After picking a trio of 18-year olds early on the second day of the 2021 MLB Draft, in the latter half of the day the Blue Jays returned to where they started on Sunday night and generally with a run of college pitching. By the time the day was done, they had added another five college arms of the eight picks made on the day.
On one hand, from the point of view of comparative advantage this emphasis makes good sense as the Jays have had good success in recent years identifying and developing potential in volume from the ranks of college pitching. They’ve also had good considerable success finding talent on the position side in the international market, but much less so thus far on the pitching side. Nonetheless, it was still jarring not to see any college hitters called, considered the Jays had drafted no fewer than three in the top 10 rounds every year from 2016-19.
One of the more interesting questions will be where and when these guys debut. In the past, most would have been assigned to short season Vancouver soon after the draft, or at least Bluefield. Those levels are now gone, so will they go to low-A or just the complex? With the longer layoff between the end of their college season and the draft, will some just be shut down until the fall period?
With the 121st overcall pick, the Jays selected junior RHP Chad Dallas in the 4th round from the University of Tennessee. After spending a year at a Texas junior college he transferred to Tennessee with the expectation of working out of the bullpen but earned a spot in the rotation and posted a 2.53 ERA in four starts before the season was shut down.
In 2021, he made 17 starts including a full SEC slate and posted an impressive 122/20 strikeout walk ratio in 103 innings with a solid 4.19 ERA. He twice dominated LSU, including once in the super regionals, posting 23 strikeouts in 13 innings with another double digit tally against a marquee opponent in Florida. He did allow 21 home runs, a particularly eye popping rate of one every five innings for the college level. That will be something to he’ll have to manage moving to the pro ranks, especially staying the rotation.
Sitting in the low-90s as a starter, the difference maker was apparently adding a cutter. Realistically, his future likely lies in relief given the repertoire, statistical red flag in the HR rate, and 5’11” size (though that’s certainly not prohibitive), but the Jays should and surely will give him every opportunity to start given the college track record. Especially if he could sit more in the mid-80s where he’s previously registered.
With the 182nd overcall pick, the Jays selected junior RHP Hayden Juenger in the 6th round from Missouri State. He worked out of the bullpen, serving as closer in 2021 and striking out 31 in 21 innings while missing some time in the middle of the season. That limited the number of looks at him.
He also had a good run in the wood bat Northwoods League after 2019, 2.45 ERA in 14.2 innings with 16 strikeouts. Despite the relief background, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Jays gave him a chance to start or at least go multiple innings per outing given that they took him pretty high, with Baseball America reporting a potential starter delivery and requisite three pitch repertoire.
In the 8th round, the Jays selected senior RHP Gregory Hunter from Old Dominion, the tallest of these day two collegiate draftees at 6’3”. He spent two years primarily in the Monarchs’ bullpen, before moving into the rotation in 2020 before the shutdown. In 20 games (19 starts) the last two seasons, he’s thrown 100 innings, with 116 strikeouts against 26 walks and sub-3.00 ERA.
Again, given the performance it wouldn’t be surprising he got a chance to start or stay stretched out in pro ball, but it’s a likely relief profile. Hopefully, Hunter works out better than the last top 10 round pick from ODU, Nick Hartman in 2016. His pure relief profile made for a bit of baffling pick given the full slot bonus and was released less than three years later in early 2019.
With the their 9th round pick, the Jays selected another senior RHP, Conor Larkin from Ohio State. Smilar to Hunter, he moved from the pen into the rotation two years ago, but after a good start in 2020 (1.29 ERA, 28/8 K/BB in 21.1 IP), he didn’t replicate it this year with a 5.09 ERA in 63 innings and more middling peripherals. It’s likely a senior sign situation to open up some pool room, either for some of the previous selections, or potentially to run a run at someone still on the board early on day three.
Finally, in the 10th round, the Jays went Ragin’ for a Cajun and selected junior RHP Connor Cooke in from the Louisiana-Lafayette. It’s become more common for teams to take their senior signs before round 10, and use that last pick on the second day to grab a prospect they like before other teams can target them overnight before the third day (since everyone then can offer $125,000 without affecting their pool). That’s what this looks like, as he was ranked just inside the top 250 in Perfect Game’s draft rankings.
His first couple college seasons were unremarkable, but Cooke posted a breakout season in 2021, especially after moving to the rotation midyear. He posted a 2.82 ERA in 80 innings, with 90 strikeouts against 37 walks. His fastball has touched the upper 90s, so that and tenuous control numbers even this year probably suggest a fit in relief.