When I started taking my first looks at 2020 draft prospects last summer, one of the first players I dug into was prep outfielder Zac Veen from Port Orange. At that time, Veen was ranked by most public outlets as a mid-to-late first-round talent, one who had the traits to fit into the top tier of a strong 2020 prep outfield crop. However, he had not yet separated himself from peers such as Austin Hendrick, Pete Crow-Armstrong and Robert Hassell. A lanky 6’4”, Veen’s projectable, athletic build immediately caught my attention, as did the reports of his plus run times and solid present arm strength, making him a candidate to play either center or right field in the pros.
While checking boxes on measureables is always a welcome sight, what immediately vaulted Veen up my personal board was how he looked in the batter’s box. With a quiet, simple setup, sublime bat path and explosive rotation, Veen immediately had the look of a player with potential to hit for both average and power. Since that time, Veen enjoyed one of the best runs of any 2020 prospect, consistently impressing evaluators and crushing high level pitching whenever he had a chance to step in against it.
Coronavirus unfortunately stopped Veen’s meteoric rise in its tracks, but by the time the season was shut down, he had separated himself from the pack at the prep level. As of today, Veen typically ranks somewhere between 4th and 10th overall depending on who you ask, but a common line from all evaluators is that he may have the most upside of any player in the 2020 class. Had the season gone off as planned, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Veen might be a top 3 lock at this stage, as he seemed to gain on the field steadily over the last 12 months.
Of course, it is also possible that the No. 4 slot always represented a ceiling for Veen—not through any fault of his own, but because the 2020 class is headlined by some highly impressive college talent with longer track records. Vanderbilt infielder Austin Martin and Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson have long been viewed as the cream of the crop this year, projecting as above-average big league regulars with little development necessary to reach that level. Both maintained their stock in what little 2020 action they were able to get into, hitting for both average and power against top-level NCAA competition.
On the pitching side, Georgia’s Emerson Hancock entered the year as a top 3 name seen as having frontline upside on the back of 3 above-average to plus pitches including a devilish fastball, but faltered a bit (by his lofty standards) in his 2020 starts with a 3.75 ERA, 22 hits allowed, 34 strikeouts and 4 walks in 24 innings. This led to him being leapfrogged in the rankings by fellow SEC competitor Asa Lacy of Texas A&M, who was nigh untouchable in his four starts, striking out 46 against 8 walks in 24 innings. Both Hancock and Lacy carry #2 starter or better upside, and Lacy’s 2020 appearances were so impressive that most now consider him a solid #3 overall in the class.
As of today, Lacy seems to be the odds-on favorite to be selected by the Marlins at 3rd in the first round. If you’ve watched him pitch for the Aggies recently, this likely doesn’t come as a shock. Lefties with Lacy’s raw stuff are exceedingly rare—his fastball sits comfortably in the mid-90s with movement, frequently touching 97, and his slider has matured into one of the best secondary offerings at the amateur level in the last few years. That 1-2 punch is backed up by an above-average to plus changeup, which was Lacy’s go-to offspeed offering prior to the leap forward from his slider. He has a prototypical frame, broadly built at 6’4”, and generates velocity with his whole body.
There’s very little to criticize when evaluating Lacy, but his mechanics do give me a moment of pause. The lower half of his delivery is smooth and generates a ton of power, but there’s some jerkiness in his upper half that, for me, makes his command projection a bit fuzzy. Lacy isn’t the next Carson Fulmer by any measure, but there’s a bit of a head whack present in his mechanics, and his arm stroke isn’t the smoothest of all time. His present command is solid but not outstanding, and will need to improve to some degree for him to hit his marquee starter ceiling, and may need to for him to have a long-term starter’s future at all.
To me and many others, the third selection in the draft is shaping up as a choice between Lacy and Veen. The possibility of getting a frontline starter to the big leagues in short order is always a temptation, but I think the risk tied to Lacy is sometimes a bit understated. His unhittable stuff in his 2020 appearances seemed to distract from any discussion of his potential command concerns—he walked 8 in his 24 frames in 2020 which is a manageable total, but had 43 in 88 and 2⁄3 frames as a sophomore in 2019. The funk in Lacy’s delivery also contributes to his significant deception, which, along with his velocity, professional hitters will be more equipped to handle than NCAA competition. Therefore, it’s likely that his walk numbers will tick up in pro ball.
In short, despite Lacy’s tantalizing upside, I don’t view him as miles safer than a prep prospect like Veen. While it is true that Veen will need more development time and has a larger chance of washing out entirely, he carries less risk than your typical prep player as his hit tool projects extremely favorably. Pitchers naturally carry greater risk on average due to the seemingly random nature of their injuries and recoveries, and beyond that, Lacy has an additional risk dimension in the form of his command. With no improvement in that regard, there’s a real chance that he ends up a late-inning reliever, which is a fine floor for any prospect, but not what you’re looking for at the top of the draft.
Like pitchers, prep hitters carry some built in risk as it is exceedingly difficult to project how a player will handle the massive jump between high school and professional ball, but it’s very difficult for me to put any sort of reasonable ceiling on Veen. While it’s hard to ever say a prep player is sure to hit, Veen checks more or less any box imaginable at the plate. He is simultaneously quick to the ball and powerful, shows the ability to recognize and make clean contact with breaking stuff, and has ample bat speed to handle premium velocity. He doesn’t yet have the light tower power that some of his peers do, but there’s so much projection in his frame remaining that it’s not hard to imagine him growing into plus or better game pop in a couple of years. Veen is also instinctive on the diamond and draws high marks for his work ethic and makeup as well, which are often underrated aspects of an evaluation. His defensive tools are more good than great, but his above-average speed and actions give him a puncher’s chance to stick in center field long term.
As his stock has continued to trend upward, Veen has started to receive comparisons to players like Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger. These are unbelievably lofty projections, and likely driven in large part by body type, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous to take in Veen’s play and see the potential for a 7-win player. It takes a bit of a leap of faith in the power department, probably more than I’m willing to make, but Veen probably is the closest thing to an 18-year-old Yelich since the 2018 NL MVP went through the draft process himself.
He does project to need more development time than a player like Lacy due to his age, but I view their risk profiles as similar overall, and I think Veen’s expected value comes out a shade ahead on the whole. It’d be harder for me to make a case for Veen over Martin or Torkelson, but the Marlins won’t likely be faced with such a choice. In the fight between Lacy and Veen, I think I’d be too concerned I was taking Dillon Tate over Kyle Tucker to pull the trigger on the pitcher.