Editor’s note: This is the 13th in a weekly series of stories in which Detroit News freelance writer Lynn Henning will rank the top prospects in July’s MLB Draft.
Why, seemingly, Jordan Lawlar is at the heart of a pro-and-con debate ahead of July’s MLB Draft is either mysterious or baseless.
But scouts seem unsure about a Jesuit Dallas High shortstop who, virtually everyone agrees, is the best athlete among four high school stars — all shortstops — who could be grabbed in the first 10 picks when the MLB Draft gets rolling July 11.
That list of the unconvinced probably includes Detroit. The Tigers have the third overall pick in July and definitely are open to a shortstop, prep or college, as they scramble to reconstitute a roster and farm that most definitely needs a franchise jewel at the infield’s heart-and-soul spot.
That player, at least as July’s draft board takes shape, likely is Marcelo Mayer, 18, who plays for Eastland High in Chula Vista, California.
The Tigers’ problem rests most directly on the Pirates, who pick first. The Pirates now are run by general manager Ben Cherington, who is known to lean toward position talent over pitching when he faces something of a jump-ball.
Mayer probably makes the most sense for Pittsburgh, which leaves the Rangers at second overall to sort out choices ahead of Detroit. And it might well be that the Tigers hope Texas snags Lawlar, who is finishing high school and a marvelous baseball career a few miles from the Rangers’ new ballpark in Arlington.
Detroit’s preferences there could be tied to two internal appraisals: First, that Lawlar doesn’t have enough of a bat to view as a sure bet with such a high-stakes pick.
The second influence is Jack Leiter, who in any poll of MLB amateur scouts would almost certainly be viewed as the top college or prep pitcher in the land.
Can the Tigers live with yet another right-handed dynamo in Leiter when they so badly need position help and bats — in Detroit and maturing on the farm?
But there’s another scenario that makes Leiter moot as far as Detroit’s plans at No. 3.
Mayer and Leiter both could be gone with those first two picks. Would the Tigers then seize on Lawlar, who has character and makeup and intangibles and all the other cosmic qualities to match his speed and glove and smoothness at short?
The bet is no.
One can understand by digging deep into Lawlar’s season statistics why he isn’t everyone’s top talent at short.
On the surface, all is bright: .412 batting average in 36 games and 97-at-bats, six homers, four triples, five doubles, 27 walks, and 17 strikeouts — with only one whiff in his final 15 games.
Almost everything is plus-plus on the scouts’ report card: glove, arm, speed, bat. He’ll need some refinement on defense, scouts agree, which is why coaches and development directors will love working with Lawlar: He has innate high-end skill that needs buffing more than any retooling.
But there are at least a few concerns: Why only six homers and 15 extra-base hits when Lawlar’s speed is enough to turn more than a few singles into doubles?
Are there any risks in factoring in his early strikeouts, which were a tad under 25%?
When he saw top-gun pitching — the rare prep star who could push a mid-90s fastball — were there flags, as some scouts detected?
The Tigers almost certainly would be happy if Lawlar isn’t sitting there, and Mayer is, with that third turn in July. But what didn’t appear to be clear earlier this spring has turned more toward a sense that Mayer is now either Pittsburgh’s pick at one, or perhaps even the Rangers’ choice with the draft’s second turn.
Some national draft-hounds believe the Tigers will go with a shortstop in any event, seizing on Georgia prep Brady House from Winder-Barrow High. Baseball America’s latest mock draft, in fact, has House going to Detroit.
But that will be believed when it happens. House has immense power potential. The difficulty for scouts is believing House will hit enough, and avoid strikeouts sufficiently, to merit snagging with that third pick.
Who, precisely, the Tigers would opt for should Mayer and Leiter both be claimed ahead of Detroit’s turn is a question today in need of a convincing answer.
Kumar Rocker, who is Leiter’s pitching stablemate at Vanderbilt? Henry Davis, the hard-hitting catcher from Louisville? Probably not today, not when Rocker still has some command questions and when the Tigers simply like Dillon Dingler as their eventual everyday catcher.
Or would a no-Mayer, no-Leiter board send the Tigers into something of a gambling mode? Might they be tempted to trust convictions that a prep hotshot right-hander like Jackson Jobe (Oklahoma City) or perhaps the fourth teen shortstop mentioned as a top-10 pick — Kahlil Watson, of Wake Forest, North Carolina — might be the ticket?
It’s suspected the Tigers don’t care to entertain such thoughts. Not six weeks before the draft, and not when chances are at least fair that either Leiter, or Mayer, is waiting for them on July 11 at No. 3 overall.
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: Credit a most conscientious Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt’s head coach, for being scrupulously careful with Leiter. Corbin gave him a week off earlier this month, all as a workload suggested Leiter needed a break, then pulled him Friday against Kentucky after six innings and 89 pitches. Leiter’s effort spanning those six innings: three hits, two runs, two walks, eight strikeouts. Still the best arm among 2021’s draftable talents. Last week’s ranking: 1
► 2. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, California, 6-3, 188: Mayer’s numbers last week were not dramatic — 2-for-5 with a pair of walks in two games — but those season stats confirm why a shortstop with Mayer’s marvelous left-handed swing might not last beyond the Pirates at one overall. On the season, Mayer is hitting .441 with 13 homers, a .596 on-base percentage, 1.058 slugging, and 1.655 OPS. He has struck out three times in 99 plate appearances. Scouts adore him. So would the Tigers, but it’s becoming more apparent by the day that Mayer likely won’t make it to that third overall pick. Last week’s ranking: 3
► 3. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: A steady stock, the Rocker entity. He pitched Thursday against Kentucky and was, well, Rocker: seven innings, 101 pitches, three hits, two runs, two walks, 11 strikeouts. All that will keep him from a top-four draft slot is this year’s burgeoning crop of prep shortstops, which is a light draft’s main feature. Last week’s ranking: 2
► 4. Henry Davis, C, University of Louisville, 6-1, 205: Quiet week for Davis, although he was due for one: 2-for-11 spanning four games, with one walk and three strikeouts. No extra-base hits. He’s likely tuckering out. Expect a new energy surge this week in a pair of games against Georgia Tech and Clemson. Last week’s ranking: 4
► 5. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Jesuit Dallas High, 6-2, 180: Lawlar can rest somewhat easily these next six weeks. Dallas Jesuit’s season is a wrap, and Lawlar’s status as a possible Top Two grab is unchanged. Too much athleticism, too much heart and soul in his personal circuitry, for teams to resist. Still a percentage bet to be scooped up by his hometown team, the Rangers, with that second pick. Last week’s ranking: 5
► 6. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Georgia, 6-3, 212: His season, likewise, is done. What isn’t finished is the debate among MLB clubs about where, exactly, House should be taken — and where his long-term future is as a big-leaguer: shortstop or third base? What is known is that a talented kid with House’s power will be a tempting grab somewhere in the 2021 draft’s first 10 picks. Last week’s ranking: 6
► 7. Jackson Jobe, RH starter, Heritage Hall High, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 6-2, 190: Jobe is a neat bet to surprise on July 11. He carries too much power and polish to resist, which is why he could be the guy who goes early, very early, and wrecks a bunch of mock drafts. Last week’s ranking: 7
► 8. Kahlil Watson, SS, Wake Forest High, Wake Forest, North Carolina, 5-11, 168: He’s still playing, which is good, in that it gives Watson a few dedicated days to further impress scouts. He doesn’t have the physical stature teams prefer in Mayer, Lawlar, and House. But he has a left-handed bat and top-of-the-order appeal to pair with excellent gifts on defense. Last week’s ranking: Unranked
► 9. Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: Backman was presented Akron during the weekend and promptly took a high-powered knife to the visitors from Ohio: five innings of flame and smoke, one hit, two walks, nine strikeouts, 91 pitches. Big body, big fastball. He’s in demand. Last week’s ranking: 9
► 10. Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State, 6-3, 195: Cowser’s in danger of slipping from Top 10 elevation, all for one reason: He isn’t showing the power you might expect down the stretch. He hit a dozen homers early in the season, but has only two in his last 20 games. When you’re working against pitching that isn’t college baseball’s best, you need to hit with a bit more crunch than Cowser of late has been showing. Last week’s ranking: 10
► Pushing for Top 10 inclusion: Gunnar Hoglund, RH starter, Mississippi, 6-4, 210 (recent Tommy John surgery); Ryan Cusick, RH starter, Wake Forest, 6-6, 235; Matt McLain, SS, UCLA, 5-11, 180; Ty Madden, RH starter, Texas, 6-3, 215; Bubba Chandler, RH starter/SS, North Oconee High, Bogart, Georgia; 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 University, 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; Cody Schrier, SS, JSerra Catholic High, San Juan Capistrano, California.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.