Your SEC primer to the 2021 MLB Draft
It’s a quick world in baseball. A few days ago, Mississippi State dethroned Vandy in an all-SEC College World Series finals. Now, Kumar Rocker and Will Bednar are back at it again, to see where they’ll land in the MLB Draft, which starts Sunday night. While MLB’s draft isn’t as high-profile as the NFL or NBA’s events, it’s the next step in the process for a group of SEC stars heading to the next level.
Here are a few things to know:
Who’s getting picked early?
Probably not as many SEC guys as, say, 2020, when there were 8 SEC first-round picks — including 4 in the top 10.
Vandy aces Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker and lead-pipe-locks to go in the first round, and almost as certain to go in the first 10 picks. More on this later. After that, MSU’s Will Bednar probably climbed solidly into the first round with his performance in Omaha.
The other names are more uncertain. Ole Miss’ Gunnar Hoglund is probably the most certain first-rounder left, even after his injury and Tommy John surgery. Other guys like Florida outfielder Jud Fabian, LSU ace Jaden Hill (also injured), Florida pitcher Tommy Mace, Arkansas outfielder Christian Franklin, Ole Miss pitcher Doug Nikhazy and Auburn shortstop Ryan Bliss among the guys who could sneak into the late first round.
Isn’t that a lot of pitchers in this draft?
Yes, this could be the most SEC pitchers to ever go in the draft’s first round. On a couple occasions, 5 SEC pitchers were selected in the first round. Rocker and Leiter are guaranteed, Bednar and Hoglund look really likely, so if Hill, Mace and/or Nikhazy sneak into the first round, it will be a historic SEC pitching haul in the draft’s first round.
Who’s the first SEC guy off the board?
Leiter, no doubt about it.
Before the season, the pecking order between Leiter and Rocker was one of the biggest narratives. There was some thought they might become the first set of college pitching teammates to go 1-2. That won’t happen, but the other certainty is that Leiter’s season pushed him ahead of Rocker in all the draft projections. Leiter likely goes No. 2 overall to Texas Rangers. A few mock drafts push him to the Detroit Tigers at the No. 3 pick, but Texas is a likely landing spot. Rocker has the bigger frame, but scouts love Leiter’s stuff, his moxie, his bloodlines. There are no sure things, particularly in drafting pitchers. But Leiter is awfully close.
So were the Rocker/Leiter stories overblown?
No. Most mock drafts put Rocker going either No. 6 or No. 7, which would be the Arizona Diamondbacks or the Kansas City Royals. In either situation, Rocker and Leiter would be the first SEC teammates to both go in the top 7 picks. Only twice before in SEC history have 2 teammates gone in the top 10: 2007 (Vandy’s David Price and Casey Weathers) and 2015 (Vandy’s Dansby Swanson and Carson Fulmer).
But in both of those instances, the second guy went with the 8th pick. So if form holds, this could be the best showing for a pair of teammates in the SEC’s draft history.
Rocker’s velocity issues didn’t manifest themselves in the back end of the season. Rough final game on short rest aside, all the guy did is take the ball and go to work. He’s probably the most MLB-ready pitching prospect in the draft, and even if his upside isn’t quite as high as Leiter’s, it’s plenty high enough.
What if it’s just Rocker and Leiter in the first round?
Before Bednar’s CWS dominance and given the potential injury fears with Hoglund (and more so with Hill), some have predicted just 2 SEC first-round picks. If that happened, it would be the first time the SEC has that few first-round picks since 2014, when it was just 2 SEC guys in the first round (LSU’s Aaron Nola and Vandy’s Tyler Beede).
But this draft is particularly high school heavy, with a handful of supposedly high-upside shortstops likely to rule the top of the draft.
For instance, MLB.com’s latest mock draft includes 4 high school shortstops in the top 10 picks — including California product Marcelo Mayer, who is projected at No. 1. The top 10 includes only 4 collegiate players — both Vandy aces, Lousiville catcher Henry Davis and Boston College outfielder Sal Frelick. MLB.com’s top 20 draft prospects includes a dozen high school players.
Are so many high school guys normally picked that high?
No. Take 2020. Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson went No. 1. Then Arkansas’ Heston Kjerstad. Followed by Minnesota’s Max Meyer, Texas A&M’s Aca Lacy, Vandy’s Austin Martin, Georgia’s Emerson Hancock, an outfielder from New Mexico State … well, you get the picture.
No high schooler was picked until the 8th pick, and only 7 of the top 20 picks were high schoolers. Granted, 2020 was weird because of COVID issues. But 2019 wasn’t much different. Bobby Witt Jr. went No. 2 overall out of high school, but again, 13 of the top 20 picks were college players. If Bednar, Hoglund, etc., are pushed back to Round 2, it is an apparently brilliant crop of high school guys pushing them back.
Who’s your sleeper for a late rise?
Arkansas outfielder Christian Franklin. Pitchers look attractive in prospects lists and mock drafts. But they’re always a long shot, and a contending team could well decide they’d rather take a lower-ceiling but higher-floor guy like Franklin.
Franklin could be in the big leagues in a couple of years and could be an everyday regular while a higher-ranked prospect like Jaden Hill is still hoping for an injury-free season in the lower minors.