On May 5, Jim Callis released an updated version of his mock draft for MLB’s website. As the names get shuffled, intrigue remains high since the Pittsburgh Pirates and their intrepid leader Ben Cherington have the first overall pick.
Although the timeline for Cherington thus far has been somewhat abnormal, it appears that many fans are at least mildly pleased with the moves he’s made to this point. Now comes the big one: Cherington and Co. are gearing up to make the first overall pick in this year’s 2021 amateur draft, slated to begin on July 11.
That projected name continues to change. If you recall, the hashtag #tankforkumar was prevalent on Twitter last summer when it appeared that the big, Vandy right-hander was a virtual shoe-in to be the number one overall pick. The Pirates ultimately secured the top spot and many made the assumption that the Bucs would be keen on Rocker as we moved into the summer of 2021.
Rocker has been solid this year, currently holding a 10-1 record on an excellent Commodores’ club, to go along with a 1.70 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 69 innings pitched. Despite that, teammate Jack Leiter has overshadowed Rocker in some regards this season, with the two being a strong 1-2 punch for Vandy.
With the ascension of Leiter, some speculated the Pirates would take former major leaguer Al Leiter’s son with the first overall pick, with the hard-throwing righty conjuring images of former Vandy standout Walker Buehler (who the Pirates selected out of high school, but he ultimately opted to head to Nashville).
Now, a new contender has emerged. As of right now, Callis has the Bucs taking Jordan Lawlar, a “five-tool” high school shortstop out of Jesuit Prep in Dallas, with Leiter falling to the second pick of the draft to the Texas Rangers. Rocker, if you were wondering, has fallen to fourth, with the projection placing him with the Boston Red Sox.
Lawlar is the number two ranked prospect by MLB.com’s assessment, placing him behind Leiter. The 18-year-old is a 60-grade overall prospect, with a 60-grade bat, run, and arm; and a 55-grade field and power. The young shortstop is currently committed to Vanderbilt, but a first overall selection could change that.
The question, more generally, is this: As a Major League Baseball organization, do you take a starting pitcher or a hitter with the first overall pick? The obvious answer is: it depends. When the Nationals took Bryce Harper first overall in 2010, they had no other choice; when they took Stephen Strasburg the year prior in 2009, they had no other choice.
There are fewer spots in a rotation, obviously, than in the field, so it makes sense that the thinking could be that a team can shore up its rotation down the road via free agency, while trying to fill organizational gaps in the draft by taking hitters.
That’s all well and good, but for a team like the Pirates, big-name free agents aren’t going to come through the doors anytime soon — and probably not anytime ever. So when you’re a small market team, what do you do?
The prominent question must be this: Would you rather have a star player who takes the mound every fifth day or would you rather have a guy who takes the field everyday? Further, who provides more value over a 162-game season?
In 2019, Mike Trout’s 8.5 fWAR was tops in baseball for position players; Gerrit Cole’s 7.3 did the trick for pitchers. In 2018, Mookie Betts’ 10.4 bested Jacob deGrom’s 9.0. In 2017, Aaron Judge’s 8.3 was better than Chris Sale’s 7.6.
That’s a rather simple and rudimentary way of comparing position players to pitchers and determining which one has more value, but the hitters win out each time. Moreover, having a player the fans can see almost every time they show up to the ballpark is an excellent incentive for fan engagement: Think Trout, Fernando Tatis, Juan Soto, or Ronald Acuna.
Of course, having these conversations presupposes that Lawlar reaches any semblance of those other players. This conversation, in the end, might not matter at all. But the fundamental question posed here is this: Should the Pirates take a position player (Lawlar) or a pitcher (Leiter)? The answer: Lawlar.
In the end, Cherington is going to do what he thinks is best for the organization. If he thinks he’s getting out of Lawlar what he won’t be able to get four or five years down the road on the open market, that’s what he’ll do. If he thinks he’ll get more out of Leiter in the next few years, that’s what he’ll do.
Once thing’s for sure: There will be intrigue with the Pirates’ first pick. When their time on the clock comes to a close, we still might not be sure what name is going to come out of Commissioner Manfred’s mouth, and that’s exciting.