MLB Draft Feature: Aaron Sabato, 1B, UNC

Aaron Sabato started his collegiate career by hitting .186 in his first fourteen games, and questions were raised about whether UNC had made the right decision to recruit and start the undrafted Connecticut high school prospect. However, Sabato quickly quelled those doubts and answered the bell in a big way for the Tar Heels, absolutely tearing the cover off the ball for the rest of his freshman campaign. The right-handed hitting first baseman seemingly never missed a barrel in the last three-quarters of the season, hitting .343 with 18 home runs, 25 doubles, and 63 RBI. Not known for his speed, Sabato also legged out a triple en route to hitting for the cycle in a rivalry victory over NC State. His on-base percentage checked in at a stellar .453. Although his sophomore season waas cut short, Sabato had hardly cooled down, hitting .292 with seven dingers in just 19 contests. Sabato has transitioned from a little-hyped, slumping first baseman to one of the best collegiate prospects in the upcoming draft. After Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson, Sabato is considered by many the next best first baseman available on this year’s draft board. He’s ranked 41st on MLB.com’s Top 200 prospects. 

The question is not whether Sabato will get drafted – as he is a fringe first-round pick, and certainly an early second-rounder – but whether he intends to turn pro, with three seasons of eligibility remaining at UNC. The Tar Heels won the 2019 ACC championship and were one game away from the College World Series last season, losing a Game 3 Super Regional contest at home to Auburn. This year, North Carolina was 12-7 when the season was cancelled, and despite some early season ACC struggles, they promised to be one of the premier programs in the country once again. Sabato may want to return to Chapel Hill, but he also may take advantage of being one of the most sought-after players at his position and head for pro ball right away. 

Projection

Sabato is most certainly a power and offense-first player, but his defense is certainly respectable – he had a .981 fielding percentage his freshman year, improving that mark to .991 in his most recent campaign. Offseason shoulder surgery placed some questions on his range, but scouts applaud his reliable hands, a much-needed attribute to stick at first base long-term, rather than projecting solely as a designated hitter. Comparisons have been made between Sabato and the New York Mets’ Pete Alonso, although Sabato has featured more raw power than Alonso did in college. Considering Alonso hit 53 home runs last season, that’s not a bad comparison at all for the UNC sophomore. Look for a team to jump at Sabato’s power and offensive upside early in this year’s draft, grooming him as their next great power hitter. 

Prediction: Round 1, Pick 22, Washington Nationals

Some may say this is a touch early, considering Sabato’s 41st ranking, and a first-round draft pick will only be spent on the UNC prospect if teams are convinced he’s returning to college. If he is, though, the Nationals have one of the worst farm systems in baseball, and they don’t have a standout prospect at first base. They’ve got franchise player Ryan Zimmerman manning the position now, along with Eric Thames, but they are 35 and 33 years old, respectively, and so now is a great time to scoop up a player like Sabato. It would be a great situation for the Tar Heels’ first baseman, as the Nationals are the defending champions, and with Zimmerman holding down first base, there’s no need to rush Sabato’s development. Give him a few years in the minors, and Sabato could be ready to slug it out with the best of them in America’s capital.

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