The most interesting 2021 MLB draft storylines one month from Draft DayESPN PLUS ($ MATERIAL)
For a casual MLB draft fan, or a casual baseball fan in general, the specifics and depth of the draft can be intimidating.
With a month until this year's annual event, I wanted to run down the biggest storylines in the 2021 draft to give you some narratives to keep track of, rather than just giving you another ranking of names
Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter
The Vandy Boys are the two most popular, well-known players in the draft and, in my opinion, the most popular draft prospects in more than a decade. Other candidates include Dansby Swanson and Alex Bregman in 2015, Carlos Rodon in 2014, Mark Appel in 2013 or Gerrit Cole in 2011, but the last player to clearly be more famous than Rocker and Leiter before being drafted is Bryce Harper and his SI cover in 2010.
Stephen Strasburg in 2009, David Price/Matt Wieters in 2007, Justin Upton in 2005, Joe Mauer/Mark Prior in 2001, Josh Hamilton/Josh Beckett in 1999 and Pat Burrell/J.D. Drew in 1998 are other notably hyped prospects going as far back as I can remember. I was 10 years old when Kris Benson went first in 1996, so maybe someone will tell me he deserves a mention. But the internet also barely existed back then, so then again, maybe not.
It's a longshot right now that either pitcher goes first overall, but Leiter seems likely to go in the top three, and Rocker is essentially guaranteed to go in the top 10, but is a little harder to pin down. I scouted them in person and went in depth, then updated that opinion in last week's rankings update.
No clear-cut top prospect or likely first pick
For the past three drafts, it has been clear at least a month out, if not more, who will be the first overall pick. In the 2017 and 2016 drafts, it was more like days or weeks in advance when it became clear there was a heavy favorite, but this year it might go even later.
In last week's rankings update, I broke down each player and which way the teams at the top seem to be leaning, but I think this one will go down to the wire like in 2012 when the Astros asked them to submit their bonus demands and simply chose the cheapest one, which ended up being Carlos Correa, helping set up an overslot bonus for Lance McCullers Jr. with the savings.
I don't know if that is what Pittsburgh will actually do with the first pick, and I suspect they don't know what they'll do yet, either, but Pirates execs are likely looking for value, and there's a compelling case for at least four players being the top talent this year. They won't all ask for the same bonus, so then tying a number to each player will be a key factor. That process hasn't begun yet and might not until days before the draft, possibly the day of.
Two-way players & football decisions
Shohei Ohtani has made being a two-way player in the big leagues a regular discussion. Somewhat quietly, Brendan McKay and Jake Cronenworth have dabbled with it at times in their careers and younger prospects like Masyn Winn, Tanner Dodson and William Holmes, among others, have toyed with it or plan to. Every draft, there's super-talented prospects who are good both ways -- Braves slugger Austin Riley was regarded as a pitcher-only by a majority of teams when he signed out of high school, and Casey Kelly briefly hit before converting to the mound -- but rarely is it actually a debate which way a prospect will go in pro ball, or if they'll do the two-way thing.
This year, there are three players who are legit top-two-round prospects as both pitchers and position players: Georgia prep RHP/SS Bubba Chandler (Clemson commit), SoCal prep SS/RHP Carson Williams (Cal commit), and Nebraska SS/RHP Spencer Schwellenbach. Chandler is also a QB commit to Dabo Swinney and is preferred on the mound by most teams, but a few like him more as a switch-hitting shortstop. He's likely to go in the middle-to-late first round and opt for baseball over football, with a chance to play both ways initially in pro ball. Williams has easy, explosive stuff on the mound, but is slightly preferred by most teams as a position player. And he prefers to hit first, so he will likely be a position player only and go in the back of the first round or in the compensation round. If things don't work out as a hitter (as with Kelly), then pitching will become an option.
Schwellenbach has pitched this year for the first time since high school and some teams say he might be able to start, but have very little performance to judge him on. He's a solid athlete, hitter and defender, but due to the lack of info on the mound, his evaluation is more of a split camp across the industry, but with more upside on the mound. He has interest from the late first into the early second round and also is open-minded, with a chance to play both ways early in his pro career.
In addition to the two-way considerations, there's always a number of dual-sport prep recruits, usually football players. In addition to Chandler, Swinney has a likely first-rounder and likely pro baseball player in slot receiver commit Will Taylor, a center fielder from South Carolina prep. Taylor is also a state championship wrestler. Pennsylvania prep OF Lonnie White Jr. should go in the first or second round and is committed to Penn State to play wide receiver as well. Florida prep OF Jay Allen (another likely top-two-round pick) might also play football if he makes it to campus for the Gators. Indiana prep SS Colson Montgomery (Indiana commit) also drew a lot of interest as a 6-foot-3 Division I point guard recruit before focusing solely on baseball.
Grab bag of post-pandemic specific quirks
I'll use this as a catch-all for all the various things related to the pandemic that will impact this draft, but hopefully not be an issue in future drafts.
Small-school college hitters
If Tyler Black (Wright State), Trey Sweeney (Eastern Illinois), Ethan Wilson (South Alabama), or to a lesser degree, Connor Norby (East Carolina), were able to do what Nick Gonzalez (formerly of New Mexico State, seventh overall pick last summer to the Pirates) did on the Cape, or what Travis Swagerty (formerly of South Alabama, 10th overall to the Pirates in 2018) did for Team USA, they all might have started this spring in the first round, with a shot to move into the top half of the first round with a strong spring, even in a mid-major conference. They are generally seen as late-first-to-mid-second-round prospects, but there's a simmering belief in the industry that this is underselling them.
Sam Houston State CF Colton Cowser looks like a top-half-of-the-first-round pick. He stood out two summers ago as an underclassman for Team USA, with scouts admitting that this has affected his draft stock, despite being two years ago, and Cowser facing weak competition this spring. In a year that's weak on college hitters, the value appears to be in the small-school crop, with rumors that all of those four are rising in recent weeks.
More late risers?
Given the lack of overall data, to varying degrees, will there be more late-rising prospects like Nick Bitsko last year? Probably! Just last week I covered three players who I knew little about who could all sneak into Day 1 (36 picks) or early Day 2. I would expect a few more to join them, and more players rising (maybe the media are just late to learn of them, maybe they're actually rising in real time) down the stretch as teams will always overthink decisions if you give them more time.
Extra month of stuff
With the draft moved back a month, what will play out in that extra month to add information? The first year of the Draft League is already underway, mostly with small-school, midround college prospects, and the first combine will happen at the end of the month, but likely without many top-two-round prospects. The full College World Series will have been played before the draft, when in the past only the regionals have been completed. This also creates more time for teams to have private workouts and, if you're a pessimistic type, more time for second-guessing and inventing prospects in an effort to perfect their process.
Prep position players dominate?
Due to most of a full summer-showcase season and almost none of a normal summer college league season, teams have much closer to a full complement of data on prep hitters than college hitters. The college hitting class, possibly related to this, is seen as a down class, and the high school hitters, especially the depth in the second tier, is seen as very strong. There's a decent shot that more than a third of the Day 1 picks are prep position players.
22-year-old college prospects
In the wake of the five-round draft in 2020, there's an unprecedented amount of 22-year-old collegiates who are early-round talents. Will they just sign for slot bonuses based on where their talent dictates, take big discounts given lesser leverage, slide down the board as they demand a retail price, or move up as teams look to lock in savings with solid talents early? None of them made my most recent top 50, but a number were just outside that tier and could sneak into Day 1: righties such as East Carolina's Gavin Williams, Florida's Tommy Mace, Dallas Baptist's Dominic Hamel and Oregon State's Kevin Abel; lefties such as Houston's Robert Gasser and Virginia's Andrew Abbott, and Florida State catcher Mat Nelson.
The 2022 draft lurks
Lastly, it isn't fun to mention this right now, but the 2022 draft looks stronger across the board, with a potential clear top talent in Florida prep OF Elijah Greene, while the 2021 class is seen as pretty average without a clear top talent and just OK depth. Will a team have its pocket picked at a selection ahead of them, then take a hard-to-sign player at a high pick with the thought that the worst case is that they don't sign the player and get a comp pick next year? It would take a team with buy-in from the top and job security, but it will be discussed for sure, and more so than in the past.