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MLB Draft Day is Here: Expect the Unexpected Tonight

MLB Draft

The 2021 MLB Draft starts Sunday night, and with no consensus top player, anything can happen with the Pirates picking first.

The MLB Draft is the annual event where all 20 Major League teams get to add lots of young talent largely without consequence.  Every pick comes with a slot value for how much the pick is worth, according to the league.  Every team gladly acquires players on the cheap filled with potential and could become stars one day.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have the first overall pick with a slot value of over $8.4 million.  With no generational talent in this year’s draft class, around five players are in the mix for the first pick.  That means the Pirates will likely be able to save a bit of money since no player will demand full slot to go 1.1.

The under-slot strategy plays out every year so that more money can be used on later picks to convince high schoolers to sign instead of attending college.  The Houston Astros famously cut a deal with Carlos Correa in 2012, and then they took Lance McCullers Jr. 41st overall.  Last year, the Baltimore Orioles surprised the league by signing OF Heston Kjerstad underslot at two, when many expected him to go in the 7-10 range.

So who will Pittsburgh make the future of their franchise?  Most insiders expect them to take high school shortstop Marcelo Mayer, but he is not the only option.  Vanderbilt righty and College World Series star Jack Leiter is the best pitcher available, and some scouts think Jordan Lawlar is the better high school shortstop.  Whoever GM Ben Cherington selects will guide the rest of the draft.

The Texas Rangers have a similar discussion drafting second overall.  They would be hard pressed to pass on the top pitcher or the local kid (Lawlar).  The Detroit Tigers are more of a wild card as they are linked with Jackson Jobe, the top high school pitcher.  He has the best stuff in the class but comes from an inherently riskier demographic.  The Boston Red Sox reportedly crave Leiter, but if he is gone they could take Louisville C Henry Davis, the top college hitter.

Just like last year, the draft could go off the rails with the Orioles, who pick fifth.  They are in an enviable position because they could take whichever player of the top five is still available, a player that some think is better than fifth.  Or they could cut a deal again, which would be a better decision this year since there’s a smaller difference in value between picks five and ten compared to two and seven.  If they go that route, look for GM Mike Elias to pick Sam Houston St. OF Colton Cowser or Boston College OF Sal Frelick.

From this point forward, there are at least five players in the mix for each first round pick.  There are legitimately 50 different players who could go in the 36 picks on Day 1.  There will be plenty of unexpected picks, much like the Red Sox drafting Nick Yorke 17th last year despite a clear second-round grade.

Because of slot value considerations, the MLB Draft is even tougher to predict than other sports, despite the absence of trades.  Since no player automatically makes the majors, future projection can lead scouts to come up with opposite considerations.  No pick is immediately panned, only questioned.  That leaves only one emotion for fans to feel on draft night: hope.

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