As the 2019 MLB Draft opened on Monday night, there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of drama — everyone had a pretty good idea for the last few months of who the top two picks would be — but there was still plenty of intrigue, especially in an era where so many organizations are looking to follow the blueprint of the mid-2010s Cubs and Astros by building from the ground up and collecting a bounty of talented young players. The 2019 draft class probably isn’t the greatest we’ve ever seen, but there are still multiple players selected Monday night who are poised to make a real impact in the majors, and it’ll now be fun to watch these guys develop.
Here are five key storylines from the first night of this year’s draft, how they affected the flow of events on Monday night, and how they might impact things going forward:
Catchers break a longstanding top-10 trend
For the first time since 2008, when Buster Posey (5), Kyle Skipworth (6), and Jason Castro (10) were all selected within the top 10, two catchers became top-10 selections on Monday night, with Oregon State’s Adley Rutschman going first overall to the Orioles and Baylor’s Shea Langeliers being selected by the Braves with the No. 9 pick. Despite the fact that this had been hyped for weeks, it still seemed a little bit unlikely until it ultimately happened just because teams generally are so wary of taking catchers early on in the first round — and in the first round at all, for that matter. While there have been plenty of catching busts in the first round — mostly because teams take players with strong defensive profiles and hope their bats come around enough to cut it in the big leagues, then they ultimately don’t — the fact of the matter is that the opening round of the draft generally just isn’t where starting catchers are taken. In fact, Posey, Castro, Yasmani Grandal, Mike Zunino, and Josh Phegley are the only five major-league catchers who have started a majority of their team’s games this season and were selected in Round 1.
Rutschman in particular looks to be a guy who will be another first-round starter sooner than later. He’s a polished defender who has proven himself on a big stage at Oregon State, and he looks like a guy who could end up being the most dynamic offensive catcher to reach the majors since Buster Posey, having posted a .427/.584/.772 slash line this year for the Beavers. There were a few rumors that the Orioles might pass on him at No. 1 overall — and despite the fact that he was by far the best player in this draft class, those rumors actually weren’t too surprising since Baltimore hyped up a switch-hitting college catcher (Matt Wieters) as the savior of the franchise a decade ago after taking him fifth overall in 2007, but relative to the hype he ended up being somewhat of a letdown despite his four All-Star appearances and two Gold Gloves.
Langeliers is more uncertain — he’s a defense-first catcher who is hoping to tap into some power at the professional level. The Braves have a strong record with player evaluation and development — at least with the young players on their roster right now who were acquired by John Hart and John Coppolella — so Langeliers’ chances of getting better as he moves through their minor-league system are rather good, but at his best he might end up being a Mike Zunino or Austin Hedges-type player who brings strong defensive skills but isn’t a game-changer at the plate by any means.
It was a great night for shortstops
One thing should be said first here: Shortstop is the most ideal position to stick a guy at in the lower levels of the minor leagues, because if he then ends up being moved off the position due to inadequacy or the fact that there’s a better shortstop blocking him, he’ll generally still be really good at his new position, since he had the athleticism and attentiveness required to ever play shortstop in the first place. Until the game changed over the last few years, with defense and contact hitting being devalued as power took over the game, it really would have been a viable draft strategy to just load up on shortstops every year and build an organization with great defense across the board.
With that said, it was still absolutely amazing how many shortstops were selected on the first night of this year’s draft. Nine of the first 32 picks were shortstops — the most to be selected within the top 32 since the turn of the century — then another 10 of the 28 picks in the second round. Out of the 77 players drafted Monday (factoring in the compensatory and competitive-balance rounds), that’s a total of 19 that were shortstops — roughly 25 percent. No. 2 overall pick Bobby WItt Jr. will likely get pushed off the position by circumstance in Kansas City (it doesn’t seem like Adalberto Mondesi is going anywhere anytime soon), and No. 6 pick CJ Abrams already seemed like he might be destined for center field or second base before he joined an organization that also employs Fernando Tatis Jr. The Twins’ Keoni Cavaco has widely been projected to end up at third base rather than short, while the Rays’ Greg Jones looks like he might end up as a center fielder. Regardless of what positions they ultimately end up at, though, this first-round class should produce some impressive defense at the next level.
It wasn’t a great first round for pitching
This pitching class was billed as a rather unimpressive one, and teams evidently agreed with the media prognosticators. TCU lefty Nick Lodolo was the first pitcher to come off the board at No. 7 overall, going to the Reds, and West Virginia’s Alek Manoah was the only other pitcher to go within the top 15. Even after a couple brief runs on pitchers near the end of the round, there were only 10 pitchers taken within the top 32 picks — the fewest pitchers selected in the first round since 1980, when there were nine arms taken in a 26-pick round.
In addition, there seemed to be a strong preference for college pitching (five D-1 arms, plus Jackson Rutledge, who transferred to San Jacinto community college from the University of Arkansas) over high-school pitchers, as there were just three prep arms selected in Round 1, all from the 18th pick and on. Whether that’s due to signability concerns or a general frustration with so many high-school pitchers trying to throw 100-mph fastballs right now when their arms aren’t ready to carry that load, it’s an interesting trend. In a sign that front offices may be starting to value deceptive offspeed stuff over fastballs, it was also a very good night for lefty pitchers, as they were almost equally represented in the first round: Four lefty pitchers were first-round picks, compared to six righties.
Teams got bold at the end of the first round
More than in any other league, you generally see baseball teams take a best-player-available approach rather than drafting for need or reaching for players who aren’t widely-admired prospects — after all, baseball’s minor-league structure rarely causes players to truly be blocked long-term, and since everyone takes a BPA approach, they can take their sleeper prospects in later rounds. A couple teams deviated from that approach near the end of the first round on Monday night, though.
First, the Cubs shook things up at No. 27 overall by selecting Fresno State right-hander Ryan Jensen, a pitcher who was ranked 99th in the class by MLB Pipeline and 109th by Baseball America. While he flashes impressive velocity, he’s an undersized who looks like he might end up being a reliever long-term, and it’s understandable why he wasn’t widely regarded as a first-rounder.
The Brewers and Yankees also shook things up to a certain degree at No. 28 and No. 30, respectively, with Milwaukee taking Mississippi State lefty Ethan Small (ranked 56th by MLB Pipeline and 45th by Baseball America) and New York taking high-school shortstop Anthony Volpe (ranked 63rd by Pipeline and 52nd by BA). The biggest shock, though, came with the final official pick of the first round, as the Astros took Cal catcher Korey Lee, a late-rising, bat-first catcher who was ranked 119th by Pipeline and 173rd (!!!) by Baseball America.
While those teams aren’t necessarily in a position right now where they need to ace every draft picks — they’re young, successful teams who are picking at the back of the first round for a reason (because they win) — these moves are ones that, for their sake, better end up working.
Teams are less afraid than ever to create competition
With guys like Ben Zobrist, Whit Merrifield, and Cody Bellinger proving in recent years that a player can be one of the league’s best, even while moving all over the diamond, the “utility man” label has been destigmatized — and perhaps the more accurate way to put this would be that it’s now expected that good players will be able to play multiple positions. While MLB teams have never been too concerned with drafting a player early in the first round who plays the same position as one of their established veterans, it’s interesting now to see how teams who have gone through recent rebuilds are approaching the draft while weighing the bounties of talented young players that they already possess. The most interesting development in this area was the Royals’ selection of Bobby Witt Jr., a shortstop who is more highly-regarded for his defensive ability and his speed (as well as his raw power) than his contact hitting ability. That’s an eye-popping move since they already have Adalberto Mondesi, a 23-year-old shortstop who is leading the majors in triples and steals, has an .811 OPS, is already a legitimate AL Gold Glove candidate, and doesn’t become a free agent until 2024. If they end up with an infield that features two potential Gold Glove defenders with great speed, that’s great, but Witt probably is going to have to reach the more optimistic projections for him as a hitter in order to make that an optimal setup — playing one of them at short and another at second or third, that is.
As we alluded to above, the Padres also brought in some long-term positional competition for a highly-regarded young player, drafting high-school shortstop CJ Abrams, who is just 22 months younger than their current shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr. The 20-year-old Tatis figures to be the face of their rebuild and a transformative player both at the plate and on defense, so it’s unlikely that he’d ever move off shortstop for Abrams anyway, but with Manny Machado being locked in at third base for the next decade, there’s really not anywhere to move him anyway. The interesting curveball with San Diego’s situation, as compared to Kansas City’s, is that the Padres also have a premium prospect at second base in Luis Urías (also a former shortstop, interestingly, and ranked as the No. 24 prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline), so they can’t just prep Abrams as their second baseman of the future, like most teams would do in this situation. Though the Padres have some interesting young center fielders in Manny Margot and Franchy Cordero, center field looks like the most likely landing spot for Abrams if he ultimately delivers on his potential and reaches the majors.
Finally, the Braves went with a shortstop at pick No. 21 in Texas A&M’s Braden Shewmake. That’s a slightly less controversial development because Shewmake was selected later in the first round and is viewed as a guy who can move around the field. Nevertheless, it’s interesting since 25-year-old shortstop Dansby Swanson is just beginning to come into his own and doesn’t hit free agency until 2023, Ozzie Albies signed a seven-year deal with the team and is locked in at second through at least 2026, and Austin Riley appears primed to be the team’s third baseman of the future once Josh Donaldson departs. With all that said, Shewake, who theoretically should be a fast riser as a college position player, may have a tough time establishing himself as a starter in Atlanta and certainly looks more likely to end up as a utility guy. That’s the luxury of conducting a successful rebuild and loading up on young players — you can take a guy with the 21st overall pick who doesn’t really have a path to everyday playing time, even over the long term.
Then again, it’s important to remember that the MLB Draft really is a crapshoot overall, and that many first-rounders are either total busts who never reach the majors or players who underwhelm and end up doing much less than they’re initially projected to. While these potential lineup controversies are fun to muse about right now, it’s likely that they’ll all work themselves out by the time these new first-round picks reach the upper minors and begin putting themselves in position to get called up.