spending his underclassman years in the Gauchos' bullpen, that Tate may have been the best arm on the team. As a reliever his fastball would sit in the upper 90s, touching 99. Both it and the slider had been flashing plus out of the bullpen, with a third offering often unnecessary.
Now a starter, that fastball velocity can sometimes float a little high in the early going before it settles into the mid-90s. It carries a little run inside to right-handed hitters. The slider is equally impressive, with the speed differential sucking in batters who get amped up looking for heat. One scout calls it "one of the best breaking balls in all of college," going on to say that for right-handers it's nearly unhittable. That's high praise.
Both the changeup and the curve fall behind in terms of readiness. As a starter Tate has had more reason and opportunity to utilize the change, and in doing so has had times where it's looked like a potentially usable pitch even if it's a work in progress. The curveball has been used sparingly and would need a good deal of work to be anything more than a show-me pitch.
Reports do mention that Tate's fastball velocity can dip late, but considering his recent transition from the bullpen to the rotation that's hardly surprising. Scouts seem confident that the fastball will settle in the mid-90s, and pairing it with that slider means that he'd enter professional baseball with two plus pitches already in his pocket.
Tate pitches with a very high leg kick and a lot of unnecessary movement as he drives towards the plate, but the arm mechanics are commonly referred to as "low-effort" even if there's a bit too much going on.
Reports from early in the season would talk about how Tate's delivery left him unbalanced, but as the year has gone along he's obviously improved a few things. Later reports mention how "impressively controlled and balanced" he is considering that leg kick. But he's retained excess movement between the kick and delivery, which as times leads to control issues - particularly later in games when fatigue begins to set in. Out of the stretch the leg kick mellows out a bit and he's quicker to the plate.
Cleaning up that excess and taming the leg kick would have multiple benefits: less reliance on the torque generated by the kick to help the arm speed keep pace with the extra body movement; faster times to home plate; less effort when tiring which could also protect against injury; better command.
It sounds like there's a lot of work to be done here, but there don't seem to be any massive red flags or blatant injury concerns. He just needs time and instruction on being more efficient with his delivery.
At 6' 2" and 185 pounds (he looks heavier in those videos), Tate appears big, durable, projectible, all that quasi-nonsense scout talk that gets bestowed upon pitchers near the top of a draft. Touching on those videos one more time you can also get a sense of Tate's physicality. Even if those mechanics calm down, he'll have an imposing presence.
In spite of being a bit bigger than his listed 185, Tate moves well off of the mound and is athletic enough to field his position well.
Tate was looking like a first-round selection coming into the spring, even when he was a reliever. Now that he's proven that he can start and turned into a physical starter with two plus pitches, there's a pretty good chance to goes number one overall. If he doesn't go to Arizona at one, it would be a big surprise if he falls past three or - at a stretch - four. But we all know how fickle a player's pre-draft status is, as even one mediocre outing between now and the big day could affect Tate's standing.
Right now Tate looks like the top pitcher in the draft. The team that selects him should be prepared to spend a couple of seasons to get him ready, since he's not as polished as perhaps a guy like James Kaprielian, but considering Tate's stuff and demeanor it wouldn't surprise me to see a relatively quick turnaround.
It's highly unlikely that Tate is on the board for Minnesota at number six. But every pitcher we write about in this series will likely be compared to him, and for that reason it's good to get a read.