So when the 12th pick of the first round of the 2021 Major League Baseball amateur draft rolls around Sunday evening, approximately 6 p.m. local time, the Mariners have to select a hard-throwing college pitcher, don’t they?

“That’s what everybody says,” said Scott Hunter, the Mariners director of amateur scouting. “You know how many people have asked me that? I don’t want to lock into anything. We’ve done so well with college pitching portion. I think we’ve done a good enough job to where we’ve built up that portion of the organization.”

And yet … you can’t look at positional need or lack thereof in the organization when it comes to the first-round selection.

“You can never have enough pitching,” Hunter said. “And if the best pick that is there is a college pitcher, then we’ll do it. To make good decisions, we have to stay true to our (draft) board and what our information is telling us. That’s what we’ve done as an organization over the last four years. We’ve stayed disciplined to not get too far off of what we believe in and make a rash decision because something changed in front of us.”

Since Hunter took over the amateur scouting in 2017, the Mariners have selected just one position player — Evan White in the 2017 draft with the No. 17 overall pick — in the first round. The past three picks have all been right-handed college pitchers with big fastballs:

  • 2018 — Logan Gilbert, No. 14, Stetson University
  • 2019 — George Kirby No. 20, Elon University
  • 2020 — Emerson Hancock, No. 6, University of Georgia.

Besides those three first-round picks, the Mariners also went college-pitcher heavy in 2019. After Kirby, they selected lefty Brandon Williamson out of TCU in the second round, right-hander Isaiah Campbell of the University of Arkansas with a supplemental second-round pick, right-hander Levi Stoudt of Lehigh in the third round and Georgia right-hander Tim Elliott in the fourth round.

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The bevy of pitching has become a strength in the system. So adding to the position player pool would be useful. Under Hunter, the Mariners have tended to stay heavy on college players in the early rounds. But that could change in 2021.

“This year, I think, if anything, we’re seeing it’s more of a high-school driven draft, which is probably unique for the Seattle Mariners over the last three or four years because we’ve taken so many college guys,” Hunter said. “We started really looking at the high-school ranks because we put ourselves in the position to do things that are a little more creative. Not sure if that’s going to work out because we still want to be smart with our picks, but with the way our system is going and where we were four years ago to now we really put ourselves in a good position to get a little bolder with our picks up top if we choose to.”

Baseball America’s most recent mock draft has the Mariners taking outfielder Colton Cowser out of Sam Houston State while ESPN projected them to take Boston College center fielder Sal Frelick. MLB.com has Seattle selecting UCLA shortstop Matt McLain.

A year ago, the Mariners had six picks in the COVID-shortened five-round draft. With colleges and high-school leagues shut down due to COVID-19, they had to rely on the early scouting done in February and the scouting from the summer of 2019 as well as plenty of video analysis.

With high-school and college teams playing this spring, scouts were able to attend live games, but it has presented different challenges.  

“It’s been unique over the last 18 months,” Hunter said. “We were able to get through last year’s draft with a lot of information we had leading up to it from the summer prior. This year actually, I felt like we’re starting from a step behind because we didn’t have last summer, and we didn’t have a lot of fall work and we didn’t have a lot of spring. With COVID and everything, we really started off at a slower pace and actually battling that. But, you know with our guys, we’ve done such a good job over the last few years of communicating, getting people in the right ballparks and focusing on the right things, I think we’re in a real good spot as we lead up to this draft.”

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The use of the video scouting last season has streamlined the process.

“We’ve actually learned how to scout probably better than we ever have because we’re all so used to running around the country seeing players,” Hunter said. “Now we’re taking time to get more deeper dives in our video looks and our information coming in from our analytics department. I think we’re getting more well-rounded. If anything came out of COVID that was a benefit, it was just the way we were opening up our minds to different ways of looking at players, and that’s helped our entire group.”

The 2021 draft will have 20 picks, which is half of the rounds compared to 2019 — the last regular MLB draft. It’s likely that the draft will never return to 40 rounds. Some organizations would prefer 25 or 30 rounds. But 20 could be the standard moving forward depending on the upcoming collective-bargaining agreement negotiations with MLB and the MLB Players Association.

“It depends on who you talk to. Obviously, we’re all used to doing 40,” he said. “I do think it’s a solid number. I don’t know. Maybe we can stretch it out a little more, but we’ll see how this year goes.”