Written By: Zack Silverman
Follow Him on Twitter: @ZackMatt4
Follow Prospects Worldwide on Twitter: @ProspectsWorldW
Last time, we started off with the Top Draft Prospects in the Big 12, which is my home conference now that I’m based in Dallas-Fort Worth. Shifting eastward, we’ll take a look at the SEC Top MLB Draft Prospects, the best conference in college baseball year in and year out, and 2021 is no exception. Like the Big 12, we’re definitely pitcher-heavy here due to the simple fact that it’s easier to show a velocity bump or uptick in stuff over a small sample than it is to show improvement in plate discipline or power, but there are definitely more bats here than in the Big 12.
The SEC boasts arguably the top two prospects in the draft in Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, and for some, Jud Fabian makes it the top three. The usual suspects in Vanderbilt and Florida are absolutely overflowing with talent, but the SEC is a strong conference from top to bottom and every team has players to watch. Mississippi State in particular has a really interesting group of arms that all offer something a little different. Without further ado, here are the top 2021 draft prospects in the SEC.
1. RHP Kumar Rocker, Vanderbilt
Bat: R. Throw: R. 6’4″, 255 lbs. Born 11/22/1999. Hometown: Athens, GA
2019-2020: 14-6, 3.06 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 142/29 K/BB in 114.2 IP.
No surprises here, Kumar Rocker is the top prospect in the SEC. And in the entire draft, for that matter. We all know Rocker’s story; a clear first round talent coming out of the Georgia high school ranks in 2018, he knew he hadn’t yet hit his ceiling and headed north to Vanderbilt for school. His freshman year went about as well as humanly possible, of course highlighted by his 19 strikeout no-hitter of Duke in the super regionals, and that success continued into his sophomore season when he struck out 28 batters in 15 innings of work. No pitcher in the country can come close to matching his combination of stuff, upside, polish, and track record.
So what makes Kumar Rocker so great? We’ll start with the stuff. The big right hander is listed at 6’4″ and 255 pounds, and he looks it for sure. The fastball sits in the mid 90’s and can hit 97-98 pretty easily, and it’s tough to pick out out of his hand. His bread and butter is a wicked, easy plus slider that dives under bats late and has made many a seasoned college hitter look silly. When he winds up a regular on Pitching Ninja in the majors, that pitch will be the reason. Lastly, it’s easy to overlook his changeup behind that power fastball/slider combination, but even his third pitch is regularly above average with great sinking action down in the zone.
Usually, these big, hard throwing underclassmen with explosive stuff need a little refining, but Rocker is actually pretty polished. His delivery features a lot of movement, but it’s smooth, coordinated, and athletic and he repeats it very well. That enables him to be an above average strike thrower, and with an extremely competitive, bulldog mentality on the mound, he pounds the zone and goes right after hitters. Of course, when you’re talking about the potential first overall pick, you’re obligated to nitpick, and the nitpicks on Rocker are that his control is ahead of his command, the command can be a little inconsistent, and his delivery might need just a little smoothing out. Still, nothing is glaring, and just a little more consistency with his command could easily make him a true ace.
2. RHP Jack Leiter, Vanderbilt
Bat: R. Throw: R. 6′, 195 lbs. Born 4/21/2000. Hometown: Summit, NJ
2020: 2-0, 1.72 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 22/8 K/BB in 15.2 IP.
Like his rotation-mate, Jack Leiter was a highly touted high school prospect and could have gone in the first round in 2019 out of the New Jersey high school ranks. Because he was extremely old for a high schooler and older than many college freshmen at the time, he’s draft eligible already as a sophomore, and it took just one start to establish himself in the very top tier of the class. In his first collegiate start, he took the mound against South Alabama and struck out twelve over five no-hit innings, then he cruised to a strong start against Evansville before a so-so outing against TCU. With just 15.2 innings under his belt, he’s already one of the most polished pitchers in the class.
Leiter can’t quite match Rocker’s stuff, but there is still plenty to like. His fastball sits in the low 90’s and tops out around 95 early in games, but even though he’s on the smaller side at six feet tall, it plays well above its velocity due to elite extension for his size. Teams increasingly look for that long extension that puts flat plane on the ball, and Leiter gets it. His best secondary pitch is a potentially plus curveball with tremendous depth, albeit with low to mid 70’s velocity.
He’s begun working in a slider more that’s an average pitch for now, but he can rattle off some good ones and given his feel for pitching, it’s easy to envision him getting consistently above average with that pitch. With low to mid 80’s velocity, it also gets nice velocity separation from his curveball. Lastly, he flashes above average with his changeup as well but doesn’t use it as much.
That’s quite the repertoire, but what makes it really play up is his advanced feel to change speeds and spot his pitches. As we did with Kumar Rocker, we have to nitpick a little bit just because we’re talking about the very top of the draft here, and that’s just how it goes. You have to love Leiter’s feel for his craft, and he certainly has all the intangibles to succeed at the major league level. But we are talking about a fastball that often dips into the 90-91 range and a curve that can get down to 71-72, which isn’t exactly power stuff from a six foot pitcher, and he might have a little less margin for error than guys like Rocker.
Additionally, the “burden of proof” is higher for command pitchers than for guys with loud stuff, and Leiter has thrown just 15.2 innings so far (with eight walks) at the collegiate level – he’ll have to prove over a full season that his command is all that it’s cracked up to be. If he does, he has a great chance to challenge for that 1-1 spot.
3. OF Jud Fabian, Florida
Bat: R. Throw: L. 6’2″, 195 lbs. Born 9/27/2000. Hometown: Ocala, FL
2019-2020: 12 HR, .250/.368/.466, 9 SB, 63/41 K/BB in 73 games.
While Jack Leiter is extremely old for his class, Jud Fabian enrolled early at Florida in 2019 and finds himself as one of the youngest juniors in his class, more than five months younger than the sophomore Leiter. He won’t turn 21 until well after the draft, and he’ll have multiple years of SEC play under his belt by then. Despite his age, he held his own as an 18 year old freshman in 2019, slashing .232/.353/.411 with seven home runs over 56 games against a tough SEC schedule.
Fabian was off to an even hotter start against Florida’s non-conference slate in 2020, slashing .294/.407/.603 with five home runs in 17 games, including one off of the Diamondbacks’ 32nd overall pick, Slade Cecconi. Combine that with a pair of strong summers on the Cape in 2019 and in the Florida League in 2020, and Fabian has more amateur track record than any teenager in the country.
With Fabian, we’re not talking about any one loud tool. As you would expect given all the hitting he’s done as a teenager, his natural feel for the game is what stands out the most and it helps his tools, which are all at least average across the board, play up. The Ocala native has a very disciplined approach at the plate, recognizing balls from strikes and improving in his ability to recognize offspeed pitches as well. However, he does need to improve his raw bat to ball skills, because even if his pitch selection is advanced, he tends to swing and miss within the strike zone a bit more than you’d expect.
At a listed 6’2″ and 195 pounds, he has a nice balance of power and athleticism in his frame, and at this point he regularly flashes above average raw and game power from a loose, balanced swing. As he continues to refine his hit tool (which I am separating from his “eye tool”), there is a chance he ends up with plus power down the road if everything breaks right.
An above average runner, Fabian’s feel for the game translates to his defense as well and he profiles to stick in center field long term, which in turn makes his offensive profile look even better. Given his youth, it’s not hard to dream on him continuing to improve at the plate and tapping into his true five tool potential, in which case he could project for 20-30 home runs a year with high on-base percentages at his ceiling. Profiling easily within the top ten picks and getting plenty of looks within the top five picks at this point, teams will want to see big production against SEC pitching in 2021, which could solidify him as the top position player prospect in college baseball. Fabian’s current competitors in that regard are Miami’s Adrian Del Castillo, UCLA’s Matt McLain, and Louisville’s Alex Binelas.
4. RHP Jaden Hill, Louisiana State
Bat: R. Throw: R. 6’4″, 235 lbs. Born 12/12/1999. Hometown: Ashdown, AR
2019-2020: 1-0, 0.83 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 28/8 K/BB in 21.2 IP.
“Who cares about track record – I’m buying for the future. If the stuff is there, the stuff is there!” If you find yourself nodding in agreement with that statement, then Jaden Hill is the pitcher for you. Hill’s big fastball and projectable offspeed stuff made him a well-known draft prospect coming out of high school near Texarkana, but he opted to head down to LSU and prove himself instead of going pro. As a freshman, he missed time due to elbow soreness and later collarbone surgery, the latter stemming from his days as a high school quarterback, and was limited to just ten (albeit impressive) innings. Fully healthy as a sophomore, Hill was untouchable in 11.2 shutout innings in which he struck out 17 and allowed just one (1!) hit, and that included non-conference outings against Indiana and Texas.
Let’s talk about stuff. Jaden Hill has pitched mostly in relief to this point, where he can easily touch 98 with his fastball, but in longer outings he can still sit comfortably in the mid 90’s. His go-to pitch is a rapidly improving slider that has added a ton of power since high school, showing devastating late bite as it dives across the plate. His changeup was actually ahead of the slider when he arrived in Baton Rouge, and it’s an above average pitch as well. Lastly, as he has gotten more confident in his slider, he’s been tinkering with a cutter that could split the difference in his power fastball/slider combination.
Hill’s delivery is clean, his frame is big and durable, and his arm speed is certainly there. He has also shown solid-average command in his short stints on the mound, bringing together the full package. Of course, the big question is proving it all, because 21.2 dominant innings as an underclassman is not enough to inspire confidence that his game will hold together under the rigor of a 200 inning MLB season. There is nothing in his profile to suggest he can’t, but until he does, it has to be a question. Scouts will for sure be bearing down on his starts this spring, and if the stuff is as loud in June as it was in February and the command holds together, then we likely have a top ten pick and potentially the most exciting arm to come out of LSU since Aaron Nola.
5. RHP Gunnar Hoglund, Mississippi
Bat: L. Throw: R. 6’4, 220 lbs. Born 12/17/1999. Hometown: Hudson, FL
2019-2020: 6-3, 4.24 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 90/18 K/BB in 91.1 IP.
Continuing the theme that has become apparent here, Gunnar Hoglund was yet another highly touted arm coming out of high school in the Tampa area, and the Pirates actually drafted him 36th overall. He didn’t sign, and now has the opportunity to beat that high selection in 2021. Hoglund was solid as a freshman in 2019, putting up a 5.29 ERA and an effective 53/14 strikeout to walk ratio against a tough schedule, then devoured his opponents in 2020 with a 1.16 ERA and a 37/4 strikeout to walk ratio across 23.1 innings. At this point, he’s safely behind the big four prospects listed ahead of him here, but his floor is as high as any.
Hoglund’s selling point is his command, which is perhaps the best in the SEC given that he’s had more time to prove it than Jack Leiter. The fastball only sits around 90, but not for a lack of arm strength. He can touch 92 with very minimal effort, looking like he’s just playing catch, but when he does let loose, he has been clocked as high as 96. That easy, natural delivery enables Hoglund to hit his spots very consistently, with well above average command dating back to his high school days in Florida. Additionally, the 6’4″ right hander ditched a loopy 12-6 curveball for a tighter slider that has shown above average potential, giving him a second weapon with continued refinement. Lastly, there is a solid changeup as well, but Hoglund mainly pitches off his fastball.
On the surface, Hoglund looks like a one trick pony with plus command and average stuff. But having that 95-96 in his back pocket inspires a lot of confidence that his average velocity will tick up, and even a small improvement into perhaps the 90-93 range in 2021 will really help his draft stock. If he can refine either his slider or changeup into a true 55 grade pitch, that would help significantly as well. But even with his present stuff, I think the 6’4′, 220 pound righty really appeals to teams looking for a safe bet they know can be a #4 starter at the big league level.
6. RHP Jonathan Cannon, Georgia
Bat: R. Throw: R. 6’6″, 205 lbs. Born 7/19/2000. Hometown: Alpharetta, GA
2020: 3-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.53 WHIP, 12/2 K/BB in 11.1 IP.
Unlike many of the other names on this list, Jonathan Cannon wasn’t necessarily famous on the high school circuit, but it took just 11.1 innings as a freshman at Georgia to push himself into the first round conversation. The lanky, 6’6″ right hander allowed just six baserunners and did not allow a run, striking out twelve and capping it off with 4.2 strong innings against Georgia Tech. A year after sending Emerson Hancock (Mariners) and Cole Wilcox (Padres) off to multi-million dollar bonuses, Georgia will give the draft-eligible sophomore the chance to step into the rotation and earn his own hefty payday.
For now, Cannon is mostly about projection, but not completely. Long and lanky at 6’6″, he has plenty of room to further fill out his huge frame, but his velocity has already begun creeping up. After topping out around 91-92 in high school, he’s now comfortably sitting in the low to mid 90’s and topping out around 96, with his long arms and natural extension putting nice run on the ball as well. His slider has sharpened into an above average pitch with nice horizontal bite, and his changeup is very advanced for an underclassman and gives him a potential plus pitch. The Atlanta-area native is very coordinated despite his lanky stature and fills up the strike zone consistently with solid-average command, giving even more projectability.
Like Jaden Hill a few slots ahead of him, he now has to go out and prove he can hold his stuff over a full season in the rotation, but also like Hill, he hasn’t given us any reason to believe he can’t. If Cannon is still brushing 94-95 and throwing strikes in June after 70+ innings, we’ve got a first rounder on our hands.
7. OF Christian Franklin, Arkansas
Bat: R. Throw: R. 5’11”, 185 lbs. Born 11/30/1999. Hometown: Overland Park, KS
2019-2020: 9 HR, .301/.389/.470, 13 SB, 74/33 K/BB in 75 games.
Despite losing sluggers Heston Kjerstad (Orioles) and Casey Martin (Phillies) to the 2020 draft, Arkansas returns a ton of firepower to its lineup in 2021, and perhaps no player is more exciting than Christian Franklin. He hit the ground running with a .274/.362/.419 line and six home runs as a freshman in the SEC, then cranked it up to .381/.467/.619 with three home runs against a weaker non-conference slate in 2020. Heading into 2021, it’s hard to project exactly what Franklin will turn into, but there’s no questioning his talent and ability to perform and the Kansas City-area native could develop in any number of directions.
Listed at 5’11” and 185 pounds, Franklin is not the biggest guy in the world, but he packs a lot of punch into that frame. His quick, powerful right handed swing produces more power than you’d expect, and he has tapped that power consistently everywhere he has gone. It’s not necessarily the plus, light tower power of his former teammate Kjerstad, but evaluators really like the way the ball jumps off his bat. He’s an above average runner as well that has a chance to stick in center field with a little more refinement, giving him another avenue in which to impact the game and making his offensive profile look more impressive.
For now, the major question is plate discipline, as he has struck out at a 25.3% rate during his Razorbacks career. It’s not really fair to judge a player’s plate discipline on his freshman year in the SEC, but for now, that’s all we really have (he did strike out six times in three games in Arkansas’ only tough weekend series in 2020). If Franklin comes out in 2021 with a cleaner K/BB ratio and less swing and miss, he could rocket up boards as a potential 20-20 threat.
8. LHP Jonathan Childress, Texas A&M
Bat: L. Throw: L. 6’4″, 205 lbs. Born 1/22/2000. Hometown: Forney, TX
2019-2020: 2-1, 1.98 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 25/5 K/BB in 27.1 IP.
Jonathan Childress is yet another player following the three major themes on this list: a pitcher (6/8 so far) who could have been drafted high out of high school (5/8) but who lacks much of a track record so far in college (4/8). Childress was off to a hot start as a freshman in 2019 but went down with Tommy John surgery pretty quickly, then looked great in his brief return in 2020. Together, it only amounts to 27.1 innings, but he’s struck out 25 to just five walks and allowed just 25 baserunners in total. In his seven career appearances, the toughest lineups he’s had to face were Houston (2019) and Rice (2020), but there is a lot to like regardless.
The big lefty who grew up on the eastern edge of Dallas-Fort Worth makes for a very uncomfortable at bat. Coming from a crossfire delivery, he hides the ball very well and puts nice angle on the ball. His fastball velocity has fluctuated over the years, climbing as high as 94 in high school, but he didn’t maintain that velocity as the 2018 draft neared and since returning from Tommy John, he’s sat around 90 for the most part. Childress’ two plane curveball is his best and most consistent pitch, a plus breaker that he can backdoor for strikes and change the shape of for a different look. He also tosses a solid changeup, and in his small sample in college, he has shown the ability to command all three pitches very well.
Fully healthy now, he has a chance to really elevate his stock this spring simply by pitching how he’s capable of, and any uptick in velocity should send him moving up boards in a hurry. Aside from a lack of track record, there is no reason to believe Childress can’t be a mid-rotation starter.
9. RHP Tommy Mace, Florida
Bat: R. Throw: R. 6’6″, 225 lbs. Born 11/11/1998. Hometown: Tampa, FL
2018-2020: 16-5, 4.37 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 145/55 K/BB in 179.1 IP.
Man, have I written about Tommy Mace a lot lately. Like so many names before him on this list, he was a very well-known draft prospect coming out of high school in 2017, but he opted to bet on his extreme projectability and head to Florida instead. Mace’s time in Gainesville has been a mixed bag so far, as he’s proven his durability and command but has not yet taken the “leap forward” that scouts have been hoping for.
After putting up a 4.84 ERA and a decent 17.4% strikeout rate over his first two years, he jumped out to a 1.67 ERA and a 24.1% strikeout rate over four starts in 2020, so he priced himself out of a possible second round selection to bet on himself once more. The Top member of the 2020 College Class to return to school, he immediately becomes the top senior-aged member of the 2021 class.
Mace’s fastball sits in the low 90’s and can hit 96, though it can be very straight and easy to pick up at times despite its solid velocity, so scouts would still like to see it tick up a little farther and get into the 94-95 range more often. He never really developed a true breaking ball, instead relying on a cutterish short slider that can be above average and miss barrels effectively. Mace’s changeup is solid average, giving him three pitches to work with, and his solid average to at times above average command makes it play up. His track record of filling up the strike zone really helps his stock as scouts wait for his stuff to tick up, though he’s set to turn 22 in November and without that tick up in 2021, he will project more as a #4 starter than a higher ceiling mid-rotation guy.
10. LHP Christian MacLeod, Mississippi State
Bat: L. Throw: L. 6’4″, 225 lbs. Born 4/12/2000. Hometown: Huntsville, AL
2020: 4-0, 0.86 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 35/6 K/BB in 21 IP.
Even after losing JT Ginn (Mets), Mississippi State has a whole slew of interesting arms to watch in 2021, none more advanced than lefty Christian MacLeod. He actually missed his entire true freshman season with pneumonia in 2019, but you wouldn’t know that by the way he came out of the gate in 2020. Over four starts that included some tough matchups including Oregon State, he was absolutely dominant with a 0.86 ERA, 35 strikeouts, and just 15 baserunners allowed in 21 innings. Heading into 2021, he’s looking to build off that and fully prove himself with a strong run through SEC competition.
Listed at 6’4″ and 225 pounds, MacLeod is a big guy that projects as a mid to back of the rotation starter. His fastball sits in the low 90’s but dipped into the upper 80’s later in his starts, which should be less of an issue as he gets further from pneumonia. The curveball projects as an above-average pitch, coming in with nice depth and very little hump out of his hand, making it hard to pick up. His changeup is a solid average pitch as well with some fade. Everything played up in the shortened 2020 season with his above-average command, and now he just has to go hold it over a full season and against SEC competition.
He also needs to answer the durability questions that stem from his inability to hold his fastball velocity, but that shouldn’t be an issue. At this point, Kansas State’s Jordan Wicks is the consensus top lefty in the college class, but MacLeod has a very strong argument for #2 when put up against the likes of Steven Hajjar (Michigan), Jonathan Childress (Texas A&M), Pete Hansen (Texas), and Evan Shawver (Cincinnati).
Other Interesting Options
The Tide doesn’t quite dominate the SEC in baseball like it does in football, but there are a couple of interesting names to look out for from the program that brought us David Robertson, Alex Avila, and Jimmy Nelson. The biggest name here is New Jersey native Tyler Ras, who tossed 11.1 shutout innings in 2020 before the shutdown. The 6’4″ righty has plenty of arm strength, sitting in the low to mid 90’s and touching 97 in short stints at times, and he gets nice fade on his changeup as well. His slider can soften up and currently grades out around a 45, but when you add in his solid-average strike-throwing, that breaking ball is all his profile is really missing. Sharpening it into even an average pitch could pay big dividends for his stock this spring.
Connor Shamblin is another arm with projection, though the 6’1″ righty isn’t as clean of a product yet. He sits in the low 90’s with his fastball and can touch the mid 90’s, adding a better slider than Ras as well as a decent changeup, but the Memphis native has a jerky deliver and very inconsistent control, which bottomed out with 26 walks in 29 innings on the Cape in 2019. It’s a relief profile for now, but he was filling up the strike zone better as a sophomore in 2020 and the stuff is there for an impact profile. Lastly, the Tide would really like to see T.J. Reeves break out, as the patient right-handed hitter possesses above-average raw power and impressive strength packed into a 5’10” frame.
He had a standout summer in the Northwoods League in 2019 (.324/.412/.566, 10 HR) and is an above-average runner as well, and if he can just cut down on his swing and miss a little bit, he could be one of the better bats in this conference. The Birmingham native draws plenty of walks and could stick in center field.
They didn’t place any names in the top ten, but there are a few who could break in with strong seasons. Infielder Ryan Bliss is easily the top prospect here, coming off a hot 2020 in which he hit .377/.412/.597 with just five strikeouts in 18 games. Despite being listed at just 5’9″ and 165 pounds, Bliss has been able to make consistent hard contact around the field while showing some gap power from a loose swing. He’s an above-average runner who shows great feel for the game on both sides of the ball, likely fitting in as a long term second baseman/utility infielder.
Steven Williams is Bliss’ opposite, returning after being draft-eligible in 2020. Williams has blasted 23 home runs while slashing .270/.384/.457 in his Auburn career, though he’s never quite put it together for long stretches at a time. His swing can get long at times and while he’s very patient, he also strikes out a lot as well. With a corner outfield profile, he’ll have to show he can hit consistently, probably profiling as a platoon bat. Richard Fitts is an interesting name for sure who could be a sleeper for 2021. The 6’3″ righty has projection on his average fastball and adds a good slider and changeup, showing some of the better command in the SEC. That command buys his stuff time to come along, and with a durable frame and delivery built for starting, he could break out this spring.
Auburn would also like to see high-spin lefty Garrett Wade break out after coming in as a highly regarded recruit. I liked him a lot in high school due to his hard running fastball and pair of above-average breaking balls, but his command has been shaky at Auburn and we’re still waiting on that velocity bump. Learning to get a little more extension at release could help.
As discussed in Christian Franklin’s writeup, the Razorbacks lost two big hitters to the draft in Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin, but they got a nice surprise when catcher Casey Opitz went undrafted. He’s one of the best defensive backstops in college baseball that can absolutely shut down the running game, and his hot .302/.361/.509 start to the 2020 season really elevated his profile. However, aside from that 16 game stretch, he hasn’t done much hitting at any point, his good plate discipline being his only proven trait at the plate. Opitz will be nearly 23 when the draft rolls around, which is less than ideal, and how much he hits in 2021 will determine whether he’s a legitimate backup catcher or organizational depth.
On the mound, Patrick Wicklander has a lot of interesting starter traits but is yet to completely put it together. His fastball has climbed as high as 95, but at times, it can also dip into the upper 80’s. The California native has a full array of secondary pitches, with a pair of breaking balls standing out for great depth. His stuff can lack power at times and with the fringe-average command, the 6’1″ lefty doesn’t quite have what it takes to make it as a starter just yet, but incremental steps forward in any part of his game could really boost his draft stock.
Lastly, we’ve got a sleeper in Elijah Trest, a 6’3″ Texan with a fastball that reaches 95 and a curve that is really tough to square up. Trest really struggled with his command as a freshman in 2019 but was better in that regard in 2020, though he still gives off reliever vibes at this point.
We’ll never make it through all the names on this incredibly talented Florida team, so let’s just talk about the ones who just missed the list. I’m personally fond of eligible sophomore Nathan Hickey, who like Jack Leiter is the age of a college junior. He put up an exceptional .311/.439/.622 line with four home runs and a 15/10 strikeout to walk ratio over 15 games against Florida’s non-conference slate in 2020, showcasing big raw power from an explosive left-handed swing. He’s very patient and had no trouble making the transition from high school pitching, but his swing can get a little long and there is some swing and miss to be wary of. A fringy catcher defensively, he becomes a legitimate Day One prospect if he shows he can stick back there.
On the mound, Ben Specht has a mid 90’s fastball, a downer slider, and a changeup that would play in just about any rotation in college baseball, but the returns of Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich mean he’ll have to really earn that spot. The command is so-so, but the 6’1″ righty has arm strength that doesn’t come around every day and he attacks the strike zone with a 59/19 strikeout to walk ratio in his Gators career. Sharpening his offspeed pitches would help him miss barrels in pro ball even when he misses spots.
Speaking of Jack Leftwich, the 6’4″ righty flashes mid-rotation stuff with a low 90’s fastball, an above-average slider, and a solid changeup from an athletic frame, but his secondary stuff and command have been inconsistent and it led to him just missing out on the 2020 draft. Returning for 2021, he’ll be nearly 23 by the time the draft rolls around.
6’5″ righty David Luethje is a deep sleeper here, reaching the low 90’s with his fastball from a very easy delivery, flashing above average with his slider as well. He’s a decent strike-thrower who could break out at any time, though on this immensely deep Gator pitching staff, he’s struggled just to find innings, let alone land a rotation spot. Other names to watch for the Gators include Kendrick Calilao and Christian Scott.
If you find yourself at Alex Box Stadium but miss Jaden Hill’s start, don’t worry. Landon Marceaux is a very different pitcher than Hill, but he has a chance to be a big-league starter with a fantastic baseball name. His fastball sits in the low 90’s, while he adds a solid slider and changeup as well as a usable curveball. Nothing is plus or even firmly above average, but he fills up the strike zone and mixes his pitches effectively, which makes everything play up. A bit undersized as a skinny six-footer, he lacks much projection and he’ll have to prove himself at every level, but there’s no question Marceaux knows how to pitch.
In the lineup, keep your eye on Cade Beloso, a slugging first baseman who homered ten times as a true freshman in 2019. He derives his power from the brute strength in his left-handed swing, with the ability to put up great exit velocities. In order to prove to scouts his power will play in pro ball, he’ll need to get a little more patient at the plate and also shake off a mediocre Cape summer from 2019 (.222/.327/.300). As a first baseman only, that’s very important.
Just missing the top ten was lefty Doug Nikhazy, who holds a career 3.12 ERA despite an undersized 5’10” frame. The Orlando native confidently pounds the strike zone with advanced pitchability that makes his fringy fastball (around 90), deep two-plane curveball, and average slider and changeup play up. There are bound to be evaluators that really like Nikhazy’s track record and feel for pitching, and an uptick in velocity would be huge.
We also have a pair of interesting bats in Kevin Graham and Jerrion Ealy. Graham has 13 home runs over 68 games for the Rebels, but he needs to tighten up his strike zone judgment given his lack of defensive projection. Ealy is a sophomore who may become eligible due to the later draft date, but he’s currently busy making big plays as the football team’s running back. Packing a ton of strength into his 5’9″ frame, his game is raw and he has a lot to prove if he wants to be drafted in 2021. At his ceiling, Ealy could show an exciting package of power and speed.
Christian MacLeod may lead the post-JT Ginn pitching staff, but there is a lot of talent here beyond him. Will Bednar is a personal favorite of mine, a draft-eligible sophomore coming off an exceptional start to his freshman season (1.76 ERA, 23/6 K/BB in 15.1 IP). His fastball sits in the low to mid 90’s but reaches 95-96 at his best, and he shows great feel for a slider, curve, and changeup, though none stand out as plus. With above-average command and a sturdy 6’2″ frame, any small uptick in secondary stuff could make Bednar a very coveted arm.
A very different but very talented arm is Eric Cerantola, a 6’5″ Canadian righty who has struck out 43 but walked 22 over 31.2 innings so far. He has a low to mid 90’s fastball that has climbed as high as 98 in relief, adding a good curveball and a decent changeup. Cerantola utilizes a very easy, deliberate delivery to the plate, but he still struggles with command and repeating his arm slot. That leads to questions about his overall feel for pitching, which he can answer with a strong year in the rotation in 2021.
We have sophomore-eligible two-way talent KC Hunt, though he didn’t bat in 2020 and only threw 1.2 innings. Another eligible sophomore is infielder Kamren James, who hit .308/.339/.423 in 2020 with a smooth swing that could add some power as he fills out his 6’2″ frame. He will want to get more direct with that swing but he’s a sleeper who could break out in 2021.
The Vols didn’t place anybody in the top ten, but they have a ton of interesting players to watch. My favorite is shortstop Jake Rucker, who was off to a hot .339/.425/.581 start with three home runs in 2020. He’s growing into his 6’1″ frame and starting to tap some power with a very quick right-handed swing, helped by the fact that he possesses above-average bat to ball skills and doesn’t swing and miss much. If he can stick at shortstop, that’s full time starting a profile, though there is a chance he’s forced to third base. I like the direction his bat is trending.
Opposite Rucker in the middle infield is Max Ferguson, who like Rucker was off to a hot start in 2020 with a .333/.462/.524 line with a pair of home runs and nine stolen bases. While Rucker is trending towards average power, Ferguson’s is more fringy and he gets his hits with a very disciplined approach and an above-average hit tool. He’s also a plus runner but figures to man second base long term.
Moving to the mound, Jackson Leath was also off to a red hot start in 2020 with a 1.45 ERA and a 29/5 strikeout to walk ratio but went undrafted in the shortened event. He showcases a four-pitch mix headlined by a low to mid 90’s fastball that can touch 95-96. The 6’1″ righty’s slider and curveball flash above average and his changeup is an average pitch, though, with average command and some effort in his delivery, he might wind up in the bullpen unless he can get more consistent.
We have Elijah Pleasants, a 6’5″ string bean who sits in the low 90’s with his fastball and adds a good changeup, but his slider lacks power and he hasn’t missed many bats at Tennessee. Camden Sewell is a projectable 6’4″ lefty with a strong track record in Knoxville (2.23 ERA, 48/23 K/BB), hovering around 90 with his fastball and adding a high spin curveball that misses plenty of bats. Any uptick in velocity for him would be huge.
After producing Asa Lacy in 2020 and putting Jonathan Childress onto the top ten here, the Aggies still have two more very interesting left-handed pitchers for the 2021 draft. Chris Weber is an aerospace engineering student who has a 3.02 ERA and a 98/27 strikeout to walk ratio over 80.1 innings in College Station, coming on the back of a fastball around 90, a big 12-6 curveball, and a solid changeup. He lacks a true strikeout pitch at this point and probably profiles as a back-end starter or long reliever, but the 6’4″ lefty has above-average command and pitchability that gives him a nice floor.
Joseph Menefee has missed a lot of bats so far at Texas A&M, using a low 90’s fastball and an above-average slider to do the trick, but he’s been unable to break into that Aggie rotation so far and still needs to prove he can make his stuff play up in the rotation.
As with Florida, there are too many names here to get through all of them, even after Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter ranked #1 and #2 on this list, respectively.
Isaiah Thomas (not to be confused with the NBA all-star) just missed the list and would have probably ranked ~12th had I gone that far, holding a career .300/.349/.590 line with seven home runs so far in his Vanderbilt career. He has an explosive right-handed swing that makes the ball scream off his bat, a product of the wiry strength in his 6’2″ frame. The South Florida native is extremely aggressive at the plate and has walked just four times so far in 37 games, which will have to change if he wants to be drafted on Day One, but even with the hyper-aggressive approach, he makes contact at a decent clip. With above-average speed and the potential to stick in center field, that plate discipline is really all that’s standing in his way.
Catcher CJ Rodriguez is a very different player, a draft-eligible sophomore from Southern California who hit .289/.370/.356 as a freshman but struck out just three times in twelve games. He has a very simple swing that can handle high-end pitching, though it lacks explosiveness and he doesn’t project to be more than a decent all-around hitter. Rodriguez’s value comes from his glove, showing not only the physical tools but the mental aptitude as well. His youth makes him a more attractive draft candidate than a guy like Arkansas’ Casey Opitz, and an uptick in offensive output will be big.
Hugh Fisher was sixth to eighth round talent in 2020, but went undrafted after sitting out the season with Tommy John surgery. He struck out 46 batters in 34.2 innings in 2019 but also walked 21, showcasing big stuff but a questionable command. The 6’5″ lefty has hit 97-98 in relief with late-life and can drop in a plus slider, and once he comes back healthy in 2021, he could move quickly as a late-inning weapon. We also have talented bats like Tate Kolwyck, Dominic Keegan, and Matt Hogan who have struggled to find playing time in that deep, deep lineup.