2021 Draft Notebook: Setting the Odds for 1-1

With six weeks until the draft, things are more muddled than ever at the top. If anything, the range of possibilities is continuing to widen. There is still an entire college postseason left to go, as well as what are sure to be some difficult signability discussions that move individual needles significantly. In a dramatic turn of events, it suddenly looks as if the Pittsburgh Pirates are focused on positions players over pitchers with the first pick in the draft. Instead of doing a mock this early (we’ll have one soon, though more to share information than to try to pull a Kreskin with so much time until Day One), I decided to set the current odds for the first overall pick.

The Odds

Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake HS (CA): 3-1

“Marcelo Mayer or Jordan Lawlar?” is the most pressing question for those considering the first pick in the draft, and when I polled top scouts and executives, there was a nearly 50/50 split in their responses. “Mayer should be 1-1, and I don’t think it should really be a conversation,” said one scouting executive. “In terms of pound-for-pound talent, he’s the number one guy. Left-handed, good stick, future power, and plays up the middle.” Among his detractors, there are some questions concerning the up-the-middle aspect of Mayer’s game. While he makes every play and at times can be a flashy defender with plus hands, smooth transfers, a well above-average arm and excellent instincts, he’s also a big-framed kid with below-average run times coming out of a slightly awkward gait. For scouts concerned about this, Mayer becomes a future third baseman; for those who believe in all of the defensive tools beyond the twitch, he’s more comparable to Carlos Correa or Corey Seager.

Jordan Lawlar, SS, Jesuit Prep (TX): 3-1

Lawlar was plagued by some swing-and-miss issues early this spring, but he finished the year strong while producing hard contact to all fields and going a perfect 32-for-32 in stolen base attempts. While it’s hard to find a weakness in his game, some point out that he also lacks the single, overwhelming tool you often find in top picks. Everything in Lawlar’s scouting reports earns 50-60 grades, but some would like to see that one plus-plus attribute you can hang your hat on when the bonus discussions reach the $8 million mark. Some scouts also note that he will be almost 19 years old by the time teams make their selections, while the power requires more than a bit of dreaming and projection to think it’ll reach above average. Still, this is a slam dunk defensive shortstop who can run and hit and showed a mature understanding of the strike zone for a high schooler, with one evaluator calling him one of the safest high school players he has seen in years.

Henry Davis, C, Louisville: 5-1

Davis has continued to creep up the draft boards of teams looking for a college bat they can believe in. Offensively, he checks every box. His swing decisions are at a big-league level right now and there’s a feel for contact to go with above-average power. All-in-all, scouts’ median expectation involves him hitting .280 with walks and 20-plus bombs. That’s All-Star level production for a catcher, but not everyone is convinced Davis can stay behind the plate. His throwing arm is one of the best in this year’s class — he’s thrown out nearly half of opposing runners this spring — but teams are starting to question the ultimate value of cutting down the running game when big league clubs are currently making well under one steal attempt per game. Beyond the cannon, Davis is a below-average defender with inconsistent footwork and hard hands, and while he has the tools to give you acceptable defense in an outfield corner, the value of the bat dissipates considerably with a slide that far down the defensive spectrum.

Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt: 10-1

Six weeks ago, Leiter was the overwhelming favorite to go 1-1 to the Pirates, but as the season has worn on, scouts have found some of the holes in his game. His numbers on the season are still remarkable, but naysayers point to the 10 home runs allowed and a walk rate of nearly four per nine over 56.1 conference innings. He has a fastball that often plays better than its above-average velocity due to its shape and spin, as well as two plus breakers to go to, but the fastballs and breakers comprise 95% of his pitches thrown this year, with his changeup becoming more and more of a rarity. While he commands his curveball and slider very well, the fastball is more of a spray in the zone pitch, and scouts have always been concerned with his smallish frame holding up over the course of a big league season. Still, this is the best overall starting pitcher in the draft, and it’s difficult to imagine him getting past the first three picks.

Kumar Rocker, RHP, Vanderbilt: 25-1

Much like his fastball velocity, Rocker’s draft status has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride this spring. Seen by many as the top player in the class before the season started, his chances of going first overall have slipped dramatically due to wild fluctuations in velocity, especially after accumulating triple-digit pitch counts in previous starts. On a good day, Rocker will touch 98 with above-average command of both his fastball and a bat-missing power breaker, but he seems to have settled into sitting 92-95 while touching 96 as the Commodores head into the postseason. The best version of Rocker would still be in play for Pittsburgh, but that version just hasn’t been seen as much as this spring the Pirates would likely prefer.

Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow HS (GA): 75-1

A late-comer to the mix, House has rebounded from a rough-but-abbreviated 2020 summer showing to re-establish himself as one of the best high school hitters in the country. Some scouts have put the rare plus hit/plus power combo on him, while also pointing to a big frame and fringy run tool that projects better at third base than shortstop, where his 70-grade arm should serve him well. House feels like a big long-shot for number one overall, but his name is coming up in conversations just enough (as opposed to not at all) to put him on the board. Somewhere in the six to 10 range feels like the much more realistic expectation.

It’s only late May, and the odds could change dramatically with a full college postseason to get additional looks at players, but in the end, that might not be the best news for the likes of Davis and the pair of Vanderbilt starters. “You know how we are, KG,” joked one team’s top scout. “The more we watch these guys, the more reasons we find not to like them.”

Some Surprises In The Top Five

In a draft loaded with uncertainty — much of it due to the dearth of college bats — those with a track record and tools could go higher than expected due to the scarcity factor. Two names generating particular buzz are outfielders Sal Frelick (Boston College) and Colton Cowser (Sam Houston State). Both are impressive players, and top 15 talents in this year’s class, but the talk isn’t being generated by their play on the field as much as it is the people in the seats behind home plate, as multiple sources have noted high-level executives, including general managers with picks in the top six, bearing down on the duo. If teams focus on their concerns about the top talents, Frelick and Cowser could turn into potential early-pick money savers in order to redistribute big bonus pools further down the line.

Is It Too Early To Discuss 2022?

Without any prompting, two scouting executives asked me the same question last week: “Have you heard about Elijah Green?” It would be hard to have not heard about Green, who was already seen as one of the, if not the, best players in next year’s class. But the prep outfielder at IMG Academy in Florida has taken a step forward this spring to cement his early status. “He’d be a slam dunk No. 1 pick in this year’s draft,” said once source, with another agreeing by saying, “He’s the best player I’ve seen all year, and it’s not even close.” Green has three tools grading out at 70 or higher, with elite-level raw power, blinding speed (including a 6.2 60-yard-dash) and a cannon for an arm, prompting one evaluator to drop the generally verboten comparison to a young Bo Jackson, only with a better swing. Green is an elite talent, with a chance to be seen as a once-in-a-decade type of player if he continues to progress over the next 13 months.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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1 year ago

I hope the Pirates take Davis. Lawler sounds like Cole Tucker with a little more bat.

We miss Ross Ohlendorf
1 year ago
Reply to  BillClinton

A little more defense and speed too, and if Tucker has reached his offensive peak then even an average hitter has a lot more bat than he does!

Though I tend to agree, Pirates have drafted way too many not-that-high ceiling infielders and it hasn’t worked out so far. Newman, Kramer, Tucker, etc

John Churchmember
1 year ago

I think the guys you mentioned (plus others like Will Craig and Adam Frazier) were the Pirates accurately predicting the increase in shifting, and totally missing the boat on how teams would counteract that. They went for a bunch of high-contact, put-the-ball-in-play spray hitters while the rest of the league went three true outcome. The result was a big league team with minimal power (relative to the league) and an offense that is heavily BABIP.

Back in 2014-2016, when shifts were just starting to take off, that’s what a lot of baseball types said they wanted, by the way – put the ball in play, hit it to all fields and beat the shift, etc. It just turns out that that hypothesis on how to build an offense in the modern game was wrong. And the Pirates were already too pot committed to adjust.

1 year ago
Reply to  John Church

If I had to guess, I’d say the “too committed” way of thinking was ultimately what sunk NH. They had some good ideas, but weren’t able to adjust quickly when the league changed. Teams embraced power in both pitching and offense, and they went the other with sinkerballers and contact hitters. The thing that was irritating was they NEVER really looked to change until about 3-4 seasons after they went in the dumper.