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MLB’s unprecedented July draft includes a few surprises near the top

Commissioner Rob Manfred presides over the MLB draft. (David Zalubowski/AP)
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DENVER — Every year since Major League Baseball began holding an amateur draft in 1965, that draft had been held in June. An additional winter draft came and went, but the June one stayed. The timing was tradition, and MLB has a knack for clinging tightly to what it knows.

But the coronavirus pandemic seemed to loosen the grip the sport had on the holdovers of the past, if only slightly. MLB decided to try something different this year. It moved the draft to all-star week, beginning Sunday night, and staged it as part of the highest-profile celebration the sport plans for itself every summer.

The move allowed teams to scout players at the College World Series and see high school players whose seasons were delayed by the pandemic. It allowed for the scheduling of a pre-draft combine in the mold of the NFL’s popular event. And it enabled MLB to bring potential future stars into the spotlight already pointed at the Futures Game, Home Run Derby and All-Star Game.

For years, Major League Baseball has sought ways to make its draft more marketable, more like the super-hyped reality television experiences the NFL and NBA stage every year. But unlike those entering the NBA and NFL, MLB draft prospects don’t usually spend the years before their draft day playing in nationally televised games at high-profile college programs, surrounded by as much hype as their professional colleagues.

Nationals break from tradition, select high school shortstop in first round of MLB draft

So the MLB draft has always been more of an esoteric experience, though MLB decided to try something new this year by moving the draft out of MLB Network’s studios in Secaucus, N.J., and into a Denver theater. ESPN joined MLB Network in providing live coverage.

That coverage included bringing eight prospects to Denver to attend the draft in person, shake hands with Commissioner Rob Manfred and sit for live interviews. One of those eight prospects was Louisville catcher Henry Davis, considered one of the more polished hitters in the draft after he batted .370 for the Cardinals this past season.

The Pittsburgh Pirates took Davis first, choosing him over a quartet of promising high school shortstops and the two Vanderbilt aces who garnered headlines all year. Davis is the second college catcher taken first in the past three years, joining Baltimore Orioles prospect Adley Rutschman.

One of those Vanderbilt aces, Jack Leiter, went second to the Texas Rangers, 37 years after the New York Yankees drafted his father, Al, in the second round. Leiter and his Commodores teammate Kumar Rocker were long considered first-round locks as the most prominent stars from a college program known for churning out major leaguers.

The school has emerged as such a major league pipeline, in fact, that Vanderbilt Coach Tim Corbin joined MLB Network’s live coverage of the event and was on the broadcast when Leiter and Rocker became the 13th and 14th first-round picks Vanderbilt has produced during his tenure there.

Rocker fell to 10th overall and the New York Mets, who may be a good fit for the large signing bonus the Scott Boras client probably will command. Rocker seems likely to be a good fit for the Mets, too, after spending years as one of the most reliably elite performers — and most highly scrutinized players — on one of the country’s most prominent teams.

Last year, because of the pandemic, the draft was shortened from the usual 40 rounds to five. This year, MLB and its players negotiated a 20-round draft, and while the future remains uncertain, a shorter draft seems likely to stick in part because MLB’s takeover of the minor leagues before this season resulted in the elimination of 40 entry-level affiliates.

What hopefully will not linger, however, is the coronavirus’s impact on the evaluation process. Shortened seasons and travel restrictions meant many organizations had to rely more than ever on video and were left reckoning with smaller-than-usual sample sizes in some cases.

And while it remains to be seen whether a July draft will become the norm or 20 rounds will become a staple, the combination yielded a tough-to-predict first round in which big names fell and many teams seemed to seek players who would sign for less than the assigned value of their draft slot to save money to spend on talent in later rounds.

For weeks, shortstop Marcelo Mayer seemed as if he could join Adrián González as the second No. 1 pick from Eastlake High in Chula Vista, Calif. For weeks, analysts wondered whether four high school shortstops might get chosen in the top 10. And for weeks, it seemed that the Vanderbilt duo would be the first two starters taken.

But instead of a college pitcher or athletic high school shortstop, the Detroit Tigers drafted high school right-hander Jackson Jobe third. Mayer became the first of the high school shortstops taken when the Boston Red Sox selected him fourth, and fellow high school shortstop Jordan Lawlar went to the Arizona Diamondbacks at No. 6. The other two shortstops, both of whom were talked about as potential top-three picks for the past few weeks, slid out of the top 10 altogether.

The Kansas City Royals, for example, passed on Rocker and established college left-hander Jordan Wicks to choose emergent Connecticut high school lefty Frank Mozzicato, who was not ranked on MLB.com’s draft board entering the 2021 season after the pandemic canceled his 2020 campaign.

He became the seventh pick in a draft that, for all the talk of data taking the human factor out of baseball, revealed a clear lack of consensus among seasoned evaluators about which kind of players with which kind of track records are best poised to succeed in today’s game.

The Washington Nationals, normally drawn to big-bodied pitchers, took powerful high school shortstop Brady House at No. 11. Khalil Watson, another one of those high school shortstops considered a contender for a top spot, went to the Miami Marlins at No. 16.

The San Francisco Giants took right-hander Will Bednar 14th. Bednar had not been a clear-cut first-rounder before he emerged as the star of the College World Series for the champion Mississippi State Bulldogs. Had the draft been in June, his fate may have been far different.

And with the 27th pick, the San Diego Padres grabbed yet another high school shortstop — Jackson Merrill of Severna Park.

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