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2021 MLB Draft: transitioning from rebuild to contention

It won’t be as easy for the Blue Jays to add impact talent in the draft

2020 Major League Baseball Draft Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The 2021 MLB Draft gets underway tonight, for the first time in its 50+ years in July as part of All-Star weekend now rather than its traditional early June slot in the calendar as there is no longer the exigency of filling rosters of short season teams ahead of their seasons icking off in mid-June.

As before, it will unfold over three days, with the Round 1 tonight starting at 7 PM eastern, rounds 2-10 Monday afternoon before concluding with the last 10 rounds Tuesday afternoon. The draft being shortened to 20 rounds in 2021 is the other major change, making for less of a marathon on the third day. Whether that’s a one-time change or a more permanent change remains to be seen, but without the need to fill out short season rosters my guess is the latter. Frankly, it’s something that should have been done a long time ago, with undrafted players able to sign as free agents subject to overall spending limits.

Unlike the previous two years, when the Blue Jays selected Alex Manoah 7th overall and Austin Martin 5th overall as a result of the 2018-19 teardown, the 2021 MLB Draft does not carry nearly as much import for the franchise’s future. After returning to respectability with a 32-28 record in 2020 and sneaking (however briefly) into the bloated postseason, the Blue Jays will select only 19th. That pick comes with a slot value of $3,359,000 (USD).

Moreover, having signed in George Springer a free agent subject to a qualifying offer, the Jays forfeited their second round pick. That, combined with not having any extra picks, leaves the Jays with one of the smallest possible spending pools. At $5,775,900, it’s the third smallest ahead of only the World Champion Dodgers and the penalized Astericks.

(As a reminder, all picks in the top 10 rounds are assigned slot values, the values of which total up to a team’s total draft pool allocation which they cannot exceed by more than 5% without triggering draconian penalties. This includes the amount of any bonus over $125,000 to players draft after round 10 or signed as undrafted free agents).

This will actually be the fourth time the Jays select 19th overall, having previously done so in 1989 (Eddie Zosky, college SS), 1992 (Shannon Stewart, high school outfielder), and 1999 (Alex Rios, high school outfielder). Not a perfect record, but getting two quality major leaguer is a pretty good historical track record to which the franchise will look to add.

In short, the degree of difficulty of infusing talent into the organization is a lot higher. This is the inescapable result of a return to contention ad competitive baseball, but a tradeoff/drawback that ultimately is to be welcomed. The whole point of a farm system is to facilitate MLB wins in the ends.

More importantly, unlike some other sports, it does not necessarily mean the Jays are frozen out of acquiring future impact talent. It is perhaps trite to say that “it’s not where you draft, it’s who you draft”, but to a certain degree it’s true. A significant number of the 18 players who will be off the board before the Jays have a chance at them will go on to great careers—but history shows that just as many or more will still be there. It’s up to the front office to find them.

The first draft in 2016 under the current Shapiro/Atkins regime is instructive in this regard. Coming off winning the AL East, the Jays were in a similar position picking 21st overall. With hindsight, if they were going with a college pitcher, they’d rather have Dane Dunning (29th) rather than T.J. Zeuch. But even when their first of two second picks rolled around, there plenty of talent still on the board, with the likes of Bryan Reynolds and Pete Alonso still on the board and selected in the next 10 picks (and 10 minutes for matter). the Jays picked the wrong SEC slugger in J.B. Woodman.

But there was still talent on the board, and with their last pick of the first day the Jays took a Florida high school infielder by the name of Bo Bichette, in the process salvaging their draft. Five years later, he’s posted the third highest WAR of players in the top 100, and in time could pass the collegians ahead of him (though 4th rounder Shane Beiber leads them all).

For good measure, in the 5th round, the Jays grabbed Cavan Biggio in a second bloodline play, adding a second player who has established himself as a big league regular.

So if who one drafts is at least as important as where ones drafts, how does the current office stack up in this regard? Ultimately, there’s only so much that can be said even five years in. For starters, there’s been turnover of key personnel, with Shane Farrell replacing the departed Steve Sanders who ran the show from 2017 to 2019 and in turn replaced Brian Parker, a holdover from the previous regime who was still in place for the aforementioned successful 2016 draft.

Beyond that, in large measure it’s simply to early to draw definitive judgements on most of the important draft picks. Nate Pearson’s now back to a significant question mark and 2017 likely hinges on that outcome. The jury will be out on the Groshans/Kloffenstein gambit and will likely remain so for years. Alex Manoah is already in the majors, an incredible positive indicator but still needs to cement himself as a frontline starter. Austin Martin is “only” in AA.

There are a couple placed I think that are worth pointing out and keeping an eye out for. I think the Jays have done a pretty nice job finding college talent early on the second day. Most obviously, that’s Biggio in 2016’s 5th round, but also the likes of Josh Palacios (2016 4th round), Riley Adams (2017, 3rd round), and Kevin Smith (2017, 4th round).

Later on the second day, they’ve found some interesting college pitchers, such as Zach Logue (2017, 7th round) and Joey Murray (2018, 8th round). That extends in the third day, where the Jays have turned up lots of interesting pitchers who could be eventual MLB contributors in some capacity. Granted, in all these cases save Biggio there’s yet to be MLB value realized, but I expect that changes in the next couple years and in any event the point is there’s lots of viable shots on goal so to speak.

In terms of high level trends, there are a couple to note. The spending over the last five years have skewed towards college, though the Jays have not shied away with significant investments in some high school position players: Bichette, Groshans, and Hagen Danner in between. Accordingly, if the right school position player dropped to the Jays, that certainly can’t be ruled out.

The one demographic they have definitely shied away from is high school pitchers, as it almost literally just boils down to Kloffenstein in 2018, an overslot selection third round selection equivalent to a late first round pick. The only other pool money allocated to this demographic was smaller amounts to Travis Hosterman and Josh Winckowski, and both of those were in that first transition year of 2016.

The three picks they’ve made in a similar range as the 19th overall pick were in 2017-18, and they were all college players: Zeuch (21st, 2016), Logan Warmoth (22nd), and Pearson (28th). Pearson alone has the potential to make those picks, but the other two are unlikely to be MLB regulars, and going back one year further Jon Harris (29th) was another disappointing college pitcher. If the past is prologue in terms of the demographic they target, hopefully the same is not the case with how it works out.

Later today we’ll have an open thread for the draft, which will include a rundown of some of the mock drafts in terms of keying in some potential picks. Realistically, it’s something of a fool’s errand given how much can and will shake out ahead of their pick.