More or less every piece I write about the Astros farm system lately starts with some sort of brief explainer about how the organization isn’t as strong at its lower levels as it used to be, and that is still true, particularly when it comes to offense. While the club had no first or second round pick in 2020, it still appears that the team managed to come away with a few players who could start to reverse that trend. One that I (and others) haven’t discussed all that much to date is their fourth rounder, outfielder Zach Daniels out of Tennessee, but his toolset is one that could have fans excited in a hurry.
The Astros selected a pair of talented outfielders early in the 2019 draft in Colin Barber and Jordan Brewer, both of whom quickly slotted into the heart of organizational rankings, and went back to a similar well with Daniels in 2020. Like his predecessors, Daniels is a very good athlete, even by professional baseball standards. He differs a bit from Barber and Brewer in that he’s a strength over speed guy, but even still his speed is at least above-average, if not plus. Given that Daniels’ frame is mostly maxed out already, he projects to hold onto that speed into his professional peak.
A tools-first prospect, Daniels had a strong prep career but was overall underwhelming with the Volunteers. As a freshman and sophomore, he struggled mightily with averages of .161 and .200, and while he did hit for some decent power, his contact rate was weak enough that professional interest was starting to dry up. However, things seemed to turn on a dime for Daniels in his junior year, as he trimmed his strikeout rate precipitously and dominated to the tune of a .357/.478/.750 slash in a 17 game sample before COVID-19 ended his charge back up draft boards.
Watching Daniels’ swings over time, he appears to have gradually quieted things down at the plate since his prep days. He’s toned down the violent wrist action he had as a high schooler, choked up on the bat and does a better job staying balanced in the lower half through contact. He’s still a bit herky-jerky and will always have swing and miss in his game, but his combination of bat speed and rotational explosiveness ensures that when he makes clean contact it’s of exceptional quality. Scouts rate his power in plus-plus, 70 grade territory, which is in competition for best in the system. In 2020, we got to see a taste of that in game action, which even in a small sample, is a big deal for Daniels’ stock.
Daniels toolset is of first round quality, and he gave us a brief glimpse of results on that level before the season ended this past year. It’s hard to move past two years of pretty rough data on the basis of 69 plate appearances under unique circumstances, but it serves as a sort of proof of concept for his upside. Early reviews within the organization are strong, and if Daniels is able to carry his 2020 momentum into minor league play in 2021 despite a long layoff, he could quickly find himself relatively high on Astros farm rankings, as the team should expect further graduations this year and few can match his raw upside.