2021 Draft Preview

The 2021 draft is this Sunday, July 11 and our broad strokes preview of the event is below. You can use the navigation widget above to brush up on our other draft-related content and view our draft rankings and scouting reports on The Board.

A General Overview

Like most drafts, the 2021 draft lacks a truly elite, generational talent at the top, but the tier of talent that fits among the top 100 prospects in baseball has average depth. High school shortstops Jordan Lawlar, Marcelo Mayer, and Khalil Watson, Louisville catcher Henry Davis, Vanderbilt pitchers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker, and Sam Houston State center fielder Colten Cowser are all 50 FV players. You can see approximately where they’ll rank on the overall pro prospect list once they’re drafted here.

The weird statistical gap created by the shutdown of the 2020 season has made evaluating college hitters much more difficult than normal this year. We had no traditional sophomore year for what would have been this year’s juniors (now typically “COVID Sophomores”), which has impacted how the industry understands these hitters in a significant way. Draft-eligible second-year college players, like center fielder Reed Trimble at Southern Miss, only played a handful of games as freshmen and then came out of nowhere and had huge, draft-eligible sophomore years. Then you have the players who were eligible in 2020 but didn’t perform well during that month of play, went undrafted, then came out and had huge 2021 seasons but are now older than most eligible hitters. Matheu Nelson of Florida State is an example of this. Tennessee second baseman Max Ferguson looked incredible during the brief 2020 season and again during Tennessee’s fall practices, but he had a very poor 2021 season. Oregon 3B/OF Aaron Zavala’s career track was almost the exact opposite of this and he performed much better than anyone anticipated in 2021. Teams have highly variable opinions of players with these less-consistent statistical track records. We have Trimble and Zavala stuffed on our draft board, but some teams have them deep in the third or fourth round.

During a normal two-year stretch, several of these hitters would have performed consistently and moved themselves into the back of the first round. Instead, there is a dearth of slam dunk college hitters who feel like they belong in that range. We don’t know if this means teams picking toward the back of round one will just turn to high school players or if the perceived scarcity of college hitters will drive teams to try to cut under-slot deals with the ones they actually like. Trey Sweeney of Eastern Illinois, Conor Norby of East Carolina, and Tyler Black of Wright State are the names clubs tend to mention when we ask who might go ahead of where we anticipate on draft night.

Because last year’s draft was only five rounds, this year’s draft includes twice as many players worthy of being drafted between the sixth and 10th rounds, talent that will spill over into Day Three and come off the board during rounds 10 through 15. It’s a great year for teams like the Nationals, Athletics, and Rockies to restock barren systems.

Who Will Experience the Run?

At the most basic of levels, players fall into four categories: high school hitters, high school pitchers, college hitters and college pitchers. Yes, there are JUCO players, but they’re a smaller population. At some point in the 25th-50th pick range, a run on one of those categories will start, but teams have divergent opinions about just which player sector the run will involve, while also knowing that such runs tend to move a number of players from that sector up as teams begin to see their candidates slip away. Most teams agree that it will be one of the position player segments. There are as many as 10 high school bats with a shot at a late-first round selection, but there are also a number of big college performers with average tools who are being pushed up as late first-round possibilities by statistical models, like the three infielders listed above in Black, Norby and Sweeney. Once a couple of them go from either position player group, expect the run to start.

Will the NIL Ruling Affect Signability?

College athletes are now able to make money on endorsements and other ventures, and these deals present a new wrinkle for this year’s draft. It would be exceptionally difficult for any baseball-only player, even one as well-known as Jack Leiter or Kumar Rocker, to make enough money off his name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights in college to impact his potential negotiations coming out of high school. But that may not be the case for two-sport high school athletes with opportunities to ply their trade at major programs. Take the case of Georgia high schooler Bubba Chandler. He’s certainly a first-round talent on the diamond, but he’s also committed to play football at Clemson. As a quarterback for one of the most successful programs in college football, money-making opportunities should be plentiful, and instead of delaying his pay day for three years by attending school, he can make money, enjoy his college experience while playing both sports, and take the chance of a first-round evaluation still being there three years from now, or even developing a potential NFL career. A lot of the specifics surrounding NIL deals are still being worked out, but they’re certainly something agents will use in negotiations and could also steer more kids away from baseball in the end.

A Less Hectic Day Three

Day Three of the draft can be downright exhausting. Before the pandemic, teams made 30 to 40 picks that day, with no time between selections and all-to-brief 15 minute breaks every 10 rounds. By the time club personnel got to the end, they were exhausted, quite punchy, and flat out running out of magnets, all while using those late picks to fill roster holes at short-season affiliates that no longer exist after Major League Baseball’s hostile takeover of the minor leagues. This year, there’ll be just 10 rounds on Day Three and since there is still no time between picks, the whole thing will likely be over in two or three hours. The 11th-round will remain one of the most interesting in the draft, as teams use that round to sign higher-cost players to whom they can assign portions of their bonus pool savings. Over half of the 2019 selections in the round earned more than the $125,000 max slot (before being applied to the pool) and 11 more than doubled it. As much as teams would like to keep selecting players, the ability to get a flight home that day and finally spend a few days with the family will be a welcome change.

The End of the Courtesy Pick

Kevin was in the room when some of these were made, though baseball people rarely like making them. They are not dictated by ownership but they are certainly strongly suggested (at times with a nudge from the PR group), and most teams are guilty of succumbing to the pressure. Here are the ones Kevin recalls from his time with the Astros.

  • 2013: Kacey Clemens (35): Roger’s son, was going to college
  • 2015: Conor Biggio (34): Craig’s son, not a pro prospect but whip smart and currently working in the commissioner’s office
  • 2015: Kody Clemens (35): Roger’s son, was going to college
  • 2017: Trei Cruz (35): José Jr.’s son (and José Sr.’s grandson), was going to college
  • 2018: A.J. Bregman (35): Alex’s brother, not a prospect and going to college

There was also a less-famous name who was the nephew of someone in the ownership group or something at some point. They’re called courtesy picks and they are nice moments, but they are also wasted selections. Sure, players after the 30th round rarely pan out, but the chances are far from non-existent. Why throw away the lottery ticket sitting right in front of you? With the draft down to just 20 rounds this year, the courtesy pick is likely a thing of the past, and while it’s bad for beat writers looking for a human interest story, it’s good for the draft.

Questions We Don’t Have Answers For

Does the gap in data make draft models less reliable this year? How does the wider range of player ages due to the shortened 2020 draft impact models? Are publications like ours stuck in a feedback loop with those draft models, since we’re often a data point in the model but also asking people who are looking at the model output for feedback on our lists?

As always, the draft is mostly about the players whose dreams are being realized and the couple hundred scouts who put in the work to evaluate them. After last year’s unsatisfying five-round affair, which took place amid one of the most stressful and bizarre years any of us has experienced, having the draft with all it flaws return to something closer to, but still shy of, normal is indeed apt.

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Mario Gerzowitz
1 year ago

What about undrafted free agents? With a shorter draft again this year, do you expect the talent to be stronger than usual due to the spill over of undrafted talent from 2020?

1 year ago

Probably yes, but a lot of organizations are just flat full to the brim, or will be once this draft is over. There may be an undrafted guy out there with some talent, but who’s got a roster spot and playing time available on one of their low minors teams, especially for a position player?

1 year ago
Reply to  Seamaholic

Signings from independent leagues into affiliated ball are up dramatically because teams no longer have much reserve at the extended spring/complex leagues to shuffle guys up to fill in for injuries. MLB teams may still not have the roster space to sign most UDFAs directly, but indie teams would love to have them and might be able to sell some on the idea of the path from indie to affiliated being shorter than it used to be.

SF Draft Talk
1 year ago

I think we’ll see a watered down version of last year. The minors are really in a roster crunch so spots will be limited at the lower levels. I think we could see a lot of those NDFA type talents going to some of these newly formed indy leagues and then getting a pro shot if they perform at the indy level.