The Minnesota Twins selected prep infielder Keoni Cavaco from Eastlake High School (Chula Vista, Calif.) with their first selection (13th overall) in the 2019 MLB draft.
Cavaco, who turned 18 on Sunday, was three days old when the Twins selected Joe Mauer first overall in the 2001 MLB draft, for a point of reference.
Cavaco was a pop-up player in that he was not invited to a large portion of the summer circuit teams — like Area Code Games, Perfect Game etc. — but he really came on quickly in the fall, where the Twins saw him at the Angel Excellence games at Angel Stadium.
“He didn’t do anything over the summer really,” said Jonathan Mayo of MLB Pipeline. “It wasn’t until the fall that he started popping up at Angel Excellence games. The power started showing. He has a plus arm. He closes for his high school team.
“He’s a pop-up guy who maintained that helium. Sometimes those guys plateau or they drop a little bit; he kept going up. He had 70 run times (on the 20-80 scouting scale) down the stretch. Playing shortstop for his high school team and in workouts, I think, pushed him over the edge.”
Cavaco was the first player from San Diego County to go in the first round since Mickey Moniak went first overall in 2016, and he’s just the second from his high school to ever go in the first round. In 2000, Adrian Gonzalez went first overall to the Florida Marlins.
The Twins have some history with San Diego County players as well, though not necessarily much luck.
In 2005, the Twins took slugging first baseman Hank Sanchez from Mission Bay High School 39th overall, but he never played above Low-A and sadly passed away at age 30 in 2017.
In 2000, the Twins took right-handed pitcher Adam Johnson second overall out of Cal State Fullerton. He only briefly surfaced in the major leagues and posted a 10.25 ERA in 26.1 innings before being out of affiliated ball for good at age 26.
In 1996, the Twins famously took Travis Lee second overall, but failed to tender him a contract within the time allotted and he was declared a free agent.
Finally, the Twins also took Mark Redman in the 1995 draft 13th overall, and he pitched three years in the majors for the Twins and ultimately spent 10 years in the bigs between eight franchises.
Cavaco has a good chance to break the mold, even if he was a bit slow to come on the scene. Carlos Collazo of Baseball America had eyes on him last spring, but didn’t see the kind of player who might go in the first round, that’s for sure.
“Not at that point,” Collazo said on the MLB Network telecast. “I don’t think he was on a lot of teams’ national radar. Some of the guys locally knew of him, but I don’t think they thought he was this caliber of player. He’s a fantastic player with huge upside. Unquestioned plus tools with his arm, power and foot speed.
“I think he has a chance to be a plus defender at third base and has an outside shot to stick at short. He’s a guy who popped up early this spring, and was maybe the biggest pop-up high school we’ve had. But he’s got outstanding upside.”
The Twins fell in love with Cavaco when they saw him hitting home runs into the rocks beyond center field at Angel Stadium, said Sean Johnson, the team’s scouting director.
“We actually saw him at Angel Stadium at a workout and he was hitting a ball out on the rocks in left-center and it caught a few of our guys’ eyes — as it should — and that’s when we really dug in,” Johnson said. “We had literally somebody at every one of his games this spring.”
It wasn’t just in batting practice that Cavaco was hitting balls into the rocks, however — Keoni said he did it in a game, too.
“I had a good round of BP,” Cavaco said. “Then I had my first at-bat, and that’s when I hit that ball off the rocks.”
That’s when things started to go a little crazy, as the Twins and other teams started blowing him up a bit.
“After that, people tried to get my number and information and that’s when I know it started getting real and I knew I had to put in work to get to this point.”
The immediate tools that stand out with Cavaco are his speed and defense.
“I think the encouraging thing is the athlete here,” Johnson said when pressed about what Cavaco’s defensive home might wind up being. “He would run four-flat to first from the right side, which is honestly to what Byron Buxton does it in and guys like that. We aren’t thinking he’ll be that fast for the long term. But he’s got really great hands. He’s got at least a 7 arm (on the 20-80 scale pared down to 2-8). He can really throw from different angles. He’s just really athletic and the defense comes really easy to him. Defensively, we had really big grades on that.”
And like the last California kid the Twins took in the first round (Royce Lewis), they have good grades on his demeanor as well.
“We think he’s a natural leader,” Johnson said. “He’s extremely competitive. From all the thing we did through interviews or talking with other people about him, he’s extremely competitive and really driven to get better and improve. I think he’s a humble kid but also extremely confident in the box and on defense especially. We think he’s got a chance to be a special player make-up wise along with the tools.”
For now, Cavaco is just thrilled to try living out his dream.
“Getting picked in the first round is probably every kid’s dream as they grow up playing baseball,” Cavaco said. “I’ve been working hard ever since last fall to get to this point. Now that I’m here, I have no words to express it. I’m just excited to start playing pro ball.”
Maybe he’ll actually get a little sleep, this time around. The youngster barely slept on the eve of the draft due to excitement and anxiety about where his future might take him.
“I didn’t even sleep last night because I was thinking about it too much,” he said. “When the day started, I was excited. I just wanted it to come quick. The beginning of the day seemed long, and coming to the draft seemed longer. Now that it’s done, I’m excited.”
But ultimately, Cavaco said he had a good feeling about the Twins, who had been following him since seeing him at Angel Stadium last year.
“I had a really good feeling,” Cavaco said. “They’ve been following me ever since Angels Elite last fall, and they’ve stuck with me since the season started. They’re always hitting me up, seeing how I’m doing and always checking on me. When the time came, I had a really good feeling about it.”
At that point, Twins PR guru Dustin Morse cut him loose from the conference call. Cavaco had a house full of people to go celebrate with.
But how were they planning on celebrating?
“I don’t know,” Cavaco said. “All of my family is here right now. We’ll probably just hang out all night and take it all in.”
The Twins also made a selection in the Competitive Balance A round at pick No. 39, taking right fielder Matt Wallner from the University of Southern Mississippi. Wallner, a Forest Lake native, was also selected by the Twins in the 32nd round in 2016. In three years at Southern Miss, Wallner hit .335/.431/.665 with 54 home runs in 181 games — an average of 18 per season.
In fact, just last month he set the school’s all-time home run record. Oddly enough, it very nearly didn’t happen.
Wallner was committed to play baseball at the University of North Dakota when the baseball program there folded.
The selection of Wallner isn’t entirely unlike taking Brent Rooker two years ago, as the Twins also selected Rooker twice before ultimately getting him to sign. Wallner turns 22 in December, however, while Rooker was already 22 and turning 23 that November when the Twins selected him in 2017.
Wallner, a left-handed hitter but a right-handed thrower, also pitched at Southern Miss, but did not take the mound in 2019 after a disastrous 2018 (7.98 ERA in 14.2 innings). The year before, Wallner allowed just three earned runs in 14.2 innings (1.84 ERA).
Here’s how MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis sees Wallner, as stated on the MLB Network draft broadcast:
“He’s interesting. We’ll start with him as a pitcher. A lot of guys liked him as a pitcher. He didn’t pitch this year, but they saw him up to 97 mph with a slider and a splitter. But as mentioned, it’s light-tower power. Fifty-four home runs in three years. I think he led Conference USA in home runs in every year.
“He’s absolutely got the arm to handle right field. Decent athlete. Big-time power. There’s a lot of power here for the Twins. Keoni Cavaco and Matt Wallner? You could be talking about 55-60 homers a year if these guys hit their ceilings between them.”
Baseball America called Wallner “one of the toughest evaluations in this year’s draft class” while noting that not seeing him at his best is what many scouts are convinced of. Wallner exploded onto the scene at Southern Miss as a freshman, hitting .336/.463/.655, but stayed pretty much at that exact level and saw his OPS dip the final two years with the Golden Eagles.
Though to be fair, it’s worth wondering just how much higher it could actually go.
But part of it was that Wallner missed time due to a forearm strain which ultimately kept him off the mound this year, and after DH’ing early in the year he ultimately returned back to right field, where he clearly has the arm to stick.
There are some questions about how his forearm injury affected his arm strength in the outfield, and even part of the extension in his swing according to BA, and there are also questions about how much contact he’ll make.
Ultimately, he’s a boom-or-bust prospect on a team that can afford to take that risk on the 39th overall pick.