As the first round of the 2023 MLB Draft trended heavily to the college ranks (14 of first 19 picks, and eight of the nine immediately preceding them), the Blue Jays zigged where most zagged. With the 20th overall pick, the Blue Jays selected shortstop Arjun Nimmala from Strawberry Creek HS in the Tampa area, which given their Dunedin base makes him a pseudo-local.
Amidst a historically deep draft class due to an abundance of talent that made it to campus in the wake of the truncated 2020 draft and is now draft eligible as juniors, the Jays opted for a prep talent whose upside would likely have taken him off the board and been unavailable to them in a normal year. Accordingly, Keith Law described the pick as “a steal for Toronto” ranking him in his top-10.
Not turning 18 until November, Nimmala is first notable one of the youngest players in the draft, especially at the top. Historically, this was a source of systemic undervaluation, though that inefficiency in the market has been recognized in the last decade. One could even argue it’s been overcorrected for as some teams heavily factor it into their draft models, though Cleveland is one of the teams that most heavily emphasizes it for hitters and has ridden it to a top farm system.
Nimmala’s consensus top tool is easy power that projects to be above average if not outright plus, due to explosive rotation with room to grow and tap into more as his 6’1”, 170 frame matures. He’s a capable defensive shortstop whose tools are rated as solid of not standout, with some concerns that he outgrows or ends up moving off the position. There’s some shades of Bo Bichette’s draft profile in this respect, though in that case it was even more definitive (and secen years later he’s still there).
On the flip side, the risk comes from the hit tool, as he’s had a propensity to swing-and-miss and for inconsistent at-bats for scouts. This is always the X-factor, especially with high school prospects who haven’t had the same testing grounds as college prospects, and historical draft classes are littered with toolsy talents who just couldn’t hit. Of course, without these question marks, he’d have been a surefire top-10 or even top-5 pick, and the Jays wouldn’t have had a chance.
Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs points out that swing-and-miss based hit tools concerns for top ranked high prospect draftees can go in very different directions, contrasting Nolan Gorman (2018) who mashed from the beginning in pro ball with Keoni Cavaco (2019) who utterly flopped. Moreover, given the positional value and other tools, even if there is a lot of swing-and-miss and a below or well below hit tool, he could still profile in a major league role as a power oriented second division regular or utility player.
In terms of timeline, once Nimmala signs he’ll likely be close to home for the foreseeable future, likely on the complex this summer with as assignment to low-A Dunedin to start 2024. While some there may be a longer developmental timeline given the age and hit tool concerns, from there his ability will really dictate the timeline. When prospects click these days, they tend to move very quickly through the minors.
Overall, this is a high-variance upside play by the Jays (in contrast, for example, to a pick like Logan Warmoth in a similar spot 17th overall in 2017). While only the fullness of time will prove definitive and the ultimate outcome is somewhat dichotomous (the potential is either realized or not), it’s hard not to like the gamble and risk/reward calculus in this pick.