Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a weekly series of stories in which Detroit News freelance writer Lynn Henning will rank the top prospects in July’s MLB Draft.
In the latter weeks of May, 2000, the then-Florida Marlins had a decision to make.
They had the first pick in that June’s MLB draft. But they couldn’t seem to settle on their man. There was no clear Secretariat-caliber talent to bet on; no mandate based upon overwhelming skill flashed by a pitcher or by a player.
A scouting director from the Marlins named Al Avila decided to make a personal visit. He would pop by a ballfield near San Diego to take a peek at a first baseman from Eastlake High named Adrian Gonzalez.
And it was Gonzalez, in what went down as a draft relatively light on talent, who was the Marlins’ choice and who went five times to All-Star games and three times to finish in the top seven on National League Most Valuable Player ballots.
Avila now works as Tigers general manager. He makes spot visits to see players his area scouts and cross-checkers have endorsed along with scouting director Scott Pleis.
He will be re-visiting San Diego, almost certainly, to take a gander at another Eastlake star: Marcelo Mayer, a shortstop and left-handed hitter who is projected to go perhaps as early as the first three picks, and probably no later than fourth, in July’s 2021 draft.
Mayer is drawing about as many scouts as fans for Eastlake’s games. It is known the Red Sox, who select fourth, are perhaps highest on Mayer. This can happen when you are 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, and when in 15 games you are batting .375, with seven home runs, 15 walks, two strikeouts, and a 1.575 OPS. It might also be mentioned he has been hit by a pitch five times.
A product, maybe all of it, from having a swing as silky and as dynamic as Mayer displays.
“I coached Adrian Gonzalez, and they have similar swings,” said David Gallegos, who oversees the Titans and who has been at Eastlake for 22 years. “I think Marcelo has a little more power.
“Adrian was skinny. He bulked up, and later got some weight. But I think Marcelo will have a little more power when he gets older. This kid hits homers in batting practice that are no-doubters — high and far, and wow.”
Mayer also has the fleetness, and smoothness, to play shortstop in the big leagues. He has an arm that probably matches, or surpasses, that of the player he most often is compared with — Jordan Lawlar of Dallas (Texas) Jesuit High.
As for the other essential component — is this a kid you want in a professional baseball clubhouse — the answer, from Gallegos, is emphatic:
“Great kid, great person, great teammate,” Gallegos said during a Sunday phone conversation. “If someone’s not having a good game, he’ll pat him on the butt and encourage him.
“Very respectful young man. Hard-working. Great family.”
And, as Gallegos likes to remind others, he has seen his share of players during these past 22 years.
How the Tigers assess Mayer and the other contenders for that No. 3 overall pick in July is, of course, now a mystery. And it probably remains a necessary mystery to the Tigers, as well as to other teams who can’t be terribly sure in April how any of the current stablemates will firmly and finally stack up as the draft approaches.
There is, fundamentally, the matter of how two Vanderbilt pitchers — Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker — perform during the closing eight weeks. What, also, about Henry Davis, the University of Louisville catcher?
And, of course, there is the seeming duel between Mayer and Lawlar — as well as Brady House of Winder-Barrow High in Winder, Georgia. Scouts appear more than happy to watch the three duke it out this spring, although the Mayer-Lawlar drama seems most riveting to those who believe House will eventually end up at third base.
Gallegos hasn’t paid much attention to the national debate. But he remains sold on Mayer.
“He’s got a beautiful swing, really smooth, and, again, he’s a very strong kid who’s going to get stronger,” said Gallegos, who got his start coaching when a Padres third-base coach — Bruce Kimm — counseled him decades ago.
Tigers fans will remember Kimm as a kind of personal catcher to Mark (The Bird) Fidrych during Fidrych’s phenomenal times with the Tigers.
Gallegos says he can only assume the Tigers have had one of their sleuths on hand as part of those dozens of scouts who have been showing up regularly.
“We play against the best teams in San Diego,” he said. “Marcelo’s seen decent pitching. Is it college-level pitching? No, but we’re getting there.
“What I think people are looking past is his speed. He’s very fast. I don’t know what his 60 (60-yard) time is, but he gets on base. And he steals bases left and right.
“But it’s still his swing. So nice, so good.”
Whether the Tigers see it that way is an ongoing question. There are some college arms, and at least another everyday player or two, fighting for the most prestigious of prestige slots on MLB’s July draft board.
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: This is something to watch, definitely. Leiter has had a couple of un-Leiter-like starts his last two times out, including his first loss as a Vanderbilt pitcher, which came Saturday against Mississippi State. Leiter’s line: five innings, six hits, four earned runs, two homers, three walks, eight strikeouts. Not disastrous, but Leiter would benefit from a more customary start Friday at the University of Florida. Last week’s ranking: 1
► 2. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: Rocker is back, well, rocking. His Friday wipeout of Mississippi State was more in keeping with work Rocker was expected to turn in, regularly, in 2021. He tossed nine innings, threw 109 pitches, rationed only three hits, walked none, struck out eight. The Tigers will continue to mull. Last week’s ranking: 4
► 3. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, California, 6-3, 188: Had a bit of a rough Saturday, with a couple of errors (errant throw on a play most shortstops don’t make, and some indecision on tagging the bag or making a relay on a 27-hopper he handled). But markdowns for Mayer must be regarded as relative. He has sublime talent. Last week’s ranking: 2
► 4. Henry Davis, C, University of Louisville, 6-1, 205: His and Louisville’s weekend home series against Pitt was zapped by COVID-related casualties. Davis and the Cardinals have a big weekend ahead at Clemson. Last week’s ranking: 3
► 5. Gunnar Hoglund, RH pitcher, Ole Miss, 6-4, 210: Had some bicep stiffness last week and was excused from a weekend start against LSU. Not believed to be anything ominous, but that’s an issue better assessed this week as South Carolina arrives for a three-game set. Last week’s ranking: 5
► 6. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Georgia; 6-3, 212: He’s checking in with a .573 batting average in 27 games, with 12 homers, and a 1.697 OPS. Now you know why scouts project him as a 30-homer guy in the big leagues, whether he sticks at shortstop or moves to third base. Last week’s ranking: 6
► 7. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas Jesuit High, 6-2, 180: Cruising in Lawlar-style manner with a .417 batting average and 1.263 OPS after 30 games. Has four home runs, 20 walks, and 16 strikeouts. His team has won 14 consecutive games, and Lawlar’s a big reason why. Some scouts might yet view Lawlar as superior to Mayer or House. Some are nervous about his bat against the kind of pitching he’ll be seeing as early as this summer on minor-league fields. Ten more weeks to settle any debates there. Last week’s ranking: 7
► 8. Ryan Cusick, RH starter, Wake Forest, 6-6, 235: Quality start Friday night at Clemson: 6⅓ innings, six hits, three earned runs, three walks, seven strikeouts. This would classify as mainstream work for a pitcher whose outings often are more flamboyant. Last week’s ranking: 8
► 9. Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: This gets a little old, unless you’re a Miami fan, or a hitter who would just as soon sit out Bachman’s starts. He throws 100 mph, which is plausible when you strike out 11 in seven innings, as Bachman did Saturday against Kent State. He walked one and was nicked for three hits. Big-time power pitcher here. Last week’s ranking: 9
► 10. Matt McLain, shortstop, UCLA, 5-11, 180: Hit another homer Sunday, against Oregon, and still looms as a Top 10 talent when shortstops who can swing a bat are so rare. Entered Top 10 conversations. Last week’s ranking: 10.
► Pushing for Top 10 inclusion: Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State, 6-3, 195: Ty Madden, RH starter, 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, Okla., 6-2, 190; Jud Fabian, OF, Florida, 6-foot, 190; Jonathan Cannon, RH starter, 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, Miami (Florida), 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.