Crews, Skenes or Langford: Three top experts weigh in

We are now only nine days from the 2023 Draft, one that not only features some of the best top-tier talent the sport has seen in a long time, but one that also sees the Nationals with one of the top picks for the first time in a long time.

The Nats don’t own the No. 1 pick like they did in 2009 and 2010, but if there’s ever a year to be satisfied with not owning the No. 1 pick, this is it. As many as five players are viewed by experts as No. 1 talents: LSU outfielder Dylan Crews, LSU right-hander Paul Skenes, Florida outfielder Wyatt Langford and high school outfielders Walker Jenkins and Max Clark.

Because they pick second, the Nationals are at the mercy of the Pirates, who have their choice of the entire field. Most experts believe Pittsburgh will take one of the two LSU stars who just won the Men’s College World Series, but there remain valid rumblings they could prefer Langford or one of the high schoolers because of the money they’d save and be able to apply to later-round picks.

The Nats have been widely connected to both Skenes and Crews, with maybe an outside chance they take Langford instead. There’s little buzz about them drafting a high school player with this pick.

So in all likelihood, general manager Mike Rizzo, longtime vice president of scouting Kris Kline and their team of evaluators are going to be selecting someone who played in last weekend’s much ballyhooed national championship series in Omaha. All possess elite skills, all are experienced and all are expected to reach the major leagues in short order.

What stands out about each of these players? Who is the safest bet of the group? Who has both the skills and the makeup to deal with the immense pressure that will come from being drafted first or second in the country?

We recently posed those questions to three uniquely qualified ex-players and analysts: Todd Walker, Kyle Peterson and Chris Burke. Each is a former first round pick who reached the majors. Each is now a college baseball analyst for ESPN and SEC Network who watched Crews, Skenes and Langford all season.

Here’s what they had to say, beginning with their thoughts on Crews, LSU’s star center fielder and winner of the Golden Spikes Award as the best player in college baseball this season after hitting .426 with a .567 on-base percentage and 1.280 OPS …

TODD WALKER: You start with confidence. Just the ability to go to the plate thinking: “I’m going to get a hit every time I come up.”

KYLE PETERSON: He’s got a really good heartbeat, to start. So it doesn’t feel like any moment is too big. And I think when you’re drafting somebody that high, ideally you want him to someday be the face of your franchise. So you want to make sure that component of it is there. He can walk into a room, be comfortable with anybody. Not that it absolutely has to be there, but I think it makes you feel better.

CHRIS BURKE: You really break down Dylan Crews’ numbers, the best thing he has going for him is on-base percentage, really. He’s walked a lot. He’s got a lot of hits. But he’s only got (36) extra-base hits, which is fascinating in a year where the ball is flying out of the ballpark. His groundball rate is up. His power numbers are down.       

PETERSON: There’s not a lot of swing and miss. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is, well, I guess it’s inverted. It’s his walk-to-strikeout ratio. So there’s not a ton of swing and miss. The eye is good. I think the power continues to come. His power numbers aren’t through the roof, but when you look at his slug, it is, because he hits a ton of doubles.

WALKER: What I always love about hitters is their ability to think along with a pitcher. The educated guess on what pitch is coming, based on what the pitcher has, what the situation is. If there’s second and third, a 3-2 count, and Dylan Crews is up, he knows he’s not getting a fastball right down the middle like most people. It’s going to be a slider, or something offspeed. The pitcher doesn’t mind if he walks him. So you don’t see Dylan Crews swinging at a lot of silly pitches and striking out. He thinks along with the pitcher. He’s right on every pitch. He doesn’t foul stuff off when he knows it’s coming. He puts it in play somewhere, and it’s usually loud contact.

PETERSON: The other thing about Crews, he has been nitpicked since day one. So from the minute he walked on campus, he was the dude. They weren’t even sure if they were going to get him (at LSU). I do think there’s a value to that. If you can do it for three years in that league, and everybody’s got the scouting report, and everybody knows who you are, and the numbers continue to go, I think it’s a pretty good sign.

Crews perhaps entered the season as the biggest name on the LSU roster, but it quickly became clear Skenes was awfully special in his own right. A two-way star at Air Force for two seasons, the 6-foot-6 right-hander transferred to Baton Rouge this year and dominated as a full-time pitcher, going 12-2 with a 1.69 ERA, 209 strikeouts and only 20 walks in 122 2/3 innings.

BURKE: You’re talking about somebody that spent two years at Air Force. So there’s a level of commitment and urgency and intensity about the way he goes about his business that I think is unique. And it’s palpable. You can sense it when you’re around him. There is a presence around him where he knows he’s the best player on the field, and everybody else does, too.

PETERSON: His velocity’s up about 4-5 ticks from last year on average. That’s massive. One of the games I had him, his first pitch was 101. He sat 98-101 all game. So not only is the top-end velocity there, but he has ability to carry it through the game. He’s a horse. If you said “I’m going to go build a starting pitcher’s body,” that’s probably it. Because it looks like it’s sustainable from a velocity standpoint.

WALKER: More than anything else, the 100 mph fastball and the wipeout slider, is just his ability to command the zone. I mean, he’s only walked (20) guys all year. The strikeout-to-walk ratio is off the charts. That’s what I love about Paul Skenes.

PETERSON: For a power guy that has swing and miss to have close to a 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, it’s insane. Does this translate to the major league level? Everything about Skenes says: Yes, it does. You can push him fast if you want to push him. I know historically some teams are reticent to take right-handed power pitchers early in the draft. And I get it. Because he’s probably going to get hurt at some point. That’s just how the game works. But if you take that out of the equation and just let your eyes talk to you, he’s got to be in the discussion for anybody at 1 or 2, I would think.

BURKE: Also, he’s a premium athlete. This is a kid that really was a two-way star. LSU has not used him with the bat, but he’s just as athletic as anybody on the field. So he can field his position, hold on runners, repeat his delivery. All those things add up, to me, a top-of-the-line, major league pitcher.

Skenes has frequently been called the best pitching prospect since Stephen Strasburg, which probably explains why the Nationals have been linked to him so much. How apt is that comparison, though? Is Skenes as good now as Strasburg was when he came out of San Diego State?

PETERSON: He throws harder than Strasburg did. Not a ton, but a little. I think Strasburg’s breaking ball was better. His breaking ball, I think that’s a little bit of a separator. From a control standpoint, Skenes is probably a tick ahead of him. I think mentality is very similar, but it’s the type of mentality you want to have out there. People are going to jump on his back and say: Let’s go!

WALKER: I think they compare them for a reason. There’s not a whole lot of differences. They both can command the fastball. They both can throw offspeed pitches in hitters’ counts. Confidence and moxie on the mound. They just know that they’re dominant when they’re out there. So I think it’s very comparable.

PETERSON: If you look over the last 20 years, I think you’ve got (Mark) Prior, Strasburg, Skenes. Those are the three you look at and say: They’re different than everybody else. There’s no guarantee that anything is going to happen that is Prior-ish or Strasburg-ish after he gets in a system. But everything leading up to this point would tell you that’s a pretty safe bet. Injuries aside – which we always know is going to be at least a part of it – everything else says this guy has star written all over him.

If the Pirates draft either Crews or Skenes, the Nationals’ decision may already be made for them. But what if Pittsburgh goes in another direction. Who would you take if you had your choice between the two LSU stars?

WALKER: It’s funny, because if you start talking about MVP of the league, and Golden Spikes Award and that type of stuff in college baseball, I would look at the position players. They play every day. And for Dylan Crews, man, one of the best, if not the best hitters in the country, I would look to him for an award like that. However, if you’re talking about the draft, I tend to lean toward the pitching. Because I feel like pitching is baseball. So I feel like for the draft, and wanting to have the most talented kid, you look at the pitching. The guy that can win you a game every fifth day in the big leagues. So I’d be looking at Skenes.

BURKE: To me, Paul Skenes is the slam dunk Golden Spikes Award winner. It’s not even close. Because his numbers are so loud and so obscene relative to his peers in a crazy offensive climate in the sport. There is no offensive player’s numbers that even compare to Paul Skenes, if you’re talking about the national player of the year.

Crews and Skenes have garnered the majority of the attention, especially when it comes to the Nationals’ likely choice. But what about Langford? The Florida outfielder slugged an incredible .784 this season and hit 46 homers in 606 plate appearances the last two seasons. Does he deserve to be in the same conversation as Crews?

PETERSON: They’re very similar. Langford’s a lot better athlete than you think he is when you look at him. He’s a plus-runner. He’s playing left, because they’ve got a freshman in center that can really defend. But I think somebody puts Langford in center when he gets to pro ball and just sees if he can stick there. Obviously, the value goes up if he can stick in center field. But aside from that, I think there’s a lot of comparables.

WALKER: He started off sprinting out the gates. He was really, really good. Then he got hurt for four or five weeks. And what was impressive about him was he came back, and it was like he didn’t even skip a beat. It usually takes guys a while. I even watched Ken Griffey Jr. get hurt, come back and struggle for a few weeks. Wyatt jumped right back in there and got hot again. That’s what’s impressive about him. It feels like his swing is so grooved, even though he missed some time and his timing might be a little off, he can get it back pretty quickly.

BURKE: It’s a fascinating argument between those two. They run almost the same. The biggest difference is Dylan Crews has proven he can play a top shelf center field, in my opinion, and Wyatt Langford has been playing left field at Florida. I think if you draft Langford, you’re going to put him in center and hope he can play center field, where you already know Crews can. And I think there’s reason to believe Dylan is going to make tweaks to his swing to hit the ball in the air a little bit more like he did in his freshman and sophomore years. If you get Dylan Crews, you’re getting three years of incredible production. But I think the reports that he’s somehow a slam-dunk No. 1 over Wyatt Langford are exaggerated. If you really look at the numbers – OPS, slugging, extra-base hits – Langford’s had a more dominant junior year, even though he missed about 10 games.

PETERSON: It’s one of those crazy years where you’d be pretty comfortable picking second or third. If any of those guys get to you, I think you can make an argument for any of them. Crews and Skenes’ argument has been the loudest, which I totally understand. But whoever gets Langford is going to be pretty darn happy. You could make the argument that Wyatt Langford could go first or second, and I think you’d feel very comfortable with it.

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