What if the Mariners had implemented their 2021 draft strategy a year earlier?
This season it has been my great pleasure to cover the Modesto Nuts as part of our minors coverage. While not the “best” affiliate by win-loss record, the A-level Nuts are a young, fun, dynamic team, anchored by some international prospects making their full-season stateside debuts (CF Jonatan Clase, 3B Milkar Perez, RHP Joseph Hernández) as well as the Mariners’ three top draft picks from the 2021 draft, all prep players: C Harry Ford, SS Edwin Arroyo, and RHP Michael Morales. It’s been fun to watch these three learn and grow their games and to see their raw talent gain professional polish. And in the case of Arroyo, who has been electric over the past month, it’s not hard to squint a little and see the next ascendant Mariners star.
The 2021 draft was noteworthy for the Mariners because it represented a drastic shift in draft philosophy, a clear delineation between the wave of prospect talent in MLB or MLB-adjacent and the next wave, headlined by Ford, Arroyo, and 2021 international signing OF Lazaro Montes, among others. Previously, the Mariners focused almost exclusively on acquiring players whose timeline to the majors was much shorter with the idea that those players would be available to prop up this wave of prospects, leading them to draft proven college performers as opposed to high-upside prep players who require longer development tracks. As we’ve watched the young players in Modesto blossom, though, I couldn’t help but wonder what the system would look like if the Mariners had undertaken this strategy just one year earlier, in the 2020 draft, when they had the sixth pick overall.
Normally I am opposed to re-draft scenarios, as they allow for extreme cherry-picking, benefit exclusively from hindsight being 20/20, and are able to be conducted outside of the rules that usually govern drafts, like other teams, bonus pools, and the like. But I think it’s worth taking a good hard look at what the Mariners got in their 2020 draft, when they had prime pick position, and contrast that with at least a sampling of what they could have had if they’d implemented their 2021 draft strategy just a year earlier.
Round One, sixth overall pick:
Original pick: RHP Emerson Hancock, Georgia
Current level: Double-A
Due to injuries, Hancock has pitched fewer than 67 innings as a Seattle Mariner and during that time seen his prospect stock plunge, falling out of the Top 100 at most outlets. He’s been remarkably consistent when he has been healthy, posting almost identical numbers at every stop in the minors, but said numbers aren’t exactly eye-popping, with a strikeout rate around 24%. Overall, it’s been a fine performance when he’s been able to stay on the mound, but with a Top 5-adjacent pick for the first time in years, it’s okay to admit that so far, it’s been disappointing.
Re-cast pick: OF Robert Hassell III, Independence High School (TN)
Current level: High A (.317/.383/.508)
Forgive me please for taking up this particular hobby-horse once more, but I wanted Bobby Three Sticks to be a Mariner so badly, after watching him play hero on Team USA over and over again that summer. RH3 exhibited premium bat-to-ball skills although faced questions about how much he’d hit for power; so far, he’s kept the doubters at bay by earning a promotion to High-A to finish out his first year of pro ball; back at High-A this year, he’s still providing the power in the inhospitable lands of the Midwest League with the Fort Wayne TinCaps, slugging over .500. If RH3 isn’t your type, Zac Veen (John’s favorite in this draft) was also available here; AquaSox fans might recognize him, as he’s currently tearing up the NWL for the Rockies.
Round Two, 43rd overall pick:
Original pick: OF Zach DeLoach, Texas A&M
Current level: Double-A (.260/.357/.399)
It’s been a hard road for DeLoach since leaving the confines of Funko Field. He struggled after being promoted to Arkansas last season, then went to the Arizona Fall League and struggled even harder. While he’s had moments so far this season, he’s posting almost exactly the same line he did over his first go-round at Arkansas last year. DeLoach’s calling card was supposed to be bat-to-ball skills, but a strikeout rate that’s currently hovering dangerously close to 30% puts that in danger, and he doesn’t have the power profile to make up for a lack of getting on base.
Re-cast pick: SS Masyn Winn, Kingwood High School (Texas)
Current level: Double-A (.267/.340/.489)
First of all, the Cardinals are known for being aggressive with their prospects, but let’s just say it’s wild that the 20-year-old Winn (freshly turned 20, at that!) is at the same level as the nearly 24-year-old DeLoach. The Cardinals have been aggressive with Winn from the jump, promoting him to High-A midway through his first professional season, and then promoting him again after fewer than 150 plate appearances at the level this year, although to be fair, at the time he had a wRC+ of 164. Winn was drafted largely because of his arm and defensive acumen—he was able to reach 98 on the mound as a two-way player—but his hitting has exploded since becoming a pro. After striking out over a quarter of the time in his first taste of High-A, he got that number down to a more respectable 20ish percent, which he’s maintained so far even at the more advanced Double-A level while still taking his walks.
Competitive Round B, 64th overall pick:
Original pick: RHP Connor Phillips, McClennan Community College
Current status: Traded to the Reds as the PTBNL in the Jesse Winker/Eugenio Suárez deal
The Mariners had a precious extra pick this year and used it on Phillips, who was their youngest drafted player; not a high school player, but definitely high school-adjacent. Phillips has tremendous strikeout stuff but struggles with his command, which he’s now doing in the Reds system instead of the Mariners’, as he, along with pitching prospect Brandon Williamson, were the major pieces swapped for two years of Jesse Winker and the three years/$33M remaining on Eugenio Suárez’s contract.
Re-cast pick: RHP Alex Santos II, Mt. St. Michael Academy (NYC)
Not a ton of MLB Draft prospects come out of the Bronx, which is what twigged my interest about Santos during some pre-draft tournaments; that, and the fact that the hard thrower overwhelmed his competition. The Astros took Santos instead, because for some reason the Astros get bonus picks, and after struggling some with his command in his first season, he’s settled down in repeating A-ball and is currently striking out close to 30% of batters faced.
Round Three, 78th overall pick:
Original pick: 2B Kaden Polcovich, Oklahoma State
Current level: Double-A (.243/.345/.354)
The Mariners do love their scrappy middle infielders. Polcovich was supposed to bring a little more pop than the average middle infielder, but the switch-hitter hasn’t been able to produce much power from either side of the plate, although he’s controlling the zone much better in his second look at Double-A pitching.
Re-cast pick: LHP Kyle Harrison, De La Salle High School (California)
At this point in the draft, prep players start to thin out, as the bonus pool money starts to be spoken for. The Giants spent $2.5M on Harrison in the third round after going underslot in the second on 3B Casey Schmitt from SDSU and also selecting C Patrick Bailey for right around slot in the first, so it’s a little disingenuous to act like Harrison, one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, would be available here in addition to all these other names; however, the goal of the exercise is just to illustrate what all is available in each round. Somehow, the Giants got both their proven college performer/catcher target in Bailey and a high-upside prep pitcher without exhausting the entirety of their bonus pool (although it’s worth noting they also had a comp pick and used that on another college player). Harrison, by the way, has already reached Double-A, after torturing the NWL (including our own precious FrogBois) with a 50% K rate.
Round Four, 107th overall pick:
Re-cast pick: 3B A.J. Vukovich, East Troy High School (Wisconsin)
Again, this is the same scenario as above; teams either pay slot value (around $400-450K for this round) or below, or go significantly above slot to buy a prep player out of his college commitment. As the rounds go on, the high-ceiling reward remains the same, but the risk gets more intense (see: the Angels’ pick this round, Werner Blakely). Vukovich splits the difference a little as a lower-ceiling/safe-ish floor prep pick; the D-Backs gave him $1.25M with the hopes the raw power he flashed as a prep comes with him to pro ball, which will be necessary as he’s probably not a third baseman at the next level.
Round Five, 137th overall pick:
Original pick: RHP Taylor Dollard, Cal Poly
Re-cast pick: Dollard
In deference to Dollard’s performance so far as a Seattle Mariner, we’re going to keep it right here and not re-draft this choice. The most successful Mariners draft pick in the 2020 draft was also their last choice of the day, and probably the least-heralded. After bowling over A-level competition Dollard was quickly promoted to Everett in his draft year, where his strikeout rate fell off a little and he got dinged some by the home run bug. The Mariners decided Dollard didn’t need to see any more of Everett, however, and sent him straight to Double-A this year, where he—not Emerson Hancock—has been the beating heart of the Travs’ rotation. Kyle has already waxed poetic about Dollard’s performance in many a Midshipman’s Log/State of the Farm, so we won’t delve too deeply into it here, but suffice it to say that if the Mariners’ season continues to circle the drain, it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see Dollard be the first member of the Mariners 2020 draft class to make it to the bigs. Here’s hoping he won’t also be the only one.