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2021 Draft Preview No. 1: Early Favourites, Pitching Edition

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Kicking off the 2021 draft season with a trio of exciting young arms.

MLB: Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The MLB Draft will be later than usual this year, with the league having moved the draft from June to July as part of its overall restructuring of the minor leagues and player development process. The draft will take place over all-star weekend, as the league tries to consolidate some of its big youth calendar dates together in order to drive interest, which is good. Of course, the reduction of the draft and the minors and more restrictive caps on signing bonuses and non-draft signees and all that are all firmly aimed at keeping more money away from the players, which is bad, but dwelling on that too much really takes a lot of the fun out of writing about amateur players, so we’ll just put a pin in that and try to ignore it.

Anyhow, I’m beginning this year’s draft series with my initial favourites on the pitching side, with one notable omission: Jaden Hill, the big righthander out of LSU, really should be in this group, but he actually fits better in another category I’ll get to down the road a bit, and also has virtually zero chance of reaching the Cards’ slot in the draft (the Redbirds pick 18th this year), and so is also a slightly less useful writeup to produce, in terms of giving you information about players whose merits we might be debating in the context of a Cardinal pick come July.

This is going to be a tough class to scout, I think, due to the lost time last spring when Covid wiped out the college season, and the later starts many high school teams are getting this year. Some of the showcase events last autumn still took place roughly as scheduled, but attendance was definitely down as many of the top amateurs simply chose not to, or were unable to, travel to whatever location was being used for a given event. All in all, we’re probably never had a draft class about whom we know less as a whole unit, which could very likely play havoc with draft boards as we get into late spring and move toward the summer.

All that being said, let’s talk about some pitchers I really like, at least provisionally. As always, let’s rock?

Jordan Wicks, LHP, Kansas State

6’3”, 220 lbs

Bats/Throws: Left/Left

DOB: 1st September 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Okay, first off, yes. Part of the reason I like Jordan Wicks so much is because I think it would be really funny if a major league baseball teams had both a Jordan Hicks and a Jordan Wicks on it at the same time, and there’s a reasonable chance that could happen were the Cards to snag Wicks come July. He should move quickly through the minors, meaning Jordan Hicks might very well still be around when Wicks hopefully makes his way to the big leagues.

Mostly, though, I like Jordan Wicks for that second part of the paragraph I just typed, which is the fact Wicks has both very good stuff and exceptional polish, cut from a template of college lefty we’ve seen have plenty of success in the past. To wit, Jordan Wicks is this year’s version of Marco Gonzales or Jared Shuster; the left-handed changeup wizard who bedazzles and befuddles hitters by getting them out on their front sides and off their game plans.

On the good side, it must be said that Wicks actually has better stuff overall than Gonzales as a collegian; Wicks can push his fastball up into the 94-95 range when he really wants to reach back, though he sits much more comfortably in the 89-92 range. His changeup is a pure 65-70 grade weapon, as he sells it beautifully out of the hand, and the pitch drops hard, tumbling down and out of the zone while hitters are usually unable to stay back and tend to flail at it. The one issue with the changeup is that Wicks is better at throwing it down below the zone rather than in it for a strike, and if a hitter can lay off the pitch he can often steal a ball. Still, Wicks has very good command overall, and I see no reason to think he can’t locate the change for strikes long term.

If there is a weakness in Wicks’s game, it’s that he lacks a real putaway breaking ball at this point in his development. He’s toyed with a slider, a curve, and a cutter, and the cutter is the only one of the three that really works well in games. He can occasionally land a little bigger slider for a strike, but he’s much better at working the cutter in the zone for a strike rather than going for a swing and miss with any of his breaking pitches. Wicks excels at pitching backward, throwing the changeup and cutter early in the count to get ahead of hitters and then elevating his fastball to get either a swing and miss or an easy fly ball out. His fastball is sneaky, and despite its relatively pedestrian velocity hitters tend to be late on the pitch much more often than you would expect.

Wicks is already very physically mature, with strong legs and a solid build. He’s not getting any bigger, and probably not throwing much harder, is what I’m saying. The good news is that he doesn’t really need to, and he could be one of the fastest movers in the draft this year, I believe, capable of that Michael Wacha/Marco Gonzales fast track treatment should his name get called at eighteen come July. The real question is whether he gets to eighteen, honestly. He is ranked, depending on the exact source you use, right around the Cards’ draft slot, but things could very well change between now and draft day if Wicks has a strong spring. Polished college pitchers capable of moving through the minors quickly tend to grab a bit of helium down the stretch, so Wicks could very well end up drafted higher than his current rankings would suggest.

via D1Baseball.com:

Chase Burns, RHP, Beech HS (TN)

6’4”, 215 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 16th January 2003

So, what’s so great about this guy?

If you’re looking for pure power stuff in this year’s draft, Chase Burns is your guy. He’s not from Texas, but he might as well be. This is Shelby Miller. This is Josh Beckett. You want a hard-throwing capital-d Dude with a big overhand curve capable of overpowering hitters, well, like I said, Chase Burns just might be the guy you want to look at.

Burns’s primary claim to fame right now is the fact he has reached 100 with his fastball on a few occasions, and even in this velocity-obsessed and -dominated era, a high schooler touching triple digits is always going to grab some headlines. What’s extra interesting about Burns’s heater is that it actually cuts a little, rather than being your standard straight four-seamer you expect at that velocity. Now, the downside there is that it does not appear Burns boasts one of those high-spin heaters that are all the rage right now, but mid-90s with cut still plays just fine, I believe, thank you very much. He sits 93-95 currently, and could grab another tick as he matures and gets stronger. He’s thickly build already, with big legs befitting a power pitcher, but he’s a little soft, and will probably have to watch his conditioning as he gets older. A major league team’s strength and conditioning program could probably unlock even a little more oomph for Burns physically.

Burns features a pair of solid breaking pitches, a big curveball in the upper 70s and a harder slider/cutter hybrid that’s better when it’s more of a cutter than a slider. Long term I think he tightens that up and it looks more like Jason Isringhausen’s cut fastball, and Burns can use it as more of a bat-breaker against lefties than a swing and miss pitch. The curveball brings all the swing and miss you could really ask for, honestly. It’s not consistent yet, which isn’t shocking for a high school senior of course, but when it’s on it looks like a future 60-65 grade breaker, and Burns can already throw it both for strikes and as a chase pitch down in the dirt. He’s probably better at throwing it in the zone right now, actually; when he tries to bury the pitch he spikes it at 55 foot fairly often. That’s not a long-term concern, though.

The one real weakness in Burns’s arsenal right now is the lack of a changeup. He throws a thing that one could call a changeup if one wished to be charitable, but if I’m being honest said ‘changeup’ is, in fact, really more of a ‘crappy fastball’. Again, I don’t think it’s a big concern long term; plenty of pitchers develop their changeups later, and Burns definitely has time. A splitter might be a good choice going forward, actually, I think, as his high arm slot would be ideal for a forkball or split-finger pitch to my eye, but true splitters are fairly rare these days. Regardless, Burns has the potential for a 70 fastball/60-65 curveball combo down the road, and if he gets to that level, even a half-assed change of pace pitch might be more than enough.

via 2080 Baseball:

Jackson Jobe, RHP, Heritage Hall HS (OK)

6’2”, 190 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 30th July 2002

So, what’s so great about this guy?

There were a trio of high school lefties who were all in competition for this final spot in the favourites post, but ultimately Jobe edged out Anthony Solometo, Brock Selvidge, and Josh Hartle to grab this slot. The reason? Well, partly because I can easily make one post of nothing but high school lefties I really like now, and over the years I’ve become more aware of easy groupings to put together like that. Mostly, though, it’s because Jackson Jobe has the potential for absolutely overwhelming stuff down the road, though he is about as risky a bet as one can place in the early part of the draft.

I say Jackson Jobe is risky because he’s a fairly small (listed at 6’2”, but....), hard-throwing right-handed pitcher with what look to me like pretty risky mechanics. The delivery isn’t a disaster, necessarily, but his arm is late coming up, he has some definite recoil at the end of the delivery, and he isn’t consistent with his landing foot from pitch to pitch even, particularly when he tries to overthrow and loses his balance.

On the other hand, Jackson Jobe has maybe the single most intimidating breaking ball in the draft, high school or college, a plus or better fastball with outstanding spin and more than enough velocity to dominate hitters at the top of the zone, and a changeup that’s as low on spin as his other two pitches are high on it, with plus armside movement that causes the pitch to just disappear when he’s really on. If Jackson Jobe hits his ceiling he could be Jake Peavy, is what I’m saying.

Jobe’s fastball comes in anywhere from 90-95, and features plus spin and outstanding life up in the zone. It’s pretty good when it’s down, as well, but it’s the high fastball that really grabs your attention and gets hitters shaking their heads. Even more of a head shaker is Jobe’s slider, which regularly breaks 3000 rpm, which is almost unheard-of for a slider. Curveballs sometimes get into that range, but sliders? That incredible spin rate gives Jobe one of the biggest-breaking breaking balls you’re ever going to see, similar to that of Griffin Roberts a couple years ago. Of course, the problem there is that a pitch that moves that much can be difficult to control, also similar to what we’ve seen from Griffin Roberts as a pro. How well Jobe can tame his stuff and gear down for control is going to have a lot to say about what kind of pitcher he could become.

The changeup is a definite third of three pitches right now, but it’s already unusually good for a high schooler. Jobe chokes it pretty hard, and occasionally takes off almost too much, throwing it in the 78-82 range, which is a little slow working off a low- to mid-90s fastball. The pitch moves enough it’s still effective even at that speed, but a pro pitching coach would probably push Jobe to throw that change a little harder in order to improve the deception, even if it loses a little movement.

Jobe was a two-way prospect earlier in his high school career, but over the summer of 2020 his stuff took a huge step forward, and there’s very little thought of him being called as a shortstop on draft day now. Still, that athleticism is another positive in his ledger, and the body control required of a middle infielder should help Jobe in his quest to turn ridiculous stuff into ridiculous performance.

via Keanan Lamb: