Tigers draft watch: Hot-hitting Colton Cowser emerging as college’s top outfielder

Detroit News

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

Jud Fabian was supposed to have been The Guy.

The best college outfielder, as far as 2021 MLB draft status went heading into spring, was thought to have been the University of Florida’s power-plumed center fielder, a right-handed hitter who could belt bushels of home runs, hit for a big average, and who had the wheels to play anywhere from the left-field to right-field foul lines.

It is now mid-April and in 31 games Fabian is batting .234. He has 48 strikeouts in 124 at-bats. That’s a 39% whiff rate, which is 15 percentage points or so beyond a ceiling most MLB teams will tolerate.

The outfielder who might have supplanted Fabian as the nation’s best draft-destined athlete is Colton Cowser of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

Cowser bats left-handed, stands 6-foot-3, weighs 195, and last month turned 21. What most delights scouts can be gleaned from his gaudy numbers: 30 games, .364 batting average, 12 home runs, .500 on-base percentage, and .757 slugging average good for an OPS of 1.257.

He has more walks (24) than strikeouts (23). He has the speed to play center field and one of the best throwing arms of any outfielder on a 2021 college diamond.

Cowser had a pleasant past week that began with a game against Texas A&M (2-for-3, one home run, two walks, one strikeout) and continued in a four-game torching of New Orleans. Cowser’s combined damage: 7-for-16, three home runs, four walks, one strikeout. It perhaps was not coincidental when he was hit by a pitch in the series’ last game.

None of what has transpired with Cowser is a deep surprise. At the start of the year, he was considered by Baseball America’s sleuths to be one of college baseball’s top three hitters. He owned, in BA’s view, one of the college game’s five best arms.

It invites a question as the Tigers look to a July draft and perhaps to early extinction in their 2021 regular season, primarily because they lack bats.

What might they make of Cowser with that third-overall draft turn?

Cowser can’t yet be ruled out, even if it might appear the Tigers would be more interested in one of the land’s prized prep shortstops, or possibly University of Louisville catcher Henry Davis. Or, even a blue-chip pitcher in a draft year when elite arms are more plentiful than bats.

But the Tigers know also that outfielders who can hit — look at the present void in manager AJ Hinch’s daily lineups — are precious gems. The Tigers understand as well that no matter how good Riley Greene becomes, or how much they believe (hope?) some combination of Daniel Cabrera, Parker Meadows, and Bryant Packard morphs into a heavy-hitting trio, that percentages are tough to buck. Steady hitters who can excel also in the field, the Tigers would acknowledge, are tough to find and invaluable to hold.

Which is a good reason to keep an eye on Cowser as the draft sits 12 weeks away.

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: It’s news when a team gets even a hit or two against the best pitcher in the land. Georgia got three hits against Leiter during a seven-inning start Friday when he allowed a run, three walks, and struck out 13. Leiter has no off-games. Last week’s ranking: 1

2. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, Calif., 6-3, 188: Hit four home runs in his latest week of superlative work — and didn’t once strike out. About the only debate affecting Mayer’s status as the draft’s best prep talent is whether he’ll be sticking at shortstop, or moving to third base. That’s a debate teams will be glad to sustain as they make room for his game-changing left-handed bat. Last week: 2

3. Henry Davis, C, University of Louisville, 6-1, 205: Florida State decided during the past weekend that it would limit Davis’ potential to wreck a ballgame. They walked him six times in three games. He still got three hits, struck out only twice. Last week: 3

4. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: Rocker has a couple of issues as the Tigers weigh their third-overall options. He hasn’t been overwhelming. He hasn’t been the pitching-mound locomotive that he was expected to be as Vandy settles into its spring schedule. It’s also true his contract will be negotiated by Scott Boras, who won’t be offering discounts for work that recently has been so-so, given the high bar Rocker has raised. Consider his Thursday start against Georgia: five innings, seven hits, six earned runs, two walks. Twelve strikeouts are testimony to the arm, but Rocker’s not pitching at quite the level anticipated. Last week: 4

5. Gunnar Hoglund, RH pitcher, Ole Miss, 6-4, 210: Hoglund has been about as steady this spring as Leiter, albeit minus stuff that compares with the Vandy ace’s diabolical mix of bat-busting fury. Hoglund had another typical Hoglund game Saturday against Arkansas: 5⅓ innings, two hits, two earned runs, eight strikeouts. Yes, he walked five. But he is on his way to helping, soon, a big-league rotation. Last week: 7

6. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Ga.; 6-3, 212: As with Mayer, there’s legitimate concern that House’s big body isn’t long for shortstop — in the big leagues, anyway. But the right-handed stick and overall game are big on scouts’ check-lists. Last week: 5

7. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas Jesuit High, 6-2, 180: He’s batting .433 in 26 games with a 1.302 OPS. games and still looks like a Top 10 pick. Sixteen strikeouts in 67 at-bats, which isn’t great for a prep superstar, but neither is it disqualifying when you have Lawlar’s two-way talents. Last week: 6

8. Ryan Cusick, RH starter, Wake Forest, 6-6, 235: With qualifiers, Cusick had a solid weekend start against a good Virginia Tech team: 5⅓ innings, one earned run, one walk, nine strikeouts. He allowed eight hits, but four unearned runs revealed Cusick didn’t get a lot of help from his defense. Last week: 9

9. Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: Western Michigan got the most recent taste of Bachman’s 100-mph potion. The Broncos didn’t care for it. Bachman worked six innings, conceded but a single hit, walked one — and struck out 11. He is a most unpleasant man to bat against. Last week: 10

10. Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State, 6-3, 195: Had a monstrous week against Texas A&M and New Orleans: 9-for-19, four home runs, six walks, two strikeouts. He’s a left-handed mauler who can play center field. Has supplanted one-time University of Florida whizbang, Jud Fabian, as perhaps the best college outfield talent in America.  Last week: Unranked

Dropped from top 10: Ty Madden, RH starter, University of Texas, 6-3, 215.

Pushing for Top 10 inclusion: Ethan Wilson, OF, South Alabama, 6-1, 210; 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; 6-4; 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; Kahlil 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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