When it comes to covering the major league draft, there are few that have the expertise and longevity of Jim Callis, who has been covering the draft for more than 20 years. Callis began at Baseball America, where he ultimately served as executive editor, and now as a senior writer for MLB Pipeline.
You can now catch him all over Twitter (@JimCallisMLB) on MLB.com and on the MLB Network.
We talked with Jim as part of our post-draft series.
MadFriars: What was the feeling around Major League Baseball around the draft being moved back a month? Was it as big of a success as Rob Manfred had hoped?
Jim Callis: MLB’s goal was to draw more attention to the draft. By having it during All-Star Weekend they did just that. The ratings for the first round were up. So the only response would be the MLB accomplished their goal.
From a different viewpoint, they were packing a lot of things into one weekend. I don’t think the teams loved it to death. When you push the draft back a month, it compresses the amount of time that scouts have to start preparing for next year’s draft. Or, like from the Padres’ standpoint, a lot of your top scouts would be out looking at potential trade targets. Instead, they are tied up with the draft. So from a scheduling standpoint, it wasn’t the easiest. But, it accomplished the goal of increasing the visibility of the draft
If the teams are collectively unhappy about it, would they push to move the draft back to June, or will it continue like this?
Callis: I can’t see them changing anything, anytime soon. Some teams might not be happy, but at the end of the day, the one thing you can quantify are ratings, and the ratings were up.
Getting into the Padres’ draft, Kevin Kopps was the Golden Spikes Winner as the best collegiate player, yet did not make MLB’s top 250. Was this due to age or that he pitched out of the bullpen?
Callis: I am a member of the Golden Spikes Award committee, and I rightfully thought that he deserved the award. I will say that the award goes to the best performer in college that year, which is different from being the best prospect. Could he have been ranked in the top 250? Sure. There’s not much of a difference between the player we ranked 150 and the one ranked 350. But 100 of those guys made the list, and 100 didn’t. Kopps was in that second range, but you could easily make the argument he should have been in the top 250. We don’t rank a lot of relievers and he was purely a reliever. He did lead the nation in ERA, WHIP, won 12 games and saved 11. Not to mention the one start he did get where he pitched into the ninth in the super regionals. But he is 24 years old. He has already missed time after having Tommy John surgery.
A ton of his success comes from throwing a mid-80s slider/cutter. He throws an awful lot of them, and guys are not sure how it is going to play in pro ball. His fastball sits around 90 and it’s okay. He comes right after hitters, and that led him to having one of the best statistical seasons in recent memory. How many guys can win 12 games and save 11 in a short college season? All while leading the nation in ERA.
That slider/cutter pitch is often labelled “elite.” Do you think it is good enough that Kopps has even an outside chance of helping out the Padres’ pen in 2021?
Callis: It is a good pitch. I had scouts describe it as a very good college slider. To be a truly elite pitch, he would need a 70 (on the 20-80 scale) to really blow hitters away. Most scouts gave it a 60, maybe a very generous 65. The problem with pitching at the majors is his fastball sits around 90. More advanced hitters will be able to lay off the cutter/slider and force him to throw his fastball.
He also pitched a lot of innings this year. I am not sure how much he still has left in the tank, not to mention the layoff since Arkansas was eliminated. The Padres could very well give him a chance by challenging him with maybe High-A to see how he does. It is a possibility, but regardless of how well he does, you don’t see players do that very often. Garrett Crochet did it last year, but before him, it was six years since a guy was in the majors the year he was drafted. The Padres will see how much left in the tank he has and decide how much they want to challenge him.
We just talked about Kopps possibly being too exhausted after a long season to play. Both with the Padres and throughout the MLB, how much do you expect 2021 draft picks to play?
Callis: That’s a good question and honestly I don’t know. If you put the guys on a roster, then they count towards your roster limit, and they would have to release guys. I believe it will be limited, which guys play, and which are shut down for the year. It is hard to speculate because I would guess every team would be different. Remember you still haven’t gotten a long look at your 2019 or 2020 draft picks, so are teams going to be uncomfortable releasing those players already. I’ve talked to multiple guys, and no one is sure how it is going to play out.
Take the Padres’ for example. They took two high school guys with their first two picks. Normally, they start their first full season in Low-A. Would you stick a 19-year-old who hasn’t had any pro experience straight into Low-A? I would think you would send them to the complex league this year, so they are ready for Low A next. The same goes with the pitchers, the Padres took a lot of 23/24-year-old pitchers. Usually, you would want them in High-A to begin the season. But would I throw them straight into High-A with no other pro experience?
Let’s say the Padres sign 18 of their players. They are either at the max or close to it. Adding 18 more bodies means they have to release or move 18 of them. If they only have maybe eight or nine play, it makes it so you are releasing fewer players.
[Editor’s Note: After our conversation with Jim Callis, the Padres have confirmed signing 18 draftees and six undrafted free agents. While none have yet been assigned to affiliates, the team has released nine players and transferred several others to the 60-day IL.]
You just mentioned James Wood’s need to play. Preseason, he was in the discussion a top 10-15 pick before he struggled this season. Do you still see that lofty ceiling? Or were his issues enough that the floor scared teams away?
Callis: The ceiling is still there. There is just a really big gap between the ceiling and the floor because he struggled in the high school season and swung and missed a lot. Based on pure tools though… he has at least plus speed, he is probably well above-average raw power, with a well above average arm, he has the tools to be at least a plus centerfielder. He is 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, and at least right now can really move. You don’t see players who are that big and that athletic. It is a crazy package.
There are big swing and miss concerns though. I like him as a second pick. There’s a lot of risks, but a lot of ceiling. Making him not your top pick alleviates some of the pressure (on AJ Preller/Mark Conner) if he doesn’t hit. It is a gamble worth taking. I really like him as a second pick.
You mentioned that Wood is a good gamble with the second pick. Is that because you think Jackson Merrill, who the Padres selected in the first round, was a safe pick? I know he was someone that rose up in the rankings, but do you think he was a first-round pick? Or do you think the pick was more about getting a player they liked who could sign for well below slot?
Callis: It was a combination of talent and savings. He probably had as much helium as any high school player in the draft. It wasn’t that he was an unheard-of player prior to this year. I know the Yankees were really high on him and were considering him at pick number twenty. So it wasn’t like the Padres were the only team that saw him as a first-round talent. I think if the Padres didn’t take him, he still probably would have gone in the next 10-20 picks.
He is a really good hitter, has good bat speed, uses the whole field, has good raw power. … The bat to ball skills is the trait that stands out most with him. I think he has a chance to stay at shortstop. He is not the quickest runner, or at least not the traditional plus-plus running shortstop. But we have also seen many “nontraditional” shortstops recently who stay at short. He has the arm, and if he couldn’t stay at short, should be able to move over to third.
I like the combination of Merrill and Wood.
Do you see any chance the Padres could sign Gage Jump or Chase Burns? If not, what is the point for Padres, and other teams, when they draft Top 100 guys late in the draft with no chance of signing them?
Callis: I’ve never understood that, to be honest with you. You have the old ‘you build the relationship with the player, and get to know him,’ which I guess… Technically, a player has to re-consent when they come out of the draft for that same team to draft them. I know Kumar Rocker did not sign his re-consent form for the Rockies to draft him (the Rockies took him in the 38th round of the 2018 draft), not that I thought the Rockies were going to take him at eight. But you have to be careful because if the player doesn’t sign it, you cannot draft them.
I don’t think there is an expectation that they (Jump/Burns) sign. I think there are teams, Padres included, that might not have wanted to sign all their players because of the 180 player rule. You have to release guys to make room for the new guys, and with COVID shutting down the 2020 minor league season, maybe you want more time to evaluate those 2019 and 2020 picks that you haven’t seen a full season from yet. It could also be an insurance policy. If you take a lot of underslot guys with the intention of signing Wood, if he doesn’t sign, now you have enough money that you might be able to sign one of them. But you would also lose the slot money that Wood had, which without it is probably not enough to sign them, so I don’t really see an upside in taking them. With the fixed bonus pool, I don’t see any mathematical standpoint that you could take them and make it work.
I would imagine that both guys would want a bonus starting with a two (million). So maybe if a team wanted to make it work and they signed all college seniors rounds three through ten. But even then, I would be shocked.
Not to go through all picks, but what can you tell us about LHP Robert Gasser, who the Padres selected with their Comp B pick?
Callis: There were a bunch of interesting guys. Robert Gasser was really a guy who came out of nowhere. He was good a couple of years ago but was throwing upper-80s. All of a sudden he’s sitting 92-93, hitting 96, with a really nice hybrid breaking ball that he’s throwing harder. He was one of the better lefties in the draft.
Are there any other picks that stood out to you?
Callis: Yeah, there were quite a few. I wasn’t trying to dismiss Kopps earlier. He was a really good pick. Literally, no one in baseball had a better year than Kevin Kopps and the Padres got him with the 99th pick in the draft.
All the talk about James Wood being a first-round guy who slipped, I really thought Max Ferguson [fifth round, from U. of Tennessee], could have been a first-round pick. We had him as a high second-rounder coming into the year, and I really liked his bat-to-ball skills. He is athletic, could run, could play multiple positions, there was a lot to like going into the year. But it was weird, he lost some strength this year, which theoretically he could gain back. It’s like he tried to turn himself into a power hitter, except the power wasn’t there. He still walked a lot, but his strikeout numbers went way up. I think there is a much more talented player in Max Ferguson than a fifth-rounder.
I know in most drafts, juniors have a decent amount of bargaining power, and seniors sign for whatever they can get. With COVID giving everyone the extra year is it going to be similar for guys like Ferguson and Jackson Wolf?
Callis: It should be roughly the same. The bargaining power and age thing tends to matter for pitchers more than hitters. The Padres took a lot of older players. Even most of their juniors are 22 or close to it. Jackson Wolf is an interesting case because he is a junior but has already graduated. He is your prototypical crafty lefty. But I would guess that he would not be a full slot [The West Virginia University product signed for 300k, well below the pick value of 438k).
Last question, all of your mock drafts for the last few months had San Diego native Marcello Mayer going #1 overall. How surprised were you when he not only didn’t go number one but fell to four?
Callis: We weren’t really surprised. We knew the Pirates were not just looking at talent but were looking at deals. I’d guess that if Mayer or Lawler were willing to take $6.5 million, the Pirates would have taken them number one overall. It was obvious, based on what the Pirates did on day 2, how they wanted to spend the money. I get it, it was a great plan, and the Pirates still got a really good player in Henry Davis. As far as Mayer falling, we already knew that Leiter was going to the Rangers. We knew the Tigers were going to take (Jackson) Jobe no matter what. We knew for a while that the Tigers also really liked Mayer, but had heard that if Jobe was there, he would be the Tigers pick. Once we found out a few minutes before the draft started that Davis was going one, it was logical to think that Mayer would go fourth.
How well did that work out for the Red Sox? They haven’t picked that high in a draft since 1967. In my lifetime they have not picked that high, as I was born in October of ’67. And the best player in the draft falls into your lap? That’s pretty good. Mayer was, in my opinion, the best hitter in the draft, the best fielder in the draft. He has 20-25 home run power. He is really, really good, and another really good high school player to come out of San Diego.