Editor’s note: This is the 18th in a weekly series of stories in which Detroit News freelance writer Lynn Henning will rank the top prospects in July’s MLB Draft.
Next week, in Lakeland, Florida, the Tigers front office and scouts will amass at their minor-league headquarters, with all its meeting rooms and video boards designed to help a big-league team decide precisely which college or prep talents it will gamble on during the July 11-13 MLB Draft.
There will be enough chairs to ensure everyone has a place to sit, and to argue. Because that’s what a lot of this discussion will entail — arguing about which prep or college player is better than another when it comes to prioritizing his MLB potential.
What is known, in a general way heading into next week’s debate, is the Tigers have six or so players they view as potentially good enough to warrant their first pick — which comes as the draft’s third turn, behind Pittsburgh and Texas.
What also is known is the Tigers are prepared for the reality the kid they most like, California prep shortstop Marcelo Mayer, almost certainly will be gone, probably to the Pirates before they pick third.
The most likely scenario is the Tigers will be left to ponder three players they’ll be most tempted to grab at three: Jack Leiter, the Vanderbilt right-handed dynamo; Jackson Jobe, a powerhouse prep righty from Oklahoma City; or Brady House, a shortstop and another of those national prep hotshots, from Winder, Georgia.
Here’s what the Tigers presumably are up against as they debate their top six candidates (assumed to include Jordan Lawlar of Jesuit Dallas High; and Kumar Rocker, who is Leiter’s pitching partner at Vanderbilt and who also figures to go somewhere in next month’s top 10 picks).
The Tigers are known to like Jobe a great deal, even more than Leiter and Rocker, because of size and smoothness and however much ability there is to envision talent blossoming throughout a long pitching career.
Jobe over Leiter is one tough call — politically and competitively.
Leiter, self-evidently, is the better talent — today. He has mowed his way through batters of all skills and levels during his time at Vanderbilt, and is continuing to do so during the College World Series, which is a nice place to advertise your wares.
He is remarkably gifted: fastball in the upper 90s, two breaking balls, changeup, command on a rare scale — the whole gamut of ace-caliber skills.
He also is 6 feet tall — give or take a half-inch — and there is a concern. Scouts know from their historic and analytical data that pitchers in the 6-feet range (or under) can have a tough time with durability. Granted, Greg Maddux and a slew of others attest to this being nonsense, but if you’re looking at an overall data base, Leiter’s size is a potential reason to find him less than immaculate as a big-league prospect.
Jobe, on the other hand, is a lot like that golden oldie from 2007, Rick Porcello — with one exception: Jobe has a much more dynamic arsenal of power pitches.
In fact, you can make the case Jobe could replicate Porcello in making it to the big leagues inside of two years. Such is his polish and discipline — and his battery of power-packed pitches.
More: Two mock drafts have Tigers taking this high school star with the No. 3 pick in MLB Draft
Put another way, this isn’t Beau Burrows if you’re assessing past Tigers first-rounders and their range of skills.
The problem is this …
All while Jobe is learning the ropes on the farm, Leiter, almost certainly, for whoever he represents, will be dazzling and defeating hitters and looking like a Hall of Famer in his MLB infancy.
That isn’t going to make fans from Detroit happy, not when they’re impatient, and not when they know another of MLB’s life facts: Prep pitchers are fragile. Prep pitchers are notorious for losing velocity, and having their psyches gashed, and messing up on their mechanics, and losing their breaking-ball spin … and, oh boy, can they ruin a MLB team’s draft, sometimes in mortal fashion.
This is sticky stuff heading into next week at Lakeland. Drafts are fraught with enough risks without compounding them, especially when a pitcher as superbly talented and as politically popular as Leiter is sitting there, waiting to be snagged.
Which he might, or might not, be.
What is known is the Tigers aren’t the only team keeping a relatively open mind as they sit down for a long week of discussion, debate, and discourse about who is best-equipped to offer a remodeled roster one more essential heavy furnishing.
This is something of a wide-open draft. A lot of dickering will be taking place next week. Some surprises loom on July 11 — maybe a big one from a Detroit team that wants to stick to its scouting convictions, but also knows what a guy named Leiter could do for a town and for a team aching for baseball in October.
How the nation’s best high school and college players stack up ahead of the July 11 MLB Draft:
► 1. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, California, 6-3, 188: It’s difficult, even given the Pirates’ reputation for resisting expensive talent, that they’ll pass on one of the best potential bargains of the decade: Mayer, who will cost them their full first-round allotment ($8.4 million), but whose talents even the Pirates seem to agree are too much to bypass. Last week’s ranking: 2
► 2. Jack Leiter, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-1, 205: A team interested in adding a pitcher for this year’s playoff run would be all the more counseled to grab Leiter, who is almost big-league ready today. He’ll be a star for the foreseeable future, with his long-term prospects perhaps the only reason some teams (Tigers?) would opt for another arm or talent. He could be remembered as the first-overall-worthy pick who somehow wasn’t taken first overall. Last week’s ranking: 1
► 3. Jackson Jobe, RH starter, Heritage Hall High, Oklahoma City, 6-2, 190: The Tigers are among those who simply can’t get over Jobe’s profound skills and tempting projection. Which is a main reason why, today, he’s their more likely choice at No. 3 overall. Last week’s ranking: 3
► 4. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Georgia, 6-3, 212: Nothing says, with any finality, that the Tigers won’t prefer House on July 11. But as the draft winds today blow, he probably loses out to Jobe as a player the Tigers sense, with more reliability, will become a longer-term asset. Last week’s ranking: 4
More: Tigers draft watch: With no consensus top pick, Detroit keeps options open
► 5. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Jesuit Dallas High, 6-2, 180: Lawlar, too, might have suffered from too many X-rays: Some people see signs of stress or weakness that really don’t exist. Texas might be one of the true believers who will be rewarded with Lawlar as a marvelous roster asset. Last week’s ranking: 5
► 6. Henry Davis, C, Louisville, 6-1, 205: If he had a bit more catching acumen, Davis would be snagged no later than second overall, with a strong likelihood he’d be the prom king in 2021’s draft. But the fact is, he isn’t a very good catcher. And that makes a quick pick unlikely on July 11. Last week’s ranking: 6
► 7. Kahlil Watson, SS, Wake Forest High, Wake Forest, North Carolina, 5-11, 168: A gifted, left-handed bat coupled with a blessed athlete who can play short? That’s how you worm your way as a prep player into the top 10 of a MLB Draft. Watson is there, quite firmly. Last week’s ranking: 7
► 8. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: No surprise, as he continues to obliterate batters in the College World Series, if Rocker zips into the draft’s top five. Top 10 seems a safer projection, but teams in love with a big, heavily fortified right-hander who has NFL bloodlines and who has pitched on the grandest of college stages, will be most happy to bring aboard Rocker. Last week’s ranking: 8
► 9. Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: Too much body, too much fastball, to not like Bachman — a lot. He hasn’t thrown against college baseball’s best, but scouts can measure repertoires and how they’ll hold up against professional hitters. Bachman passes. Last week’s ranking: 9
► 10. Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State, 6-3, 195: Some team is going to come away with a good, left-handed-hitting outfielder, who can survive in center field, and who has a bat so clean they were nuts to have worried that Cowser might not hit for adequate power in the big leagues. He has a chance to be one of the draft’s relative steals. Last week’s ranking: 10
► Pushing for Top 10 inclusion: Harry Ford, C, Kennesaw (Georgia) North Cobb High, 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, Bogart (Georgia) North Oconee High, 6-3, 201; 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.