In a wild and unpredictable first round that brought surprises from outset in which their own plans were not well elucidated, the Blue Jays sidestepped the chaos in sticking with a familiar demographic and selected University of Mississippi junior RHP Gunnar Hoglund with the 19th overall pick of the 2021 draft.
Hoglund was selected 36th overall in 2018 by Pittsburgh as a competitive balance pick, one of three high school players taken before the beginning of the second round not to sign that year. Usually, high school players taken that high are locks to sign, but the Pirates apparently had issues with his physical and he instead ended up at Ole Miss. Incidentally, one of the other two, UCLA shortstop Matt McLain, ended up going three spots before him to the Reds.
The 6’4”, 220 pound Hoglund was immediately inserted into the weekend rotation as a freshman, no small feat in the gauntlet that is SEC baseball. Not surprisingly, it was up and down experience, as he posted a 5.29 ERA in 68 innings, averaging only about four innings a start. Most notable was the advanced pitchability he showed in posting just 14 walks against 53 strikeouts, something often lacking in top prospects making the huge jump from high school.
Reports from fall ball suggested another step forward, and indeed he came out firing in the 2020 season, posting a 1.16 ERA with 37 strikeouts against four walks over four non-conference starts and 23.1 innings before the season came crashing to a halt. He picked right up there in 2021, racing up 96 strikeouts against just 17 walks over 11 starts (62.2 innings) as the Friday Night ace for Ole Miss.
At that point, he was projected as a top-10 pick, following a similar trajectory to Nick Lodolo (who also spurned the Pirates as the 41st overall pick in 2016 before being the first college pitcher selected in 2019 and the only one before Alex Manoah). However, in early May he sustained an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery and will keep him off the field until some point next summer.
It also dropped his draft stock to where the Blue Jays were able to select him when they otherwise would not have had no shot. In that sense, it’s a similar situation to when they were able to land Jeff Hoffman 11th overall in 2015 after he needed Tommy John surgery leading up to the draft. Assuming a full recovery, this could look like a a fortuitous value play in two years.
Of course, Hoffman represents a cautionary tale in this regard: while he came back and has carved a major league career, he never recovered the electric stuff he was showing off the summer prior to TJ that vaulted him into 1st overall contention. Even with the many advances in recent years and decades, a full recovery is not sure thing.
As referenced above, Hoglund’s strongest skill is his pitchability and command/control of a quality three pitch fastball/slider/change-up arsenal. His fastball sat in the low-90s, having ticked up this past year from his first couple years and representing solid velocity. His best secondary weapon is the mid-80s slider, which plays up before of his ability but isn’t purely a plus/wipeout pitch. Finally, he’s got the change-up that plays reasonably off his fastball as a third pitch.
All told, before the injury he was considered a “low-risk” draft pick who would move quickly to starting in the majors. Those who liked him saw two or three solid to above-average pitches that played up with advanced command that projected as plus or better with the frame for durability that would result in frontline seasons (3+ WAR/180 IP). I would see the reasonable ceiling a little lower, projecting him more as a mid rotation starter over time barring pinpoint command or other improvements.
Bear in mind that while this term is often used almost derisively as synonymous with mediocre, it is in fact a high compliment. At any given time, there are maybe 60-75 pitchers in MLB who would qualify as proven mid-rotation or better starters; they are a scarce and valuable commodity.
Those more inclined to skepticism will note that he has no true carrying pitch rating as plus or better, invoking shades of first round picks by the Blue Jays over the last decade or so from the college ranks. Deck McGuire and Jon Harris in particular were proven college performers with a four pitch mix but nothing plus, who succeeded in the low minors before stagnating in testing ground of the upper levels. In addition to the elbow recovery, that would be the main risk in this selection.