NEW YORK – Ben Cherington's first amateur draft as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates was brief and remote, held amid the coronavirus pandemic that grounded scouts and wiped out nearly all of 2020's amateur baseball calendar.
With the Bucs facing the pressure of the No. 1 overall pick this year, he's grateful to have his scouts back in the draft room, battling contentiously over their big board like old times.
“The room has been great as far as getting past the niceties and let’s get into the arguments and debates,” Cherington said. “So that’s been good.”
A year after Major League Baseball limited its draft amid the chaos of COVID-19, it's set to host a revamped event as part of All-Star festivities in Denver. The 20-round draft will span three days.
MLB moved the draft to July’s All-Star weekend, putting the opening round on its network on Sunday night after the All-Star Futures Game, a showcase for the top players in the minors. The draft had been televised from MLB Network’s studios in Secaucus, New Jersey, since 2009.
A look at what else to watch for during the selection process:
BACK TO A NEW NORMAL
In response to the pandemic, MLB shrunk last year's draft from 40 rounds to five and made the entire selection process remote.
This year's draft will be in person but consist of 20 rounds, which may become the new standard after MLB took over control of the minors and removed a quarter of its affiliates last offseason. Notably, it eliminated the short-season leagues that used to be stocked with players drafted in later rounds.
Those lost late rounds were hardly packed with future big leaguers, of course, but several stars turned selections in the 20s, 30s or later into standout careers, including John Smoltz (22nd round), Mark Buehrle (38th), Keith Hernandez (42nd) and Mike Piazza (62nd).
COVID-19 shut down college and high school seasons throughout the country in 2020, and several MLB teams furloughed their scouts last summer. That hindered teams' abilities to evaluate players for this year's class, although amateur baseball largely came back this spring.
Scouts have mostly returned to big league front offices this weekend, where they'll hunker down in front of oversized magnetic boards to decide who is worth a selection — a favorite time of year for front office personnel.
“We have to debate, debate, debate, disagree, disagree, disagree,” Cherington said. “Dive deep as we can, then commit.”
WHO'S ON THE CLOCK
The Pirates hold the No. 1 overall pick for the first time since taking Gerrit Cole in 2011, by far the most successful of their four previous top selections. Pittsburgh is likely to pick high again in 2021 amid a rebuild that may be defined by the success of its draftees.
“It’s pressure, yes,” Cherington said. “But it’s exciting pressure and it’s an opportunity. It doesn’t feel like a burden at all.”
First-year Rangers general manager Chris Young — a third-round pick by the Pirates in 2000 — is set to oversee a draft room for the first time as Texas picks second. The Detroit Tigers have the third pick a year after taking Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson at No. 1. They'll be followed by the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox at No. 4 and the Baltimore Orioles at No. 5.
The Astros won't pick until the third round for the second straight year as punishment for their infamous sign-stealing scandal.
NAMES AT THE TOP
Vanderbilt pitchers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker have garnered the most attention in this class after pitching the Commodores into the finals of the College World Series.
Leiter is the son of two-time All-Star Al Leiter, who is now an analyst at MLB Network and will be part of the broadcast Sunday. Jack Leiter struck out 179 over 110 innings this season, posting a 2.13 ERA and throwing a no-hitter against South Carolina.
Rocker also has pro bloodlines — his father is former NFL defensive lineman Tracy Rocker — and looks it at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds. An inconsistent spring likely took him out of the running for the Pirates, though.
Several high school shortstops are also in the running for the first pick. Marcelo Mayer from Eastlake High School in California is from the same school as 2000 No. 1 pick Adrian Gonzalez. No school has ever had two No. 1 picks, and Mayer is a slight favorite to make that history happen.
If Pittsburgh doesn't take Mayer, follow shortstops Jordan Lawlar (Texas) or Kahlil Watson (North Carolina) could be in the running, along with Louisville catcher Henry Davis. The Pirates also could sign a surprise pick to an under-slot deal, freeing up cash to spend on players further down the board.
OTHERS TO KNOW
Someone could land a player who already has World Series experience. Darren Baker is the son of Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker and was famously swooped away from home plate by Giants player J.T. Snow during the 2002 World Series, when the 3-year-old Baker was a bat boy. Darren Baker is a second baseman at the University of California with quick feet and feel to hit.
Others that might look familiar — California high school shortstop Max Muncy and Vanderbilt outfielder Isaiah Thomas — have no relation to star athletes with the same names. Muncy, from Greater Los Angeles, even shares a birthday with the Dodgers star.
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