Tigers draft watch: Would Detroit be willing to pay beyond top dollar for Jack Leiter?

Detroit News

Editor’s note: This is the 15th in a weekly series of stories in which Detroit News freelance writer Lynn Henning will rank the top prospects in July’s MLB Draft.

Nothing helps on MLB Draft day quite like an ample checkbook.

The Tigers are in nice shape, at least budget-wise, heading into the July 11-13 draft. Their allowance from commissioner Rob Manfred’s office is $14,253,800, which is nice cash to have on hand for the 20-round, three-day sweepstakes that begins a month later than in previous years. Only the Pirates ($14,394,000) have a greater stash from which to work.

Note also that the Tigers, who draft third, have more than $2 million to spend than the team choosing second — Texas.

The reason has to do with that handy-dandy means for helping out MLB’s truly needy, the Competitive Balance Round part of the lottery, which awards certain teams — based on market size and win-loss records — an extra pick.

The Tigers get not only the third-overall turn, they pick again at 32, thanks to their gift from Manfred, which they share with the Marlins (31 overall), Brewers (33), Rays (34), Reds (35) and Twins (36). That’s a nice bonus when they also own the 39th-overall turn in the draft’s second round.

The Tigers also are allotted $7,221,200 for their first-round choice. Which is where things could get interesting.

The fact that Vanderbilt’s celestial pitcher, Jack Leiter, is known to be wanting money beyond the first-round allotments teams at the top have been granted makes his draft-day situation harder to peg.

The Pirates want offense and never have liked spending surplus sums on any one star. That has implied all along that Leiter could be an endangered species as far as the Pirates are concerned. And it could put them in better stead to grab the guy the Tigers probably most want — Marcelo Mayer, a blessed shortstop from Chula Vista, California.

The Rangers appear to be leaning toward their potential backyard bonanza, prep shortstop Jordan Lawlar, and might well pass on Leiter for reasons that are more skills-oriented than having anything to do with finances.

More: Tigers draft watch: What does Detroit do if Jack Leiter, Marcelo Mayer are off the board?

That could leave the Tigers looking squarely at Leiter, which wouldn’t be the worst eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation they’ve experienced.

Would they pay beyond top dollar for Leiter?

Probably — if Mayer is gone.

MLB teams can exceed by 5% their overall draft budgets. They must pay a tax on the excess, but they don’t forfeit a draft pick, which makes an overrun rather painless.

The Tigers went a smidgen over their first-round stipend last year in signing Spencer Torkelson, so a few extra shekels are nothing significant in the Tigers’ eyes.

That is, if they get the right guy. And if, in their view, it doesn’t compromise offers they can make to subsequent draft picks. That definitely is a factor when teams try in those later rounds to coax talented kids from opting for their college scholarships.

It’s something to ponder as the Tigers and their brethren at the top of the board sort out their options four weeks from now.

The Tigers want Mayer. But they could settle for Leiter, most pleasingly, unless dollars become a Manfred-imposed issue that makes them consider more seriously their likely backup candidate — prep pitcher Jackson Jobe from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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 is the surest thing in the 2021 draft, which is saying something when pitching is fragile. But there’s nothing lacking in his masterly mix of high-90s fastballs and supporting options. Check out that NCAA regional game Saturday against Georgia Tech: six innings, three hits, one run, two walks, 11 strikeouts. He’ll get a chance to incinerate some East Carolina batters this weekend as the NCAA tourney carries on. Last week’s ranking: 1

2. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, California, 6-3, 188: He has some tournament time ahead this week, and with it, some good pitching that MLB scouts can further measure him against. But appraisals aren’t likely to change. Mayer could go first overall to the Pirates. He won’t fall further than the third pick if the Tigers find him unclaimed. Last week’s ranking: 2

3. Henry Davis, C, Louisville, 6-1, 205: Louisville is finished for 2021, but Davis isn’t. He’ll be marching off to the minor leagues in July once he’s drafted by a club hungry for the best college bat in America. Last week’s ranking: 3

4. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas Jesuit High, 6-2, 180: Lawlar could still be Pittsburgh’s choice, although it continues to look as if the Rangers will want their neighborhood prep star at second overall. The Tigers appear to share other teams’ nervousness about how Lawlar’s bat will hold up against premium pro pitching. Other clubs are convinced the best athlete among the early choices will be just fine. Last week’s ranking: 4

5. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Georgia, 6-3, 212: He’s got Troy Glaus — or even Cal Ripken Jr. — inscribed on his profile. Whether he sticks at short, or moves to third base, this is a man with 30-home run probability in the big leagues. Last week’s ranking: 5

6. Jackson Jobe, RH starter, Heritage Hall High, Oklahoma City, 6-2, 190: Those numbers can look like misprints: 10 games, 51⅔ innings, 15 hits, 122 strikeouts, and five walks. That’s what Jobe rolled up this spring while pitching for a blue-chip Oklahoma program. He wasn’t facing the Padres or the Dodgers in those games, but scouts know what’s behind that incredible strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is why they’ve been trailing Jobe all year. He could end up as a dark horse, very early pick, with the Tigers chief among teams that might grab him — quickly. Last week’s ranking: 6

7. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: He busted up mighty Presbyterian in last week’s NCAA first-rounder at Nashville. Nothing with Rocker has changed. He’s going to be an expensive (Scott Boras, agent) power-armed force who might or might not end up in a MLB bullpen — as a dynamo. Last week’s ranking: 7

8. Khalil Watson, SS, Wake Forest High, Wake Forest, North Carolina, 5-11, 168: No surprise Watson is shooting up the board, with top-five territory not beyond probabilities. He’s going to be friendlier to sign than some of the hotshots. A left-handed leadoff man extraordinaire — or so it appears to scouts. If he’s taken top three in July, hardly a shock. Not when checkbooks are a factor and when a kid is as gifted as Watson. Last week’s ranking: 8

9. Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: He gets undervalued, perhaps, because of the conference in which he pitches, which, face it, isn’t the SEC. But the measurables, which are built around that 100-mph fastball, are convincing. Last week’s ranking: 9

10. Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State, 6-3, 195: Some question Cowser’s long-term power potential once a hitter so blessed moves into those minor-league or MLB arenas. But most scouts will trust projections that Cowser gets stronger and becomes a marvelous everyday outfield pillar. Last week’s ranking: 10

Pushing for Top 10 inclusion: Harry Ford, C, North Cobb High, Kennesaw, Georgia, 5-10, 200; 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; 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; Cody Schrier, SS, JSerra Catholic High, San Juan Capistrano, California.

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

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