With less than two months until the Red Sox make their highest draft pick in more than a half-century, the top of the board is jumbled.
In a year when the Red Sox hold the No. 4 overall pick, five names have emerged as the proverbial cream of the crop. But there are differing accounts of the pecking order.
The top three names entering the year continue to be discussed as talents near the top: Vanderbilt righthanders Kumar Rocker (11-2, 2.45 ERA, 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings) and Jack Leiter (8-2, 2.05 ERA, 15.2 strikeouts per nine innings), and Texas high school shortstop Jordan Lawlar (.412/.556/.732 with 6 homers and 32 steals in 32 attempts).
But they’ve been joined by California high school shortstop Marcelo Mayer (.439/.594/1.075 with 13 homers, 15 steals, 23 walks, and just 2 strikeouts) as well as Louisville catcher Henry Davis (.371/.493/.641 with 12 homers, 31 walks, and 22 strikeouts) in the conversation.
There’s no clear consensus about how to order that group.
Would it be a surprise to see any of them taken in any of the top five spots?
“The most honest answer is no,” said Carlos Collazo of Baseball America. “I don’t think there’s enough separation in those guys to feel confident — really confident — that one would be gone before the Red Sox or Orioles [at No. 5] are picking. There’s no way Texas [at No. 2] is going to let Jordan Lawlar get past them.
“Other than that, you can randomize the order, throw it out there, and it would make sense.”
Rocker is the prospect with the longest track record. He was highly regarded coming out of high school, threw a no-hitter in the College World Series as a freshman, and his mix (mid- to high-90s fastball and dominating slider, along with a cutter as a third pitch) profiles as a mid-rotation starter or better. And at 6 feet 5 inches and 245 pounds, the son of former NFL defensive lineman Tracy Rocker has the size and strength to believe he can handle the rigors of the rotation.
Leiter exploded out of the gates this year, but hit a bump in the road in late April and early May, allowing 14 runs in 15⅓ innings over three starts while seeing his control falter. Vanderbilt skipped him for a start, raising at least a yellow flag for some teams who already had questions about the 6-1, 205-pound sophomore’s durability.
Lawlar is a five-tool talent who will anchor the middle of the infield. Mayer is a better pure hitter than Lawlar and slightly younger, though Lawlar is the better defensive player and runner. Davis, meanwhile, has forced his way into the conversation thanks to a standout junior year in which he has exhibited excellent strike zone judgment, significantly growing power, and strong defensive tools.
Red Sox closer Matt Barnes threw to Davis during the 2020 shutdown, and was impressed with how easily he handled major league-quality fastballs and breaking balls while also exhibiting a tremendous throwing arm.
“He has an absolute cannon,” said Barnes.
That group of five has yet to produce a clear No. 1. There’s no Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg or David Price standing clearly above the rest. On the other hand, the draft class features a handful of strong options at premium positions — two college pitchers with front-of-the-rotation potential, a college catcher, two high school shortstops — that suggest star potential. And at least two of those consensus top-of-the-draft names will remain on the board when the Red Sox pick at No. 4.
“This would not be the draft where you wanted to pick 1,” Collazo said, noting the absence of an obvious superstar-in-waiting. “I think picking 4 or 5 in this year’s class is where you want to be.
“It’s not the same draft class, but it’s kind of like the Padres picking sixth in 2019 and winding up with [shortstop] C.J. Abrams [now viewed as one of the top prospects in the minors]. I think the Red Sox and Orioles could be in a really good spot at 4 and 5 this year.”
Of course, even with that enviable position, there’s no guarantee that the Sox will limit themselves to those five names. Because there was no 2020 amateur season, and no Cape League and Team USA play for both high school and college players, the board could still reshape.
Moreover, teams may be more willing than usual to buck consensus given that evaluations are based on a smaller sample. In particular, if a top-five team identifies another player as having comparable talent as well as a willingness to accept a signing bonus below MLB’s slot recommendations, then it could move outside of that group to take him, keeping more money available to make aggressive picks further down.
It’s lost on no one in the industry that the Red Sox bucked expectations last year by tapping high school infielder Nick Yorke — viewed as a likely second- or third-round pick — in the first round and signing him for a below-slot deal, then using some of the savings to take power-hitting high schooler Blaze Jordan in the third round.
Still, the Red Sox find themselves in an enviable position, with a pick that gives them a shot at what appears to be the very top tier of amateur talent.