Editor’s note: This is the 14th in a weekly series of stories in which Detroit News freelance writer Lynn Henning will rank the top prospects in July’s MLB Draft.
One sure way to blow up a team’s fortunes in the MLB Draft is to, yes, succumb to that old temptation: drafting a hyper-talented high school pitcher.
It’s not quite a risk on the level of buying a lottery ticket at the corner liquor store, but returns can leave a general manager self-interrogating himself on why he ever trusted an 18-year-old arm when breakdowns, loss of velocity, and all the other perils associated with professional pitching are waiting to ambush a team and its first-round pick.
It’s something the Tigers know — from experience — as they ponder their first-round turn, third overall, in July’s MLB Draft.
Think of Beau Burrows, Detroit’s first-round pick from 2015. Burrows has appeared in all of five big-league games and now is trying to put things together at Triple A.
Recall a first-round pick from 2000, Matt Wheatland, a wonderful right-hander from Rancho Bernardo, California, the Tigers snagged with the eighth overall pick. His arm soon gave out as the Tigers a year later watched yet another first-rounder (Kenny Baugh, from Rice) disappear into pitching’s injury archives.
Another caveat could be Tigers pitching prospect Matt Manning, the ninth overall selection from 2016. Manning is neither in the big leagues, nor has he progressed at quite the speed an anxious Tigers team might have hoped.
Given the boldface warning labels, supported by so much industry history, would the Tigers go the prep-pitcher route in 2021 with that third choice?
It can’t be ruled out — for various reasons.
A first issue is that the 2021 draft isn’t advertising nearly as much dynamism as most drafts feature in those early picks. It’s why the Tigers are focusing, it is believed, on prep shortstop Marcelo Mayer, from Chula Vista, California, as well as Vanderbilt right-hander Jack Leiter, and why they aren’t, from all available information, all that crazed about other possibilities.
That could mean a wild-card pick for the Tigers should Mayer and Leiter both be gone, to Pittsburgh and Texas, in the draft’s first two slots.
And that wild-card pick might well be Jackson Jobe, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound, right-handed bronco from Heritage Hall High in Oklahoma City. He has been anointed generally as the nation’s best prep arm and is a near-certainty to be scooped in the draft’s first 10 spots.
It has been known Tigers scouts all spring have been keeping their GPS maps lashed to wherever Jobe is pitching. And the head coach at Heritage High, Jordan Semore, understands why.
“I’ve been around baseball a long time, coaching high school baseball for the past 10 years, coaching college baseball before that, and he by far is the best high school pitcher I’ve ever seen,” Semore said during a Monday phone conversation.
“The gift he has is how easy it is for him to throw baseballs as hard as he does. His arm looks so smooth, and then the ball just jumps out 97, 98 — I’ve never seen a pitcher his age throw the ball the way he does.”
Jobe’s numbers, as much as the dozens of MLB scouts who have kept tabs on him this spring, support Semore’s appraisal as well as the Tigers’ interest: 10 games, 51⅔ innings, 15 hits, 122 strikeouts, and five walks.
Jobe allowed a single earned run this year. He was nicked for three earned runs in his entire time at Heritage Hall.
“His fastball is upper 90s, but his slider is one of the better pitchers I’ve seen — and not just at the high-school level, but college,” Semore said. “His (spin-rate) is 3,100, 3,200 (rpms) — that’s top-percentage even among major-league pitchers.
“And the best part is he can throw a strike with any pitch.”
Jobe supposedly is headed to the University of Mississippi this autumn. But that likely isn’t happening when early first-round money in the millions of dollars is all but in his bank account.
As much as his polished pitching mechanics, it’s the natural talents the nephew of one-time PGA Tour player Brandt Jobe so regularly flaunts that make him something of a phenomenon. Jobe plays shortstop elegantly and hits on a par with his pitching. He also played football at Heritage Hall, as a quarterback and defensive back, before settling, exclusively, on baseball.
“He makes plays on the mound like a shortstop,” Semore said. “The athleticism simply helps him in every facet.”
A second reason the Tigers might opt for Jobe over prep shortstops Jordan Lawlar and Brady House (bat concerns), or bypass the best college hitter in America, Henry Davis from Louisville (Dillon Dingler is set as the Tigers’ long-term catching choice), is likewise tied to prep-pitching history.
The fact remains lots of high school aces have indeed cut it. Some are in the Hall of Fame.
Greg Maddux, Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Josh Beckett, CC Sabathia, J.R. Richard, Bert Blyleven, etc. — all were early draft picks. All were prep pitchers. All flourished.
Even the Tigers can cite triumphs there, most recently when they nabbed Rick Porcello in 2007. Porcello pitched admirably in Detroit and later won a Cy Young Award with the Red Sox.
It’s a debate the Tigers might chew on all the way to July 11 as the Pirates and Rangers keep their cards — and, perhaps, their options — as secretive as the Tigers are guarding theirs.
How the nation’s best high school and college players stack up ahead of July’s MLB Draft:
► 1. Jack Leiter, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-1, 205: Not that scouts are in the dark about Leiter’s quiver of weapons, but they’ll see even more of him in coming days as Vandy heads for the NCAA Tournament. Leiter wasn’t vaporizing batters last week in his tournament start against Ole Miss — 6⅔ innings, three hits, three earned runs, two walks, eight strikeouts, all within 105 pitches. But he tossed a Leiter-grade game, which is why he remains the most trustworthy talent in this year’s draft. Last week’s ranking: 1
► 2. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, California, 6-3, 188: He came as close last week to being average as Mayer perhaps could appear in a prep uniform: 1-for-6 in two games, one walk, two strikeouts, two errors. Big deal. He’s the best prep shortstop in the land, even if Jordan Lawlar’s fans say otherwise. For the season: 26 games, 13 home runs, 26 walks, five strikeouts, .419 batting average, with .579 on-base and .986 slugging (1.565 OPS). Last week’s ranking: 2
► 3. Henry Davis, C, Louisville, 6-1, 205: Louisville is in exile for the remainder of 2021, missing a ticket to the NCAA party. But it wasn’t because of any failing on the part of college baseball’s best hitter. Davis against Clemson and Georgia Tech last week was 5-for-12 with three home runs. He’s going to make someone very happy on July 11, with the Red Sox probably winning Davis’ bat thanks to the Tigers being so pleased with their long-haul catching prospect, Dillon Dingler. Last week’s ranking: 4
► 4. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas Jesuit High, 6-2, 180: Scouts are still debating — even, perhaps, Pirates scouts — whether Lawlar goes first to Pittsburgh or second to the Rangers. Meanwhile, various other snoops are considering the possibility Lawlar might not go in the top four. The Tigers could surprise a few folks and pick Lawlar at three-overall, should he be around, but watching the Rangers pass on him would be something of a mild shock. And there still is no sign the Tigers like him better than Leiter, Mayer, or perhaps, a surprise prodigy they have in mind. Last week’s ranking: 5
► 5. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Georgia, 6-3, 212: Hardest of all the top talents to project, in terms of where he mig ht go. The power potential is still worth a top-five pick, but clubs nervous about his strikeout potential could knock him down a peg or two — or more. Last week’s ranking: 6
► 6. Jackson Jobe, RH starter, Heritage Hall High, Oklahoma City, 6-2, 190: If you’re into betting on the 2021 draft’s first major surprise, consider plugging in the name of Jackson Jobe. Yes, taking prep pitchers is as dangerous as stalking a wounded Cape buffalo. But when you have the size and stuff and analytically promising gifts that Jobe offers, someone is going to place an early bet on him. And that team could well be the Tigers. Last week’s ranking: 7
► 7. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: Not finishing with the sass Rocker’s agent, Scott Boras, would have preferred. In last week’s SEC tournament game against Arkansas, Rocker lasted all of 3⅓ innings and 86 pitches. The damage: four hits, five earned runs, four walks, six punch-outs. He might regain altitude during the NCAA Tournament, but there hasn’t been enough command to justify for Rocker a top-five seat in July’s draft. Last week’s ranking: 2
► 8. Khalil Watson, SS, Wake Forest High, Wake Forest, North Carolina, 5-11, 168: When so many hotshots are finished with their season, it’s nice to have some spotlight all to yourself. Watson will have quite the scouting audience for his closeout games. In a year when there isn’t a great deal of wow-factor to the draft board’s first 10 picks, a youngster like Watson — the Tigers are still paying attention — can steadily sneak into a higher slot. Last week’s ranking: 8
► 9. Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: Not everyone has Bachman as a top 10 talent. And that’s understandable. He could find himself a few years from now locking down a MLB team’s back-end bullpen rather than working as a rotation horse. But either way, he has a chance to be a high-octane weapon, which is why he sticks, for now, in July 11’s top 10. Bachman had a typical game last week against Ball State: 6⅔ innings, three hits, no walks, nine strikeouts. Over and out. Last week’s ranking: 9
► 10. Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State, 6-3, 195: Furious finish for Cowser who, unfortunately, won’t be playing in the NCAA sweepstakes after Sam Houston lost its conference championship game, 2-1. Cowser’s six-game onslaught from last week: 11-for-22, two home runs, three doubles, one triple, six walks, two strikeouts. Scouts would have preferred seeing what he could do against NCAA tourney-grade pitching. But already, he’s shown enough to stick in the first third of July’s first round. Last week’s ranking: 10
► Pushing for Top 10 inclusion: Gunnar Hoglund, RH starter, Mississippi, 6-4, 210 (recent Tommy John surgery); Ryan Cusick, RH starter, Wake Forest, 6-6, 235; Matt McLain, SS, UCLA, 5-11, 180; Ty Madden, RH starter, Texas, 6-3, 215; Bubba Chandler, RH starter/SS, North Oconee High, Bogart, Ga.; Alex Binelas, 1B, Louisville, 6-3, 225; Ethan Wilson, OF, South Alabama, 6-1, 210; Sal Frelick, OF, Boston College, 5-9, 175; Alex Mooney, SS, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 6-1, 175; 0; Jud Fabian, OF, Florida, 6-foot, 190; Jonathan Cannon, RH starter, Georgia, 6-6, 207; Mason Black, RH starter, Lehigh, 6-3, 200; McCade Brown, RH starter, Indiana University, 6-6, 225; 6-4; Adrian Del Castillo, C, Miami (Florida), 5-11, 210; James Wood, OF, IMG Academy, 6-6, 230; Cody Schrier, SS, JSerra Catholic High, San Juan Capistrano, California.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com