Tigers draft watch: Don’t rule out catcher Henry Davis and his ‘elite-level’ bat at No. 3

Detroit News

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a weekly series of stories in which Detroit News freelance writer Lynn Henning will rank the top prospects in July’s MLB Draft.

Just ask the Tigers about their long-haul prospect at catcher, Dillon Dingler.

They like him. A lot. Ohio State pedigree. So much athleticism he has played center field — in college. Good size, good hitter with legit power potential, impressive all-around game.

So, they’re set, thanks to last year’s second-round draft pick who has done nothing to dissuade them during his COVID-constrained workouts the past 10 months.

Or, maybe they’re not necessarily married to a single prospect, Dingler, who offers potential at other positions.

Henry Davis is a catcher at the University of Louisville. He is listed at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. He bats right-handed.

Boy, does he bat right-handed. After a weekend against Wake Forest during which he hit home runs in the first two games, then added a pair more hits, including a double Sunday, Davis in 26 games is batting .385, with a 1.169 OPS thanks to a .677 slugging percentage and .492 on-base average.

The slugging numbers come courtesy of seven home runs and seven doubles among his 37 hits. His knockout on-base digits include 17 walks — against only 10 strikeouts.

Davis’ home run Friday came against Ryan Cusick, one of the country’s best draft-eligible right-handers who throws high-90s octane. It was not an ordinary homer. It disappeared high and deep into the Louisville night.

“No doubt, his bat has been at an elite level all year,” his coach, Dan McDonnell, said during a Monday phone conversation. “And that’s the No. 1 tool.”

The Tigers have been jotting down notes. Their scouts are on Davis, as scouts from all 30 big-league teams have been keeping tabs on a 21-year-old from Bedford, New York.

There is more about Davis to like than his bat, although that explains most of his allure as MLB teams move closer to July’s draft, when the Tigers select third overall.

He has a superb arm, with pop-times (delivery from the plate to second base) as low as the 1.7-1.8-second range that hang more consistently at 1.9.

If there has been a below-average mark on Davis’ card it has been his defense. But the defensive knock has been a deficiency known by Davis, and by his coaching staff at Louisville. That probably explains why his work has noticeably improved in 2021, at least in the view of scouts who have evaluated.

It also has been exaggerated, at least in the view of his coach.

“Not to knock the high school pitching he was handling, but he wasn’t used to facing what he had to deal with here, as a freshman,” McDonnell said, ticking of the names of Reid Detmers, Bobby Miller, Michael McAvene and Nick Bennett, all Cardinals pitchers who were grabbed in the MLB draft’s early rounds after Davis arrived. “It’s tough for a young guy, with the speed of games, catching those elite arms.

“But now, if I give him any grief, he’s trying to get too many strike calls,” McDonnell said, alluding here to “framing” pitches — pulling in the mitt in a bid to get strike calls from umpires. “He still misses some balls from time to time (two passed balls thus far in 2021). But this is a complete player — not an old-fashioned catcher who can just hit.”

Tigers scouts are making their own evaluations there. But factor in Detroit’s overall needs and the possibility Davis could be available at that third-overall turn in July, and he is a player draft students will be monitoring most carefully.

A couple of factors beyond Dingler’s potential to handle outfield chores play into possibilities Davis could be snatched by Detroit.

There is no certainty Dingler will become the everyday, two-way threat the Tigers envision. If not, then Davis could be a roster-saver as a rebuild moves along.

There is nothing as well that precludes a team from looking at a surplus of talents at one position and deciding one of them merits trading — for a fair price. The trade market tends to treat good-hitting catchers with respect and with heavy compensation.

It is possible that the team drafting just ahead of the Tigers, the Texas Rangers, might decide that Davis is their kind of person. That presumes Vanderbilt pitching mogul Jack Leiter goes first to the Pirates, and that the Rangers aren’t overly dazzled by his staff-mate, Kumar Rocker, or by another of the draft landscape’s brightest lights.

There’s a lot to ponder, and inspect, three months before the draft convenes. In the interim, the Tigers will be keeping more than one eye on Davis — just in case what he has shown thus far in 2021 becomes a bit too much to resist, regardless of Dingler’s revelations.

How top college and prep talents shape up following the past week’s games and auditions for MLB scouts:

1. Jack Leiter, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-1, 205: No chance of Leiter losing any luster after his six-inning, three-hit, 12-strikeout show Friday at LSU. Tigers at least got three hits against him, which is three more than any team had gotten against Leiter in his previous two — two — starts. Last week: 1

2. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, Calif., 6-3, 188: Has a 1.426 OPS through six games, with six walks and not a single strikeout. He could end up as Detroit’s pick if the Rangers — who ideally want a college player — decide to pass on the best prep shortstop in America. Last week: 3

3. Henry Davis, C, University of Louisville, 6-1, 205: Simply an offensive terror, who happens also to catch. Wouldn’t be a surprise, at all, if the Rangers decide in advance of July’s draft that Davis is their guy. If they pass, Detroit will have something most serious to consider. Last week: 4

4. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: It’s not that he pitched in any wobbly manner Thursday at LSU. He worked six innings, granted only four hits, struck out eight, and walked not a single batter. But the velocity has been down the past couple of starts and scouts have noticed. It may be nothing, or it might be a sign that Rocker isn’t the bat-chomping monster most expect him to be in 2021. Last week: 2

5. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Ga., 6-3, 212: Still ripping it up against pitching of all flavors. Scouts are left to debate how all of this transfers to the regular professional pitching House presumably will be seeing this summer, and they might wonder how long House can live at shortstop. But for now, they like him — a lot. Last week: 5

6. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas Jesuit High, 6-2, 180: He’s batting .433 in 24 games and still looks like a top-10 pick. But if you’re a big-league scout needing to nitpick, and all scouts do just that, the nearly 25% strikeout rate is reason to wonder if you can gamble on Lawlar terribly early in that first round. Last week: 6

7. Gunnar Hoglund, RH pitcher, Ole Miss, 6-4, 210: He threw Thursday at Florida, which is never an easy venue, and rarely an easy lineup, which is the case again in 2021. Gators got only a single earned run against Hoglund in a six-inning start. Four hits, three walks, and five whiffs were the rest of the story. Last week: 7

8. Ty Madden, RH starter, University of Texas, 6-3, 215: Stock by no means is dropping, even though his weekend work at Kansas was so-so (for him): Eight innings, seven hits, zero earned runs, with a walk interspersing five strikeouts. Last week: 8

9. Ryan Cusick, RH starter, Wake Forest, 6-6, 235: Had a rough Friday against Louisville, in part because of Henry Davis’ assault: 5⅓ innings, eight hits, five earned runs, three walks, four strikeouts. Not disastrous, by any means, during a season when good hitters and less-than-optimal evenings can remind you this is indeed baseball. Last week: 9

10. Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: Torrid fastball that was seen, in person, during the past weekend at Eastern Michigan. Bachman has been pitching tight-leash innings after some health issues, but his work Saturday at Ypsilanti spoke to his triple-digit heat: four innings, three hits, no earned runs, three walks, six punch-outs. Last week: 10

Pushing for top-10 inclusion: Ethan Wilson, OF, South Alabama, 6-1, 210;  Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State, 6-3, 195; Alex Mooney, SS, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 6-1, 175; Jackson Jobe, RH starter, Heritage Hall High, Oklahoma City, Okla., 6-2, 190; Jud Fabian, OF, University of Florida, 6-foot, 190; Jonathan Cannon, RH starter, University of Georgia, 6-6, 207; Mason Black, RH starter, Lehigh University, 6-3, 200;  McCade Brown, RH starter, Indiana University, 6-6, 225; Matt McLain, SS, UCLA, 5-11, 180; Adrian Del Castillo, C, University of Miami, 5-11, 210; James Wood, OF, IMG Academy, 6-6, 230; Khalil Watson, SS, Wake Forest High, Wake Forest, N.C., 5-11, 168.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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