| The Detroit News
Editor’s note: This is the first in a weekly series of stories in which Detroit News freelance writer Lynn Henning will rank the top prospects in July’s MLB Draft.
Not that the Tigers are being overly picky, but if the kind of hitter who can bash good pitching happens to be sitting there, unclaimed, three picks into the 2021 MLB Draft, they will bite on a bat.
It’s hard to peg any of this four months before the July 11-13 (a month later than has been traditional) draft convenes. But middle-lineup hitters are so much tougher to find than arms in a typical year’s amateur crop, especially in 2021.
This year’s draft already is busting with power starters. More, perhaps, than has been seen in memory, with the past year’s pandemic and canceled prep and college seasons — not to mention a pared-down, five-round 2020 draft — creating something of a talent jam-up that now is showcasing for July’s MLB shoppers.
The Tigers will say until the very moment they select on July 11 that they’re interested in one criterion only: getting the best man available. This, after all, is a needy team ready to welcome help of any sort, be it a starting pitcher or a guy who can play every day and swing a game-changing bat.
But there are certain, unexpressed qualifiers there.
Would a Tigers team already five or so years into a rebuild be as interested in a down-the-road star shortstop like Jordan Lawlar, the Dallas Jesuit High dazzler, who will need three, maybe four years of incubation before he’s ready for Detroit?
It’s hard to say. But the reality that other talent, whether it be an arm or a bat, is likely to be spilling from this year’s college crop suggests the Tigers will want a safer pick ready to help Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene and their blue-chip allies form something closer to a position and lineup quorum.
It’s not an absolute, this idea the Tigers will want, say, University of Florida outfielder Jud Fabian, or even Louisville catcher Henry Davis, or UCLA shortstop Matt McLain. Nor, for that matter, is it guaranteed the Tigers will opt for a college-ball kingpin. Should Lawlar not be scarfed up in the first two picks, the Tigers might decide here is a prize too good to pass on. The same might hold for another prep shortstop, Marcelo Mayer, from Chula Vista, California.
But quantity and quality are factors, for sure, as is maturity. And the lineup of stud power-pitchers already hammering college hitters on the 2021 draft landscape means the Tigers will be open-minded, knowing as they do that no weapon is quite as lethal as a shutdown starter.
Vanderbilt will be the focus for most teams: Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker could go 1-2 in July, and, assuming they have no arm ills, both right-handers are almost sure to go within the top five picks.
With last year’s COVID-canceled seasons giving way to fuller calendars in 2021, there won’t be the mystery there was a year ago. Scouts will have as spring heads into summer the data and video and competition a team needs to size up how a player fits on a future MLB roster.
It will be a most interesting spring. And early summer. And it all should lead to a draft that should be as riveting as any draft, ever, with the Tigers’ notebook and final judgment particularly fascinating as they get ready for the 2021 draft’s third turn.
Looking at a very early list of Top 10 and beyond draft prospects, this is a class loaded with arms.
► 1. Jack Leiter, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-1, 205: He’s a draft-eligible sophomore who was throwing 98, 99, 100 last week. And with all the accessories. His dad is one-time big-league starter Al Leiter, and his uncle, Mark, also pitched in the big leagues, which included three seasons (1991-93) with the Tigers. His numbers through two starts in 2021: 10 innings, four hits, no runs, four walks, 15 strikeouts. Today, he would be the first player taken.
► 2. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas Jesuit High, 6-2, 180: The Rangers pick second overall and it would be no stunner if they decided the kid playing a few miles from Arlington is the right guy. Tremendous all-across skills, with a bat that is wonderfully developed for a prepster. Lawlar is talented enough to go first, which is where the Pirates will pick.
► 3. Jud Fabian, OF, University of Florida, 6-1, 180: Fabian’s a right-handed slasher with power who also can play center field. Some scouts wonder about strikeouts, but the way he handles tough SEC pitching the next four months should ease, or confirm, thoughts there. Tigers are on him steadily. Could easily be Detroit’s choice.
► 4. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: Most evaluators have Rocker going as high as one-one, or no lower than second or third overall. But this is a pitcher, a big pitcher, with size and command that perhaps need to be better harnessed before a team wants to spend a top-three turn on that most risky of all prospect species, a pitcher.
► 5. Henry Davis, C, University of Louisville, 6-1, 205: An early wager on a college player the Tigers might grab outside of the Leiter, Rocker, Fabian troika: Davis, who might or might not end up at catcher. He’s a right-handed stick from Bedford, New York, with these numbers through seven games: .409/.567/.682/1.249, including two homers, six walks, and zero strikeouts.
► 6. Sam Bachman, RH pitcher, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: Not a lot of publicity, but he has hit — yes, that magic mark — 100 mph and looks as if he’ll offer some happy MLB club a nice, top-of-the-rotation piece inside of two years.
► 7. Jaden Hill, RH pitcher, Louisiana State University, 6-3, 210: Tigers love LSU players. It’s hardly probable but always possible that once the SEC Tigers have completed business in June, Hill would be seen as too good to pass up. Power and command, personified.
► 8. Gunnar Hoglund, RH pitcher, Ole Miss, 6-4, 210: Struck out 21 in his first two starts (12⅓ innings) and walked only three, which tells you how pleasurable an at-bat is against this power-chucker.
► 9. Ryan Cusick, RH pitcher, Wake Forest, 6-6, 215: Has been spanked for some early hits, but is averaging a stitch under two whiffs per innings. With his stature and fire, he’s looking like a long-term Top 10 occupant as 2021 evolves.
► 10. Matt McLain, SS, UCLA, 5-10, 175: Not overwhelming in any single category, but very good across the spectrum. McLain should be a comfortable fit as teams (Tigers?) look for a shortstop who should be big-league-ready quickly.
► Pushing for a Top 10 ticket: Richard Fitts, RH pitcher, Auburn, 6-3, 200; Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, Calif., 6-3, 188; Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Ga., 6-3, 210; Adrian Del Castillo, C, University of Miami, 5-11, 210; Alex Binelas, 3B, University of Louisville, 6-3, 225; James Wood, OF, IMG Academy, 6-6, 230.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.