The Pirates have owned the No. 1 overall pick four times previously, using the selection on one college hitter (Jeff King in 1986) and then three straight college pitchers (Kris Benson in 1996, Bryan Bullington in 2002 and Gerrit Cole in 2011). Seven months in advance of the 2021 Draft, we believe Pittsburgh will go the college arm route again.
Projecting the top picks this early is always a challenge, but never more than it is now. Teams have gotten only brief glimpses of the top college prospects because the 2020 season ended after four weeks, summer league play was sporadic and fall practice provided only a limited look.
Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker, who generated first-round interest as a Georgia high schooler in 2018 and won Most Outstanding Player honors at the College World Series as a freshman, remains the most famous 2021 Draft prospect and the favorite to go No. 1 overall. But he's by no means a lock and could be passed as the best college pitcher by Louisiana State's Jaden Hill or even the best Vanderbilt arm by Jack Leiter.
We currently predict eight collegians to get taken with the first 10 choices, including four from the Southeastern Conference. The only high school interlopers are sweet-swinging shortstops, Jordan Lawlar from Jesuit Prep (Dallas) and Marcelo Mayer from Eastlake HS (Chula Vista, Calif.).
1. Pirates: Kumar Rocker, RHP, Vanderbilt
Rocker would join David Price (2007) and Dansby Swanson (2015) to give Vanderbilt three No. 1 overall picks, second in Draft history behind only Arizona State's four. His fastball and slider can be wipeout pitches, though he still can polish his changeup, command and delivery.
2. Rangers: Jordan Lawlar, SS, Jesuit Prep (Dallas)
The Rangers have taken reliable college bats with their last two first-rounders, but a five-tool shortstop in their own backyard will be hard to ignore. While his tools aren't quite as loud as those of fellow Dallas-area native Bobby Witt Jr., who went No. 2 overall two years ago, Lawlar is a more advanced hitter at the same stage.
3. Tigers: Adrian del Castillo, C, Miami
Del Castillo offers the best combination of power and patience in the 2021 Draft class, with more extra-base hits (39) and walks (43) than strikeouts (32) in 77 games during his first two seasons at Miami. He'll be an impact bat even if he can't stay behind the plate, which is a question.
4. Red Sox: Jud Fabian, OF, Florida
Fabian might be the most polarizing prospect among the eight players who seem to have separated themselves from the rest of the Draft class at this point. He could have the most usable power in the Draft and may stay in center field, but he also has hit just .250 with a 22-percent strikeout rate in two seasons at Florida.
5. Orioles: Jaden Hill, RHP, Louisiana State
Hill pitched just 21 2/3 innings in his first two years at Louisiana State because of a strained elbow in 2019 and the shortened season last spring. Yet he's similar to Rocker with less slider but more changeup, nearly as much physicality and better athleticism.
6. Diamondbacks: Matt McLain, SS, UCLA
The D-backs took McLain 26th overall three years ago and could finally get their man by taking him in the first round for a second time. He's a smaller middle infielder with the best bat-to-ball skills in his Draft, just like Nick Madrigal was when he went No. 4 overall in 2018, and McLain has more sneaky power along with a legitimate chance to stick at shortstop.
7. Royals: Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt
There's no shortage of scouts who prefer Leiter to his Vanderbilt teammate because they think he has a deeper repertoire, better delivery and more feel for pitching than Rocker. Draft-eligible as a second-year collegian because he'll turn 21 in April, he's small for a starter at 6 feet and 195 pounds, but could climb higher than this if he improves his control after walking eight in 15 2/3 innings last spring.
8. Rockies: Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake HS (Chula Vista, Calif.)
The best pure hitter in the prep class, Mayer has drawn some Corey Seager comparisons as a bigger shortstop with power projection and the tools to stay at the position. He won't match Adrián González (No. 1 overall in 2000) as the highest pick in Eastlake history, but could catch Lawlar to be the first high schooler taken in July.
9. Angels: Alex Binelas, 3B, Louisville
Another fine Wisconsin-bred hitting prospect in the tradition of Jarred Kelenic, Gavin Lux and Daulton Varsho, Binelas has more power than any of them and rivals del Castillo as having the most lefty pop in the 2021 college crop. He may wind up on an outfield corner but fits the offensive profile there if he has to move.
10. Mets: Ty Madden, RHP, Texas
A top-three-rounds talent on a loaded Cypress Ranch HS (Cypress, Texas) club in 2018, Madden has continually gotten stronger and better at Texas. He's now dealing with a mid-90s fastball, a plus mid-80s slider and a solid low-80s changeup, not to mention a quality delivery and control.