Featured photo of the MLB Draft Combine at Chase Field by Rich Biesterfeld
What do you get when you put 300+ of the top high school and college players in a major league stadium? The answer is the 2023 MLB Draft Combine, which was held June 20 – 23 at Chase Field in Phoenix, AZ. This is the third year for the combine after being held in Cary, NC (2021) and San Diego, CA (2022). Player attendance at the Combine was by invitation only and was limited to the top 300 draft-eligible personnel as identified by MLB Clubs. The dates of this year’s Combine did conflict with the final rounds of the College World Series, so several of the top players were not in attendance.
I usually stay out of the way on the draft at North Side Bound since we have Greg Zumach and Todd Johnson, who are much better informed on the players and the process than I am. But when I found out the Draft Combine was going to be held close to where I live, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend. I checked in with Greg and Todd to see who were some players I should be on the lookout for, but of course, none of those players participated that day.
What IS the MLB Draft Combine?
The event ran for 5 days, with attendance being open to the public on 2 of those days. I went to the session on Wednesday and there was a buzz in the air as soon as I walked in. You had multiple crews from MLB Network sharing a live feed, a ‘set’ on the concourse with Jim Callis and his peers conducting instant analysis and players in the batting cages and on the field hanging out by the dugouts watching one another. There were a few players who weren’t actively participating in the drills but were there networking, such as probable top 5 pick Max Clark. The players were in numbered t-shirts which made it slightly easier to identify them (except there weren’t any rosters available!) and the shirts were in 4 different colors. College players were in grey and blue and high school grads were in navy and red.
You might be wondering what goes on at the MLB Combine, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure about that before I went. In many ways, it’s similar to observing a team practice during Spring Training, except on a much larger scale due to the number of participants. I had the chance to watch batting practice in the cage, infielders taking ground balls, outfielders fielding hits and throwing to bases and pitchers throwing bullpens. Everything was being done on a big league diamond at Chase Field which I have to assume was a lot of fun for the participants.
How do I cover a Draft Combine?
When I’m going to a Cubs game at any level, I typically know who all of the ‘big names’ are and can recognize who I want to shoot photos of. Going to the Draft Combine was a very different situation because I didn’t recognize anyone, so I began to shoot whoever I saw while also scribbling down names on a pad of paper as quickly as I could in the hope I would be able to identify and connect names and faces later. It did help that for BP and fielding practice that names were at least briefly flashed on the Jumbotron, but for some reason they only said the pitcher names over the PA system. I took the approach of observing each activity and mentally cataloguing who stood out to me and why. While there was a lot of data being shared on the scoreboard (exit velocity, launch angle, pitch velocity, amount of break) there was more than I could take in AND shoot photos, so I decided to keep it simple.
Some players to watch:
- Cole Carrigg – a shortstop/catcher/outfielder from San Diego State. Cole is probably the player that impressed me most because of his versatility and he appeared to play all 3 positions equally well. He was fluid at charging balls in the infield and outfield and unleashed a cannon of an arm (which would also play well as a catcher). I didn’t get a good read on his offensive skills, but the defensive abilities were very intriguing.
Carrigg demonstrated the best sheer arm strength of any position player, clocking throws of 98, 99 and 100 mph at shortstop and 101 and 102 mph from right fieldJim Callis via MLB.Com
- Cameron Johnson – a left handed pitcher from IMG Academy in Florida. When I saw he was from IMG, I had to take a closer look since that’s a school the Cubs have selected players from in each of the last 2 drafts – Drew Gray and Jackson Ferris – and both are left handed pitchers. According to stats I found later, he was throwing 95-97 mph with high spin on his fastball.
- George Wolkow – an outfielder from Downers Grove North HS in the Chicagoland area. George is a guy who is hard to miss as he’s an imposing figure at 6’7”. He was hammering balls deep while taking BP and flashed a good arm in his throws from right field. Originally Wolkow wasn’t eligible for the draft until 2024, but he reclassified to be in this year’s draft – this is the same process that Cubs prospect James Triantos did in 2021.
- Brandon Winokur – an outfielder from Edison HS in California. Brandon seemed to hit every ball he saw very hard and he did it with what looked like easy power. His arm appeared strong and accurate in the outfield drills.
- Nazzan Zanetello – a shortstop from Christian Brothers HS in Missouri. Nazzan is another slick fielding shortstop who looked adept at picking out his hops and making each play look simple. He appeared to be able to hit for power as well as make consistent solid contact.
- Roch Cholowsky – a shortstop out of Hamilton HS in Arizona. Roch looked smooth while taking ground balls and showed a strong arm on his throws. He also demonstrated some good pop during BP. When I saw him being interviewed live by Harold Reynolds, I knew he must be trending as one of the upper level prospects.
- Grant Gray – an outfielder at Norco High School in California. Grant appeared to be built for speed as he was participating in the outfield drills. I didn’t get a chance to watch his BP session, so I didn’t gain a good sense of his hit tool. But I noticed that a lot of the other players gravitated to him during any down time, which is often the sign of a highly valued teammate. He appeared to be one of those ‘glue guys’ who brings others together.
If you enjoy baseball and ever get the chance, I would highly encourage you to attend the MLB Draft Combine. It really is a baseball nerd’s paradise as you get to see some of the top talent from across the country And even better, you just may get to see a future member of the Cubs organization or a future major league star!