HEIGHT: 6-0 WEIGHT: 190 lbs
Heading into the 2014 draft, the Reds farm system was shallow and bottom heavy. There wasn't much help at the upper levels and the system was short on depth. In light of the state of the system, perhaps it's not surprising that the Reds used their first two pick on polished, upside collegians.
They reeled in Nick Howard with the 19th overall pick and Alex Blandino with the 29th overall pick. I'm sure the selections had more to do with those two being the best available on the Reds draft board, but they also happen to fit their need for a fast moving wave of talent to support the big league roster.
Blandino spent three years at Stanford University, hitting the ground running as a freshman and finishing strong in his junior year.
2012 FR: .294/.337/.523/.860 with 8 homers and a 31/12 K/BB ratio in 170 PAs
2013 SO: .268/.323/.453/.776 with 7 homers and a 33/17 K/BB ratio in 202 PAs
2014 JR: .310/.379/.531/.910 with 12 homers and a 33/30 K/BB ratio in 265 PAs
Perhaps the most encouraging part of his offensive performance was the continued improvements in plate approach, as his K/BB rate improved each year from 2.58 to 1.94 to a stellar 1.10.
Some of the accolades he received over his career were Baseball America All-America Second Team (2014), All Pac-12 (2014), Pac 12 All-Defensive Team (2014), and Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-America (2012).
Blandino was almost exclusively (with 2 games at 2b as a freshman and some DH work being the exceptions) a third baseman during his three years at Stanford. Despite his time at the hot corner, many draft pundits believe Blandino can move up the defensive spectrum to second base or even shortstop. Obviously, that would significantly improve his positional value and make him a more viable prospect if his bat should falter.
After being drafted, the Reds sent Blandino to the rookie Pioneer League to play with the Billings Mustangs. For the Mustangs, Blandino did what you would expect from a top tier collegiate prospect, ripping to the tune .309/.412/.527/.939 with a 18/16 K/BB ratio (13.7 K% and 12.2 BB%) and 4 homers in 110 ABs. The high point was probably the July 6th game, wherein he went 3-5 with a double, homer, two walks, two runs, and two RBIs.
|Courtesy: Hannah Potes, Billings Gazette|
In his time there, Blandino controlled the zone, hit for average, and drove the ball well. It was a complete performance, earning him a quick step up the ladder to low-A Dayton.
For the Dragons, Blandino slowed a bit. He hit a more pedestrian .261/.329/.440/.769 with a more disturbing 42/13 K/BB ratio (27.6 K% and 8.6 BB%) and 4 homers in 134 ABs. It was less than to be expected from a polished college player, but it was the tail end of a long season and fatigue could certainly have set in.
On the plus side, Blandino showed a polished approach and utilized the entire field effectively, as evidenced by his 2014 heat map. While he isn't afraid to use the whole field, most of his power is pull power, as 7 of his 8 home runs went to leftfield with the remaining 1 going out to rightfield.
So, Blandino's professional debut was something of a mixed bag, not really any inferences that can be safely drawn from his season. Still, based on his amateur and professional career, it's safe to say that Blandino understands the strikezone and does a nice job of controlling it. His pitch recognition is good, but it will be tested as he climbs the ladder to face faster fastballs and nastier breaking balls, which will shorten his decision-making time and increase the difficulty of pitch identification.
As solid as his approach may be, he'll still need to be able to consistently get the barrel of the bat on the pitches he decides to go after, which brings us to the swing mechanics.
Stanford University has a negative reputation in the scouting world for the manner in which they instruct their hitters. "The Stanford Swing" is not intended to be a compliment, as scouts have long felt that their coaches place too much emphasis on contact and shooting the ball the other way, instead of driving the ball with power. Scouts have often thought that hitters from Stanford would have to have their swings torn down and reconstructed into something that would play more effectively at the professional level. Obviously, that type of change increases the development risk.
That notion may be a bit outdated, as things started to change at Stanford, especially when former big leaguer Ryan Garko returned to his alma mater to coach. Garko, who only stayed a year or so, may have had some influence on the hitters, including Alex Blandino. Heading into the draft, scouts didn't seem to have any concerns about Blandino's "Stanford Swing".
Here's a look at that swing, courtesy of MinorLeagueBaseball on YouTube:
It's hard to quibble with anything in that swing. Good process yielding good results. One thing in particular that I like about the above swing is the swing path, which is relatively flat. His flatter path effectively extends the length of the impact zone, increasing the area where his swing can meet up with the plane of the pitch. Despite using a flatter swing path, which should generate line drives at a very good clip, he didn't struggle to elevate the ball or drive it out of the park, which bodes well for power production.
At the plate, Blandino stands slightly wider than shoulder width with his hands next to his right ear in his pre-pitch stance. As the pitch is delivered, he strides forward and utilizes a small movement to load the hands, drawing his hands back and down until they sit in front of his back shoulder. This loading of the hands gives him a shorter path to the point of impact and effectively syncs the arms to the rotation of the core with the back shoulder delivering the bat to the ball. Blandino also does a nice job of firming up the front side, giving him an anchor around which the rotational force can travel. He also maintains good balance throughout the swing.
From what I've seen of Blandino, his stride is inconsistent. Once in a while, as in the homerun clip above, he uses a high leg kick, other times he uses a high leg kick with a toe tap, and other times he uses a short, low stride. I haven't noticed any particular pattern (i.e. shorten up with two strikes, longer in hitter's counts, etc), so he may just be trying to find a stride that's comfortable.
In addition to a flatter swing path, Blandino gets good extension out and through the pitch. Rotation and extension are key components of power generation. He also, as seen in the video above, has the ability to pull his hands in to handle the inside corner pitch. Overall, he's a fundamentally sound hitter with a solid set of swing mechanics.
Finally, Blandino seems very comfortable dropping down a bunt, which he seems to be able to do equally well for a sacrifice or a hit. It's more evidence that he is a fundamentally sound, high-percentage player. Blandino is a player with a high baseball IQ and good instincts for the game.
On his hitting, the question for me is whether he has enough pure bat speed, enough explosiveness to his game. Granted it was the end of a long season for Blandino, and fatigue may have played a part, but his bat speed was more solid/average than above average/plus. The swing is sound, but does he have the underlying physicality to utilize it to greatest effect? At times, it feels like Blandino reaches a bit too much for the pitch, which breaks the connection of the arms and body, leaving those swings without the power generated by the body's rotation. Setting aside the rotational power generated by the swing, the bigger question may be whether he has enough hand/wrist speed, enough fast-twitch muscle, to handle high-end velocity and consistently drive the ball with authority.
DEFENSE AND POSITIONAL VALUE
The higher up the defensive spectrum a player can play, the lower the bar is set on offensive production. So, it likely matters a great deal whether Blandino can handle shortstop, as the Reds seem to believe, second base, as many draft pundits believed, or is relegated to the hot corner, where his college coaches believed he best fit. The more positional value he has, the less production his bat will have to generate. So, the Reds are wise to make Blandino play his way off of shortstop before moving him down the spectrum.
In the field, Blandino is fundamentally sound, which holds true for all aspects of his game. Baseball America tabbed him as the best defensive third baseman in the Pac-12 a time or two in their college season preview edition. He has good agility and soft fielding actions.
Here's a look at Blandino at the hot corner for Stanford, courtesy of Stanford Athletics on YouTube:
So much of defense is predicated on the defender's first step, which is based on the initial read off the bat. In the above clip, Blandino gets a great read off the bat and has a very quick first step. In addition, he shows good agility and strong body control, allowing him to pop up immediately to get the throw off. The power behind the throw isn't great, but the quick release gets the ball there in time to record the out.
Overall, it's a very strong play and the combination of the way he moves and his leaner body type certainly makes reasonable the idea that he might be able to shift to the middle of the infield. Still, Blandino isn't a burner and it's an open question whether he'll have the range to handle shortstop. He has the tools and abilities needed to make the plays on the balls he can reach, but it remains to be seen how many balls he will be able to reach at the shortstop position. His success, or lack thereof, at shortstop will likely depend on his positioning and anticipation much more than true speed and range.
Even if his combination of arm strength and range ultimately proves insufficient at shortstop, it might well play at second base. Not to mention, if the bat develops, then he might end up being a very viable third baseman after all. There are a number of possible defensive outcomes to Alex Blandino's development.
Overall, Blandino is a good prospect with diversified skills. He does a lot of things well. Does that make him a "jack of all trades, master of none?" Does he have a carrying tool? Is there enough electricity to his game? Does he have a truly plus attribute that will drive his value? Or, is he more of a high floor, rather than high ceiling, type prospect?
Blandino's value will need to be cobbled together from his various attributes, rather than driven by a single plus-attribute. Ultimately, his career path seems likely to be determined by the quality of his pure hit tool and his final defensive position.
In the final analysis, I like Blandino. On the downside, there are real questions about his upside and whether he has true impact ability. On the upside, he is very fundamentally sound with a high baseball IQ and very good instincts for the game. At the plate, I like the combination of pitch recognition, rotation, extension, and flatter swing plane. I'd be very comfortable betting on a prospect with that mix of attributes. He seemed like good value for the Reds at 29th overall and it wouldn't surprise me at all if his hit tool develops to the point that it carries him to a good career as an MLB starting infielder.
For now, Alex Blandino lands at #6 on the list.