When it comes to all things MLB Draft, Baseball America’s coverage is an absolute go-to for anyone who wants information. The publication features scouting reports on the top 500 prospects and provides plenty of analysis all year long.
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.
The following interview was lightly edited. Note that the conversation occurred last week before many signings had been announced and before Kumar Rocker’s deal with the Mets became a question.
MadFriars: Right up until the draft, Baseball America had shortstop Marcelo Mayer mocked at number one but catcher Henry Davis went number one overall. Did he go first overall because his signing bonus demands were more advantageous to what they wanted to do in the later rounds or was Davis their number one guy?
J.J. Cooper: How about I answer yes? They said he was their number one guy. I’ll take their word on that. But at the same time, the number he was willing to sign for also makes him more attractive. I would feel comfortable saying that he is not going to sign the largest bonus in the 2021 draft.
And why I say that is that if you rewind the clock to last year – which was, financially, a disastrous year with COVID and all of that – the number one pick [Tigers 1B/3B Spencer Torkelson] signed for $8.4, the number five pick [blue Jays INF Austin Martin] for $7, the number four pick [Kansas City LHP Asa Lacy] signed for $6.67 the number three pick [Marlins RHP Max Meyer] signed for $6.7. So I can find four guys from last year’s draft who signed for more money [than Davis].
So let’s rewind the clock to 2019: the top four picks in the 2019 draft signed for larger bonuses than what Henry Davis agreed to. Well, what if we go back to 2018? In 2018, it was only the top-two. In 2017, five guys got more than [Davis]. The number he got is the smallest by a number one pick since 2016. So that right there tells you – and I feel comfortable in saying this – that Jack Leiter is going to sign for more. If he signs – and I expect he will – he will sign for more.
I am not faulting what the Pirates did. Well, what did they do then? They got Anthony Solometo and Lonnie White, Bubba Chandler, and Owen Kellington They were able to go out there and get additional top-50 talent – guys that were going to cost a lot of money, especially when you look at White. The reason White was still on the board when he went [64th overall] was that most teams knew they couldn’t meet that number. Well, the Pirates had that ability.
I can see the logic in a ‘spreading it out’ approach in a year where there is more uncertainty because almost all of the college players didn’t have summer wood-bat experience which is a key part [of evaluation]. And they had shorter track records during their college careers [because of] the shortened 2020 college season. With the high school guys, there’s a little more uncertainty maybe than most years because they didn’t have a senior season. I can see why teams would spread [money] around more but I think it’s pretty clear that was a key part of what the Pirates did.
What pick of the first round was the most surprising? Maybe a guy that went higher than you thought or much lower than you thought?
J.J. Cooper: I would say that if you looked at it overall – asking price/signing bonus played an even bigger role than normal in how the first round lined up. Kumar Rocker went tenth. Now our projections for him started at four and probably ended around ten. That was his range. But, again, Kumar Rocker probably when it’s all said and done if he signs and I expect he will, his number will probably be larger than a lot of the guys that went ahead of him.
Khalil Watson went sixteenth; he didn’t go at 16 because of talent. Khalil Watson went sixteenth because the teams picking at 16 and 17 had more money to spend than the teams picking seven, eight, nine picks before, so you saw that. You saw the Royals take [high school lefty] Frank Mozzicato at seven and they like Frank Mozzicato. He was the second high school pitcher off the board but we already know that Andrew Painter who went at 13 overall signed for more money than Mozzicato signed for. Colton Cowser went fifth but he went well under-slot.
A lot of these picks – even in the top-ten – I don’t want it to sound like teams were bargain hunting because they weren’t. They were looking for that combination of ‘this is the player I want at the price I want.’ And when they found that combination, they looked at it and said ‘this is what will allow me to do more later on.’ Some other teams took advantage of it the other way. If you look at the Marlins, it is kinda crazy that the Marlins landed Khalil Watson, a shortstop who I think easily could have gone top-five, and to see where they picked him and where they got him is significant.
Last year when I talked to Carlos Collazo, he said that last year’s scouting wasn’t affected too much by COVID. Would you say that the COVID impact was much more significant for the 2021 draft?
J.J. Cooper: Absolutely. The crazy thing is coming into January, we heard comments about teams saying that they had a better feel for the high school class than they do for the college class right now, especially on the East Coast. On the West Coast, high school players did not play as much over the summer. On the East Coast, a lot of these players were seen a lot. So that part was probably the least affected by this. I would say without a doubt for good and bad different ways, the college players who came in considered to be among the top prospects in this class who had poor springs or less than expected springs, that hurt them. An Adrian Del Castillo, a Jud Fabian didn’t have a strong Cape [Cod League] or a strong summer with USA baseball to be able to say ‘oh, well he struggled this spring but we saw him really good against top-level competition last summer.’
The flip side of that is that Connor Norby or Trey Sweeney those guys who had great springs, they didn’t have as much track record from the past to look at it and say ‘well, in Trey Sweeney’s case, we didn’t see him against truly elite pitching competition, we didn’t see him with a wood bat this spring but we got to see it last summer. So it added uncertainty both ways but it affected the college class more than the high school class because a lot of the high school players were seen significantly last summer.
To me, James Wood is the most fascinating player that the Padres drafted because he seems like such an A.J. Preller player. What went wrong for him in 2021? Was it just the level of competition he faced at IMG Academy?
J.J. Cooper: IMG plays one of the toughest schedules on the high school side, so that’s part of it. We can talk about the same thing with Elijah Greene who is one of the top players in the 2022 class and he didn’t set the world on fire this spring either. The reality of it is that if Wood had a monster year this spring, he would have been a monster prospect. That uncertainty comes back to: how much contact is he going to make? No one questions the power. No one questions whether he can play in the outfield; he’s going to be fine out there. He’s going to run. But the last memories that people have that they got to see him significantly, was showing him striking out more than he did last summer. So, again, this is one of those players that we were talking about. How much do you value what you saw last summer versus what you saw last spring? And how much of what we saw this spring – it’s his draft year, it’s a very important year – and when you start pressing, how much worse does it get? Sometimes it develops momentum all its own. Jud Fabian at the college level is an example of that.
I think Jud Fabian and James Wood – it’s notable that they have many of the same strengths and some of the same struggles this spring. Now, one of them is a college player and the other is a high school player but it’s also notable that both of them went around the same [draft] range but also both of them are probably going to get paid significantly more than the spot that they went.
[Editors note – The Padres signed OF James Wood to a $2.6 million bonus after we interviewed JJ.]
Wood is listed at 6-foot-7. The thing I have read about him is that he has the ability to stay in center but his height isn’t common for a centerfielder. Does he have a chance to stay out there? Or does he fit more of a corner outfielder profile long-term?
J.J. Cooper: Well, you don’t know where the body is going to be. As he stands right now, absolutely. If we were talking about a big league example, if we were talking about Polanco when he was 18 or 19, you would say he has a chance to stay in center field but there is also a chance that as he gets older, he’ll fill out and he won’t be able to. In fact, I believe he did play a little center field early in his career. But if you look at Gregory Polanco now, you would say ‘that was a center fielder?’ Well yeah, I remember was long and skinny and ten years later, he is no longer long and skinny. He’s filled out.
James Wood is not long and skinny. Wood is more physical already. If he is going to lean into the power, then that also may mean that you see him kind of edge towards a corner profile. It takes more wear and tear to play center than it does to play a corner. It kind of depends on what do you want him to be. This is years down the road. If you want him to be that middle of the lineup, 35-homer guy, you might actually want him to play a corner for that reason. There are guys who do that and stay in center but it’s rare, especially at his size.
In researching Jackson Merrill, in the report Baseball America wrote, you guys said he was a “polarizing” prospect. What makes him polarizing?
J.J. Cooper: He is definitely a helium guy, a late riser. It really comes down to how much you believe in his hitting ability. The teams that really believe in his hitting ability were going to value him several rounds higher than the ones that were more sceptical. Part of that kind of comes from what we just talked about. He wasn’t this player last summer. He’s gotten bigger, he’s gotten stronger. But he is also from Maryland. You’re not seeing him against the same level of competition all the time this spring that you saw him against last summer. So that kind of creates some of the polarization right there.
If you heavily weighed last summer, then you probably value him more than a team who might heavily weigh what you are seeing now. But the other thing is that you also look at this and I do think this goes back to what we talked about earlier: getting the guy you like at the price that you like. Jackson Merrill fits that because when it’s all said and done, you are looking at him and saying part of it is that drafting Jackson Merrill where they did is why they could also get James Wood. This worked out for the Padres before fairly well when they drafted Hudson Potts where they did because it helped them have a deeper draft that year.
We heard the term “pop-up prospect” a lot a few years ago when the Padres drafted Hudson Head, is Merrill kind of fit that same mold?
J.J. Cooper: He was known, he’s just better now than he was last summer. When I think of a true pop-up, a pop-up is normally a guy you didn’t see last summer and then all of a sudden the buzz starts being created during the spring and you are like ‘who is this guy and where did he come from?’ Merrill is more a guy who is better than you thought he was.
RHP Kevin Kopps just won the Golden Spikes award but he’s 24 and given his age he probably doesn’t have a ton of upside. Is he a pure reliever or does he have a small chance to start?
J.J. Cooper: At his best – not that he can’t throw other pitches – but it’s a ‘here, I have this pitch and you can’t hit it, let’s do this again.’ He threw that slider [that] sometimes looks like a cutter – we had it that he throws that pitch 60% of the time. And guys rarely go from that to [starter]. And the role that you want him in is that [relief] role. This is not a guy with a blazing fastball. It’s not an average fastball, it’s probably a below-average fastball. So you don’t want him trying to turn over the lineup multiple times. He did that a few times at Arkansas and got into trouble a little bit at the end of the year – they did that a little too much with him probably. The reason he was so great this year is that he would often go three great innings and then he would turn around and do it again later in the series. So that’s what you want him to do. He kind of is what he is. Like, the good news about it is that you can move him quickly.
Now the thing that works against him moving too quickly is that I don’t think you can pitch him again this year or much at all. You have a reliever that threw 89.2 innings this year. If you had a big league reliever – and I get that [Kopps] is 24 – and if you had a big leaguer that was at 90 innings in July and you said how many innings to you expect to get out of him, you’d say none. You wouldn’t say we can get another 40 out of him. This isn’t 1987, that doesn’t happen anymore. He threw those innings and then with the season on the line, they gave him the ball and said ‘hey, we knew you threw pretty hard earlier during the series but can you give us seven or eight?’ I would say you are talking about how quickly he can move in 2022 then how quickly he can move in 2021.
The Padres took LHP Robert Gasser with their Comp B pick. He had a really rough 2020 campaign in a small sample. In your opinion, what caused him to grow so much in 2021?
J.J. Cooper: From everything we’ve heard, again, I hesitate to say this, because COVID is awful for everybody but if you are a baseball player, you had to figure out what [you] were going to do during this downtime. And from everything that were told, Robert Gasser decided that he was going to get a whole lot better. We heard stories that he was long-tossing to himself. He’d take a bucket of baseballs to the field and just throw and then he’d go to the other side, he’d scoop up all of the baseballs and throw them back. He made himself into a better player.
Everything was better this year. The control was better, the stuff was better, the feel for his secondaries was better. That’s a lot to his credit. Now, at the same time, he has to show that he can maintain it for more than one season because he’s only done that for one season at that level. He’s been a good junior college player before that but what he really looks like is that guy you really like as a back-of-the-rotation starter. He’s much more that than a front-of-the-rotation starter. There’s a lot of value in that. If Robert Gasser ends up being a guy – now he’s not nearly as funky as Joey Lucchesi – but if he ends up being a Joey Lucchesi-type, there’s a lot of value to that. He’s not as funky as Lucchesi but his stuff may be a little better.