Tigers draft watch: Cash considerations may provide shot at Jack Leiter, Kumar Rocker

Detroit News

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a weekly series of stories in which Detroit News freelance writer Lynn Henning will rank the top prospects in July’s MLB Draft.

There have been better years for MLB teams to have a Top 3, Top 5, or even Top 10 draft pick.

Coronavirus has left ugly long-term paw prints on just about everything in American society. The damage extends from life-and-death matters to baseball teams’ ability to assess players whose careers, academically and athletically, so often have been the greater victims from a pandemic than perhaps any consequence suffered by MLB clubs.

As it applies to the Tigers, who pick third in July’s MLB Draft, they share with 29 other teams the fact games were shut down last March. Summer showcases were canceled or crimped. Evaluations and performances are thin, even as schedules resume and players can again be timed, measured, projected, and above all, be seen.

What is known nearly four months before the draft is that two pitchers from Vanderbilt, Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker, could make history. They could be the first pair of college teammates taken 1-2 in nearly 60 years of MLB draft annals.

They looked like co-1-overalls this past weekend in a pair of blow-away games against a good South Carolina teams.

Leiter tossed a no-hitter, putting down the final 27 batters following a leadoff walk. He struck out 16 of those 27 batters – and every strike-three came on his fastball, which can run 95-98 mph and simply wastes even college baseball’s best hitters.

Rocker, too, was his old self, throwing fire and a slider that didn’t allow Gamecocks much of a chance.

More: Tigers draft watch: Could House be built to last at shortstop?

More: Tigers draft watch: Mayer challenges Lawlar as top prep shortstop

What would the Tigers do if either Leiter or Rocker were available when Detroit’s turn arrives?

One consideration that could put either in Detroit’s pocket is finances.

Rocker is a Scott Boras client, and some teams outside of Detroit (hello, Pittsburgh?) don’t necessarily find players from the Boras stable compatible.

Leiter, too, could be overly pricey, given that he has a father, Al, who pitched long years in the big leagues and who will make sure his son’s agents at Excel Sports Management get every cent a talent of Leiter’s level can command.

The Tigers have had no such reservations there (see: Spencer Torkelson, 2020).

It’s a draft that isn’t all it was stacked up to be a year ago. There aren’t any Bryce Harpers, Manny Machados, Buster Poseys, Stephen Strasburgs, or even Torkelsons sitting in a first-overall seat.

The Tigers will feel good, very good, about a player they grab at 3, which definitely could be one of five or so inspiring high school shortstops.

Should the Pirates or Rangers decide that either Leiter or Rocker doesn’t fit their checkbooks or long-term plans, the Tigers might find that one of two pitchers who looked like a certain 1-2 choice at July’s draft actually became a No. 3 invitation – and possible prize.

How top college and prep talents shape up following the past week’s games and auditions for MLB scouts:

(UR denotes a player who the previous week was unranked.)

► 1. Jack Leiter, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-1, 205: Nifty work Saturday against 12th-ranked South Carolina. After walking the leadoff batter, Leiter torched the next 27 batters, striking out 16 as he got Vandy’s first regular-season no-hitter since 1971. Fastball was at 97 for much of the game, while his curveball Saturday was mortal. A most complete pitcher. Last week’s ranking: 1.

 2. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: Has been on a steady ascent this month, returning to old coin-flip status with Leiter. Rocker worked Friday against South Carolina and you didn’t want to see him – if you were swinging a bat. Now: 5-0, 0.58 ERA, 48 strikeouts in 10 walks in 31 innings. Last week’s ranking: 3

► 3. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas Jesuit High, 6-2, 180: Note that Dallas Jesuit’s team nickname is the “Rangers.” With that second-overall pick in July, another Rangers team could be snagging Lawlar. Last week, in three games: 5-for-9, one homer, a triple, one walk and two strikeouts. On the year (19 games): .418, 1.239 OPS, two homers, nine extra-base hits, 14 walks, 13 strikeouts. Last week’s ranking: 2.

► 4. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, Calif., 6-3, 188: Scouts are still evaluating and debating his power potential vs. Lawlar and Brady House. It’s a matter of hip-turns and loads and all the other mechanics that are particularly vital when you’re picking a shortstop for the future. They’ve got a few months to finalize notes on Mayer. Last week’s ranking: 5

► 5. Henry Davis, C, University of Louisville, 6-1, 205: The issue here is that Davis is a catcher and the Tigers rather like their new long-term project there, Dillon Dingler. Doesn’t eliminate possibilities, especially when Davis last weekend did what he typically does: slashes, which is what North Carolina State saw. Davis, a right-handed swinger, was 5-for-13, with a home run, two doubles, two walks and a pair of strikeouts. His numbers for 2021: 19 games, .412, 1.218 OPS, five homers, five doubles, seven strikeouts and 13 walks. Davis has eight strikeouts in his last 129 plate appearances. Last week’s ranking: 4

► 6. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Ga.; 6-3, 212. Burying pitchers of all extractions — some very good, some not-so-good — during a big spring that should cement him as Top 10 draft grist. Last week’s ranking: 6

► 7. Gunnar Hoglund, RH pitcher, Ole Miss, 6-4, 210: Friday night against Auburn: eight innings, five hits, no runs, one walk, 13 Ks. On the year: 32⅓ innings, 55 Ks, seven walks. Does it all with a fastball that isn’t lightning (low-to-mid 90s) but can climb into the 97-plus vicinity when he needs it. Great slider is behind many of those 55 whiffs. Last week’s ranking: 8

► 8. Ty Madden, Texas, RH starter, University of Texas, 6-3, 215: Against Baylor on Friday, it was typical Madden: 6 1/3 innings, two runs, three hits, three walks, nine strikeouts. He’s not at Leiter-Rocker elevation, but it’s only a matter of where he goes in July’s first round. Last week’s ranking: 7

► 9. Jud Fabian, OF, University of Florida, 6-1, 180: In his first weekend against SEC pitching (Texas A&M), Fabian was 5-for-13 with two homers and a double, as well as four strikeouts. He has a 1.006 OPS, thanks to .627 slugging and .379 on-base percentages. He also has 29 strikeouts and 12 walks in those 20 games. It’s the swing-and-miss that teams are debating. Last week’s ranking: 9.

► 10. Ryan Cusick, RH starter, Wake Forest, 6-6, 235: Against Georgia Tech on Friday: six innings, three hits, no runs, two walks, 10 strikeouts. Size and power to match. Last week: UR

► Dropping from Top 10: Jonathan Cannon, RH starter, University of Georgia, 6-6, 207.

► Pushing for Top 10 inclusion: Jackson Jobe, RH starter, Heritage Hall High, Oklahoma City, Okla., 6-2, 190; Mason Black, RH starter, Lehigh University, 6-3, 200; Indiana University, 6-6, 225; Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235; Jaden Hill, RH starter, Louisiana State, 6-4, 234, third tier; Matt McLain, SS, UCLA, 5-11, 180; Adrian Del Castillo, C, University of Miami, 5-11, 210; James Wood, OF, IMG Academy, 6-6, 230; Khalil Watson, SS, Wake Forest High, Wake Forest, N.C., 5-11, 168.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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