Searching for positives amid a coronavirus-interrupted baseball season that can’t seem to get restarted due to decades-long animosity between Major League Baseball owners and the MLB Players Association isn’t easy.
And that back and forth of proposals and bickering over lost revenues and player compensation has overshadowed one of the few baseball events that is actually happening — the MLB draft on Wednesday and Thursday.
Unlike the NFL, which held its draft in a virtual setting with huge TV ratings in April, MLB is preparing for a severely truncated version of its draft with minimal fanfare outside die-hard baseball circles.
Due to financial losses caused by the coronavirus shutdown, MLB is limiting this year’s draft to five rounds instead of the typical 40. A plan to increase it to at least 10 rounds was scrapped when MLB and the MLBPA couldn’t agree to a bonus system or the rules for signing non-drafted free agents.
The shortened affair will be held virtually — similar to the NFL and WNBA drafts — over two days and televised on ESPN, ESPN2 and MLB Network. The first-round and Competitive Balance A selections (Picks 1-37) will be held at 4 p.m. Wednesday. The remaining rounds will start at 2 p.m. Thursday.
To be fair, the MLB draft will never be as popular as the NFL or NBA drafts for a multitude of reasons, mostly because the majority of the top players selected — college or high school — aren’t known to the average fan. And of those top players selected, most are two years away from reaching the big leagues, some much longer.
Fanfare or not, the draft is still the most efficient way for organizations to accumulate young talent for sustainable success.
And for the Mariners, who are in the midst of a rebuilding plan, another successful draft would be vital to the process of layering young talent in a vastly improved farm system.
The shortened draft is suboptimal for Seattle. The only rewards from last season’s 68-94 record were earning the No. 6 overall pick and picking high in each round. Now the Mariners will have only six picks — the five per round and a Competitive Balance B pick that was acquired in the trade that sent catcher Omar Narvaez to the Brewers.
The Mariners had hoped for at least 10 rounds, but now they are forced to focus on these picks:
- No. 6 (first round)
- No. 43 (second round)
- No. 64 (Comp. B round)
- No. 78 (third round)
- No. 107 (fourth round)
- No. 137 (fifth round)
Obviously, the No. 6 pick will get the most attention. It’s the Mariners’ highest pick since 2014, when they took high-school slugger Alex Jackson at No. 6.
The Mariners hope this No. 6 pick is significantly more successful than Jackson, who was eventually traded to the Braves after swing-and-miss, injury and attitude issues.
It’s unlikely Mariners director of amateur scouting Scott Hunter and general manager Jerry Dipoto will take a high-school player with the first pick. This draft is loaded with premium college pitching prospects. Under Hunter’s direction, the Mariners have taken college pitchers Logan Gilbert (2018) and George Kirby (2019) with their past two first-round picks.
“We really targeted a smaller pool of players because we picked so high,” Hunter said. “We didn’t need to go into this going, ‘OK there’s 25 guys we take with our first pick.’ We have a pretty good idea of … 10 names that we were really focused in on, so we started the work this past winter on those 10 names.”
Seven of those 10 names likely are college pitchers.
“With a shortened draft, the first three picks, you go for the highest-end player,” Hunter said. “If you have a plethora of arms in your system, no one has ever been hurt by having too much pitching. So we’ll take the best player available that we think has the most impact for the Seattle Mariners.”
So will they select a college pitcher such as Georgia’s Emerson Hancock, Texas A&M lefty Asa Lacy or Minnesota’s Max Meyer?
Not necessarily, if slugging second baseman Nick Gonzales out of New Mexico State is available. MLB sources indicated that the Mariners would jump at that opportunity. Gonzales was named MVP of the prestigious Cape Cod summer league last year.
With the draft’s depth of college pitching, Seattle could take Gonzales and still get a first-round talent in the second round.
“Picking so high, we have narrowed it down to a select group of arms we feel fit that area of the draft, but it wouldn’t shock me if we are staring at our second- or third-round pick and a really good college arm that we thought could have gone a lot higher surprises us just because of the amount of depth in this draft,” Hunter said.
Multiple scouts believe that few high-school players will be taken in the fourth and fifth rounds due to this year’s bonus restrictions. There is a lack of flexibility with only five rounds of bonus slot money. But with an extra pick, the Mariners could burn the fifth-round selection by taking a player at a lesser signing bonus to overpay for a high-school player in earlier rounds.
“Once we get into the fourth and fifth rounds, obviously signability for some of the high-school guys will take over, and we will work our way through that,” Hunter said. “We are going to go for as much upside as we can that will impact our organization, not only in the present moment but also thinking big picture if the opportunity arises with high-school players we believe in and think can help build our system even that much stronger. We will take that opportunity, take that chance.”
With the big-league team projecting toward a losing season in 2019, Hunter and his staff began scouting players for a top-10 pick after last season’s draft ended. They even were able to get looks again in the winter and spring before all forms of amateur baseball shut down. They also changed up scouting strategy going into this year, trying to spread around the looks with their national cross-checkers.
“Getting the depth of looks we wanted to get out of this, getting our looks deeper in the draft really helped us,” Hunter said. “I don’t want to say we were prepared for it, but doing it that way put us in position to probably have a little more information than some clubs being in a little bit better position to make selections further down the line.”
But it’s the later rounds where the unpredictability seems to increase. All teams had to rely on video scouting of past performances. With just six picks, there’s a perceived motivation to be right on all of them, despite a process in previous years had a high frequency of mistakes and missed picks.
“This has brought a new challenge,” Hunter said. “Not seeing players, that’s the uneasy part of it. There’s going to be certain players we may pick in the draft even I didn’t see this year. That could be our first pick. The trust that we have built as an organization, with each other and the various departments that help with the draft give me comfort, but I don’t feel the pressure of it than any different year, because I look at it as an opportunity to get to select a player to help our organization get stronger and eventually affect our big-league team. It’s something I pride myself on, taking on that challenge and enjoy it.”
Here is a list of players that should be on the Mariners’ draft board.
Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Arizona State
The most complete hitting prospect in the draft. Torkelson has plus power, a professional and patient approach at the plate and ridiculous bat speed. He also won’t be make it to the Mariners at No. 6.
Austin Martin, CF/IF, Vanderbilt
With his athleticism Martin can play second base, third base, center field and shortstop, but his best position is hitter. His career on-base percentage at Vandy was .474, and he will be taken in the top three.
Asa Lacy, LHP, Texas A&M
In his outings leading up to the shutdown of college baseball, Lacy was touching 98 mph with an improved slider and solid change-up. He lacks pitch efficiency in the strike zone.
Emerson Hancock, RHP, Georgia
Once considered the favorite to be taken No. 1 overall, he struggled to start the 2020 season. There are concerns about a lack of swing-and-miss with his fastball and some mechanical issues.
Nick Gonzales, SS/2B, New Mexico State
From walk-on to likely top-five pick in just three years, Gonzales has put up video-game numbers for the Aggies in prime hitting conditions. But his MVP performance in the Cape Cod league last summer solidified his status.
Garrett Mitchell, OF, UCLA
A three-year starter for the Bruins, he has elite speed and is a plus center fielder. At the plate he has raw power, but his swing can be a hindrance in terms of elevation. Scouts believe he’ll hit for average.
Mick Abel, RHP, Jesuit HS, Portland
The Northwest product is considered the top West Coast high-school pitching prospect by several publications. At 6 feet 5 and 180 pounds, he has a fastball that can touch 97 mph and an outstanding slider. But he also hasn’t played a game this spring.
Jared Kelley, RHP, Refugio (Texas) HS
Kelley has a fastball that runs up to 97-99 mph with an easy delivery. He has a plus change-up but an inconsistent breaking pitch.
Garrett Crochet, LHP, Tennessee
A 6-6 lefty with a fastball that can touch 100 mph, Crochet made just one start this season for the Volunteers after being delayed by shoulder issues. He hasn’t made a lot of college starts, which might scare off some teams.
Reid Detmers, LHP, Louisville
He’s considered the most consistent strike-thrower in the draft. He had 48 strikeouts and just six walks in 22 innings this season. He has plus off-speed pitches and a highly competitive nature.
Austin Hendrick, OF, West Allegheny HS, Imperial, Pa.
The best power profile of the high-school hitters, offering glimpses at showcases last summer. He profiles as a corner outfielder with a strong arm.
Zac Veen, OF, Spruce Creek HS, Port Orange, Fla.
The consensus says he has the best pure swing of any high-school hitter in the draft. Add that to a mature approach, a discerning eye at the plate and a 6-5, 200-pound frame, and you have a top-10 pick.
Max Meyer, RHP, Minnesota
His frame — 5-11, 180 pounds — draws concerns about health and sustainability. But he has a fastball that touches 100 mph and a plus slider in the low 90s. Remember the last time Seattle passed on slightly-built, high-stuff college pitcher? Former Husky Tim Lincecum won back-to-back Cy Young Awards for the Giants.