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2021 MLB Draft Prep: July is nigh

The draft is just a couple of weeks away. Who should the Cubs select? And some thoughts about mock drafts.

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Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

On Friday night, Prospects Live ran a mock Draft. Two rounds deep. Someone from our Royals sister station also did a mock, and Al gave me a chance to participate. For personal reasons, the timing wasn’t right. As well-intentioned as mock drafts are, and as good as they are at stoking the fire for upcoming drafts, I tend to have a bit of a problem with them. The rest of this is why I’m really a bit cold toward baseball mocks (even though I should be promoting them).

The basics on a mock draft are similar to the basics of a fantasy draft in any sport you choose. I quite enjoyed preparing for football fantasy drafts. The basics for me were, running the “If these four players are on the board, who would I select, and why?” scenario, as many times as possible.

Switching it to an MLB draft, if you’re drafting seventh, who are your top seven choices? Relatively easy. When an MLB fantasy draft gets frustrating is, if you’re perfectly loaded at third base, but a much better third baseman is available than a right fielder, do you grab the better talent? Or fill the bigger need? In some drafts, you can trade picks, unlike this July’s baseball draft. If you’re selecting in three picks, and there is a player that is far and away the best left on the board, is it worth trying to make a trade to move up?

If someone else is trying to “trade up” with you, should you be willing to? Particularly if you don’t specifically know which player he’s particularly coveting? Those are the “instant thoughts in the fly” that made drafts particularly fun. And in a fantasy draft, you get rather immediate feedback on if your assessments were correct or not. Add a little wagering on the side? Possibly a trophy? Just a bit of smack talk among friends? It can be a blast.

However, with the July Draft in baseball, the information is very incomplete. Very, very, very incomplete. Whether a mock draft, or the real thing, you’re trying to assess partial dossiers, fully knowing they’re partial, and leaving out quite a bit of the entirely incomplete information. Which is part of the reason the baseball selection process will likely lag the others. In the football draft, especially, you’ve seen players play.

My brother in Madison went to a Purdue football game against the Badgers where Drew Brees aired it up 83 times. My brother, off of one college game, had a chance to create an internal opinion of a future NFL Hall of Famer. That isn’t really what the baseball draft is about. While most of the benefit in a baseball draft might be expected to be carried by the top player or two, the baseball draft is entirely a strategy. Properly negotiating, so you can sign all of your choices. Getting the right number of bats versus arms (whatever number that should be). And, of course, hoping the pitchers stay healthy.

In the baseball draft, the concept of “tiering” plays really heavily. The top four or five names are likely similar on about everyone’s board this draft. The second tier and third tier likely run the selections down to the mid-teens, or so. Beyond that, the next 30 to 50 names are relatively similar. The right-handed starter out of a high school somewhere who throws 98 already? If he stays healthy and develops command? He’ll be brilliant. If he blows out his elbow twice and his shoulder once, he helps the team very little. The mock draft trumpets the upside, but not the risk.

In one of the recent mocks, a couple people selecting for the Cubs selected Will Bednar, a stone-cold beast right-handed arm from Mississippi State. Was that a good pick? He’s in that range of a whole bunch of pitchers of similar abilities, though entirely different profiles. Both pitching and hitting. Bednar could be fantastic. (My early default, Harry Ford, was long gone.) A few picks later, Michael McGreevy, a right-handed pitcher from Santa Barbara, was selected. As people discuss the plaudits of their selection, very rarely do they go into “Why this guy over that guy?” It would likely be “I like him better, because (reasons).” Whether that would be intriguing would depend on your familiarity with the pitchers.

If I were doing a mock that went two rounds deep, I’d grab a bat out of a Power Four conference because the Cubs pipeline hitting is a bit ordinary. I didn’t stick too long with the mock, but Jud Fabian, a true center fielder from Florida in the SEC, went shortly thereafter. Fabian is a bit divisive. His numbers haven’t been ideal by any means, but one of the things any MLB war room ought to be keen to know is, “What are we good at fixing?”

Which is a large part of why baseball mocks leave me wanting. Most players drafted will take two to three years, at least, before providing value to the MLB squad. For a handful, their “value to the team” is getting dealt in July for an upgrade. The part of the entire selection process that fascinates me is when I see where a team thinks their relative weaknesses are. Or if they’re taking many more college names than preps early.

For me, the Cubs ought to add some hitters that hit. At all the lower levels, a “hitter that hits” should advance through the system rather quickly. If I were to plug in a name for this weekend, I’d be interested in Arizona outfielder Ryan Holgate. While he isn’t much of a defensive asset, he mashes the ball. He’s probably in that range from the late teens to the fifties. If Holgate mashes as a professional, the stops in Mesa, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend wouldn’t take very long. He’d likely be ready for Tennessee by May or June next year, and he’d provide a reason to check Josh’s nightly review every day.

The mock draft tells more about the selector than the selected. Will Holgate, Bednar, McGreevy, or Fabian be good as an early Cubs choice? We’d really only know that if it happens. Each organization is just different enough that basing “the Phillies development ability” on a player you wanted to come to the Cubs has enough of a Butterfly Effect that the certainty is limited.

For me, the draft is fun as a mosaic. Which player did the Cubs select over which other similar player, and why? How many innings should a debutante get in their fractional season? (I’m happy to have, apparently, been wrong about a ban on recent choices being able to play, immediately. That ban isn’t necessary.) How well will players from college do in the lower levels? How quickly will pitchers and hitter reach Double-A?

Which specific guy gets tagged at 21? Less important to me, maybe than it should be. By draft day, I’ll try to have a list of 24 names ready, but there seems to be so much intent by teams to get the similar pick that will sign for less that the finances are as much the issue as the talent. This college baseball season has been fantastic, up until the NC State Wolfpack played a game with only 13 available players followed by a walkover for Vanderbilt into the finals.

Teams should be at least eight deep in their drafts. I will still be biased toward hitters, as they get to play most every day. With pitchers in a pipeline, they go months without an appearance, and virtually nobody knows why. Pitchers are vital, but I have no idea who’s going to miss 14-18 months when, and if they’d have been a useful big leaguer, either way.

I’m glad there’s going to be a 20-round draft. I wish it were a bit longer. Some of the players scuffling at various levels of many pipelines, as reserves, could probably be replaced easily enough by quality college players. And there are plenty across a wide swath of D1 through D3. The college season was largely a good product this season. Often more compelling than minor league ball. And college players not getting as much of a chance to shine as affiliated professionals still saddens me.