Editor’s note: This is the 11th 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’s a particularly ominous draft-day scenario the Tigers could face in July as they prepare to pick third from the land’s best college and prep talents.
It all stems from last week’s drama at Vanderbilt, which was accompanied by some corresponding terror at the University of Mississippi, where prized right-hander Gunnar Hoglund had to leave his start against Texas A&M after 18 pitches.
The question Detroit must ask as various college pitching stars get pelted with a storm of red flags: Will the hitter the Tigers probably are keen at taking at No. 3 overall, very possibly California prep shortstop Marcelo Mayer, now move into one of those first two draft slots should various pitchers not re-establish their earlier prestige?
Vanderbilt’s role in potentially shaking up the July 11 first-round MLB Draft arrived when, a couple of hours before game time, Jack Leiter was excused from his start against Alabama. The reason was arm fatigue. And the decision came as only a semi-surprise after Vandy coach Tim Corbin had said earlier in the week that needed to “be a sophomore,” which was code-language for allowing Leiter rest after a couple of off-key starts.
Leiter has been a heavy favorite to go first overall in July. But if he should need more of a break, or if he follows his mini-vacation with a start as underwhelming as his previous three, Leiter conceivably could scare scouts who had not counted on him being anywhere but a first- or second-overall choice in July.
Factor in another Vanderbilt star’s somewhat polarized moments and you have further turbulence brewing at the top of July’s draft board — and major implications for the Tigers at No. 3.
Kumar Rocker, who has been see-sawing for much of the past year with Leiter as the most popular pick to go first-overall in July, had the flamboyance to strike out four Alabama batters in the first inning of Friday’s game at Nashville, Tennessee. He did this by way of a third-strike wild pitch that allowed one of his victims to survive at first base. He struck out these four batters, mind you, on all of 13 pitches.
Rocker followed with three more strikeouts, seven consecutive punch-outs total, before he became the Rocker who has bothered some scouts who aren’t sure his command can be trusted. Rocker finished with 110 pitches in five innings. He allowed six hits, six earned runs, walked five, and struck out 13. It was an enormously powerful, but perhaps problematic, outing.
Should both Leiter and Rocker tumble from those top spots, the Tigers could see heavy competition for the player they seem keenest on: Mayer, a wickedly good left-handed hitter and shortstop from Eastlake High, just outside of San Diego, California.
Mayer, very possibly, could be snatched by either the Pirates, picking first, or by the Rangers, who choose second. It’s unknown whether a prep shortstop generally billed as the better talent, Jordan Lawlar of Dallas (Texas) Jesuit High, would get past the Rangers at No. 2, but should Leiter and Rocker both drop, the prospect of Mayer and Lawlar being snagged in those first two turns becomes at the very least plausible, especially when Lawlar is known to be highly attractive to his backyard team, Texas.
What then would the Tigers do?
The best college hitter, Henry Davis of Louisville, is a catcher. The Tigers aren’t overly interested in catchers when they like the two-way talents of present prospect prize Dillon Dingler.
It’s possible the Tigers could decide, if primary plans fall apart, on another hotshot prep shortstop: Brady House of Winder-Barrow High in Winder, Georgia. House will be viewed by any club as no consolation prize — he has 30-home-run potential and athleticism that could bring him to the big leagues in a hurry.
But what the past week has shown, once again, is the delicate health and performance margins that govern even the sturdiest college pitchers.
That’s where Hoglund fits in — as one more example of the above.
Hoglund exited his start against Texas A&M because of forearm stiffness that followed an April bout with bicep stiffness. A right-handed ace who was shaping up as a Top Five pick in July is, at this point, in need of reassuring big-league scouts that his health is trustworthy, not that the Tigers have given any clue Hoglund was on their wish list at No. 3.
What everyone will be watching this weekend is Leiter and Vanderbilt. If he pitches after a week away, there will be a measure of reassurance. If he starts and looks like the Leiter of late, rather th an the Leiter of March and early April, the Tigers will be worrying that what they see is what the Pirates and Rangers also are seeing: a slipping star whose descent has the capacity to rob them of a preferred pick on July 11.
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: Tim Corbin, the sage coach who runs Vanderbilt’s baseball empire, said last week he would allow Leiter “to be a sophomore.” What he clearly meant was: He wasn’t going to over-tax an arm that has pitched comparatively few innings in 2019 and 2020. Friday night, Leiter was a late scratch. That it happened after the once-untouchable Leiter had a rocky two previous starts (nine innings total, 11 hits, nine earned runs, seven walks, and 12 strikeouts) was noted. Scouts’ eyes are fixed on Leiter’s weekend scheduled start against Ole Miss. Last week’s ranking: 1
► 2. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: Rocker not only is very good, he can be entertaining in sometimes-bizarre ways. Consider last Friday’s start against Alabama. Rocker struck out the first seven batters, including four in the first inning (13 pitches), which was made possible by a wild pitch on a third strike. He proceeded to last five innings and 110 pitches, allowing six hits, a hefty six earned runs, and five walks against 13 strikeouts. Rocker’s good. Whether he has the precision to remain a Top Three pick is an ongoing question. Last week’s ranking: 2
► 3. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, California, 6-3, 188: Those stats speak brashly: .414 batting average, .571 on-base percentage, .982 slugging, which is your basic 1.554 OPS. Mayer also has 10 home runs, not that scouts are altogether pleased as he plainly has worked on pulling the ball as far as possible in 2021, perhaps at the expense of an all-fields approach that would more impress big-league teams. Here’s something the scouts also know: Mayer has struck out twice — twice — in 84 plate appearances. He is today’s best bet to be Detroit’s pick on July 11. Last week’s ranking: 3
► 4. Henry Davis, C, University of Louisville, 6-1, 205: No real drama from Davis’ week, which included a game against Vanderbilt and three home duels against Duke. But for anyone else, 4-for-14, with two home runs and a single strikeout, would be something to cheer. Davis is so good with the bat that this was, by his standards, a snoozer of a stretch. He’s still a percentage pick to last no later than No. 5 overall when July’s draft convenes. Last week’s ranking: 4
► 5. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas Jesuit High, 6-2, 180: In these recent weeks, Lawlar has toned down on his strikeouts, which was about the only flaw displayed earlier this spring. He has enough athleticism to be a first overall pick. If he finishes with a flourish, the Pirates, who have the draft’s first turn in July, might beat the Rangers (second overall) to Lawlar. Last week’s ranking: 7
► 6. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Georgia; 6-3, 212: Just ridiculous numbers to match athleticism that could yet push House into the draft’s top five. House, who won’t turn 18 until next month, has a 1.642 OPS courtesy of a .675 on-base clip coupled with a .967 slugging percentage. He is batting .549. Scouts see in him 30-homer seasons once he gets to the big leagues, which they’re all but certain will happen sooner rather than later. Last week’s ranking: 6
► 7. Gunnar Hoglund, RH pitcher, Ole Miss, 6-4, 210: Just when it looked as if Hoglund could, at worst, be the third pitcher drafted in 2021, he exited his Friday start after 18 pitches. The old “forearm tightness” red flag was cited — a month after “biceps tightness” knocked him from a start against Louisiana State. Might be nothing. Might be something. Scouts await word on Hoglund’s scheduled start this weekend against another team with some celebrity-pitcher concerns: Vanderbilt. Last week’s ranking: 5
► 8. Jackson Jobe, RH starter, Heritage Hall High, Oklahoma City, 6-2, 190: If looking for a pitcher who, down the stretch, closes and pokes his way into top-five territory, here’s your man. Jobe was wowing scouts even before this spring. Last week’s ranking: 10
► 9. Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: One powerful strikeout machine is Sam Bachman. He now has 69 in 43 innings, and only 14 walks. When you throw 100 mph, with Bachman’s command, teams take it very seriously. His weekend start against Ohio University: five innings, one hit, one walk, nine punchouts. Last week’s ranking: 9
► 10. Ryan Cusick, RH starter, Wake Forest, 6-6, 235: No guarantees Cusick will remain top-10 talent at the college season’s close. He has a wrinkle or two in his repertoire that bothers some bird-dogs. But for now, he sticks, with last weekend’s start against not-so-mighty Elon (six innings, five hits, five runs, two walks, 11 strikeouts) no reason to knock Cusick — quite yet. Last week’s ranking: 8.
► Pushing for Top 10 inclusion: Matt McLain, SS, UCLA, 5-11, 180; 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; Sal Frelick, OF, Boston College, 5-9, 175; Alex Mooney, SS, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 6-1, 175; 0; Jud Fabian, OF, Florida, 6-foot, 190; Jonathan Cannon, RH starter, Georgia, 6-6, 207; Mason Black, RH starter, Lehigh, 6-3, 200; McCade Brown, RH starter, Indiana, 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.
Lynn Henning is a freelancer writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.