From 'no way' to No. 16, Marlins land Watson

Prep star SS from North Carolina had potential as No. 1 overall pick

July 13th, 2021

The Marlins' front office, scouts and crosscheckers alike couldn't contain their surprise when director of amateur scouting DJ Svihlik placed the magnet with Kahlil Watson's name on it on the board in the Draft room Sunday. 

Though the Marlins had their lowest pick in 11 years, the early consensus was that they secured the steal of the 2021 MLB Draft by selecting the highly touted prep shortstop No. 16 overall. Miami also chose high school catcher Joe Mack in Competitive Balance Round A (No. 31). 

A couple weeks ago, Svihlik noted there were seven to eight names the organization felt wouldn't drop that low. Watson was one of them.

"I would say, 'You're crazy, no way, not going to happen,'" said Svihlik, who compared the intensity to a game of high-stakes poker.

That's because on the eve of his senior season at Wake Forest High (N.C.), Watson was listed as the No. 15 overall pick in an MLB Pipeline Mock Draft. At the time of his name being called Sunday, Watson was ranked the No. 4 overall prospect in this year’s Draft following an impressive spring.

The jump in the rankings came after Watson hit .583 with 13 extra-base hits in 53 at-bats for the Cougars. A prolific athlete who also played five positions as a standout on the school’s football team, Watson checks in with above-average marks across the board on the diamond. He has elite bat speed and raw power from the left side of the plate, while displaying solid plate discipline. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 178 pounds, Watson plays bigger than that.

Already an above-average runner, Watson flashed further improved speed this spring, making him a legitimate threat on the basepaths. Though he could absolutely stick at shortstop, he has the quickness and arm strength -- and the offensive ability -- to play any number of positions in the field. Svihlik provided a Jimmy Rollins comp.

"Kahlil is one of the more dynamic players in the Draft," Svihlik said. "You talk about a guy that has a plus arm, plus run, electric bat speed combined with a great swing and athleticism. He plays right up the middle of the field, which is everything we stress in the organization. So he checked all the boxes. He performed all summer for us. We spent a lot of time in the summer watching these players play, and when you get a player that has that type of talent combined with that kind of performance, to have him fall down to us for our pick was extremely exciting."

The 18-year-old Watson had committed to local North Carolina State. Leading up to the Draft, Svihlik said there was a higher level of comfort with prep players because they continued competing through the COVID-19 pandemic. High school shortstops also happened to be a strength of this year's Draft.

Sunday marked the lowest pick for the franchise since the club chose California prep star Christian Yelich (23rd overall) in 2010. Last year, the Marlins grabbed pitchers in all six rounds, with Max Meyer taken third overall out of the University of Minnesota.

Watson is just the second shortstop selected in the first round by the Marlins in the MLB Draft, joining Josh Booty (1994). Watson is N.C.'s first prep SS picked in the 1st round since Corey Seager at No. 18 in 2012. Svihlik said the organization "anticipates that he is a Major League shortstop," though they value versatility when drafting players. 

“The Marlins are going to take the best player available,” MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis said after the pick. “There's no doubt of that, and this guy was clearly the best player available. He was in the mix to go No. 1 overall -- there was even chatter earlier today that he was going to go No. 1 overall. Just a great pick. We had him ranked fourth, you get him at 16 -- that's the biggest steal of the Draft right now. He's potential solid tools across the board or better. He's the quickest runner of those elite shortstops. I cannot believe that [an] elite shortstop in this Draft got to 16.”

The next step will be trying to sign Watson. The approximate pick value is $3.75 million. The Marlins have a bonus pool of $9,949,800. Following the 20-round MLB Draft, general manager Kim Ng said she expected a deal to "take some time," but that it would get done.

"I think this will be fairly standard in terms of the middle and bottom of our board," Ng said Tuesday. "I would expect a lot of these guys to get done relatively quickly, but I think as with most clubs, the top of the board is going to take more time. We are obviously interested in getting these guys signed as quickly as possible. Every day that they're not signed is a day of development that they won't have. So we just want to try and get them done as quick as possible."