New Top 150 Draft list: Leiter unseats Rocker

Detroit Tigers

Jack Leiter unquestionably has been the most dominant college player in the first two months of the season. If he’s not the most famous prospect in the 2021 Draft, then he’s a very close second to fellow Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker.

Will Leiter go No. 1 overall to the Pirates when they make that selection on July 11? As of now, he’s the favorite and ranks atop MLB Pipeline’s newly released Draft Top 150. But there also are three other strong candidates and nearly three months for others to emerge.

Leiter turned down first-round interest from clubs as a New Jersey high schooler in 2019 in order to attend Vanderbilt, and his decision couldn’t have turned out much better. After losing most of last season to the coronavirus pandemic, the son of two-time All-Star and World Series champion Al Leiter has been spectacular.

Leiter no-hit South Carolina in his first-ever Southeastern Conference start and held Missouri hitless for seven innings before departing in his second. He currently leads NCAA Division I in strikeouts (94), while ranking second in wins (seven), hit rate (2.8 per nine innings) and WHIP (0.70) and fifth in ERA (0.98) and whiff rate (15.3 per nine innings). He has a devastating fastball that plays above its 90-97 mph velocity, a plus curveball and two more solid offerings in his slider and changeup.

The only question with Leiter is how well he’ll hold up to a full-season workload of starts, something he hasn’t been able to answer because he pitched just 58 2/3 innings as a New Jersey high school senior in 2019 and 15 2/3 as a freshman a year ago. He has gotten stronger and now carries 205 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame that’s a little smaller than desired for a starter. If he keeps pitching like this all season, it will be hard for Pittsburgh to pass on him.

“Leiter’s dynamism and how rapidly he seems to be able to improve give me a lot of confidence that he wouldn’t let you down as a 1-1,” said an American League assistant scouting director whose club picks too low to have a shot at Leiter. “He has real front-end weapons and the type of pitchability that will allow for a very long career. The fastball life is elite for Jack and it looks like there’s going to be a real array of options in his arsenal as a starter.”

Leiter’s closest challengers at this point are his teammate Rocker and a pair of high school shortstops, Jordan Lawlar from Jesuit Prep (Dallas) and Marcelo Mayer from Eastlake High (Chula Vista, Calif.). Lawlar is the consensus best position prospect in the Draft — there isn’t a college bat close to worthy of going No. 1 — and probably the biggest threat to dethrone Leiter at this point.

Top 10:
Jack Leiter, RHP (Vanderbilt)
Jordan Lawlar, SS (Jesuit Prep, Tex.)
Kumar Rocker, RHP (Vanderbilt)
Marcelo Mayer, SS (Eastlake, Calif.)
Brady House, SS (Winder-Barrow, Ga.)
Jackson Jobe, RHP (Heritage Hall, Ok.)
Henry Davis, C (Louisville)
Sal Frelick, OF (Boston College)
Gunnar Hoglund, RHP (Mississippi)
Ty Madden, RHP (Texas)
Complete list »

As a five-tool prep shortstop from the Dallas area, Lawlar draws inevitable comparisons to Bobby Witt Jr., the No. 2 overall pick in 2019, and some evaluators invoke Derek Jeter’s name when discussing him. He’s a more polished hitter than Witt at the same stage and possesses plus raw power, speed and arm strength. He baffled scouts by striking out 16 times in his first 79 plate appearances this spring, though he has settled down and hasn’t whiffed in his last eight games.

“If the Draft were today, last week or three months from now,” a National League scouting official said, “I’d take Jordan Lawlar 1-1 and sleep pretty good. He has too many strikeouts, but I’d still take him 1-1.”

Rocker entered the year as the Draft’s consensus top prospect and now ranks third on MLB Pipeline’s list behind Leiter and Lawlar. His mid-80s slider may be the nastiest secondary pitch in the entire Draft, though his fastball velocity dipped into the low 90s for three starts before returning to 93-98 mph last Friday, when he shut out Tennessee for seven innings. Scouts still would like to see him improve his changeup and command and dominate more consistently, yet he leads NCAA D-I with eight wins to go with a 1.64 ERA, 81 strikeouts (third in the nation) and a .151 opponent average in 55 innings.

“Kumar’s ability to land and draw whiffs with his two plus-plus breaking balls are a separator, and the fastball is playing better than it did in high school,” an AL scouting director said. “His fastball command isn’t at Jack’s level but it’s enough, and he’s learned to hunt at the top of the zone late for K’s. Both are potential frontline arms, but there’s more horsepower to the Rocker repertoire and the body is built for the long haul.”

While fans may not know Mayer as well as the Vanderbilt pitchers and Lawlar, there are clubs who think he’s the most talented player in the Draft. Compared to Lawlar, he gets the edge as the better pure hitter (he didn’t strike out until his 13th game of the season) and defender at shortstop, though he’s not quite as powerful or quick. If everything comes together, he could provide a combination of Corey Seager’s offense and Brandon Crawford’s defense.

“It seems like Mayer is the highest potential impact bat in this Draft,” a NL crosschecker said. “It’s a really good hit/power combo and potential for both to be plus with good defense. The only knock I am hearing on him is foot speed, but everyone is in love with his actual glove and ability to make it look easy and clean.”

In a year in which several top prospects have not performed up to expectations, scouts have appreciated the constant excellence of Leiter, Lawlar, Rocker and Mayer. For a variety of reasons, this Draft crop is considered weaker than usual, especially in terms of college hitters. The high school arms haven’t stood out either, with the notable exception of Heritage Hall (Oklahoma City) right-hander Jackson Jobe, who might have a better pitch mix than any collegian or prepster available.

“This is a really tough draft,” one NL crosschecker said. “With [Covid-19], guys lost at-bats, innings and reps. There have been a lot of injuries and mentally, some guys are not in a good place. It’s a year of challenges with mixed opinions on a lot of guys.”

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