Khalil Watson, SS, Wake Forest HS (NC)
Weight: 170 lbs.
Commitment: North Carolina State
Hit: 40/50 Pwr: 45/55 Run: 65 Field: 55/60 Arm: 55 Overall: 55
Here’s the bottom line up front; Khalil Watson probably has the highest potential upside of any player in the 2021 draft. Watson’s ceiling is a 20 HR/25 SB shortstop who hits for average and plays above average defense. Watson lacks the physical size of other prep shortstops ahead of him in the draft. He also lacks the fluid fielding of top-tier defenders. He doesn’t possess the current hit tool of a prospect like Marcelo Mayer. He doesn’t yet have the base running acumen of Jordan Lawlar. Nor does he have the raw power of a guy like Brady House. What Watson does have, is the ability to match those more highly regarded prospects in nearly every facet of the game if he reaches his toolsy potential. That’s an awfully big if. It’s also an incredibly valuable player if he can make everything work. Imagine blending Corey Seager with Francisco Lindor and you get the idea. So why do an increasing number of mock drafts have Watson still being available for the Diamondbacks at #6? There are actually a number of reasons for that, but the biggest, easiest to point to, is that he is also an extreme bust candidate. On one hand, he’s a perennial all-star that the team can build a roster around. On the other hand, he’s Chris Owings. Let’s get into it.
At the Plate
Watson’s hit tool is not his biggest strength, but it can be a very good one. Pro scouts agree, Watson covers the plate exceptionally well.He is definitely a fastball hunter and will ambush them early in counts. If Watson does not get the early fastball that he can do damage with, he becomes a patient, even semi-passive hitter, looking for a count in his favour or a mistake pitch he can turn on. Watson has a pull-heavy approach, but this actually plays well into his natural swing path, which provides good loft without being a true uppercut swing. His hands start out from a low load and he is able to get his hands in quickly and the barrel out over the plate, making him somewhat long through the zone. Watson’s strong plate coverage and his ability to get his hands in help him to get to inside pitches, even good fastballs. He loves those. He has good ball to bat skills, and does not often chase pitches outside the zone.
Watson exhibits a fluid, rhythmic approach at the plate. He keeps his head on the ball and avoids the common problem of pulling off that many pull hitters seem to have.Every once in a while, Watson can get a bit hitchy, especially with his hands. So far, his strong wrists have allowed him to overcome that, allowing him to send balls back up the middle, even if he gets caught up in his swing a bit. At his age, small details like that are to be expected. Given his steady, repeatable cadence and other strong hit skills, this should not be terribly difficult for pro coaching to clean up.
This is where Watson’s build serves him admirably. Watson has wide shoulders and strong wrists. These allow him to be a quick twitch hitter and to generate a surprising amount of power for a young man his size. His build will also support putting on some extra muscle without it getting in the way of his flexibility or the excellent hip separation which allows him to generate his plus bat speed.As a pull hitter that generates loft, the extra power from his shoulders and wrists really plays up. When I say Watson has good separation, I don’t just mean he is clearing out early enough to turn on balls inside. He’s got his pelvis squared up to the pitcher before he even starts to pull the bat through the zone. This is the sort of torque that has allowed Watson to hit some spectacular home runs in showcase play, including a mammoth, 411-foot bomb at the most recent WWBA World Championships.
Defensively, Watson has strong footwork and a quick first step in both directions. He demonstrates soft hands and sound glove transfer skills. He sometimes gets a bit sloppy though. While he has the speed and athleticism to make difficult plays look easy, he can fall into mental lapses making routine plays. He has some difficulty on the double play, due in part to throwing from a low arm angle. Watson has very strong instincts and rarely makes a miscue based on getting caught out of position or making wrong decisions. Balls on the ground in his direction are balls that should expect to be scooped up. At this stage, there is little doubt that Watson can play short and play it with above average skill. However, where Watson’s build helps him with his power, his size and build are working against him and his ability to stick at SS long-term. The where and how of Watson putting on more muscle, along with his ability to maintain an excellent first step, is likely to determine whether or not hse sticks long-term at short, or eventually makes the move to second. It should be noted he has the arm and quick-twitch athleticism that he could also conceivably move to third, a position he may hit well enough to man. His speed and instincts also make him a potential outfielder if a move off of short becomes necessary.
Simply put, Watson has enough arm to play anywhere on the diamond. He has been clocked at 88 mph throwing across the diamond, meaning he doesn’t just sail the ball across, but actually gets something on it. The biggest knock on Watson’s arm is that he throws from a low arm angle. This creates some issues in cleanly turning the double play. It also is the number one contributor to the biggest problem with his throws, that they tend to sail wide. Without changing his arm angle (which, at this point, is not advisable) the improvement there will have to come from coaching and mental discipline. Watson will need to make sure he is following through on throws and making a target out of the first baseman’s chest to keep balls from finding their way up the line or in the dugout. Throwing errors are his issue when he loses mental focus, as he can get a bit loose in his mechanics, part of that botching routine plays while making tough ones look easy.
Watson is an aggressive base runner who has the tools to be a 25 stolen base threat, assuming that putting on another 15 pounds or so does not slow him up too much. He has plus run times, clocking his 60-yard time at 6.9 sec. He is a tad sluggish getting out of the box, especially for a left-hander, giving him relatively average home-to-first times. However, his first-to-third and second-to-home times are of the plus variety, easily in the 60-65 grade range. He has strong base running instincts, but will need to get better at picking his spots to run as he begins to face more defensively advanced catchers who are catching harder throwers. If he happens to pick out a breaking ball though, he’s going to take the extra base with ease. Watson’s future with regard to speed is going to be tied almost entirely to how he puts on weight as he matures.
Watson is a plus athlete with above average skills in every department. He gets the very most out of his small frame. He projects as a strong defensive middle infielder who can be an asset out of the #2 slot in the lineup, making use of his strong on-base skills and plus speed combined with the desire to take extra bases. Watson should have enough power that he moves beyond keeping pitchers honest and into the realm of being a true run-generating threat.
The Rest of the Story
Long story short, the biggest detraction from Watson as a prospect lives between his ears. He’s a smart ballplayer with excellent instincts, yes. That much is true. He also tends to wear his heart on his sleeve and play like his hair is on fire. If he scrapes the sky while depositing a pitch in the bleachers, he’s going to pimp that crush and round the bases with swagger. By the same token, when he throws the ball wide and lands it in the dugout, giving everyone another free base, parents should be ready to cover their children’s ears. What’s more, he feeds on success and spirals ito failure. If he launches that home run, be ready for the next at-bat to be a tough one. If he botches a defensive play, the best thing for a hitter to do would be to hit the next one right at him. One mistake can quickly turn into a loss of focus that sometimes does not return before the final out. He also tends to play with reckless abandon. Think Eric Byrnes in that regard - without the flip on his throws from the outfield. Unfortunately, since he does play with his heart on his sleeve, the opposition often knows what to expect out of Watson. Not only is Watson hard on himself, he can be hard on the opposition and on umpires. He is going to have to learn to keep his mouth shut a bit more as he continues to make his way through the minors. The higher he climbs, the less tolerance there will be for his antics and the less margin for error there will be when it comes to making mistakes. He is going to need to come to grips with making mistakes from time-to-time. And, as fun as watching a player revel in the thrill of success can be, he is going to need to be mindful of how his behaviour influences those around him - something he has had trouble with to date. The key to Watson’s success and his ability to reach his potential is directly tied to how well he is able to get his temperament under control.
Watson’s pure tools are undeniable. If he can put them all together and keep himself under control, he has the makings of a franchise player. On the other hand, there is still significant work to be done, on more than one aspect of his game. That development is going to be challenging, and Watson has yet to show he has the temperament to cope well with failure. In baseball, a terrific hitter fails more than 70% of the time. While Watson has yet to hit below .350 on his showcases, those days will be quickly behind him once he turns pro.
Watson likely represents the biggest swing between boom and bust in the draft. With arguably the highest overall ceiling comes a devastatingly low floor for a prospect being considered as high as Arizona is selecting at #6. The appeal in drafting Khalil Watson comes in the idea of drafting the future of the franchise. With that, comes the extreme challenge of developing multiple tools and being patient with him. Furthermore, it comes with teaching him to be patient with himself and the process. Any team selecting Watson needs to be sure that they possess the right kind of coaching in the developmental pipeline to help him get the most out of his potential.
Chances of being drafted: 45%
Up next: Sal Frelick, OF, Boston College