With the second pick of the 2021 MLB Draft, the Texas Rangers selected Jack Leiter, a righthanded pitcher out of Vanderbilt University.
It feels almost anti-climatic. We have been talking about Leiter as a possible Ranger draft pick for almost a year. Back in September of 2020 there was “will Texas take Leiter or Rocker?” talk. As the spring baseball season started, and draft discussions started getting more serious, we saw Jordan Lawlar rise up the boards, then Marcelo Mayer, though Leiter stayed in the top tier. I found myself saying over and over, hey, if they don’t draft Leiter it will be fine, he’s not a slam dunk at two, if the Rangers pass on him at two it’s no reason to freak out.
The Rangers are widely reported leading up to the draft to be in on a number of players, Leiter among them. The final mocks mostly seemed to have Leiter going to Texas, but there seemed to be a lot of uncertainty surrounding things, and I was still betting on the field.
And then the Rangers took Leiter, just as we were talking about happening back in September. It was like fate.
One thing that immediately comes to mind with this pick...we can bury the whole “toolsy high ceiling high schoolers” narrative when it comes to the Rangers. Texas had Marcelo Mayer and Kahlil Watson, two high ceiling high school shortstops with five tool superstar potential, available at two. They had Jordan Lawlar, toolsy and maybe not as high ceiling but still a guy with a ton of upside, and a local guy to boot. There was Jackson Jobe, with perhaps the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the draft, and Kumar Rocker, who has #1 starter potential.
The Rangers passed on all the high upside toolsy guys in favor of the more polished college pitcher.
And let me be clear — I’m not saying Leiter lacks tools, or that he lacks upside. But if you look at how the Rangers have gone historically, prior to a few years ago, you’d have expected them to swing for the fences with this pick, go with high upside and a greater bust potential. They didn’t do that.
This pick fits the profile of what the Rangers have shifted to and committed to the last few years. Jon Daniels has indicated the Rangers have become more “risk-averse,” seemingly particularly with their premium picks, and Leiter fits that model.
A word that comes to mind with Leiter — and I hesitate to use it because it is sometimes interpreted negatively — is “safe.” Other than arguably Henry Davis, who the Pirates took with the first pick, Leiter was the safest pick at number two. As I noted above, if you wanted to roll the dice and bet on ceiling you could go with Mayer, or Jobe, or even Leiter’s teammate Rocker. But if you wanted the player who was most likely to be a solid major league player, Leiter was the best bet.
In Leiter, the Rangers grabbed a pitcher who has had success in the highest level of amateur competition in the U.S., who has a fastball that the analytic data says is elite, two quality breaking balls, and decent command. They have someone with a 2/3 starter projection who is polished, knows how to pitch, and likely will move in a hurry.
How quickly? Looking back the last few years, in 2019, the only college pitchers taken in the top half of the first round were Nick Lodolo (7) and Alek Manoah (11). Manoah is in the Jays’ rotation right now, Lodolo is in AA. Casey Mize went first overall in 2018 and was up last year. Logan Gilbert went fourteenth and is in the Mariners rotation. 2017 top five picks Brendan McKay and Kyle Wright were up in 2019 and 2018, respectively.
My guess is that, barring injury or underperformance, we see Leiter making starts in Arlington sometime in 2023. Coincidentally or not, that seems to fit the timeline when the organization is hoping to be a playoff contender again. And it would certainly be nice to see Jack Leiter pitching meaningful games in Arlington in about 26 months.