DENVER -- Not unlike an MLB Draft pick who ascends the organizational ladder, the MLB Draft itself has paid its developmental dues over the decades. And on Sunday night at the Bellco Theatre at the Colorado Convention Center, it made what amounts to its big league debut.
The Draft had the very thing that makes the Major League experience so special -- fans.
They waved pom-poms, they wore the jerseys representing their home nine and they kicked up the volume of an event that had previously been closed to the public. Given the context of our times, as the world finds its footing in something resembling normalcy, an indoor event with boisterous and maskless human beings was a beautiful thing to behold.
“I’ve always dreamed about being in this position and walking across that stage,” said Trey Sweeney, the Eastern Illinois shortstop taken by the Yankees at No. 20 overall. “To hear people cheering you on is just a good, crazy feeling.”
From its June 1965 inception until the mid-2000s, the Draft selection process took place entirely on a conference call. Disney's Milk House then hosted the Draft in 2007-08 in Orlando. It didn’t become an annual MLB Network production until 2009, at the network's Studio 42 in Secaucus, N.J.
Enveloping the Draft amid All-Star Week was all about elevating the profile of an event whose outcome is vital for the long-term livelihood of the 30 franchises. It’s about making the Draft look, feel and sound as important as it is.
“I feel like I’m at a concert!” MLB Network host Greg Amsinger remarked midway through.
So the Draft itself was a success. As for the picks, that’ll take time to determine. For now, here are a few other takeaways from Sunday’s show.
1) Oh, Henry
Blame it partly on the pandemic and the domino effect it had on scouting evaluations, but the lack of real clarity with regards to the very top of the board was an interesting subplot going into this Draft. There were a handful of players from both the high school and collegiate ranks who would have been entirely reasonable selections by the Pirates at No. 1 overall.
Louisville catcher Henry Davis was definitely in that group, but there weren’t many (any?) mocks that actually had him going 1-1. Only about an hour before the Draft did Davis himself get the news that he was the Pirates’ guy. Davis, who was in attendance, said he waited until he got “double-double, 100%” confirmation before informing his family.
“Just seeing the emotion on their faces was super special,” he said. “It means a lot to me and a lot to them.”
As the top player on the board at a pivotal position, with superior raw arm strength and a strong offensive and baserunning profile, Davis is a legitimate 1-1. He’s just not the 1-1 many experts expected.
2) Mocks mocked
Immediately after Davis, the Rangers went with this Draft’s biggest household name in Vanderbilt right-hander Jack Leiter. And though the Draft-eligible sophomore’s negotiation leverage made it an open question where exactly he’d land, that pick by Texas hardly qualified as a surprise.
The top end of the Draft, though, did feature plenty of surprises. Chief among them was the Royals’ selection of East Catholic (Conn.) high school lefty Frank Mozzicato at No. 7 overall. Mozzicato ranked 39th on MLB Pipeline’s Draft prospect rankings. So in addition to giving the Royals the bonus pool leverage to potentially take a big swing with their second-round pick, his selection had some interesting ripple effects.
Vanderbilt righty Kumar Rocker had entered 2021 at No. 1 on those aforementioned prospect rankings. But because of the surprises that unfolded in the first round, he wound up falling to the Mets at No. 10. Winder-Barrow (Ga.) High School shortstop Brady House, who went to the Nationals at No. 11, and Wake Forest (N.C.) High School shortstop Kahlil Watson, who went No. 16 to the Marlins, had been widely expected to go in the top 10.
3) Revenge of the prepsters
Even with House and Watson falling further than expected, high school players had a greater impact early in the first round than they have in recent memory. Last year’s Padres selection of outfielder Robert Hassell at No. 8 overall was the latest first prep pick in Draft history. And that wasn’t entirely due to the odd circumstances of the pandemic, because, in 2019, prepsters accounted for just three of the top 10 picks.
This year, though, teams didn’t shy away from the rawer talent. Five of the top 10 picks -- and seven of the top 12 -- came from the high school ranks.
To put the rawness in perspective, Jackson Jobe, the Heritage Hall (Okla.) High School right-hander taken by the Tigers at No. 3 overall, only became a full-time pitcher a year ago. It was the highest selection of a high school right-hander since the Reds’ pick of Hunter Greene at No. 2 in 2017.
Last year, 11 of 29 first-round picks (37.9%) were high schoolers. This year, high school players accounted for 15 of 29 (51.7%) -- 10 position players and five pitchers.
4) Positional bias
Pitchers and shortstops. That was the first round in a nutshell. Though it began with a backstop, the opening batch of selections was dominated by those two positions. They accounted for 24 of the 29 picks – 14 pitchers, 10 shortstops.
It’s an extreme example of two old adages: Teams need pitching, and teams crave athletes. You can never have enough of the former, and the latter is often adaptable enough that, should the shortstop stuff not stick, there is always the option of moving them elsewhere.
Things began to get a little more varied with the supplemental selections after the first round, with just one pitcher and one shortstop among the seven compensation and competitive balance picks. But there was no doubt about what teams prioritized early.
5) “Lo-gan! Lo-gan!”
The biggest cheers of the night came not for a Draft pick but for the young man announcing a Draft pick.
His name is Logan Howard. In 2016, at the age of 13, he suffered a terrifying stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. He spent two and a half months in a hospital and was told his baseball career was over.
But Logan persevered. He spent five years in physical therapy, regaining the strength it took to take the mound for his senior year at Rocky Mountain Lutheran High School in nearby Commerce City, Colo.
“Early on, I didn’t think I could do it,” he said. “But after a few years, it was like, ‘Wow, I can actually play baseball.’”
Not only did he return to the game he loves, but Logan threw a perfect game. He hopes to continue his career in college.
When word of Logan’s story began to circulate, he got a call from MLB asking him if he’d like to take part in Sunday’s Draft, announcing the selection of his favorite team. Though he’s a Colorado kid, Logan’s favorite team happens to be the Giants. And so, when their first pick arrived at No. 14, Commissioner Rob Manfred introduced the inspiring young man to the crowd, prompting an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response. Nervously, Logan strode to the podium and announced Mississippi State pitcher Will Bednar as the Giants’ pick, but Logan enjoyed just as big a moment.
“That was just really crazy,” he said. “To hear everybody cheering for me and saying ‘Lo-gan!’ because they want to hear me talk was pretty cool.”