Many scouts liked Jackson Merrill’s left-handed swing. (Photo: KHG Sports Management)

Following yesterday’s discussion with MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis, today we offer our annual chat with former Toronto Blue Jays executive Keith Law, who served as a long-time columnist for ESPN before joining The Athletic two years ago. Before the draft, he put out a list of the Top 100 draft prospects available and afterwards reviewed how each major league club performed, including the National League West.

If you don’t yet subscribe to The Athletic, we highly recommend it for Keith’s workDennis Lin‘s coverage of the Padres, and some of the best national writers on baseball.

The following interview has been lightly edited.

MadFriars: Three of the Padres first four picks, Jackson Merrill, Robert Gasser and Kevin Kopps, all seemed like they could be classified as “pop-up picks”. Do you think San Diego was gambling more on trying to find value later in the draft or was all of the draft this year somewhat of a surprise because of COVID restrictions on playing last summer and fall?

Keith Law:  The Padres really liked Merrill, and there were a few other clubs on him. He’s a little bit of a pop-up guy, but this was also a year in which everyone popped up in some sense.

Jackson Merrill was the Padres’ top selection in 2021. (Photo: Paul W. Gillespie/Maryland Capital Gazette)

We had no summer for almost all college players and a limited one for the high school ones – and we had a very limited one for everybody in the fall. I didn’t do a board in the fall for players because how could I? I had no information to go on, but if I had, it would have changed pretty dramatically from there until draft day.

I don’t want to characterize anyone in the Padres’ draft class as pop-up guys because there were more players in the draft class this year whose fortunes rose and fell between preseason and when we got to the draft.

In your article in The Athletic, you wrote:

Outfielder James Wood (2) has huge power but struggled to hit any kind of pitching this spring and often looked disinterested while playing. He had a chance to go in the top half of the first round had he performed, especially since Brady House went 11th overall, but scouts were underwhelmed by him on and off the field. 

Wood was a multi-sport athlete who went to IMG to focus on baseball. Was it your opinion, or the opinions of the people you talked to, that he didn’t seem interested in playing baseball?

Keith Law: That was from multiple people who saw him this spring that he didn’t really look engaged in the sport. He struck out far too much for a high school hitter in any part of the country. When things were not going well, he just really looked disinterested.

I don’t say or write that stuff much on players at all. But the feedback was so consistently negative on him this spring I was floored that anyone took him in the first two rounds. I was even more floored to see that he got an above-slot bonus.

I know it’s crazy power, and he’s really big, but I am having a hard time thinking of any high school player with this type of profile, this type of swing-and-miss who will turn into a good big-league player. On top of that, I know scouts down in that area that weren’t in on him at any price. They didn’t think the kid had the right type of work ethic or engagement level to get better.

He’s going to struggle in pro ball; there is no question even if you love this player. He’s going to go out to the Arizona Complex League, and he’s going to struggle. How he responds to that and the work that he is willing to put in is going to determine his future as a prospect.

Now people do change; they mature. They grow up, and they change – so I’m not saying it’s not possible.  But the fact that he could punch out multiple times in a high school game, and that did happen and look disinterested. I keep going back to the word disinterested because that is the best and most non-judgmental word that I can find for it – but the fact that scouts were coming back to me with that is kind of scary.

I would not be comfortable as a scouting director or as an area scout putting my name or investing money in a pick like that.

You wrote early in the spring that if this were in the early ’90s, Woods would have profiled as a top-five pick. What did you mean by that?

Keith Law: If this were 1992, he would have been a top-five pick because he had size [6-foot-7], athleticism and an unquestioned carrying tool in his power – which is probably an 80. That was enough then to get you drafted high.

Now we go back and ask what were we thinking? The Colt Griffins of the world. He threw 100 mph; didn’t know how to pitch, but he threw 100. A lot of guys were taken high on just pure athleticism or a single big carrying tool but without much regard to how well-rounded they were as players.

James Wood has huge power but has a well below-average hit tool. Even if you want to dismiss everything that I have heard from scouts on how he appeared to carry himself on the field, he’s not a good hitter at all at this point. He punched out more than a quarter of his plate appearances. For a high school kid, that’s crazy.

Last year when we interviewed you, I thought you made a great point about the Padres’ evolving draft strategy, suggesting that the selections of Ryan Weathers and Robert Hassell III indicated that the organization was tilting a little more towards players with more feel for the game than just taking the super athlete. So, were you a little surprised by the selection of Wood?

Keith Law:  He contrasts so much with Merrill – and I actually didn’t see [Merrill] this spring because his name came up pretty late. By the time I heard of him, I had thought he was [going to be] a second-round pick. He has a high IQ, a great feel kind of player that can hit. The tools are not elite, he’s not a 70 power or hit or an elite defender, but he can play. He has a very good feel for the game.

That is more in line with the type of player that the Padres have been taking lately. Then they take Wood, and he doesn’t seem to have a feel to hit, and they have moved away from those players. When they did take shots at players like Buddy Reed and Mason House, it was in the second or third round, and they did not have success. At some point, you just have to say we keep taking these tools-first outfielders that don’t work out; maybe we should stop?

I thought that they had and did move away from that.

Kevin Kopps could rise quickly. (Photo: Arkansas Athletics)

With the rest of their picks, they took a pretty good college lefty in [Robert] Gasser and a one pitch reliever in [Kevin] Kopps, who could get to the majors pretty quickly because he’s already 24 and pitched in the SEC.

We are going to see Kopps in the majors in a year or not at all. There isn’t much middle ground on that one.

Not only do I not think Wood fits with their evolving philosophy, but I also don’t think he fits with their other picks this year.

I guessed that the money in the draft is already spent; why not take a swing at upside? If it works, that’s great; if not – what are the real costs?

Keith Law: To me, and they gave him so much more money over-slot, I would have used that money on both Gage Jump (18) and/or Chase Burns (20), guys who they took in case Wood failed a physical.

Straight up, I would have rather had either of those players over Wood, even recognizing the greater risk of a pitcher over a position player. I’ve seen plenty of videos on Jump, who was not on my top 100, but I’ve seen enough of him and spoken with scouts to like his chances more than Wood.

It’s very hard to teach a kid to hit at this age. That is a tall ask. It’s not impossible – and I want to be very clear that I am not saying that James Wood sucks or is never going to be anything – but it’s also all about probabilities.  It’s almost like you are playing craps. There are better bets on the craps tables, and there are worse bets on the craps tables. James Wood is a long shot.

Robert Gasser in action with the University of Houston. (Photo: University of Houston Athletics)

After Merrill and Wood, Robert Gasser is kind of interesting. He goes from a player who got no noise during last year’s draft to a player that got over an $800,000 bonus. How?

Keith Law: He changed himself this offseason and probably really just getting more time. When he came into the season, it really wasn’t even clear what role he would have. He had an 11 ERA last year, he threw hard, but my understanding was that he came back this year looking better, throwing more strikes, more in control of his delivery and better able to repeat his delivery.

He went from being barely on the staff to being in the rotation to being the Friday-night starter. I also think it helped that he got regular work. He was terrible to start last year, but who knows how it would have gone with an entire season?

He started well this season and kept getting better. I don’t know how high the ceiling is, but I think he’s a starter. Right now, the Padres need some depth there because of trades, injuries, and promotions. I think their system is still in decent shape, but they have spent a lot of that prospect capital, and for the first time, they are weak on the pitching side.

Max Ferguson was one of the more athletic players San Diego took in the 2021 draft. (Photo: University of Tennessee Athletics)

Max Ferguson, the second baseman from Tennessee, is another player whose performance this season may have hurt his draft stock.

What did you think?

Keith Law:  In the fifth round, that is what you get. You are not getting a college player with an easy path to become a big-league regular. I don’t think Ferguson has some huge ceiling, but I do think he has a chance to get to the big leagues in some role.

One thing you can do when it is a pretty clear and defined weakness as opposed to a much bigger problem with a player that can’t hit, is correct a minor flaw, which in his case was against sliders and going for too much power.

You might be able to work with that and get him to everyday status because he can really run and has enough pop to profile as an everyday second baseman. I think he’s athletic enough to become a good defender at second base, especially with some coaching. So, if this is an issue of just learning to pick up spin and lay off some sliders, marginal improvements in this could turn into a player making it to the major leagues.

The degree of improvement again is just one small thing you are working on as opposed to trying to teach a player to hit entirely. Wood’s approach is basically just trying to hit for power all the time. Ferguson’s ceiling is lower but the path to get him to the big leagues is clearer.

Jackson Wolf struck out 104 in 89 innings for the Mountaineers. (Photo: WVU Athletics)

The organization took two pitchers from West Virginia, Jackson Wolf and Ryan Bergert. I know that you liked Jackson a little more; why?

Keith Law: The size, and he has a really good feel to pitch. He has one really good pitch, the secondaries aren’t great, but they are fine. I don’t think he will have any problems in A-ball, and he should be in Double-A by next year to see what he can really do.

They need to challenge him as quick as possible. He’s older [22]; there isn’t an expectation that he is going to throw harder – but in his case, he’s had success with his present stuff, so see what better hitters can do against him and how he responds.

Finally, any sleepers or players that we haven’t talked about that you think are important or are they all here or in your review on The Athletic?

Keith Law: That was about everyone in my draft notebook in The Athletic and here.

Posted by John Conniff

John grew up in Poway and has written for MadFriars since 2004. He has written articles for Baseball America, FoxSports San Diego, the El Paso Times, San Antonio Express-News, Amarillo Globe-News, Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette and Pacific Daily News in addition to appearing on numerous radio programs and podcasts. He can also break down the best places to eat for all five of the affiliates. There is no best place to eat in Peoria, Arizona.

3 Comments

  1. […] Executive editor J.J. Cooper has been with the publication since 2002. He is a Rule 5 draft guru and is as knowledgeable as any writer in the country. We had an opportunity to chat with him about what the Padres did in the draft this year to complete our interview series with Jim Callis from MLB Pipeline and The Athletic‘s Keith Law. […]

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  2. […] of Tennessee’s abbreviated 2020 season, but hit just .253/.378/.461 this spring. In our post-draft interview, The Athletic’s Keith Law identified Ferguson as a good athlete who may have been trying to do […]

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  3. […] in the desert, single-handedly outscoring the ACL A’s. Coming off a lackluster spring when some industry evaluators questioned both his hit tool and engagement in games, Wood is silencing some of the noise. The […]

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