Unlike last year with Spencer Torkelson and 2019 with Adley Rutschman, there’s no surefire candidate to go first overall (or “1-01” in baseball parlance) in the 2021 MLB’s First-Year Player Draft, which is scheduled to begin July 11th. Given this uncertainty at the top and teams’ strong desire to manipulate the strictly slotted bonus money to their advantage, expect a wild ride from the first minute.
In College Baseball Nation’s second mock draft, we provide an inside look at all the machinations that could occur on draft night.
As of 7:00 PM Eastern there’s still no word on whom the Pirates will select 1-01. ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel has tweeted that the Pirates are still negotiating feverishly with California prep SS Marcelo Mayer and Louisville catcher Henry Davis. At 7:11, Jon Mayo of MLB Network announces on the air he’s heard the Pirates will select North Carolina HS SS Kahlil Watson in a well-below-slot deal. Baseball Twitter goes nuts, and Tigers’ GM Al Avila, who’s fantasized for months about Mayer playing SS and hitting in the middle of the Tigers’ order, happily pours himself a little scotch. It’s time to celebrate. Then, at 7:34, little-known @MLBMarathon, with fewer than 4,500 followers, tweets that a deal between the Pirates and Mayer has been confirmed. Most of the Twitterverse scoffs at such nonsense.
1) Pittsburgh Pirates; Marcelo Mayer, SS, Chula Vista, CA (HS)—The Pirates are on the clock! GM Ben Cherington has slowly but surely put his stamp on this franchise by acquiring high-end talents like Hudson Head and Roansy Contreras in trades, and the draft is his carte blanche to continue the fun. Unbeknownst to many, the Pirates’ list is down to three guys: Mayer, Dallas area HS prep SS Jordan Lawlar, and Davis. The Detroit Tigers’ affection for Mayer is a poorly kept secret, and because of their long history with his advisor John Boggs, many believe they’ve already reached a pre-draft deal with the San Diego-based agent that’s higher than the slot value of the third pick. To further complicate matters, Boggs has made clear that Mayer won’t accept a discount. Cherington is aware of all this and realizes that a selection of Mayer means the Pirates will burn up more of their allotted $8.4 million than he’d like, giving them less to use on subsequent picks. Cherington doesn’t care. His scouting and baseball ops guys have been on Mayer like white on rice the last six weeks and there’s wide consensus in the room that he’s the best guy available. Cherington pulls the trigger. “Man, that felt good,” he tells himself as the pick is submitted.
Avila curses to himself at the head of the table in the Tigers’ Comerica Park war room. He thought he had Mayer in the bag. He and Boggs go back decades and Avila was the Marlins’ scouting director when the club took Boggs’ client Adrian Gonzalez 1-01 back in 2000. Gonzalez’ high school? Eastlake, also the same as Mayer. For months, Avila and his staff had been certain they’d be able to steer Mayer to Detroit. They’d offered the kid $8 million—nearly $600,000 over Detroit’s allotted amount—in an essential dare to the Pirates, who had been rumored to be loath to exceed $7 million with the pick.
Now Detroit has to pivot and pivot fast.
2) Texas Rangers; Kahlil Watson, SS, Wake Forest, NC (HS)—Though the Rangers had been in on Vanderbilt ace Jack Leiter since the start of the college season in February, their preference has all along been a bat and one that was ready to make a deal. Enter Watson, an NC State recruit who had enjoyed a steady march up draft boards since torching the showcase circuit last summer. Despite his excellent play, Watson’s lack of size and some doubt surrounding his ability to stick at the six long term have kept him lower on teams’ boards than one might expect. The Rangers have never been deterred by what they feel are petty concerns and are happy to save nearly $1.4 million with a $6.4 million agreement.
3) Detroit Tigers; Jackson Jobe, RHP, Oklahoma City, OK (HS)—Despite their disappointment at losing Mayer, the Detroit brass has quickly pivoted to Plan B, which is Jobe. Avila, already under attack in Detroit baseball circles for piloting a rebuild that is on its way to producing five consecutive sub-.400 seasons, knows he will endure even more rancor once he makes this pick. But, as he sees it, Jobe is the best kid on the board—even with all the risks prep hurlers bring to the table. They brought Georgia prep slugger Brady House into Lakeland for a two-day workout, and although they were impressed by his power and assorted physical gifts, they detected too much rawness as well as the strong possibility he may one day have to move off the dirt. Avila & Co also harbor strong reservations about Leiter’s 6-00/195 frame and his ability to maintain his elite fastball deep into his pro career.
Because Jobe isn’t in play again until the Angels at 1-09 (slot amount of almost $5 million), Detroit is able to get Jobe to sign on the dotted line for $5.5 million, giving the club more than $1.7 million it’ll be able to use later. Given Avila’s ambitious plan, he’ll need every cent.
4) Boston Red Sox; Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt—Boston GM Chaim Bloom just laughs at the lunacy that’s already occurred. “Let the others pinch pennies,” he tells his staff, “because we’re all in.” With that, he makes the pick for Leiter, the player who’s firmly entrenched at the top of the Red Sox’ board. Leiter won’t be cheap, however. The guy many analysts view as the best college righthander since Gerrit Cole in 2011 has “floated” a price commensurate with the top of the draft. The Red Sox are willing to go nearly a million bucks higher than their allotted $6.7 million for a guy their manager Joey Cora recently compared to Roy Oswalt.
5) Baltimore Orioles, Jordan Lawlar, SS, Irving, TX (HS)—Lawlar has not been tied to the Orioles this spring because most thought he’d be selected first or second. But his high price tag and concerns about swing-and-miss issues have caused him to “drop.” While there have been rumors about Baltimore doing a below-slot deal with a college hitter like Sal Frelick or Colton Cowser, O’s GM Mike Elias realizes the good fortune staring him in the face. He takes the plunge, even if it will force Baltimore to go over slot at 1-05 and make up the difference later.
Royals GM Dayton Moore has always preferred to lurk in the weeds. Like a snake. With five picks already in the books and Vanderbilt stud righthander Kumar Rocker still in play, Moore can’t believe his luck. This all reminds him of 2018, when Brady Singer fell to the Royals at 18 and Jackson Kowar was ripe for the picking at 33. Though Rocker, who began the 2021 season as many people’s pick to go 1-01, has shown several chinks in his armor, he’s still viewed as a future workhorse good for 200 innings at a time when starters are throwing less than ever. The snake is ready.
6) Arizona Diamondbacks; Henry Davis, C, Louisville—Arizona has had success with short, hit tool-oriented outfielders like Alek Thomas and Corbin Carroll and have entertained taking that route again with Frelick. However, Davis’ refined approach at the plate and cannon arm behind it have evoked comparisons with current D-Banks catcher Carson Kelly and are too enticing to resist.
7) Kansas City Royals; Kumar Rocker, RHP, Vanderbilt—Moore finishes the last of his Diet Dr. Pepper, licks his lips, and takes a deep breath before giving the green light for the Rocker pick. Taking Rocker will be the easy part. Paying for the 6-05/245 behemoth will be another matter. Rocker and his agent, the notorious Scott Boras, have made it clear all along that they want top-3 money. Slot for 1-07 is $5.4 million—about $2 million short of what the Rocker camp has asked for. Because the Royals’ total bonus pool is $10.9 million and teams are allowed 5% overage without forfeiting next year’s 1st round pick, Moore realizes that he only needs to pare $1.5 million of bonus money from subsequent picks. It won’t be easy or ideal, but for a shot at a guy like Rocker, it’s well worth it.
8) Colorado Rockies; Brady House, SS, Winder, GA (HS)—Acting GM Bill Schmidt nearly had a conniption when Detroit had House in last month for a long tryout, but his fears are assuaged when the Tigers pulled the trigger on Jobe. Much like last year’s 1st rounder Zac Veen, Colorado views House as a tools monster and believes he’ll put up arcade-like numbers when he makes it to Coors Field.
9) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; Sam Bachman, RHP, Miami (OH)—Everyone knows about the 11th Commandment “Thou shalt not draft for need.” Everyone that is, except Angels GM Perry Minasian. With the Angels on the fringes of contention and their main trade piece, young OF Jo Adell, having trouble making consistent contact at Triple A, Minasian realizes he’ll have to do something radical to address LAA’s thin pitching. Enter Bachman, who has perhaps the most metric friendly stuff of any college hurler. While the Angels have also been closely linked to UCLA SS Matt McLain, high school outfielders Will Taylor and Benny Montgomery, and prep arms Jobe and Bubba Chandler, Minasian’s belief that Bachman will be major league ready as early as this summer tips the scales.
With the Angels’ selection of Bachman, Bubba Chandler has some serious thinking to do. The Bogart, GA native not only is a 1st round caliber talent in baseball, but also has a scholarship to Clemson to quarterback for legendary coach Dabo Swinney. With the Angels, one of the few teams willing to meet Chandler’s lofty price, now out of the picture it’s looking increasingly likely that Chandler will become a two-sport star at Clemson.
10) New York Mets; Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State—Although the Mets have in recent weeks flirted with the idea of Colson Montgomery as the prep’s stock has skyrocketed, they instead will opt for an underslot deal with Cowser. McLain and Texas righty Ty Madden had also been under strong consideration.
11) Washington Nationals; Ty Madden, RHP, Texas—The Nationals, who have never been afraid of arms and the associated risks, were all in on Jobe and pull the trigger on Madden despite the latter’s unconventional pitch metrics.
12) Seattle Mariners; Matt McLain, SS, UCLA—Much like the Mets, the Mariners have been looking almost exclusively at college performers—McLain, Cowser, Madden and Frelick have all received a lot of interest here—and McLain’s excellent play after returning from a thumb injury sways the M’s decision.
13) Philadelphia Phillies; Benny Montgomery, OF, Lewisberry, PA (HS)—While President of Baseball Ops Dave Dombrowski’s modus operandi has always been to target hard throwers who could freeze bats come October, the veteran GM, to his credit, realizes the game has changed and that velocity is no longer the precious commodity it once was. Instead, teams have become enamored with kids who possess vast toolsets and can stick in the middle of the diamond. Montgomery falls squarely under this genre and is the first multi-tooled HS OF to fall off the board.
14) San Francisco Giants; Sal Frelick, OF, Boston College—The Giants have been linked to a wide array of players from almost every demographic this spring—Chandler, Taylor, and Kansas State southpaw Jordan Wicks quickly come to mind—but will choose Frelick, who by this point could be considered somewhat of a value play.
Chandler just got off the phone with Dabo Swinney, having told his future coach of his plans to further his gridiron career at Clemson. While Chandler is thrilled to have the opportunity to follow in Trevor Lawrence’s footsteps, part of him wonders what would have happened had he entered pro baseball this summer. Suddenly, the phone rings. It’s Reds Scouting Director Brad Meador, and he wants to talk shop.
15) Milwaukee Brewers; Harry Ford, C, Kennesaw, GA (HS)—Though the Brewers have played it safe the past two drafts by taking college players in the 1st round, they roll the dice with Ford, a premier athlete who’d be just as capable in CF as he would behind the dish. Milwaukee was also interested to see if Cowser would make it this far.
The Reds’ war room is in a frenzy. Like everyone else, Cincinnati’s baseball ops and scouting guys thought Chandler to the Angels was a fait accompli, but when LAA instead went for Bachman, the Reds’ calculus suddenly changed. The Reds had been tracking Chandler all spring and realize they’d have to go well over their slot amount at 1-17 of $3.6 million to land him. Luckily, however, they have extra money due to comp picks at 30 and 35. As one Reds area scout talks to Chandler and his representation on the phone, Meador, the regional crosschecker and two guys from baseball ops are looking at the most recent footage they have of Chandler. Finally, GM Nick Krall taps Meador on the shoulder and says, “Let’s get him.”
16) Miami Marlins; Will Taylor, OF, Irmo, SC (HS)—The Marlins strategy in the 1st round has always been to pursue upside and Taylor is a premier athlete who had a banner spring.