MLB Draft: 7 biggest SEC storylines to follow
Admittedly, the MLB Draft is more like a whisper than its cousins from the NFL or the NBA.
Most of the names called over the next 3 days will never make the major leagues. Even the few who do often are 3 years away. So the MLB Draft is more of a marathon than a sprint.
For SEC baseball fans, what are some of the stories worth following? Well, one annual headliner is which drafted players sign and which honor college commitments, but that’s a slow-developing picture. Here are 6 more stories to follow in the MLB Draft, which starts Sunday night.
1. Is Jacob Berry about to slide?
LSU’s one-and-done transfer star Jacob Berry showed everything college baseball could want — and enough to make him a top MLB prospect despite his complete absence of a defensive position. Given the adoption of the DH by the National League, Berry’s positionless situation won’t hurt him … but he still could be the big-story slide of the Draft’s first round.
Mentioned early as a potential No. 1 overall pick, Berry is now projected to slide into the lower edges of the top 10 picks … or even further. MLB.com ranked Berry the No. 7 draft prospect. But one mock draft had him 15th, which is frankly shocking for a guy who remains vaguely in the Orioles’ discussion for top pick.
What’s the issue? This is a strong draft in terms of toolsy, talented high school picks … and Berry’s lack of defensive ability is a warning sign for some teams. Wherever he goes, Berry is still likely to be the top SEC player in the draft — and one of the handful of top college players taken. But seeing how long he lasts will be a big story on Sunday.
2. What’s the deal with Kumar Rocker?
A year ago, Rocker went into the draft as a potential top pick, saw his stock slide until the Mets picked him 10th, and then watched a late-breaking medical issue derail his signing.
Rocker worked out by pitching 20 innings for the Tri-City Valley Cats of the Independent Frontier League. He was 1-0 with a 1.35 ERA and 32 strikeouts in those 20 innings, with fastball velocity in the upper 90s.
Now he’s back in the draft. His arm issues will scare off plenty of teams, but the most recent guess is that Rocker could go in the back half of the first round — maybe even in the top 20 picks. Let’s hope the deal gets done this time, so the former Vandy ace can get on to the next level ASAP.
3. Which injured SEC ace goes first?
Rocker isn’t the only SEC ace with medical concerns. Frankly, there are way too many great SEC pitchers with iffy injury histories, but the likely winner of the first SEC pitcher taken will be Alabama lefty Connor Prielipp. Returning from Tommy John surgery, Prielipp remains a lefty with prime stuff, particularly his electric slider — but also one who pitched a total of 28 innings at Alabama.
Still, most mock drafts have him landing in the first round, perhaps even in the top half of the round. Sadly, Prielipp has plenty of company — aside from Rocker, Florida’s Hunter Barco and Tennessee’s Blade Tidwell are both injured college aces who will still go high in the MLB Draft.
4. What about Ben Joyce?
Meanwhile, if we’re evaluating players on the basis of tools, throwing one of the fastest fastballs in the sport’s history has to count for something, right? Well, sort of, in the case of UT reliever Ben Joyce, whose 105 MPH heat astonished all of baseball.
While teammates Jordan Beck and Drew Gilbert are likely to go in or near the first round, Joyce probably won’t hear his name called for a few more rounds.
The issue again is health — and experience. Joyce, whose fastball hit triple digits on the radar gun in high school, nevertheless ended up at Walters State Community College, where he pitched 20 2/3 innings in between a pair of redshirt seasons.
At UT, he worked another 32 1/3 innings, with a Tommy John surgery sprinkled in the middle. His durability and his experience are much less impressive than his fastball. Don’t be surprised if Joyce slides into Monday’s picks and perhaps a couple round in (rounds 3-5, probably). Tools aren’t everything — even in a sport that is placing a higher premium on relievers and strong arms than ever.
5. Why not more draft talk about the SEC’s big bats?
Similarly, the guys who put up a ton of production aren’t always big-time MLB prospects. Consider the cases of Auburn’s Sonny DiChiara, Tennessee’s Trey Lipscomb and Tim Elko, who helped lead Ole Miss to the College World Series title.
Perhaps the most consistent bats in the SEC, they’re not looking to hear their names called on Sunday in the first two rounds of the Draft … or maybe for a while after.
In DiChiara’s case, it’s the old Moneyball quandry. He’d go low in a draft of blue jeans models, but the Billy Beane types know that body type aside, all Sonny D does is crush a lot. Lipscomb popped on to the scene out of nowhere this season, and there is some concern that while he is good at everything, he lacks that single next-level tool that scouts covet. Of the two, Lipscomb is probably likely to go first, maybe in the 3rd or early 4th round. DiChiara is popping up everywhere from the 2nd round to outside of the top 7-8 rounds in mock drafts.
Which has led some to wonder whether he might be tempted to return to Auburn next season.
Wouldn’t it be nice if he decided to come back for a final year to shatter even more records……and to finish his degree?
— Larry DiChiara (@DichiaraEd) July 11, 2022
Elko, who finished 2nd in the SEC with 24 home runs, is out of college eligibility, which means he has no leverage. That certainly will impact his draft round.
6. How many SEC first-round picks will we see?
The SEC has produced at least 1 top-10 pick for 8 consecutive years. Five times in that stretch, they’ve had at least 2 top-1o picks. That includes last year, when Vandy’s Jack Leiter went No. 2 overall and teammate Rocker was selected with the 10th pick.
Berry is the key to that top-10 streak extending to 9 years Sunday.
The SEC has produced at least 1 first-round pick for 15 consecutive years. That streak is a lock to extend to 16.
Berry is in, regardless of how far he slides. Prielipp is the first-round, too. Beck and Gilbert from UT are probably both in — not much separation from one to the other, but both are probably good enough to make the first round, with Gilbert probably a couple picks higher.
Florida infielder/outfielder Sterlin Thompson has worked his way into the first round discussion, and Rocker could well make it again.
UT’s Tidwell and Arkansas’ Cayden Wallace are unlikely, but could sneak in for the right team. At the end of the day, we’ll guess 6, projecting that those last 2 names go in the 2nd round, and that we don’t get any last-minute surprises.
7. What about the incoming SEC class?
The SEC is the best baseball conference in the world. That’s one reason the nation’s top high school players want in. Those recruits, however, typically make themselves eligible for the draft.
Druw Jones — former Braves star Andruw Jones’ son — is the No. 1 overall draft prospect. He signed with Vandy, but nobody expects him to become a Vandy Boy.
He’s not the only recruit Tim Corbin could lose.
Lefty Brandon Barriera is the No. 15 overall prospect, according to MLB.com. Righty Dylan Lesko remains a top-15 prospect, but he recently had Tommy John Surgery. Will teams take a chance on him regardless?
Fortunately for Corbin, Andrew Dutkanych and shortstop RJ Austin already announced they pulled out of the draft and will play for Vandy.
Lefty Jackson Ferris has signed with Ole Miss, but he’s also a top-20 draft prospect.
Bottom line: Stay tuned.