Deep Dive: Evaluating Cubs 1st-round pick Ed Howard
The Cubs selected Ed Howard, a shortstop from Mount Carmel High School in Chicago with the 16th-overall pick in Wednesday night’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.
For the first time since 2012 (Albert Almora Jr.), the organization picked a high school talent with their first-round selection. Multiple draft analysis outlets considered Howard the best shortstop — college or high school — in the 2020 draft class. Howard possesses an exceptional combination of defensive ability and projectable power that gives him one of the highest ceilings of any position player selected on the first day of the draft.
The 18-year-old Howard stormed onto the scene as a junior during the 2018-19 high school season. He batted .421 in 35 varsity games, hitting three home runs and 11 doubles. He continued to impress on the 2019 summer showcase circuit against high school pitching that sits well above the quality of talent he faced during high school in Illinois. He also batted leadoff and played shortstop in the 2019 Perfect Game All-American Classic at Petco Park, a perennial event for the country’s top high school talents. (Seven other first-round high school selections from the 2020 draft played in this event as well).
For many high school prospects from cold-weather parts of the United States, performance against elite high school pitching helps evaluators confirm a player’s skills beyond gaudy stats versus pitchers they overpower. Although it can take slightly more time for these cold-weather high schoolers to develop, Howard performed at a level that makes this characteristic less of a concern.
For comparison, Arizona Diamondbacks second-round selection in 2018, Alek Thomas, played alongside Howard at Mount Carmel High School for a brief period of time. Thomas performed in 2017-2018 at a similar level to Howard against high-level high school pitching on the showcase circuit. As a result, minimal concern surrounded Thomas heading into the 2018 draft. He is now widely considered a Top 5 prospect in a deep Diamondbacks’ farm system.
Howard’s premiere skill is his defense at shortstop, which some project could be above average at the major league level with an above-average arm. The value of a player like Howard, who can play shortstop at the major league level without much doubt, is substantially higher than one with risk of moving to second base, third base or into the outfield.
“One of the most appealing and intriguing aspects of Ed’s skillset is we project him as a plus shortstop and those guys are hard to come by, particularly at this point in the draft,” said Cubs vice president of scouting Dan Kantrovitz. “I think without saying that anything is 100% certain, Ed Howard is a shortstop and that’s where we see him remaining.”
But Howard is also advanced offensively relative to other high school players in the 2020 class. According to Perfect Game’s website, his max barrel speed (the maximum speed of the sweet spot of the barrel during a swing) and max acceleration (how quickly a hitter achieves that max barrel speed) both grade inside the 94th percentile among other high school hitters in the 2020 class. Metrics like this help organizations and analysts project further offensive production out of a player as he ascends through the minor leagues and faces higher velocity and better breaking balls.
“The first thing that stands out about Ed offensively is his ability to make consistent, hard contact,” Kantrovitz said. “He’s somebody that we think is gonna control the zone and limit his strikeouts and maybe have some walks to go along with that.”
One of the most interesting unknowns about Howard is how he would have performed early in 2020 if not for the COVID-19 pandemic halting competitive baseball across the country. Fangraphs’ lead prospect analyst, Eric Longenhagen, suggests that Howard will grow into more power to fill in his 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame. His spring 2020 season would have helped scouts and teams gauge his offseason progression physically and how it applied back to his game.
But Kantrovitz didn’t need Howard’s 2020 season to see his improvements. He met with Howard and his family in January and immediately noticed progress in the first-round pick’s physicality.
“I remember watching video on the plane ride in from over the summer and the guy I saw was 10 to 15 pounds heavier in terms of just pure muscle,” Kantrovitz said. “Then once we saw him take some hacks in the batting cage at Wrigley, the sound it made coming off his bat and just the way he moved and utilized his body and the leverage, it really stood out.”
Howard hasn’t stopped working to fill out his frame during the pandemic. Hours before the draft started, he posted a video of himself pressing 85-pound dumbbells to Instagram. The clip made its way around the internet, and draft sites like Baseball America reposted his weight room exploits.
Howard already has defensive acumen, a projectable frame and the metrics to back up high expectations for his offensive performance as he ages. The Cubs first draft pick under Kantrovitz, has a substantial amount of upside. And the organization is poised to help him capitalize on all of it.
“I like when Derek Jeter said there’s no excuse for anybody to work harder than you,” Howard said. “That’s truly how I feel. I’ll continue to work hard and play the game, play my game and have fun and we’ll see how it plays out.”