Toolshed: Swaggerty surged to high pick

Undrafted in 2015, toolsy outfielder taken 10th overall by Pirates

Travis Swaggerty poses with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred after going 10th overall to the Pirates. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | June 6, 2018 11:45 AM

NEW YORK -- The question hardly had time to linger.

Early Monday morning, Travis Swaggerty had been whisked around New York City as part of a six-man herd of soon-to-be-drafted top-line prospects. Together, they took a boat trip around Manhattan and toured Yankee Stadium. Later that same day, they would head to MLB Network studios in Secaucus, New Jersey, and hear their name called over the first two rounds of the 2018 First-Year Player Draft.

But right at that moment, Swaggerty is at a luncheon at Major League Baseball's offices on Park Avenue, on the 29th floor overlooking Midtown Manhattan, and he was being pulled away once more. The Commissioner was waiting for him, and after three years, Swaggerty wasn't about to keep Rob Manfred waiting. 

The question he was asked before he headed out of the room: You weren't drafted three years ago. What's changed since then?

The short answer: Enough for the Pirates to take him with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2018 Draft, making him the highest selection in the history of University of South Alabama baseball.

The long answer: More than he ever could have hoped for.

"Once I got to college, my goal was to go in the top-10 rounds," Swaggerty said. "For me to whittle myself down to the first round, it's an incredible feeling. I worked incredibly hard for this."

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There's the player he is now -- a toolsy left-handed hitter with an above-average hit tool who has the plus speed and good arm to stick in center field in the pro ranks. He's twice been named to the All-Sun Belt Conference First Team and was put on the preseason watchlist for the Golden Spikes Award. He was MLB.com's No. 11 overall Draft prospect.

And there's the player he was -- a two-way standout out of Denham Springs, Louisiana, a city of a little more than 10,000 people. Swaggerty was good enough at Denham Springs High School to hit .451 with two homers as a senior and earned Class 5A All-State honors for his efforts, albeit under the utilityman category. There were regional scouts doing their due diligence, but not enough to make it seem as if he'd hear himself called in the 2015 Draft at all, never mind as a hitter.

"There was maybe one or two teams about pitching back in the day," Swaggerty said. "I was the closer. I was low-to-mid-90s every time I pitched. Being left-handed, that kind of helped. But South Alabama gave me the opportunity to do both."

Though he may not have been scouted heavily enough to be a pro prospect right away, Swaggerty did show enough potential to garner Division I interest, even before he went All-State as a senior. South Alabama coach Mark Calvi told the The Livingston Parish News that then-assistant Jerry Zulli (now an asisstant at the University of Alabama) couldn't stop raving about what he'd seen in the left-handed-hitting outfielder during summer tournaments, even when he played for B squads. The Jaguars initially offered Swaggerty a chance to both roam the grass and take the mound, and he fulfilled those roles briefly in fall ball. But South Alabama could see early on that the 5-foot-11 player's best potential came at the plate and in the field and didn't want to risk that for a couple innings of relief here and there.

"I was still trying to figure out my identity as a player," Swaggerty said. "We had a center fielder my freshman year, Cole Billingsley, he came up as a two-way player and ended up hurting his arm pitching [in 2014]. They said they weren't going that way with me. They wanted to save my arm and let me hit. I took the bat and ran with it."

It didn't take long for that potential to reveal itself in the NCAA ranks. Swaggerty, playing right field, hit .303/.431/.422 with four homers and 20 stolen bases in 59 games as a freshman, earning Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American honors along the way. He was the first South Alabama outfielder to earn a Freshman All-American spot since Adam Lind appeared on the second team in 2003. But if that wasn't enough, Swaggerty really took a leap as a sophomore in 2017. He ranked 12th in the nation with a .484 OBP and sat second in the Sun Belt Conference with a .356 average in 58 games. What's more, his power took a jump as he connected on 11 homers, and the speed was still there with 19 steals.

Travis Swaggerty ranked 12th in the nation with a .484 OBP his sophomore year. (University of Southern Alabama)

The Sun Belt might be not be a power conference by NCAA standards, but Swaggerty's domination was starting to garner national attention. He had plans to play for Brewster in the renowned Cape Cod Baseball League, but a call to play for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team last summer took precedence.

"Middle of my sophomore year, I knew it was there as a possibility," he said. "Actually, Coach Calvi knew [the general manager of national teams] Eric Campbell. They called me middle of the season after we went to [Appalachian State], and he said, 'We're going to bring you out here for the trials. And if you do well, you'll be on the team.' So I thought, 'Dang, let's do this.'

"Once my sophomore year was really good, I could see myself separating myself a little bit. When I got that call, I knew I was higher up than I thought. I'm really better than I thought. I try to be humble all the time and try not to be cocky, so it hadn't really entered my mind before that."

That version of Team USA featured other first-round talents from bigger schools, like Casey Mize (Auburn), Nick Madrigal (Oregon State) and Seth Beer (Clemson), but it was Swaggerty who took most advantage of the opportunity. The left-handed hitter ranked second on the team in hits (21) and OBP (.449) while placing third in average (.328) and steals (six) over his 19 games with the national club while playing against players from Cuba, Japan and Chinese Taipei. If Swaggerty was simply a good talent in a rough conference before, he was looking more and more like the real deal. Major League clubs knew it, and he started to know it, too.

"Getting scouted by 30-plus every game is huge enough," he said. "But it gets you kind of used to having attention on you while you play. Doing these interviews, talking to people, I'm not nervous because I've had eyes on me so much for so long. It doesn't matter. Just go out there, play the game and be myself."

By his own standards, Swaggerty's junior season back with the Jaguars may not have been quite up to snuff. His power grew with a collegiate-high 13 homers in 57 games, and his OBP was still high at .455, thanks to 54 walks that ranked ninth in the nation. But he hit .296, his lowest average in his three seasons in Mobile, and coming off his previously strong summer, it wasn't quite the leap Major League scouts and their organizations were hoping to see from the Lousiana native against easier competition. 

When viewed in terms of a three-year trajectory, however -- from a player skipped over in all 40 rounds of the 2015 Draft to one of the best collegiate outfielders in the country, even in a down year -- it was hard for clubs not to get excited about Swaggerty's growth potential in the pro ranks. When the 20-year-old looks back at his transition from raw product to real prospect, he doesn't think of it as a physical transformation but rather more of a mental one.

"I think it's just the approach," Swaggerty said. "I don't think I'm that much stronger, that much bigger, that much faster since I got there. Well, I'm definitely at least stronger. But I think it's just laying off pitches I used to chase or having a good idea at the plate rather than just thinking I'm going to go up there and bulldoze this guy. I don't do that. I'd much rather use the middle of the field, and I think I polished up everything to make that happen."

A few hours after running off to meet the Commissioner for the first time, Swaggerty heard him call his name as the 10th overall pick in the 2018 Draft. He joins a Pirates organization that is no stranger to developing outfield talent with Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and now Austin Meadows all rising through the Bucs ranks on their way to the Steel City. That development work will begin shortly after Swaggerty signs, but for now, one thing is for sure. There was no missing him this time.

"It's definitely relieving," Swaggerty said. "Just to know that I'm in an organization that's behind me. It's just very relieving to know that they have my back and that I'll be there playing for them."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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