The 2021 MLB Draft begins on July 11, 2021, and unlike in 2020, this will be a twenty round draft — shorter than the forty rounds the draft has been in the most recent years prior to 2020, but longer than last year’s five round version. The Rangers’ top three picks are at #2, #38, and #73.
In the coming days, we will be doing write-ups of potential Texas Ranger draft picks, looking both at players who are in the mix at #2 and players who would be candidates to be picked in the second or third rounds. Today we are looking at LSU pitcher Jaden Hill.
Jaden Hill is a 6’4”, 235 lb. righthanded pitcher who is a college junior at Louisiana State University. Hill was #86 on the Baseball America draft board in 2018 as a three sport athlete who also played quarterback and point guard at Ashdown High School in Arkansas. BA’s report on him out of high school was that he threw in the low-90s with a quality changeup and projection. Hill ended up dropping due to signability issues, and was taken in the 38th round by the Cardinals, who did not sign him.
Hill barely pitched as a freshman at LSU, only logging ten innings in two starts due to a strained UCL. He was dominant out of the bullpen in 2020 before the pandemic shut things down, striking out 17 of 41 batters he faced while allowing no runs, five walks and just one hit in 11.2 innings.
Hill was being talked about as a top 5-10 pick heading into the college season, but struggled badly in 2021, putting up a 6.67 ERA in 29.2 IP over 7 starts before his season was cut short due to a torn UCL that required Tommy John surgery in early April.
When Hill has been healthy and performing well he has top of the rotation stuff, with a mid-90s fastball that has topped out at 98 mph, a changeup that BA describes as “plus-plus,” as well as a slider and a cutter, with the slider seen as above-average when it is one. In 2021, however, per reports, his stuff was down — Hill’s slider wasn’t good and hitters were hammering his fastball.
BA describes Hill as “exceptionally athletic,” and athleticism, build and delivery has evaluators seeing him as being well suited for a starting pitching role. He gets good marks for control as well — BA puts a 55 on his control, MLB Pipeline a 50, and Keith Law says he has “plus control.” The complete package is a prospect who looks like a legitimate TORP. The problem is that Hill has a very limited amount of college innings to evaluate, half of which were in 2021, when he didn’t pitch well, and he has an injury history — along with the 2019 UCL strain and the Tommy John surgery in 2021, he suffered a broken collarbone playing football as a high school senior, an injury that appeared to affect his performance that spring.
Baseball America has Hill at #24 on their current top 500 draft list. MLB Pipeline has Hill at #36 on their board. Over at ESPN Kiley McDaniel has Hill at #39 on his current board. Fangraphs has Hill ranked #37 on their board. Keith Law has Hill at #27 on his list. Baseball Prospectus lists Hill at #34 in their rankings.
The mock drafts I’ve seen out there of late haven’t had Jaden Hill mocked as going in the first round — however, in the Baseball America two round “staff draft” that went up yesterday, Chris Trenkle, who was picking for the Tampa Bay Rays, took Hill for the Rays at #28.
Jaden Hill is about as high risk, high reward a player as there is in this draft. At his best he has three pitches that are at least above-average, including a terrific change up, which is usually the most difficult offering for a pitcher to develop. He has good control and his athleticism and delivery suggests that he could have the type of command that would, combined with his stuff, make him a legitimate top of the rotation starter.
But there’s not much of a track record of him at his best. Hill was not good in 2021, and maybe that’s due to the UCL that ultimately needed surgery, but maybe it is not. There’s no guarantee Hill comes all the way back from Tommy John surgery, that the stuff he showed in 2020 returns post-surgery. And there’s the injury history, the concern that he’s not going to be able to stay healthy going forward.
I’ve talked about Hill being an above-slot guy at #38, but the more I look at it, the less sure I am that he’d be a lock to get more than what slot value is at #38 in this draft. His leverage is limited — he could return to LSU for 2022, but he most likely wouldn’t be ready to return to the mound until, at best, the College World Series, if LSU even got that far. He would be able to show teams that he’s healthy then, but he’d be working out and rehabbing on his own, and even then he’d be 22, have little leverage to go back to school, and may not be in position to get materially more than he would now.
If you believe in Hill, if you believe that the decline in his stuff in 2021 was due to injury, that the “real” Jaden Hill is the guy who dominated in a handful of appearances in 2020, and that he has the makeup and drive to rehab and come back from the injury strong, then you’d probably take him well before he got to #38. But he may drop to Texas, just because there are so many unknowns surrounding him.
Based on what little information I know, I’d be on board with Texas taking him at #38, but I also acknowledge that I know so little that there’s no reason for anyone to take my opinion on the matter seriously. A lot depends on the medicals and how well you think he returns from surgery. And the Rangers would catch a lot of flak from fans and media for using a premium pick on an injured pitcher who won’t be ready to get back on the mound until a year from now.
But the Rangers decided to pass on a pitcher in a similar situation in 2015, when they had interested in Walker Buehler at #4 and passed due to the medical concerns. Buehler had elbow issues and ended up needing Tommy John surgery after the draft. The Dodgers, who took him late in the first round, haven’t regretted their decision to take Buehler.