Tigers draft watch: Matt McLain’s hot bat helps him rejoin crowded crop of shortstops

Detroit News

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

April began heading toward May and it looked as if three shortstops, nationally, all of them high school stars, would force the Tigers and various big-league brethren to decide which of the prep trio might be their pick in the early portion of July’s MLB Draft.

But there could be a fourth horse in a race gradually adding thoroughbred talent.

Matt McLain of UCLA has hit six home runs in his last eight games. He is batting .378 during that spree, mostly against good Pac-12 competition. And he is, of course, hardly a surprise.

McLain headed into the 2021 season as a player viewed by most scouts as the best college shortstop in the land.

Neither was what happened a surprise. The three prep shortstops — Marcelo Mayer, Jordan Lawlar, and Brady House — all seemed to be the hotter tickets. All began showing degrees of overall skill and upside that left McLain a bit in the dust, particularly when McLain wasn’t doing anything terribly extraordinary in February and March.

And then came April, when McLain began battering pitchers from the University of Washington, Stanford, Loyola Marymount, and last weekend, the University of Utah.

McLain is 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, and bats right-handed. He has a tight swing that has been knocked mostly because power hasn’t been a heavy component. But that has changed, at least in recent weeks, which can happen on a player’s timeline when he is 21 (22 in August) and his body is still evolving.

Whether he has the overall toolkit to persuade MLB teams that he’s a better long-haul choice than either Mayer, Lawlar, or House will be decided sometime between now and July. And whether McLain might convince the Tigers that he’s a safer bet at a position of deep need — shortstop — is likewise undetermined.

Mayer right now is tempting with his slick defense and a left-handed bat that has crunch. Lawlar is the best of the four, almost indisputably, as an athlete. House could well be a 30-home-run slugger who might be moving to third base as his big 6-foot-5 frame fills.

The Tigers have been paying attention. Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, was with his scouting party last week during a close inspection of House.

Lots of time to change minds is one product of this year’s move from a June to a July draft.

When you’re picking third overall, shopping is best done carefully and thoroughly. And that’s especially true for a franchise that so badly needs a bedrock shortstop in its seemingly endless rebuild.

How the nation’s best high school and college players stack up ahead of July’s MLB Draft:

1. Jack Leiter, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-1, 205: Leiter has been acting somewhat mortal in recent weeks, including Saturday at Tennessee, where he allowed a couple of home runs in 6⅓ innings — all, of course, while striking out 10 batters. He walked three and doled out all of four hits. It was, for him, an off-day that hasn’t affected his overall elevation. Last week’s ranking: 1

2. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, California, 6-3, 188: Mayer seems not to be acquainted with the word “strikeout.” He simply hits, and hits, and hits, including his fair share of home runs. Scouts are a tad bothered this spring in that they believe he’s fixated on his pull-side swing, as a means to display his power, and would prefer he use more of the field. But opposite-field drives are within his likely capabilities, everyone seems to agree.  Last week’s ranking: 2

3. Henry Davis, C, University of Louisville, 6-1, 205: Davis opted for singles last weekend at Virginia — six of them in 11 official at-bats. He walked three times and, as is his custom, Davis refused to strike out. The Tigers are happy, thus far, with Dillon Dingler as their eventual answer at catcher. Otherwise, Davis easily could be headed to Detroit. Last week’s ranking: 3

More: Tigers draft watch: Hot-hitting Colton Cowser emerging as college’s top outfielder

4. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: Rocker was more like Rocker during Friday night’s match-up at Tennessee: seven innings, two hits, a walk, eight strikeouts. Power package seemed to be more intact against the Vols. The Tigers no doubt were observing. Last week’s ranking: 4

5. Gunnar Hoglund, RH pitcher, Ole Miss, 6-4, 210: Not quite there with Leiter and Rocker, but not far from them. Hoglund’s shift Friday at Mississippi State was the definition of a right-handed ace who will be big-league-ready quickly: seven innings, four hits, zero walks, nine strikeouts. Last week’s ranking: 5

6. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Georgia; 6-3, 212: The Tigers have been paying attention, including a visit last week from general manager Al Avila. House will hit 30 home runs in the big leagues as either a shortstop or a third baseman. Question is: How much batting average will he bring? Power is most of the story, but not all of it when you’re picking in these earliest spots. Last week’s ranking: 6

7. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas Jesuit High, 6-2, 180: Superior athlete to Mayer, but he’s also striking out once in a while, against pitching that isn’t always the best. Still, his skills are so vast and his upside so fabulous that Lawlar appears safe as a Top 10 presence. Last week’s ranking: 7

8. Ryan Cusick, RH starter, Wake Forest, 6-6, 235: Consult some draft history and it seems always there is a player who closes late and jumps from general Top 10 status to First Five heights. Cusick might be your guy. He had another dandy Friday at Duke: seven innings, four hits, four walks, 11 strikeouts. Last week’s ranking: 8

9. Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: Miami had a miserable weekend of postponed games, so Bachman’s status is, for now, safe. So is his arm, which throws a 100-mph fastball, among other nasty options. Last week’s ranking: 9

10.  Matt McLain, shortstop, UCLA, 5-11, 180: Been hitting a bunch of home runs in April, enhanced by a .313 batting average and 1.280 OPS. McLain is no surprise, in that regard. He zoomed into 2021 looking as if he might be everyone’s first pick at shortstop. His bat, of late, suggests he at least has re-entered Top 10 conversations. Last week’s ranking: Unranked.

Dropped from Top 10 ranking: Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State.

Pushing for Top 10 inclusion (including Cowser): Ty Madden, RH starter, University of Texas, 6-3, 215; Alex Binelas, 1B, Louisville, 6-3, 225; Ethan Wilson, OF, South Alabama, 6-1, 210;  Alex Mooney, SS, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 6-1, 175; Jackson Jobe, RH starter, Heritage Hall High, Oklahoma City, 6-2, 190; Jud Fabian, OF, University of Florida, 6-foot, 190; Jonathan Cannon, RH starter, University of Georgia, 6-6, 207; Mason Black, RH starter, Lehigh University, 6-3, 200;  McCade Brown, RH starter, Indiana University, 6-6, 225; 6-4; Adrian Del Castillo, C, University of Miami (Fla.), 5-11, 210; James Wood, OF, IMG Academy, 6-6, 230; Khalil Watson, SS, Wake Forest High, Wake Forest, North Carolina, 5-11, 168. Cody Schrier, SS, JSerra Catholic High, San Juan Capistrano, California, 6-1, 190.

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

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