Red Sox

Plummeting Red Sox could land one of these monster prospects atop 2021 MLB draft

Red Sox

A 60-game baseball season creates unique opportunities for efficiency, none more than this:

Tanking.

Asking a fan base to endure six months and 162 games of misery could have serious brand implications. Doing so for 60 games that mostly overlap with the NBA and NHL playoffs, at a time when we're primarily concerned with hoarding hand sanitizer, is a much easier sell.

And that brings us to — you guessed it — the Red Sox.

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On Wednesday, they dropped their third straight to the Tampa Bay Rays. They're now 6-12, not only last in the AL East, but last in the entire American League. Only the 3-13 Pirates have a worse winning percentage than Boston's .333.

If the season ended today, the Red Sox would own the No. 2 pick in the draft — maybe. Under the March agreement between MLB and the MLBPA, commissioner Rob Manfred can modify the draft order if the season lasts fewer than 81 games. Because baseball belatedly imposed a 60-game schedule, that choice is now on the table.

There's no word yet on what Manfred plans to do — he probably won't decide until after the season — but for the purposes of this exercise, let's assume the draft is determined by winning percentage.

Nothing kickstarts a rebuild faster than a top-three selection, and if Chaim Bloom does nothing to address the gaping holes in his rotation, the Red Sox may very well challenge the lowly Pirates for the first overall pick.

Since baseball implemented the June draft in 1965, the Red Sox have picked in the top five just three times, all from 1965 through 1967, when they selected outfielder Billy Conigliaro (1965, 5th), left-hander Ken Brett (1966, 4th), and right-hander Mike Garman (1967, 3rd).

 

Since then, they've picked seventh three times: outfielder Trot Nixon (1993), left-hander Trey Ball (2013), and outfielder Andrew Benintendi (2015).

Flaming out for the rest of this year could present a unique opportunity to add impact talent in a portion of the draft they typically watch from afar. And make no mistake, champions are built atop the draft, whether it's the Nationals nabbing Stephen Strasburg first overall in 2009, the Cubs landing Kris Bryant at No. 2 in 2013, or the Astros selecting Alex Bregman second in 2015.

So who might be available to the Red Sox if the land in the top three? The lack of spring seasons or summer showcases leaves us more in the dark than usual, but a scan of prospect rankings at MLB.com, Baseball America, and elsewhere suggests we should focus on three names.

The first is Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker, a 6-foot-4, 255-pounder who looks like he could play the Elephant role in a Bill Belichick defense, and with good reason: his father, Tracy Rocker, won the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy as an Auburn defensive lineman in 1988 and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Kumar Rocker burst onto the scene in 2019 at Vanderbilt, where he became Baseball America's Freshman of the Year after leading the Commodores to a national title. He threw a 19-strikeout no-hitter of Duke to avoid elimination and was named the Most Outstanding Player at the College World Series.

Rocker throws 99 mph with a dominating slider. He has earned comparisons to former Vanderbilt ace and No. 1 overall pick David Price. He went 12-5 with a 3.25 ERA as a freshman, striking out 114 in 99.2 innings. He was 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 15 innings when the pandemic halted his sophomore season.

He might not be the best pitching prospect on Vanderbilt's staff, though, because next on the list is right-hander Jack Leiter, who's also blessed with strong bloodlines.

His dad, left-hander Al Leiter, made a pair of All-Star teams and won World Series rings with the Blue Jays and Marlins during a 19-year career. His uncle, Mark Leiter, pitched for 11 years, and his cousin, Mark Jr., spent two years with the Phillies and Jays.

Thanks in part to that impressive lineage, Leiter is considered a more polished prospect than Rocker, with a higher floor and lower ceiling, per MLB.com's prospect expert Jim Callis. He throws a fastball that touches 95 mph, as well as a slider, curveball, and changeup.

At 6 feet and 195 pounds, Leiter isn't as imposing as Rocker, and he lacks the track record, too, since he only threw 15.2 innings as a freshman, going 2-0 with a 1.72 ERA before the pandemic hit. If he's picked first overall, it will be because of his advanced arsenal.

Leaving the college ranks, the third prospect to watch is Georgia high school shortstop Brady House. Already built like a big leaguer at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, House has drawn comparisons to Bryant, who was similarly mature as a Las Vegas high schooler before dominating at the University of San Diego.

 

House throws 96 mph and is considered draft-worthy as a pitcher, but scouts agree that his future rests at the plate, where he hit .653 as a junior and projects to develop plus power. His size may necessitate a move to third base, but wherever House ends up, he's not short on confidence.

"If you're playing baseball right now, your main goal is, 'Hey, I want to play in the big leagues one day,'" he told Baseball America. "But my goal is to make it even further. I want to be the best of the best. The Hall of Fame is where the big dogs live."

The Red Sox would settle for an All-Star, and if they land atop the draft, that's what they should get.