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Orioles pick Jackson Holliday first in MLB draft dominated by bloodlines

Kumar Rocker goes third to the Rangers

Jackson Holliday, son of longtime major league slugger Matt, was the first pick of the MLB draft. (Abbie Parr/AP)

LOS ANGELES — The Baltimore Orioles made high school shortstop Jackson Holliday the first pick of the MLB draft Sunday, adding a high-upside infielder and the son of a major leaguer to a farm system consistently ranked among the game’s best.

Holliday, son of seven-time all-star Matt Holliday, was the first selection in a draft that featured several players with major league relatives. With the second pick, the Arizona Diamondbacks took Druw Jones, the talented son of 10-time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones; draft analysts believe he has the tools to be a carbon copy of his father.

But on a day that otherwise was dominated by big league bloodlines, former Vanderbilt star Kumar Rocker emerged as the story, going third to the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets drafted Rocker 10th last year but did not sign him because of medical concerns, leaving the former SEC standout to wander a lonely year through independent baseball. As it happened, he was selected significantly higher than before — as the first pitcher in a draft class that did not contain as many first-round arms as normal.

Because the Mets did not sign him last year, they were awarded an additional first-round pick this year and chose twice in the first 14 selections. They used one of those picks, the 11th, to select Georgia Tech catcher Kevin Parada, who combines with their top prospect, Francisco Álvarez, to give the Mets a rare embarrassment of catching riches.

Yet if any team had reason to celebrate Sunday night, it was the Orioles, for whom their first pick came at an encouraging time. They enter the all-star break at 46-46 and stand 3½ games out of a wild-card spot, more competitive than they have been in half a decade. And they added another young talent to a system that recently produced Adley Rutschman and has top prospects Gunnar Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez likely to debut soon.

This was the fourth straight year in which the Orioles picked in the top five and the third time in four years that they picked in the first two. All of those picks are on track to make the majors within the next year or so.

Nationals draft Elijah Green, a high school outfielder, with No. 5 pick

Rutschman was General Manager Mike Elias’s first draft pick with the Orioles, and he was something of a no-brainer — a Harperian, Strasburgian talent whom any team choosing first almost certainly would have taken. Last year, Elias and his staff chose a steadier, cheaper option in college hitter Colton Cowser at No. 5 overall, something they had done in 2020 with Heston Kjerstad at No. 2. Teams are allowed a set amount of money to allocate for signing bonuses, so some opt to take less expensive picks early to entice more quality players with significant bonuses later.

The Orioles could have taken either approach with the first pick Sunday, opting for a high-upside, probably high-cost high school star in Holliday or Jones or a more experienced college hitter with less negotiating leverage. They chose Holliday, who offers a rare profile as a powerful left-handed hitter who also can play shortstop. Among current power-hitting shortstops, only perennial all-star Corey Seager of the Rangers hits from the left side.

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Another team that has picked early often, the Pittsburgh Pirates at No. 4, chose Termarr Johnson. Generously listed at 5-foot-10, Johnson is a high school hitter considered one of the most solid left-handed bats available in the draft in years, and he could fit nicely in a future Pirates infield that already includes young stars Ke’Bryan Hayes and Oneil Cruz.

At No. 5, the Nationals made IMG Academy outfielder Elijah Green their highest draft pick since Bryce Harper in 2010, opting for upside instead of a more proven college player for the second straight season. Green, like Holliday and Jones, is the son of a former professional athlete — ex-NFL tight end Eric Green. Shortstop Brooks Lee, son of longtime Cal Poly coach and nationally renowned hitting whiz Larry, went eighth to the Minnesota Twins. Texas Tech second baseman Jace Jung, brother of Rangers prospect Josh, went 12th to the Detroit Tigers.

Carl Crawford’s son Justin, a high school outfielder, went 17th to the Philadelphia Phillies. A pick later, the Cincinnati Reds took third baseman Cam Collier, son of former big leaguer Lou; Cam reclassified and opted for junior college at 17, then became one of the youngest junior college players taken in the first round since Harper did the same thing more than a decade ago. Arizona’s Daniel Susac, brother of former big league catcher Andrew, went to the Oakland Athletics at No. 19.

The prevalence of major league ties among first-round picks is a complicated reality, one that speaks to the comfort executives have with those who understand the major league experience and to the advantage offered to players who spend their youth around the best in the business. Yet even as those born into baseball dominated the first round, Sunday night’s class also was historic for its diversity: For the first time in major league history, four of the first five picks are Black, an encouraging trend for a game that has seen the number of Black players drop precipitously over the past few decades.

The first round was dominated by hitters and featured few high school pitchers — generally considered the riskiest type of player to choose early. The San Diego Padres took the most impressive high school pitcher, Dylan Lesko, at No. 15 after injury trouble led him to drop from a top-five choice.

Teams were less afraid of fast-rising college pitchers, including Oklahoma College World Series standout Cade Horton, who climbed multiple rounds after an impressive stretch in Omaha. He went seventh to the Chicago Cubs.

As Rocker can attest, picking a player does not guarantee that player will find his way into an organization’s farm system. But Baltimore has plenty of time to spend its MLB-high bonus pool on more talent for a system that has plenty of it already.