Back in June of 2020, just days before the last MLB draft-held in the absence of a decision concerning how long the season would be, or if their would actually be a season at all-I began to see #TankForKumar trending on Twitter. As an avid College Baseball Fan-Let’s Go Eers!-, I obviously knew who Kumar Rocker was; especially after his no hit performance in the previous year’s Super Regional against Duke, where he struck out 19 as a 19 year-old freshman. However, I never really pictured him as the face of 2021. Possibly because of his age, lack of experience and the shortened 2020 season; but mostly because I never saw that developed changeup; which I am still waiting for by the way.
As the Pirates season officially began-and ultimately progressed-the trend for Kumar, and a supposed tank started to snowball; culminating in some creating a magic number for a last place finish. With each passing game it became almost impossible to avoid, as memes of actual tanks filled my timeline, tank commanders were awarded for poor performances and the catchy hastag-which I found funny to a degree, only because of the hilarious Harold and Kumar movies-had developed a life of its own.
Then came the first of September, which brought on the second coming of Cutch; also known as Ke’Bryan Hayes’ MLB debut; and of course another hashtag-#Ke’BROYan. But not to worry, the #TankForKumar was still going strong, reaching unspeakable heights; until the Pirates finally clinched the number one pick at the end of month. Time to celebrate, right? More like time to argue about who Pittsburgh should select.
At first it was simply Rocker vs. Leiter, but as time went on the dreaded high school shortstop entered the conversation; because you know, the Pirates already have enough shortstops. Although no one can seem to tell me who the guaranteed shortstop of the future, or appear confused when the topic of shortstops transitioning to the outfield is discussed. However, these can be debated another day, as we all know positional need should never be the focus of the MLB Draft.
When selecting a player-high school or college-the goal is to find the best player available at your slot; which comes with a little added pressure when your team sits inside the top 10, and particularly when you happen to be picking #1 overall. It’s a blessing, and a curse, as you get the pick of the litter; all the while, every other team directly behind you is waiting for you to screw up, and leave the guy they really want on the board.
As it sits today, there continue to be about five names that the Pirates are supposedly zeroing in on as the name that will be called on Sunday July 11th, so I thought I would take a deeper dive into all of them to help you make your choice; even if it turns out to be the incorrect one.
The Early Favorites
Jack Leiter is one half of the original Kumar vs. Leiter argument; because let’s face it, it has been an argument rather than a debate. Two Vandy Boys with lights out stuff, and who pitch on back-to-back days, makes an easy progression to want to pick one over the other in a Cole-Bauer like controversy. However, for me the choice was always an easy one; Rocker has the higher ceiling, while Leiter has the higher floor. With Leiter you were getting what I saw as close to a guaranteed middle of the rotation guy as you could get, whereas with Rocker the possibilities range from top of the line starter to shutdown closer; and I don’t want to take the chance of getting a closer with the number 1 overall pick, but maybe that’s just me.
On the season, Leiter posted a 2.16 ERA, a .854 WHIP and 156 strikeouts in 96 innings of work; 9 of which was a 16 strikeout, no hitter against South Carolina at the end of March.
With the build that that is considered small for a starter, Leiter utilizes a four pitch repertoire of a 90-95 mph fastball (70 grade), a 12-6 curveball (60 grade), a underrated slider (55 grade) and a changeup (50 grade) that he often keeps in his back pocket. His delivery is also extremely repeatable, and consistent, which allows for maximum deception on all of pitches. Wild at times, Leiter has been known to give up free passes, or a streak of homers; nevertheless, he has remained strong throughout the season, and into the College World Series.
Jordan Lawlar was the first dreaded high school shortstop to regularly enter the conversation for the Pirates Top Draft Pick; and he was actually my number two for a time, just behind Leiter.
Currently committed to Vanderbilt University, this 6’2” 183 pound Texas Prep School Shortstop has all the makings of a true 5 Tool Player; with speed, quick hands, power to all parts of the field and a strong arm, the only knock on the youngster I have seen is that he turns 19 a couple of weeks before the draft.
The Late Riser
Khalil Watson’s buzz started out as a *whisper*, but has been on full blast over the past couple of weeks.
At 5’9” and 178 pounds, he is clearly the smallest of the three high school shortstops. Known more for his speed and defense, there is a lot more power than you would expect from a lefty his size. Profiling as a shortstop, his athleticism and arm strength could allow for a transition to any almost any position on the field.
Seen as a player than could potentially go under slot, some Pirates Fans have targeted as a way to save some money for picks later on in the draft; although I don’t really put much stock in that practice or train of thought when it comes to the first overall pick.
The Position of Need
Henry Davis appears to be the answer to everyone’s-the Pirates don’t have enough depth in the system at catcher-prayers. Obviously I am not saying that the hopes of these fans are misguided, or incorrect, however, this goes back to the old adage that you don’t draft for need; unless you truly believe that Davis is the best player in the draft, while also taking into account the questions about his ability to remain behind the dish, which could turn him from an above average catching prospect to an average outfield, or even a first base prospect.
Davis does have some qualities that are without question; including his arm strength, raw power and overall hit tool, which have allowed him to stay in the discussion as a near consensus top 5 pick.
For the year he slashed .370/.482/.663 with 15 homers, as he threw out 34% of the would be base stealers; resulting in comps to Dodgers 26 year old back stop, Will Smith.
The Top Tools
Marcelo Mayer has a build that is similar to Lawlar at 6’3” and 188 pounds, which has allowed some to project more untapped power in his approach.
Listed as being the best hitter and the best defender in the current draft class according to MLB Pipeline, the California Prep Star is seen as having an advanced approach at the plate and a sweet stroke to go along with it; and honestly the more tape I see on this kid, the more I like about his overall game.
Now, naturally, one of my favorite sites, Fangraphs, had to go and throw an extra wrench in the mix by projecting where each top pick would fall in an updated version of the Top 100 Prospects, just for fun. Which is just what it is, fun; so I had to include it.
In all honesty it is hard to see how Cherington could go wrong with any of these five players; with all things being pretty much equal across the board, and none of them truly standing out as that coveted 1:1. Although, watch the fallout if four of them fail, and one succeeds-with that one not being Ben’s choice. And obviously be prepared for the implosion of Pirates Social Media if all five fail, leaving Rocker as the one that has the best career.
Now, keep in my mind that I am clearly an amateur in a ring with professionals, so you can take my opinion with a grain of salt. However, having watching and preparing for MLB Drafts has been a passion of mine ever since my neighbor’s boyfriend was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 42nd Round of 1993; or for those of you keeping track at home, soon to be 28 drafts under my belt. Which is to say I have as much of a chance of getting this pick correct, as a person who just started studying the draft this year.
The MLB Draft is a crap shoot. There’s no other easy way to say it. My picks of Marcelo Mayer or Jack Leiter, has just about the same chance of being the right in the long term, as the guy who is still #TankingForKumar. That’s just how it goes.
But you will never see me use the hashtag, #TankForElijah. That I can guarantee.