Never too many: Padres draft shortstop

Late-blooming high schooler Jackson Merrill is club's pick at No. 27

July 12th, 2021

SAN DIEGO -- The Padres have two All-Stars in the middle of their infield and one of the top middle-infield prospects in baseball. In A.J. Preller's eyes, however, there's always room for more.

"Philosophically,” the team's general manager said, “you win championships by being strong up the middle.”

And, sure enough, the Padres got stronger up the middle on Sunday night. They picked shortstop Jackson Merrill out of Severna Park High School in Maryland with the No. 27 overall selection in the first round of the Draft (marking the latest the Padres have waited for a first-round pick since 1997).

“Obviously it’s really, really exciting for me,” said Merrill, who watched the Draft with a large group of extended family at his brother’s house in Maryland. “It was a lot of things rushing to me at once. I’m just taking it in still. I’m very excited to get into pro ball and to get out there and work really hard.”

A 6-foot-3, left-handed-hitter, Merrill was the 2021 Capital Gazette Player of the Year in Maryland. He tied his school record with 13 home runs in and batted .500 with 39 RBIs. Merrill led his high school team to a 17-1 record and a runner-up finish in the 4a state championship -- and he did so while playing through pain after spraining his ankle midseason.

Merrill’s standout tool is his bat. He combines a smooth lefty swing with strong bat-to-ball skills to cover all fields. After he bulked up a bit heading into his senior season, he added plenty of power, too.

“The swing, when you see it in person, stands out right away,” said Padres scouting director Mark Conner. “Big power projection with the swing and how the mechanics work. A lot of ingredients that we look for that, honestly, we thought stacked up with a lot of the players that were on the scene all year.”

Merrill, to use Conner’s verbiage, was not “on the scene all year.” He was a late bloomer, having added 35 pounds to his frame over the past year. Merrill overhauled his workout routine and began hitting every day, and it paid major dividends.

Suddenly, after Merrill’s standout senior-season performance, he was one of the Draft’s biggest late risers.

“We felt like coming out of last summer he was probably a guy that was pretty undervalued in the industry,” Preller said. “He put on a lot of weight, he grew, he got very physical this year. He became a guy that really started rising up our boards. He’s got real talent, real ability, real makeup and a real love for the game, that’s for sure.”

Merrill is committed to the University of Kentucky, though both he and the Padres expressed confidence in an eventual deal. Slot value for the 27th overall pick is $2,570,100, and the Padres have a total pool of $6,812,300 to work with.

Before Merrill’s Kentucky commitment, he’d been committed to attend Army, before he said he realized he was on a trajectory toward professional baseball.

“Going into last fall, I started realizing baseball is exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Merrill said.

Sure enough, less than a year later, Merrill is a first-round Draft pick of the San Diego Padres. Where he’ll play, exactly? That’s a question for another day. As is the Padres philosophy with many of their top infielders, Merrill will start at short.

“We feel he’s a shortstop,” Conner said. “If not, he has options to move to third base or second base in the future. He has a very good clock, very good hands, his footwork probably needs to improve a little bit. But overall very good hands, very good internal clock and a plus arm to go across the diamond.”

The Padres, of course, have a bit of a logjam in the middle of their infield with shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and second baseman Jake Cronenworth, while MLB Pipeline’s No. 8 overall prospect, CJ Abrams, looms in the Minors.

Merrill sees himself as a shortstop. But he isn’t too hung up on that concept -- particularly with a generational superstar blocking his path there.

“He’s a fantastic player,” Merrill said. “He’s one of the best shortstops in the game, going to be one of the best shortstops of all time. But at the same time, to me it doesn’t matter where I am on the field. I just want to be on the field. I just want to be competing.”