Each year more and more folks seem to understand it’s not just the NFL, NBA, and NHL that offer draft-day drama. The MLB Draft has been late to the game, in the public’s consciousness anyway, but now that it has picked up audience and relevance, expect a free-wheeling, hip-shooting, let’s-take-a-stab first round that gets rolling July 11. The draft, overall, spans 20 rounds and will run through July 13. The Tigers hold the third pick in the first round.
In a year where top-of-the-board talent isn’t as locked-in as most drafts feature, and when scouts are working off player profiles ravaged by last year’s COVID layoffs, guesswork has been as heavy among scouts as it is among prognosticators trying to make sense of this prep-and-college talent maze.
After months of conversations with scouts, after processing updates, and after personally inspecting some of the talent listed below, The Detroit News offers its projections on where some of these first-round stars will fall on July 11.
► 1. Pittsburgh Pirates: Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, California. The Tigers would be picking first had commissioner Rob Manfred not insisted that a silly adherence to last year’s 60-game season should dictate most of the 2021 draft order. Had the Tigers been choosing first, they would be opting for a sweet left-handed hitter just outside of San Diego who instead will go to the Pirates — unless the Pirates, as they’ve been known to do, go cheap and bypass Mayer.
► 2. Texas Rangers: Jack Leiter, RH starter, Vanderbilt. The Rangers have been keeping their preferences so tight one wonders if even they know who they’re picking on July 11. But even with hometown politics at work in the candidacy of shortstop Jordan Lawlar (Dallas Jesuit), and Lawlar’s athleticism on a celestial level, it’s hard to see the Rangers waving off Leiter.
► 3. Detroit Tigers: Jackson Jobe, RH starter, Heritage Hall High, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Jobe has had Tigers scouts in awe of his fury and polish. What could derail Jobe to Detroit is the Pirates messing up on Mayer, or Leiter perhaps being available. Passing on Mayer — if he’s somehow there — isn’t happening, while overlooking Leiter would be a dangerous tactical and political move for a team that requires all the immediate roster guns it can amass. Still, Jobe is considered by the Tigers snoops to be an exception to the rule that you best resist prep arms. They’ll be happy to have him if Mayer, in particular, is gone.
► 4. Boston Red Sox: Henry Davis, catcher, University of Louisville. Davis isn’t much of a catcher, which is something the Red Sox might or might not be bothered by. What matters is his right-handed bat — and what it might do to the Green Monster at Fenway Park. This is a hitter designed and manufactured for the Red Sox.
► 5. Baltimore Orioles: Brady House, shortstop, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Georgia. House could spur plans to build a new ballpark in Baltimore, all because House is likely to demolish Camden Yards with his potentially devastating power. The Tigers like House a lot, but probably not enough to steer them from some of the names mentioned above, including Jobe.
► 6. Arizona Diamondbacks: Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas (Texas) Jesuit High. Kumar Rocker is the safe pick here. But remember that Lawlar could also be seducing a Diamondbacks front office. Lots of drama here, including the fact that if Lawlar falls farther than six he just might opt for his Vanderbilt scholarship. But that seems a bit far-fetched. The D’backs need an athlete with Lawlar’s sizzle.
► 7. Kansas City Royals: Kumar Rocker, RH starter, Vanderbilt. Oh, my. The Royals weren’t expecting Rocker to be all but draft-orphaned at this point. They adore men with heft and with Rocker’s fastball/slider combo. And for good reason: Rocker, whether a starter or a down-the-road reliever, should be a brute.
► 8. Colorado Rockies: Kahlil Watson, SS, Wake Forest High, Wake Forest, North Carolina. If the Tigers were picking slightly deeper, Watson might have intrigued a team looking for a flagship shortstop. They probably aren’t as high on him as some teams, which is a group that includes the Rockies.
► 9. Los Angeles Angels: Ty Madden, RH starter, University of Texas. The Angels will appreciate help on any front, but in Madden, they get a big arm they can trust. And some much-needed help for men named Ohtani and Trout.
► 10. New York Mets: Sal Frelick, OF, Boston College. This is one of those kids who looks as if he was created by a Mets lab engineer seeking a tidy leadoff batter. Frelick’s small (5-foot-9) but a left-handed hitter who will be a pain in the pants, which is why all of Queens will love him.
► 11. Washington Nationals: Will Bednar, RH starter, Mississippi State. Your dazzler in the final game of the College World Series just pitched his way into the Top 11. The Nationals, who need arms as badly as any MLB team, were taking notes, as they’ve been taking them steadily on Bednar.
► 12. Seattle Mariners: Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State. Another of those genetic organizational talents in that the Mariners like outfield upside, and this right-handed slasher has a bunch of it. He can also play center field. And when you’re picking 12th, that helps.
► 13. Philadelphia Phillies: Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio). Let’s see: Bachman is a big boy (6-1, 235 pounds). He has a 100-mph fastball. The Phillies’ new general manager is Dave Dombrowski, who happens to adore all of the above. Welcome to Philly, Mr. Bachman.
► 14. San Francisco Giants: Matt McLain, SS, UCLA: He has the Pac-12 pedigree. He plays shortstop. He swings an increasingly impressive right-handed bat. Even after missing a month with a smashed thumb, McLain showed that a roster’s most valuable commodity, a shortstop who can hit respectably, is for the Giants way too enticing.
► 15. Milwaukee Brewers: Harry Ford, catcher, North Cobb High, Kennesaw, Georgia. Georgia Tech was rather hoping Ford would hang around for three years as a Yellowjackets star. But that isn’t happening. Ford’s a catcher, and a hitter, and the Brewers would appreciate having a nice prospect of his ilk marinating on their farm.
► 16. Miami Marlins: Jordan Wicks, LH starter, Kansas State. This is the nice, safe stabilizing arm Miami can add to its minor-league hatchery. In the case of Wicks, new general manager Kim Ng can expect a payoff on the big-league stage as soon as two years from now.
► 17. Cincinnati Reds: Benny Montgomery, OF, Red Land High, Lewisberry, Pennsylvania. He was Pennsylvania’s Gatorade Player of the Year, which probably doesn’t mean as much to Reds scouts as the fact Montgomery is 6-4, 205 pounds, and crushes pitches with his right-handed bat.
► 18. St. Louis Cardinals: Bubba Chandler, RH starter, North Oconee High, Bogart, Georgia. The Cardinals could strike it rich here with one of those two-sport studs who was set to play football — and baseball — at Clemson before the scouts started whispering “first-round” thoughts. He’s 6-4, and also plays shortstop, should the Cardinals decide a teen this versatile is better exploited there.
► 19. Toronto Blue Jays: Colson Montgomery, SS, Southridge High, Holland, Indiana. Not a lot of rumblings from the Jays on who tops their shopping list, but Montgomery makes sense. Just your basic, big (6-4), three-sport dynamo who has that two-way skill set big-league scouts tend to slurp up.
► 20. New York Yankees: Andrew Painter, RH starter, Calvary Christian Academy, Pompano Beach, Florida. Painter is 6-foot-7, so begin with projections there for a teen who already throws 96. He has all the personal stuff down, as well, something the University of Florida’s coaching staff knew when it got him to make a Gators commitment. The Yankees, alas, should prevail here.
► 21. Chicago Cubs: Wes Kath, SS/3B, Desert Mountain High, Scottsdale, Arizona. Kath has a left-handed bat with a touch of salsa as well as the arm and nimbleness to play anywhere on a MLB infield’s left side. The Cubs are reconstructing and could use a prep talent with his allure. Arizona State will be losing one of its better recruits.
► 22. Chicago White Sox: Jud Fabian, OF, University of Florida. Strikeouts? Big deal. Fabian has too many of them, but he showed at mid-season he was making progress, and White Sox scouts probably figure he can improve further, all while swinging with sock a right-handed bat that could be ready for the South Side inside of two seasons.
► 23. Cleveland Indians: Joe Mack, catcher, Williamsville East High, Williamsville, New York: How many teams pass on a left-handed-swinging catcher who shows talent on both ends of the spectrum? The Indians always seem to be in on guys like this, and they’re definitely hot on Mack.
► 24. Atlanta Braves: Gunnar Hoglund, RH starter, University of Mississippi. He had Tommy John surgery in May and that ruined what was going to be Top 10 draft status. Not that it will do much more than delay Hoglund’s MLB arrival, and larger paydays. The Braves are wise to be patient here, because Hoglund, if he’s unclaimed at 24, will be a prize.
► 25. Oakland Athletics: Tyler Whitaker, RF, Bishop Gorman High, Las Vegas, Nevada. Leave it to the A’s bird-dogs to find a chap with Whitaker’s ceiling, sitting there, all but ignored at 25. He’s a right-handed batter, 6-4, and a brand of talent the A’s seem always to sneak onto their understated but ever-impressive roster.
► 26. Minnesota Twins: Ryan Cusick, RH starter, Wake Forest. The Twins would prefer a college outfielder. But if it comes down to a so-so college bat, or a starter with Cusick’s size and tool-case, it would be in keeping with Minnesota’s style to poach Cusick.
► 27. San Diego Padres: Lonnie White, Jr., OF, Malvern Prep, Coatesville, Pennsylvania. Naturally, if it’s a five-tool guy who somehow escaped the Padres’ rivals, San Diego is attacking. White could play about a half-dozen sports at any college, but decided on Penn State, which will be moot by the time first-round money comes his way.
► 28. Tampa Bay Rays: Cooper Kinney, 3B, Baylor High, Chattanooga, Tennessee. He’ll be breaking the University of South Carolina’s heart, not that the Gamecocks staff will be surprised that Kinney is headed for the MLB’s first round. He’s 6-2, bats left-handed — and bats very well — and he might be grand larceny if nabbed at 28.
► 29. Los Angeles Dodgers: Michael McGreevy, RH starter, University of California-Santa Barbara: Nothing like having a guy from Dodgers country waiting for that first-round phone call when L.A. decides it can’t quite pass on McGreevy. He’s 6-4, 215, a fast-mover in this year’s class, and a bit too much to resist even if the Dodgers would rather draft offense.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.