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2021 MLB Draft Primer: Players You Should Know

The MLB draft is just hours away and there really isn’t even any clarity on the number one pick. This year’s crop of players are talented, as always, but seems to be particularly strong in high school bats (especially of the middle infield variety) and abnormally weak when it comes to college position players. There appears to be a consensus top eight but everything is game starting at number nine, which should make for pretty fun night and next few days. My top two players in this draft are Jack Leiterand Marcelo Mayer. Leiter get a lot of attention, and rightfully so since he’s number one on my board, but Mayer might be the least talked about first overall pick I’ve ever seen. He’s certainly deserving of the honor and I agree that his best fit is on the Pittsburgh Pirates, who need someone farther away than Leiter with their ongoing rebuild. This is not to say Mayer isn’t advanced because he is but he can certainly benefit from more development time. Leiter and Mayer are my top two because there aren’t very good comps for them – a sign of elite players. Leiter, in some ways seems like a throwback to me as there’s a bit of Roy Oswalt and Tim Hudson in him but is unique in many other ways too. He’s on the shorter side but his stuff is absolutely not lacking. In fact, while I usually scoff whenever anyone gets Pedro Martinez comparisons, I can see it here. He has the bulldog mentality of a Roger Clemens and as good of a pitcher guiding him in his development as there is with his father Al. I would love to see him fall to the Boston Red Sox and that is apparently what his team is trying to do. Playing for Vanderbilt, he knows pressure, would thrive in Beantown and facing the Yankees. But back to Mayer, the kid is California personified – cool, calm and collected. He plays like he’s never in a rush and is a complete natural. His worst case scenario is a Brandon Crawford type player and he can be a jumbo sized Francisco Lindor. 

The point here is that he’s going to be a winner like both of them and is the perfect player to reshape an organization. The other prep shortstops at the top of the draft seem much more riskier to me, although the ceiling is the limit for them as you will see in a minute. Rounding out my top five are Jordan LawlerHenry Davis and, yes, Kumar Rocker. Starting with Lawler, he oozes talent and there is no question about that. He’s answered all the questions he needed to answer against elite high school pitching and may have a higher ceiling than Mayer if everything comes together. A Texas kid, it looks to me like he grew up a huge Astros fan, or at least enjoyed watching their players. I say this because the resemblance in his stance is a dead ringer or some sort of combination of Carlos Correa and George Springer. He can be like them someday and the Rangers shouldn’t overthink it at pick two. Chris Young, take him and fix up your farm like the Pirates are instead of trying to contend as soon as possible to the detriment of prospects. Henry Davis was the best college hitter in the nation and it wasn’t particularly close, in my opinion. He has great leadership skills and the most raw power in the draft as a catcher. It’s tempting to move him off the position to see how much better he can be without the toll of getting beat up back there but he is a strong man and can handle it. To me, the Tigers at three make lots of sense and pairing him with Torkelson and Greene would put them on the fast track to contention in the AL Central with the type of pitching they have coming up in the system and we’ve already seen this year. His swing and body type is a carbon copy of Luke Voit so sign me up for that. Admittedly, I have no idea where Kumar Rocker is going to go but I do now it’s likely lower than where he should be off the board. Even with his struggles of late, there’s no hesitation on my part to call him the fifth best talent in the draft. 

Pitchers don’t come as big and durable as he does and no one had more eyes on him and scrutinizing literally every pitch as he did, not even one Jack Leiter. He’s going to be a workhorse for whoever takes him and give you his best shot. Rocker could be the second coming of JR Richard, a throwback, and even Curt Schilling. I’m a bit concerned of the occasional velocity drop on him but he’s had a lot of innings already and I would probably just rest him the rest of the season to reboot everything. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when he dominates the minors and like with Lawler and Mayer, he might have more potential than Leiter does despite being ranked just a shade lower. After all. Lawler and Rocker were rated higher than Mayer and Leiter last year and it could happen again but risk is a real thing especially at the very top of a draft and teams want to minimize it. The Orioles are a good fit although they love to cut deals more than any other team and will probably surprise with their pick again. Rocker facing off against Leiter in the AL East for the next ten years would be fun. Minimizing risk is likely why Jackson Jobe and Brady Houseprobably won’t go in the top five but they are more than deserving of such a selection. Jobe is easily the best prep pitcher in the draft with his 70 grade slide, no big deal. but his demographic gives heart attacks to executives around the league. Still, I’m not sure I’ve seen a high school arm as polished as his and especially recently. There’s some Yu Darvish in him with his feel for pitching and think he‘ll move pretty quickly for a team like the Diamondbacks that can really use him. House could be the player teams kick themselves for not believing in as his potential is simply enormous. While I don’t believe he’ll stick at short, he doesn’t have to. His power plays anywhere, as does his plus arm. Brady looks a little awkward right now in terms of his body but he’s growing into it and his whole package will look prettier when he does. I see a bigger David Wright with considerably more pop and less of a bat, which can make him Nolan Arenado. Imagining him on the same side of the Royal infield as Bobby Witt is just scary.

The last player in the consensus top eight is none other than Khalil Watson. Despite his size, he swings from his shoes but his left handed stroke is smooth and he carries himself with swagger. He reminds me of someone who terrorized a lot of my childhood, Jimmy Rollins, and could have that same type of impact. My ninth and tenth players are not usually ranked that high but I believe in the two just as much as anyone I’ve already discussed. Harry Fordhas quite a few things in common with Watson in terms of ability. They’re both smallish, rare athletes whose tools play much louder but what makes Ford special is the fact that I think he can actually play anywhere on the diamond. Unlike the case with Henry Davis, I would definitely move Ford away from catcher to get even more out of his quality bat. I‘m not concerned about his being able to play shortstop or even center field and his next team can and should move him around. The gifted talent out of Georgia is electrifying to watch even with his pop times and can stay at catcher but I rather he turn into a Javy Baez and excite us that way.   Rounding out my top ten is Benny Montgomery. You may detect a pattern and preference of mine in taking high school hitters early on and you’d be right. Many criticize things like his bat path but like is with the case with Brady House, being a very large human isn’t conducive to looking like a graceful kid. What he can do gracefully is run and that should help him stick up the middle and if he does, we might be talking about a generational talent. Interestingly, like Ford, the Pennsylvania product screams another Cub in Kris Bryant to me. Having heard the youngster talk, his confidence in himself is through the roof. 

So who did I leave out to put Ford and Montgomery in my top ten? That would be pitchers Sam Bachmanand Ty Madden. I view the former, Bachman, as the better pitcher for a few reasons. First, he seems to know himself and the art of pitching pretty well. Even though he’s not the tallest guy, he is imposing with his fastball and Lance Lynn build. He simply dominated his competition and pitches unafraid. With Madden, having seen him in high school, he’s almost unrecognizable as he also put on considerable weight and got stronger too. My biggest worry with him is his delivery as I can possibly sense future arm trouble. Now, to be fair, Bachman hasn’t gone as deep as Madden in games and has shoulder issues of his own but I believe his potential to be just a bit higher, and is the reason I continue to regard him as a top ten talent but Madden is surely close. There is a reliever risk with both as well. The other player in the top ten to early teen range who I’m comfortable calling a top ten talent is Colton Cowser, a good friend of fellow Texan Madden. The reason I don’t think he will go in the top ten, even though he’s right around there, is because of where he goes to school: Sam Houston State. Sure, the program is not well known but he is almost assuredly an above average starting outfielder. That has value and I think any team passing him up into to mid and late teens is making a mistake. He has the possibility of more power coming his way as he flashed in 2021 because of his frame. He will fill out too and look closer to Austin Meadows than Brandon Nimmo. Whatever the case, he’s good. Most publications ranked Sal Frelick higher, which I absolutely disagree with. Not only is Frelick a head shorter, his profile doesn’t play anymore. The Brett Gardner’s of the world are not as useful today in a game that doesn’t run anymore. Furthermore, unless you see him as a Mike Yastrzemski, he’s not worth taking at this junction unless you’re trying to save money. Him becoming Yaz would require projecting power that he hasn’t shown in Boston College and is not something I can or will do.

Before getting to players I love in the back half of the first round and later on, there are a few other players you should know that could go in the top half. Starting with the two players who I regard as the most major league ready in the draft, Gunnar Hoglund and Matt McLain are the safest players available. While I prefer Hoglund’s talent, hence the bolding of his name, McLain has definitely become the victim of what I like to call and diagnose as prospect fatigue. It makes sense the duo would fall victim to it, considering the two decided to go to college after being taken in the first round as high schoolers three years ago, but McLain has been treated slightly harsher. He’s had a good career at UCLA and not many seem to acknowledge that he turns his power on and off as he wants. He’s been in home run tears and droughts but I think this is by design as he’s certainly a pure enough hitter to decide that. The player I point to as his ceiling is Whit Merrifield, someone everyone in baseball seems to love. He should be able to move around positionally and run extremely well too. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of such players but I understand the intrigue. Hoglund I am a fan of, despite his physical ailments. The Pirates, in hindsight, seem to have been right to dock his signing bonus after he failed a physical, considering he just had Tommy John surgery but it won’t derail his career as a rock solid, number two starter in the mold of an Aaron Nola. Like Bachman and Madden, he’s a fringe top ten talent and will come up much sooner than both even with his injury. He won’t need much seasoning and is already ready-made. Every draft and first round has two-sport athletes, and this year, they are Clemson commits Bubba Chandlerand Will Taylor. I prefer Chandler, as he is a two-way player I think could have a future on the mound and as a infielder. Most say he’s a better pitcher but I disagree as he looks like a more effortless hitter than pitcher to me. He is a QB recruit for the Tigers so that’s impressive. Outfielder Taylor is asking for some of the biggest bonus demands to forego his commitment but I would challenge him on that since he’s more raw than polish.

With my storylines and controversial opinions on some of the bigger prospects out of the way, let’s shift focus on prospects I think deserve more shine even as projected first rounders and compensatory sandwich picks. I have to start with a local pitcher, Anthony Solometo. If I were a team in the top half of the first round, I would think very hard about cutting a deal with Solometo. He’s more than talented enough to justify the selection and would save money as well. His delivery is reminiscent of a different era of baseball of drop and drive deliveries, and is one of the most uncomfortable at bats a hitter can have. He routinely pitches inside and high to hitters, not to mention his unconventional arm slot a la Bumgarner. His stuff keeps ticking up and I like more every time I see him. The other pitcher I wouldn’t hesitate to pop somewhere in the first fifteen picks is Andrew Painter. Aptly named, Painter can indeed paint. I would urge patience with him almost more than any other arm in the different because his is special. There may be frustrations throughout his developmental process but the reward is great for such a mountain of a man and pitcher who could be Tyler Glasnow like in the right environment. Another huge talent is Florida slugger Jud Fabian. It wasn’t long ago that he was projected to be the first outfielder taken but people have soured quickly on him. It’s too early to give up on a 20 year old college player who is young for his class, especially when he has this type of bat. Florida players underperform and play up in the pros and it would not shock me to see him turn into a Mitch Haniger level performer. Speaking of disappointing players who have all the talent in the world, Ryan Cusickmight be the poster child for this distinction. There are times where he looks like the best power arm in the draft not named Leiter or Rocker and can be salvaged with a few mechanical tweaks that hopefully improve his control.  One of the few arms who can out-velo Cusick is Chase Petty. I can’t help but predict that he could be the next Jack Leiter in three years when teams wish they paid him and not questioned his ability to start because he’s undersized.

At the opposite end of the Cusick spectrum are a trio of college starters who have done nothing but pitch excellently, starting with UC Santa Barbara pitcher Michael McGreevy.For my money, he has the best control in the draft and a fastball that is continuing to tick up as McGreevy trains. He gives up hits but college hitters do use metal bats and he does pitch to contact. He knows what he has to work on and his profile is one smart teams like the Dodgers covet and take advantage of. The pitcher who is being talked about less than even McGreevy is Gavin Williams. Williams has plus stuff and a strong body to boost and it’s easy for me to dream on his potential even as a college pitcher. There might be a Corbin Burnes somewhere in there and that’s a chance worth taking. As a side note, his program at ECU has another potential high draft pick in Connor Norby who is a lot like another Brewer when he was coming out of college, Keston Hiura. The pitcher who I am happy to see moving up draft board is Will Bednar. After crushing it in the College World Series, his stock has risen fast and should even more. He is a big game pitcher who gets up for big games and has a competitiveness to him that’s visible to anyone watching. He can be Joe Musgrove in time and I could see a team bite early because of it. The other player who has seen a price correction in his stock is Trey Sweeney. Not many college hitters could go toe to toe with him this season and I am buying his impact bat. He features a huge leg kick and mechanically is a bigger version of what Ozzie Albies likes to do at the plate. He can play second as well. Like Bednar, i would not blame a team outside the top ten for picking him.James Woodsis one of the toolsiest players in the draft and should get first round consideration. When I watched him, I thought I was seeing the reverse image of Vlad Guerrero from the left side. His ceiling compares to just about anyone in this draft and is worth a lot of money. The other prep outfielder with his pop is Isaac Pacheco and he‘s a lot like Joey Gallo as a true three outcome.

Among projected second rounders, there are several who have 1st round talent. A common thread among them is untapped potential that’s yet to be realized. Southern Alabama outfielder Ethan Wilson is a nice example of this. When you first glance at him, you wouldn’t be wrong to think he watches a lot of Bryce Harper. He’s smaller but he has more than enough power even if he hasn’t shown it. Wilson had a great freshman season but was unable to replicate that. However, as a junior, he’s shown great signs like increased patience and decreased strikeouts. Jaden Hill’s season ended prematurely but there is enough on tape to want the talent. He is cool, calm and collected while pitching and if he can stay healthy, his future as a starter is endless like Taijuan Walker. Maybe no prep hitter, when he’s on, looks as impressive at 6’1 than Max Muncy.  No relation to the other Max Muncy, he is entertaining to watch and is heads and shoulders above his peers. There are times when he sells out for homers but when you’re this good in high school, I can’t blame you. I’m curious to learn how good he can be and would buy his lottery ticket. Prep lefties are commonly a dangerous group to draft but another New Jersey kid made me a believer in Frank Mozzicato. He doesn’t have his best fastball just yet but knows how to thrive without it. When velocity arrives, the game will become easier for someone who routinely throws no-hitters. His motion is not off from Max Fried. As much as I like Mozzicato, Gage Jump has grown on me as much as anyone. He’s tiny but has heart and the most interesting windup in the draft. There’s something rare about him that makes me believe his fastball is going to jump in the near future, no pun intended. It happened for Shane McClanahan so any team should want that kind of arm talent if it does happen.

The other high school arm that intrigues me like Jump’s is Ben Kudrna’s. Kudrna features a hesitation and pause in the middle of his delivery, messing with hitters and their timing. His stuff is plenty loud and will only get better as he gets older. This could be reason to go to LSU and come out as a top pick but he is what you want pitchers to look like. Another high schooler with loud stuff is Shane Burns. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a high school arm I thought could pitch in a major league bullpen tomorrow like I do with Burns but I do believe this. He uses his premium fastball just how closers do and doesn’t have the worst control either. The most underrated pitcher in this year’s draft continues to be Matt Mikulskiand I’m not saying this because I’m from Fordham and worked for their baseball team. He is the real deal and his stuff from the left side is as good as it gets, especially for a college senior. He’s intelligent and works extremely hard on his craft. He believes he can be a front of the rotation starter and I will not disagree with him on that. At worst, this is an elite multiple inning reliever like Josh Hader, one of the best commodities in baseball. Every team should be on him, starting the back half of the first round. Andrew Abbott is another of my favorite college lefties as he also pitches with moxie and wants to prove himself right. Before this season, he never got the chance to start and was always in the bullpen but this changed quickly. I still don’t get how Jordan Wicks is considered a top 20 and he’s a second rounder. Pitchers like Wade Miley have proven that pitch-ability does work everywhere. Jackson Baumeisteris not a typical high school flame thrower and prefers to work off his curveball and over the head, Charlie Morton, Wainwright delivery. 

Among players ranked outside the top 50, a Canadian, Tyler Black is one of the more likely to get selected before then. Teams know that he has a professional bat and takes professional at bats, as well as the fact he looks a lot like Jeff McNeil. Another player who went to a little bit of an unknown college and is also flying under the radar is big college lefty Ky Bush. He could be attractive to teams looking for a cheap sign who don’t want to sacrifice talent. He is hard to square up and has nice break on all of his pitches. Ryan Bliss from Auburn simply raked this year and gets overlooked because of his stature but there is no doubt he can hit. He has a lot in common with Josh Harrison and can be that type of player with surprising pop. Lonnie White is one of the best high school hitters in his class and hasn’t scratched the surface of his offensive ceiling, like Tommy Dilandri and Alex Mooney. All three are very physical as hitters and take advantage of their sheer strength but he is way too good to fall much farther than the second round. Even if not many are talking about him, he should be taken by a team who sees his excellent power and hitting. The same can be said about prep arm Eric Hammond who also seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. He is just as good as the teenage arms who will go before him and is one of those talented pitchers who look like they’re not even trying.

Dylan Smith is one of my favorite college pitchers in the draft because he did not pitch much in college and is thus fairly new at it, with little mileage on his arm. For his first real season, Smith performed admirably and walks no one. There is untapped potential there, just like there is with lefty hitter Aaron Zavala, who I view as perhaps the purest hitter in college. He goes the other way with absolute ease and needs more attention than he is getting. He is a high probability big leaguer and a slam dunk pick at this stage. I would be remiss not to mention two high schoolers I don’t think will sign but who I would try my best to get anyway and that’s pitcher Brody Brocht and masher James Triantos. Brocht is the more unsignable of the two since he wants to play college football, wide receiver of all positions, but he has an prodigious arm and delivery similar to Zack Wheeler’s when Wheeler was young. Triantos has critics of his swing but it works and he has a better, more natural feel for the barrel than a vast majority of hitters his age so I have no questions about the bat. Jackson Merrill is another value high schooler who has a similar profile to Colson Montgomery but a lot cheaper. Daylen Lile is another prep left handed bat who is stockier but an absolute natural as a hitter who can spray the ball to all fields much like Michael Brantley and is worth going overslot for. Lastly, Kyle Manzardo is one of the most slept on players in the draft and my top first baseman. He has excellent pitch recognition and selection. While he is on the smaller side, he can turn on baseballs and shock with the power he is able to generate. Another player playing in Washington, Jarred Kelenic, has a lot of his attributes so this is a steal and someone to pay attention to/keep an eye on.

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