Ryan Clifford was once perhaps the highest profile position player in the 2022 class, showing prodigious power as an underclassman, but his athleticism backed off a bit as he approached draft day, creating concerns that he might be limited to first base long term. As a result, he was seen as more of a back half of the top 100 guy, which led many to believe that he would honor his Vanderbilt commitment rather than signing outside of the first round. For much of the draft, that looked to be coming true, but the Astros made a splash by selecting him in day 3’s opening round. Most prospects selected in the 11th round end up signing in the current draft structure, and Clifford followed suit, eventually inking a deal that included a $1.25M signing bonus.
Public-side evaluators certainly saw this as a win for the Astros, who used every last bonus pool dollar available to them to get the deal done, but were a bit cautious with their initial rankings due to concerns about Clifford’s hit tool ceiling and athletic projection. The former was supported a bit by Clifford’s brief debut in 2022- in 101 plate appearances across the FCL and Low-A, he struck out 31 times, though those were offset by 22 walks, indicating a patient, even passive approach. He hadn’t turned 19 yet at the time, so it was hard to truly ding him for what was overall solid production, but few were willing to go out on a limb with him at the outset of his pro career.
In his return to Low-A this year, Clifford is rapidly changing perception of his profile for the better with his early season performance. The 19 year old has been one of the toughest outs in the Carolina League of any age thus far, currently running a .364/.527/.527 slash line with 2 HRs and more walks (16) than strikeouts (15) through 74 PAs. The batting average is supported by some fairly ridiculous batted ball luck, but the K rate (20.3%) is the important figure here. Clifford isn’t doing a ton of slugging just yet, but his power potential is widely considered to be the most bankable piece of his profile in the long term. Slashing his K rate so precipitously in his first full season was the best thing that could happen for his stock, and while there should be a bit of trepidation about the sustainability given how many pitches he is taking right now and the poor command of pitchers at the level, performing as a teenager in full season ball is rare.
In addition to the bat-to-ball improvement, Clifford has shown pretty well in RF thus far. He’s still expected to lose speed progressively as he fills out and will be range-limited, but his arm has been impressive and could be enough to allow him to stick in an outfield corner long term if he can compensate a bit for his foot speed with routes and jumps. He’s a pure corner guy who will go as far as his bat can take him, but giving managers a bit more flexibility can only help his overall value. His arrow is pointing up as much as anyone in the system currently, save perhaps Joey Loperfido, and he’s tracking towards a promotion some time this summer, though he can work on being a bit more aggressive in the meantime. While his hit tool is certainly looking ahead of schedule currently, he’s not going to be a Juan Soto-esque plate defender and won’t be able to lean on free passes as much higher on the ladder where pitchers can locate better, so it would be good to see him hunt a bit more readily early in counts when the opportunity presents itself. We’re only 15 games into his season, but I’m ready to push Clifford from the fringe of the organizational top 10 to firmly in the top 5 discussion already, and with a bit more power production and refinement of the approach over the rest of the season, he could solidify his stock at that level.