For the first time in almost three months, there’s actual baseball news to talk about. Not labor negotiations or public health protocols, but something that relates to on-field play: the draft. The format looks a bit different this year—it’s been shortened to five rounds, with bonuses deferred for draft picks and capped at $20,000 for undrafted free agents, all so owners can save a little bit of money while the gates are closed. But on Wednesday night, the next generation of baseball stars still took another step on the road to the majors as the first 37 picks went off the board.
Because of both the format and the truncated amateur season, this draft is unlike any in baseball history. So in the interest of detailed exploration (and of seizing any opportunity to write about baseball as such, and not as a political science experiment), I examined the seven most interesting picks from the first round. This is not a list of the best picks; the Blue Jays, for example, got a steal when Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin fell to them at no. 5, but there’s not much more to say about that pick than to pat Toronto on the back and move on. These are the players whose selections told the story of the first round, for better or worse.
No. 1 Overall: Spencer Torkelson, 3B, Arizona State, to the Detroit Tigers
Torkelson was the runaway favorite for the top pick after a college career in which he hit 54 home runs in just 129 games. Of those, 25 came in 2018, when he broke Arizona State’s freshman home run record, previously held by Barry Bonds. Torkelson is the best hitter in the draft by far, with the top power in his class and enough polish to his swing and approach to make it likely he’ll find success in the pros.
The Tigers announced Torkelson as a third baseman, which is noteworthy, considering that The Tork spent as much time at the hot corner during college as he did in Cambodia. I guess it’s worth a shot for Detroit to make absolutely sure he can’t play third, but in all likelihood Torkelson will be a first baseman, and a right-handed first baseman at that. That means he’ll have to absolutely rake in order to be any kind of impact big leaguer.
I’ve long maintained that you have to be absolutely nuts to take a first baseman in the first round, let alone first overall. But a few prospects with similar profiles have peeked through in recent years and softened that stigma. Paul Goldschmidt, Rhys Hoskins, and Pete Alonso were all second-day draft picks, and last year the White Sox took Cal slugger Andrew Vaughn with the third overall pick. But that’s the bet with Torkelson: The Tigers know how much pressure his defensive profile puts on the bat, but they believe so strongly in his bat that they thought he was worth taking anyway.
No. 2 Overall: Heston Kjerstad, OF, University of Arkansas, to the Baltimore Orioles
Kjerstad is not the second-best player in the draft. The major public prospect evaluators—MLB Pipeline, Baseball Prospectus, Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs, Keith Law of The Athletic, and Kiley McDaniel of ESPN—all had the Arkansas outfielder between seventh and 11th on their big boards. Kjerstad is a good hitter, if not on Torkelson’s level, and profiles as a decent big league corner outfielder. So did the Orioles just screw up?
Not exactly. With few exceptions, MLB teams are not allowed to trade draft picks, and while the total amounts of their draft bonus pools are tightly controlled, each team is allowed to spend its pot in whatever fashion it chooses. So in baseball, teams that might trade down given the opportunity can work out an under-slot bonus deal with a high draft pick, then use the money saved there to tempt a talented high schooler taken later in the draft to forego a college commitment. For example: In 2012, the first year of the current draft system, the Astros famously bypassed Mark Appel and Byron Buxton, both of whom had high bonus demands, in favor of Carlos Correa, who signed for $4.8 million, or about two-thirds of the recommended slot value. The bulk of the savings went to the team’s compensation-round pick, Lance McCullers, who was committed to playing for the powerhouse Florida Gators if he wasn’t offered an appropriate bonus. That worked out pretty well. (Houston’s amateur scouting director in 2012? Current Orioles GM Mike Elias.)
The Orioles lost 108 games last year and 115 the year before that, and their farm system is still pretty barren. They don’t need one superstar so much as they need as many quality prospects as they can possibly get their hands on. That goes double in a five-round draft, which, compared to a normal 40-rounder, has little room to play games with bonus money. This approach carries risk, but given the state of the Orioles system, it’s easy to see the logic.
No. 3 Overall: Max Meyer, RHP, University of Minnesota, to the Miami Marlins
Meyer isn’t the best player in this draft, but he’s my favorite. Meyer is a 6-foot, 185-pound flamethrower with tons of attitude. He has one of the best fastballs in the draft, and a slider that makes hitters run for cover for fear that they’ve angered God.
On stuff alone, Meyer had an argument for going first overall, but his shorter stature raises questions about his ability to throw 200 innings a year. And while Meyer leaves college with a career 2.07 ERA and 11.4 K/9 ratio, the Big Ten isn’t the SEC—Meyer is the highest pick out of that conference since Michigan State’s Mark Mulder went second overall in 1998. But Meyer is an elite athlete who played ice hockey growing up (an occupational hazard of being from Minnesota) and moonlighted as an outfielder for the Gophers. Even if he does end up in the bullpen, he could become an Andrew Miller–style multi-inning monster. And he’ll be fun to watch regardless. Like, go-out-of-your-way-to-watch-the-Marlins fun.
No. 8 Overall: Robert Hassell III, OF, Independence HS (Franklin, Tennessee), to the San Diego Padres
The 2020 draft started with a record run on college players, which ended when Hassell was taken at no. 8. This draft was always perceived as being heavy on college talent, but the first seven picks all being college players speaks to the unique circumstances of this draft. Because the coronavirus pandemic shut down organized baseball in mid-March, college players got only about a month’s worth of reps in, and some cold-weather high school players didn’t take the field at all.
That means that teams placed a much larger premium on track record this year. Of the seven college players taken at the top of the draft, the first six came from Power Five programs. Most of the top high schoolers in the class, including Hassell, were regulars on the travel ball and showcase circuit as underclassmen, where scouts were able to get plenty of good looks. Occasionally a late-blooming high schooler, like Mike Trout, can turn into a first-round pick with a great senior season, but with only five rounds and no live baseball in the past three months, scouting directors and GMs didn’t have enough information to take that kind of risk this year.
No. 16 Overall: Ed Howard, SS, Mount Carmel HS (Chicago, Illinois), to the Chicago Cubs
It’s always nice to see a team draft a local high school kid, but Howard is no stranger to the national baseball stage: He was on the Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago that went to the final of the Little League World Series in 2014.
Howard isn’t the only LLWS veteran to go in the first round this year: Hassell’s Nashville team also went to Williamsport in 2014, and the Padres pick was on the receiving end of Mo’ne Davis’s famous complete-game shutout. Austin Hendrick, who went 12th overall to the Reds, could have made it to Williamsport that year but lost to Davis’s Taney Dragons team in regional play. Davis hit .333/.357/.423 in her freshman year at Hampton University this year. Few Division I softball players, if any, can say they found the same kind of success against future big league competition.
No. 17 Overall: Nick Yorke, INF, Archbishop Mitty HS (San Jose, California), to the Boston Red Sox
While most teams shied away from risky or unconventional picks on Wednesday, first-year Red Sox CBO Chaim Bloom walked up to the roulette table and put his whole stack on green. ESPN’s McDaniel was the high public evaluator on Yorke, putting him at no. 69 on his big board. No other evaluator had Yorke in the top 100. In the hours after the draft, Alex Speier of the Boston Globe reported that the Sox and Yorke had agreed to an under-slot deal.
Bloom told Speier that the Red Sox believe in Yorke. “We feel if the spring had gotten a chance to play out, the public perception of him would be a lot different,” he said, indicating that the Sox believe he’s just the kind of potential late bloomer most other teams crossed off their lists. This was the most surprising pick of the night, and by far the boldest.
No. 26 Overall: Tyler Soderstrom, C, Turlock HS (Turlock, California), to the Oakland Athletics
In contrast to Kjerstad, Soderstrom is an over-slot first-round pick and part of a bumper crop of highly touted catchers in this draft. The Giants took N.C. State backstop Patrick Bailey 13th overall, which means that for the second time in three years, Buster Posey’s team has spent a top-15 pick on a college catcher. And two spots after the A’s took Soderstrom, the Yankees spent their first-rounder on Arizona’s Austin Wells. With Drew Romo going to the Rockies in the first competitive balance round, four catchers were drafted in the first 35 picks. And it easily could’ve been five: Ohio State’s Dillon Dingler, the consensus no. 2 college catcher in the class, remains undrafted.
It’s unusual to see a first-day draft crop this saturated with catchers—in fact, it’s been eight years since four catchers went in the top 35. Teams tend not to use early picks on catchers, and one needs only to look at the track record of first-round catchers over the past decade or so to figure out why. There have been a few can’t-miss college prospects, like last year’s top pick, Adley Rutschman, but the high bar for defensive competence makes it an incredibly difficult position to scout, especially at the high school level. Many first-round catchers move off the position quickly (Matt Thaiss, Kyle Schwarber, Alex Jackson, Bryce Harper); get hurt (Max Pentecost); or just never put it all together. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it’s interesting to see multiple teams embrace the risk of the amateur catcher in this incredibly unpredictable draft.