The Miami Marlins have made high school players their targets in the last two drafts. With their 2014 selection, the team took Tyler Kolek, who so far has been disappointing even as he ranks as the team's top prospect by our consensus rankings. The following year, in 2015, the Marlins drafted 12th in the first round and took a surprising name in first base Canadian prep prospect Josh Naylor. Naylor's name was not among the highest-rated players or guys who were expected to be taken at around that time period, but Miami took a gamble on the young first baseman with tremendous power potential but question marks about his physique and ability to hold up defensively.
Naylor was selected with the 12th pick in 2015 MLB Draft by the Marlins out of St. Joan of Arc Catholic High School in Ontario. He was the highest-drafted Canadian player in league history. At the time of the draft, it did not seem like Naylor was considered a mid- or high-first round pick like the Marlins valued him. As noted in an article after the selection, it seems like the Marlins reached to grab Naylor due to their desire for left-handed power.
MLB.com had Naylor ranked as the 59th-best prospect in the draft. Baseball-America saw him as the 61st-ranked player. ESPN's Keith Law had him at the highest ranking, putting him at 49th thanks to his spectacular run in the Dominican Republic with Team Canada. None of those number are close to 12th, and indeed in SB Nation's Purple Row's consensus draft rankings, which looked at five prospect ranking sources, Naylor was graded as a "third-round talent" with an average ranking of 76. Even if you add on Law's 49th ranking, that still leaves Naylor at 71, which would have made him a fringe second-rounder.
Fringe second rounder or third round draft pick is not the kind of buzz you want to hear around your treasured first-round selection, but the Marlins reached for their guy because they liked his tools and potential. Naylor had dropped a little bit of his concerning weight over the 2014-2015 time period and looked good hitting for Team Canada in the 2014 Under-18 World Cup, but concerns remained given his high-variance profile. The Marlins signed him to a deal with a $2.25 million bonus.
After the draft, the Fish sent Naylor to rookie ball, where he spent a brief 105 plate appearances playing for the Gulf Coast Marlins. In the GCL, he performed well, batting .327/.352/.418 (.368 wOBA, 130 wRC+) during his time there. It was a good first outing with some confusing numbers, as Naylor did not show off the pop for which he is most known. Naylor only hit one home run and four doubles, though he did also manage a triple (!) in that short stint of play. He did still play well and handled first base during that time, which is the expected position for him going forward.
The book on Naylor is that of the prototypical slugger at first base. Naylor's most obvious tool is his power; he showed plenty of it off during his high school career, and it was enough to get him invited to plenty of power showcases, including the 2014 Junior Select Home Run Derby during the 2014 All-Star break in Target Field. One look at his swing shows a few niceties that should help his offensive development. It is an easy effort swing that goes through the plane quickly, making him seem less likely to be prone to the power-hitter problem of strikeouts. He has power to all fields and apparently can adjust well with his bat speed, making his hard-hitting game more Ryan Howard-esque; everyone recalls how impressive Howard's all-field ability was when it came to fly balls. There is some question about his approach and pitch selection at the plate, but those are the sorts of things that hopefully coaching can help to resolve; after all, he is still a high school prospect who probably got along at his level with just a great swing to his name.
However, the rest of Naylor's game might leave a lot to be desired. His 6'0, 225-pound listed frame is stocky and reminiscent of Prince Fielder, his most common comparison point. Fielder's eventually developed power was envious, but a lot of the other stuff he did poorly may be an issue with Naylor as well. Baserunning, in particular, might be a concern. Naylor did lose some weight but still looks bigger than 225 pounds, and he may be a significant net negative running the bases in the future if he does not continue to slim down and catch up with his conditioning.
More importantly is the question of his defense. Fielder eventually ended up moving into the designated hitter spot simply because he was too much of a detriment on the field at first base. Naylor has some skills defensively, but in other areas he may be too limited to be used. He flashes a strong arm, as you can see in one of the videos above in which he is shagging fly balls and making throws to home plate. He also has decent athleticism as of now around the bag at first. However, he may still be too much of a physical liability to try and shift to third base or the corner outfield, where his arm would be of use. He lacks foot speed to range in the corners in the outfield even now. There is also concern that as he matures into his eventual MLB body, he may bulk up too much and be more limited athletically. The consensus is that he may be a below average first baseman or even a DH candidate when fully developed.
The 2016 season will be Naylor's first as a pro, and he figures to get some time in both short-season leagues like the New York-Penn League and potentially full-season play like in Low-A Greensboro. Miami may not be in a hurry to push him as they were with Kolek last season, and that might be beneficial for Naylor to help him develop his plate game. If he surges quickly, the team may promote him to full-season ball early and let him sink or swim there. While his approach may not be polished at the plate, if he makes enough contact in Low-A, his power might still play up well there. Meanwhile, he should get a chance to work first base full time, as Miami's other first base prospect K.J. Woods should move up to High-A in 2016.
Likely Level: Penn League, Low-A
Major League ETA: 2019
Huge power inherent in 6-0, 225 frame, draws Prince Fielder comps. This grade may turn out to be too conservative and the more I think about it, the more I think he may ultimately belong ahead of both Kolek and Garrett. I’ll table that idea until spring training.
- John Sickels, Minor League Ball
With a great start to his professional career in the Gulf Coast League, all the arrows are pointing up. The main development goals going forward have to be continuing to stay athletic enough to handle first base, followed by finding the right balance of aggressiveness and selectivity so advanced pitchers won’t be able to pick him apart at the plate. The power will come in some form, though obviously you’d like to see it result in hard fly balls and not "just" line drives with the strength he has.
- Dan Farnsworth, FanGraphs
He’s a 20 runner who isn’t going to get faster, and his good hands won’t keep the lack of motion and fringe-average arm strength from being liabilities. Still, the Marlins will happily take the tradeoff if Naylor reaches his offensive upside, because this is a potential middle-of-the-order bat.
- Christopher Crawford, BP Prospects Team, Baseball Prospectus