With that, the 2021 MLB Draft is complete. And I have lots of thoughts. I’ve written in detail about the Cubs first-round pick and their high-upside selections in Rounds 2-4. Here is something on each of the other 16 guys that make up the Cubs 2021 draft class (Michael also provided really good introductory details on these dudes) …
My favorite six Cubs draft picks from the later rounds, in some order …
Gage Ziehl, Round 11, RHP, Penfield HS (NY), Age 18
The Cubs’ first pick on Day 3, I’d like to believe Ziehl is going to sign, because the Cubs had a day to organize their bonus pool numbers and find a player who would fit in with the remaining dollars. And if it’s buying Ziehl away from a Miami commitment, I’ll be excited about the new data-friendly teenage arm entering the system.
The data likes Ziehl not simply because of the raw stuff, but because it comes from a release point of just 64 inches off the ground. For context, among the 516 pitchers to throw 200 pitches in the Majors this year, Ziehl would have something like the 55th-lowest release point. This ability to tap into a flat Vertical Approach Angle (which is also helped by his above-average spin rate) is part of what makes people like Craig Kimbrel, Josh Hader, and Marcus Stroman successful. While I’m not saying Ziehl ends up at that caliber, of course, Cubs pitching coaches will love the opportunity to coach someone with this kind of unique foundation.
Ziehl needs more delivery work than he does weight room work, and if he’s going to be a starter, he’ll spend some time adding confidence to a changeup. If he goes to Miami I wouldn’t be shocked to see him as an early-round closer draftee in three years, and there is a good chance that no matter what he ends up in the bullpen. But with velocity already up to 96 mph with non-optimized mechanics, there’s easily Major League short reliever upside.
Parker Chavers, Round 7, OF, Coastal Carolina, Age 22
The optimism here resides in an outcome where Chavers finds some of the power that was in his game in 2019 (.197 ISO at the Cape) and combines it with the higher marks he received playing centerfield this year. He reduced his strikeout rate all the way to 13.3% this year and has really good feel for the barrel. He’s really busy in his pre-swing mechanics – both front leg and hands/elbow – but finds his way to a good hitting position. I’d love to know how he succeeded against fastballs above, say, 95 mph this year, as I don’t think the bat speed jumps out. But seems like a good bet for success at the lower levels with solid-enough across-the-board tools to dream on.
He’s indicated an intention to sign. Hopefully that happens quickly so he can finish the year in the town he played his college ball: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Erian Rodriguez, Round 13, RHP, Georgia Premier Academy, Age 19.
Rodriguez might actually be my favorite pick, but I bumped him down two spots because it’s hard to know if the Cubs will be able to get the signing done. Working in their favor is the fact that Rodriguez is headed to junior college as an old-for-his-grade player, but it’s just impossible to know if the available bonus ($125,000 for rounds after the 10th) will be enough.
I’m going to let his area scout tell you why Rodriguez is so intriguing, and I’ll just say I love how that arm works. There’s every reason to believe that after you get him into a professional weight-lifting program, the velocity can get consistently above 95 mph (it’s reportedly been up to as high as 97). And the athleticism is there to be able to achieve that with a starter’s workload. Plus, Rodriguez already shows good feel of a breaking ball and a willingness to mix in his change. This is an exciting pick, but I’m going to be conservative with my optimism until (and if) he signs on the dotted line.
Here’s a sneaky name-to-know for the 2021 MLB Draft: @premier_sox RHP Erian Rodriguez.
Extremely athletic and projectable 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame with electric arm speed. FB at 93-94 mph here, has been up to 96-97 mph previously. @NWFSCbaseball commit; high-upside arm ⬇️⛽️ pic.twitter.com/QBBOINQx4B
— Next On Deck (@NoDSports) March 5, 2021
Frankie Scalzo Jr., Round 14, RHP, Grand Canyon U, Age 21
The Cubs had so much success last year identifying undrafted relievers and finding talent on the free agent market. With the draft up to 20 rounds (from five last year) in 2021, you knew the Day 3 reliever they drafted was going to have a really intriguing arm. Scalzo has been up to 97 mph and has a fantastic temperament for late relief. He allowed just one home run this year, and that came in super high altitude at New Mexico State. The GCU program is really good, and Scalzo had something like seven appearances this year against ranked teams. He’ll immediately become one of the best names in the farm system, and I would imagine he’ll cruise through A-ball in 2022.
Casey Opitz, Round 8, C, Arkansas, Age 22
The makeup is the thing that jumps out first and foremost, adding a catcher that pitchers in the system will rally behind is worth the price of a bonus. Opitz has the catching qualities to reach the Major Leagues as a back-up on glove alone, with receiving and a throwing arm both grading out as plus. So you’re just working to get the switch-hitting bat to passable, and Opitz’ walk rate will help in that department.
This is a guy you want in your farm system:
Casey Opitz is @PitchingNinja’s favorite GIF-ready college catcher. He built game plans, called pitches, stole strikes, shut down runners for stacked Arkansas staff.
"You can't even begin to quantify his value.”
Can he impact Cubs’ arms next? ⬇️ https://t.co/AQUK6Q0IRl
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) July 13, 2021
Riley Martin, Round 6, LHP, Quincy U, Age 23
The strategy in these rounds was clearly players with lower signing bonus asks with upside remaining. Martin, a DII pitcher with double-digit strikeouts in all but one outing this year, could succeed at his level with a metric-friendly fastball/slider combination. What I’m most intrigued by is converting Martin to a relief role out of the gate and seeing where the velocity can go. His mentality seems perfect for the role, though I suspect the Cubs do give him a chance to continue starting.
Five Cubs draft picks I don’t think will sign …
Teo Banks. I’m not going out on a limb here: Banks tweeted it yesterday. The super-athletic Banks is understandably headed to Tulane.
Dom Hambley: Without a huge track record of success but a scholarship to Oregon State, Hambley is best-served taking his power stuff to Corvallis and getting drafted way higher in 2024.
Daniel Avitia: I think there’s a chance they figure this one out, but Avitia has an opportunity to play with his brother at Grand Canyon University and that might create enough leverage to ask for a number the Cubs simply can’t get to.
Wilson Cunningham: Listed in the draft tracker as 6-foot-8 and 185 pounds, so yeah, projectable as all get-out. Cunningham has a commitment to University of Chicago, and I tend to think he makes it to Hyde Park.
Christian Olivo: This is the one I’m hoping can get done. Olivo is super short to the ball but has a really nice finish. Is there enough projection to allow him to hit with any impact? From Puerto Rico, he’s committed to Seminole State, and it’s impossible to know how far an offer of $125,000 will go with him (or whether the Cubs will have a little extra leftover to add on top).
And five more draft picks that I think the Cubs will sign …
These guys will really help with system depth, and absolutely have some traits to give themselves a shot at the highest levels:
Liam Spence. A gamer that will always take a good at-bat and who clearly graded out really well on the Cubs college baseball fielding metrics. Spence doesn’t load his back hip much in his swing, instead using an extremely short-to-the-ball hand path to keep things simple and contact-oriented. He’s a future coach and will be able to show his own videos of a two-strike approach and hitting the ball in the direction it’s thrown.
Chase Watkins. Where I like the idea of converting Riley Martin to reliever, I like the idea of converting Watkins to the rotation. He’s got the big frame and four pitches necessary to succeed there, and I like the history of keeping the ball in the park. If it’s relief, you’d like to see maximum curveball usage.
Peter Matt. Hit four home runs in 113 games in a long career at Penn in the Ivy League, then transferred to Duke in 2021 and hit 15 bombs in 54 games. This came with a trade-off of a substantial strikeout rate increase up to 28.5%, but I think that’s an acceptable trade-off and you just work towards merging the two skills. Duke clearly worked on a more powerful load, Cubs coaches now have to work on sustaining that load with less pre-swing movement.
B.J. Murray. Bahamian, Murray popped off in 2021 in his first extended opportunity at Florida Atlantic. A switch-hitter with some good defensive actions at third base and a willingness to take his walks. I bet they were surprised he was still around in the fifteenth.
Zach Leigh. Was extraordinary during the four-start stretch before COVID shut things down in 2020, but struggled a bit allowing the long ball in 2021. There’s two paths here the Cubs could opt for: innings eater in A-ball rotation, or a move to middle relief to see if the stuff pops. Either route is helpful in its own way.