Editor’s note: This is the 17th in a weekly series of stories in which Detroit News freelance writer Lynn Henning will rank the top prospects in July’s MLB Draft.
When the Tigers traipsed down the draft-day runway three years ago, bearing within a sealed tabernacle the name of their first overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, there had been no debate about who that first pick, in the first round, would be.
It was Casey Mize of Auburn University.
In the Tigers’ minds, Mize was clearly, definitively, indisputably the most talented player among college or prep talents anywhere in America.
They had the same view a year ago when they anointed Spencer Torkelson as the draft’s first-turn talent.
This year, the Tigers pick third. And this year, there is no unambiguous choice as a premier pick — as the man all but certain to go one-one on July 11 when the MLB Draft convenes.
What is known has pretty much been known for the past month, if not longer.
Marcelo Mayer, a sweet-swinging shortstop from Eastlake High in Chula Vista, California, is the player Most Likely To Be Plucked First and probably will go the Pirates, unless the Pirates exhibit an age-old penchant for wanting a player who will sign cheap — which Mayer and his agent, John Boggs, aren’t about to do.
After that, it’s hard to say, although most draft snoops still figure another prep super-shortstop, Jordan Lawlar, of Jesuit Dallas High, will be the Rangers’ option at second overall.
If it strikes MLB followers as dubious that teams can keep their draft-day preferences a deep, dark secret, well, they absolutely can. And one reason is that those teams aren’t necessarily sure who they’ll pick. That’s especially true in a year as fraught with questions and doubts as 2021.
Which returns us to the Tigers and to that third pick.
Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, was asked this week about the draft, even though his questioner knew there would be precious little insight offered as the Tigers play poker with other MLB clubs. No one wants to tip hands — to their rivals, or, for that matter, to prep or college players 20 days before the draft gets rolling.
“It’s a very intriguing draft.”
Well, whaddya know? A clear disclosure.
In fact, Avila offered four more words than most GMs would advance as they check scouting reports, study video, and do forensic work on the swings and arms of a thousand or so youngsters eligible for next month’s sweepstakes.
At the same time, what is known, by way of scouts and intelligence reports from the bird dogs tracking prep and college stars, is that the Tigers almost surely would grab Mayer — if the Pirates and Rangers bypass him, which appears unlikely.
That brings into focus two talented teens the Tigers definitely are entranced by.
Jackson Jobe, the right-handed prep whizbang from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, probably would edge Brady House — prep shortstop, Winder, Georgia — if the Tigers today were selecting and if, in fact, Mayer and Lawlar go 1-2.
Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker, the Vanderbilt pitching studs?
Each has his imperfections: Leiter is barely 6 feet tall, and MLB projections aren’t great for shorter, right-handed pitchers. Rocker’s command can be a bit unsettling, which has gouged his stock, for sure.
The Tigers are amply aware that prep pitchers carry more risk than a guy on the telephone notifying you of a get-rich scheme that can be all yours if only you provide your bank-account number. There is the gamble in taking Jobe, despite his overwhelmingly impressive array of talents.
The Tigers also know good prep hitters can later be vaporized by good minor-league pitching, to say nothing of MLB arms. There is the dice-roll on House, despite the reality he has true five-tool gifts.
The Tigers really haven’t decided on who they’ll take with that third pick, even if the Mayer-Lawlar script prevails and they’re left with precisely the options listed above.
Their firm and final pecking order won’t be determined until Detroit’s scouts huddle in two weeks and hammer out their consensus on a first-round verdict. And, for that matter, on how the remainder of the draft crop should be prioritized.
Until then, draft hounds can continue to do their own homework, and listen to various prognosticators offer their thoughts on July 11.
As a certain Tigers GM says, it’s going to be an intriguing draft.
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: Do not confuse best, or most visible, amateur talent with the first overall pick in next month’s draft. Leiter is immensely skilled. But teams looking for a bat, or for players who can be signed below slot — hello, Pirates — will be bypassing Leiter with that first pick. Leiter still ranks as the player who can get to the big leagues most rapidly and deliver from the get-go. Last week’s ranking: 1
► 2. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, California, 6-3, 188: He’s a main reason Eastlake is still busy in the state tournament. Mayer was 3-for-4 with a double Saturday against Grossmont. Opposing pitching hasn’t been the strongest, but that swing of Mayer’s looks as if it will hold up against fire and finaglers as his professional path evolves. Last week’s ranking: 2
► 3. Jackson Jobe, RH starter, Heritage Hall High, Oklahoma City, 6-2, 190: The Tigers, as well as other clubs, are entranced by Jobe’s seductive charms. The turbo-powered arm, the polish, the visions of a rotation maestro. Of course, they also know that draft history is littered with the carcasses of prep prodigies turned busts. Last week’s ranking: 5
► 4. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Georgia, 6-3, 212: The Tigers were busy last week working out House at their Lakeland proving grounds and getting a read on whether they might want to snag this supremely skilled prepster with that third overall pick. And they just might. Big bat, big lad, big athleticism. Last week’s ranking: 8
► 5. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Jesuit Dallas High, 6-2, 180: Lawlar is the guy teams want to love more than they do. All that grace. But will the bat be an asset MLB teams can trust? Some doubts there. Last week’s ranking: 4
► 6. Henry Davis, C, Louisville, 6-1, 205: Davis looms as a guy who is either horribly underrated — or as a player who could tumble out of the top five. It’s mostly tied to the fact he isn’t a terribly good catcher. And if that’s the case, what do you do with him? Last week’s ranking: 3
► 7. Kahlil Watson, SS, Wake Forest High, Wake Forest, North Carolina, 5-11, 168: Watson has been sneaking up the board, but he might have plateaued. He’s still top-10 material, but likely not top five. Last week’s ranking: 6
► 8. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: He threw well enough Saturday in Vandy’s NCAA tournament toppling of Arizona. But still, some questions: Starter? Eventual reliever? Enough command to warrant an early first-round pick? Rocker is a celebrity, but for too many scouts he’s not as convincing as his profile implies. Last week’s ranking: 7
► 9. Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: Ever notice what happens to 100-mph guys who can keep a leash on their heater and flash a secondary pitch or two? They usually go top 10. Bachman has a pretty good shot to do just that on July 11. Last week’s ranking: 9
► 10. Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State, 6-3, 195: He’s another of those gents who might be disrespected to a ridiculous point. A team drafting Cowser could, down the road, be charged with grand larceny if he tears it up. Any reticence has to do with the lesser competition he hit against and perhaps some well-grounded concerns about his long-range power projections. 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; 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; Cody Schrier, SS, JSerra Catholic High, San Juan Capistrano, California.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.