Zach Watson grew up about four hours north of Baton Rouge, La. in a small town of about 25,000 people. He dreamed of playing baseball for LSU since he was a youngster, he said.
When LSU coach Paul Mainieri offered him a scholarship during his freshman year at West Ouachita High (La.) in 2013, Watson didn’t hesitate and quickly accepted the opportunity.
Throughout his high school career, Watson was a well-regarded prospect. He was the top ranked prep player in the state of Louisiana as a senior in 2016. Professional scouts believed he had the potential to bypass college and start a pro career straight out of high school.
Watson set a number for the signing bonus dollar amount he believed he was worth. When none of the major league teams were willing to meet that demand in the 2016 MLB Draft, he knew his best option was to honor his commitment with the Tigers.
However, Watson’s time at LSU will be brief. In his second season with the Tigers, Watson has made an immediate impact and refined his skills to the point that pro scouts are eyeing him as an early selection in the 2018 MLB Draft, which begins June 4.
MLB.com ranks Watson, a draft-eligible sophomore, as the 62nd-best prospect in this year’s draft class.
“I know I’m a draft-eligible sophomore, but I try not to think about it,” he said. “I try to just go out and play baseball and let the draft work out on its own. What’s going to happen is going to happen.”
Watson’s transition to the college game didn’t come without some adjustments. A shortstop throughout his high school career, Mainieri moved Watson to center field as a freshman.
Watson had little experience in the outfield. The only time he was away from the infield came in his freshman year of high school when he played in the outfield two or three times, he said.
“It wasn’t easy because I wasn’t used to tracking balls and knowing the spin on balls,” he said.
He relied on LSU’s experienced outfielders for advice. His speed also helped him recover from bad reads, he said.
Watson’s standout tool is his elite speed. His quickness makes him a dangerous threat on the bases and one of the best defensive center fielders in college baseball. Although he doesn’t have a strong arm, scouts believe he can stick in center field in pro ball.
Watson, a right-handed swinger, projects to hit more for average than power in the pros.
Hampered by an oblique strain earlier this season that costed him nine games, Watson is hitting .315 with five home runs and 26 RBIs. He’s also 11-for-15 on stolen base attempts.
“Going the other way was one of the biggest things going into this year that I wanted to work on,” he said. “I’ve improved a lot in that area and can actually hit the ball the other way with authority.”
LSU is entering the final weekend of the regular season with a 32-21 record.
The Tigers have to play well in their three-game series against No. 24 Auburn and in the SEC Tournament, which begins May 22, to have a chance at reaching the NCAA Tournament. D1 Baseball projects LSU to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
Watson’s days at LSU could be numbered, but he’s trying not to focus on the future just yet.
“We have to lock it in and go out there and play the best baseball we can,” Watson said. “The most important thing we can do is go out there and have fun. Once you start stressing, baseball takes a toll on you. Having fun is the best key for me.”
Read draft profiles on former LSU baseball players, including Alex Bregman here.