BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Mariners Draft Preview: College hitters Seattle could target in 1st round

Jul 8, 2021, 11:09 AM
Mariners MLB Draft...
The Mariners haven't selected a position player in the first round since 2017. (AP)
(AP)

We’re just a few days away from learning who the Mariners will select with their first-round pick of the 2021 MLB Draft, and perhaps Seattle could do something the organization hasn’t done since 2017 – take a position player with its first draft pick.

Mariners Draft Primer: What to expect when Seattle picks at No. 12

Since general manager Jerry Dipoto joined the Mariners in late 2015, he’s been in charge of five drafts. In each of his first two drafts with Seattle, Dipoto and his staff selected a position player from the college ranks. That started in 2016 with the selection of Mercer outfielder Kyle Lewis, who won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2020, while in 2017, the Mariners drafted Kentucky first baseman Evan White, who won a Gold Glove in 2020.

The Mariners went to the college ranks with their first pick in each of the last three drafts, as well, but all of those selections were pitchers.

It’s no secret that Dipoto and his staff have preferred college players with their first-round picks, so if Seattle decides to add another college bat to the farm system with the 12th pick of the 2021 MLB Draft, who could it be? Here are four names to keep an eye on.

(Note, all draft board rankings and tool grades are from MLB Pipeline’s draft prospect rankings.)

Something to note

Before we dive in, here’s what Dipoto told 710 ESPN Seattle’s Jake and Stacy last Friday regarding his draft strategy.

“We always approach the draft as take the best available player. And I could refocus that or refine that by saying we approach it as take the best available player with the athletic upside, the potential in the top 100 picks,” Dipoto said. “That’s where you will see us go for the biggest upside we can find …  At the high-end of this year’s draft, maybe more unique to this season than year’s past, we are hyper-focused on the upside and athletic talent in this draft because we think there’s a lot of athletic ability in this class that isn’t present in all classes. That excites us, so you might see a more upside-y play from the Mariners than you’ve historically seen.”

Matt McLain, SS, UCLA

MLB Pipeline’s No. 12 prospect, McLain is someone who’s been a popular pick for the Mariners in mock drafts over the last month, such as this recent mock from MLB Pipeline and this one from CBS Sports. MLB Pipeline reported that the Mariners are again focused on the college ranks with their first-round pick and that a bat is more likely than an arm.

McLain is a high-floor shortstop from UCLA who entered 2021 – and really his college career – with lofty expectations, in part because he was a first-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks out of high school in 2018 but didn’t sign.

Entering the 2o21 season, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound right-handed hitter was seen as someone who could be picked in the top five of this year’s draft. That’s unlikely to happen now with some of the high school shortstops likely to go ahead of him, as well as the fact that he got off to a relatively slow start in 2021 and suffered a broken thumb. That could be to the Mariners’ benefit for a number of reasons.

The first is that McLain is an extremely talented player, possessing 60-grade tools (20-80 scale with 50 being average) for his bat, arm and speed. MLB Pipeline gives McLain, a 2020 second-team All-American, 50 grades for his glove and power.

While playing for the Bruins, McLain slashed .279/.360/.478 in three seasons with 16 home runs, 85 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and 111 strikeouts to 55 walks. And despite the slow start in 2021, McLain got hot late after returning from his injury to still put together a .333/.434/.579 slash line with nine home runs, 36 RBIs and nine stolen bases. Something key to note is McLain did much better at controlling the strike zone in 2021, finishing the year with an even strikeout to walk rate, doing both 34 times.

In MLB Pipeline’s prospect rankings, Seattle only has two middle infielders ranked in the organization’s top 30 prospects. Those players are Noelvi Marte, the Mariners’ No. 5 prospect and the No. 83 overall prospect in baseball, and Kaden Polcovich, Seattle’s No. 22 prospect. MLB teams don’t necessarily draft for need because it takes years for these prospects to make their MLB debuts, but it is important to note that unlike with the outfield or pitching, infield is an area of the Mariners’ farm system that lacks high-end depth.

Additionally, McLain is a good enough athlete to handle a position change if needed. He was exclusively a shortstop at UCLA in 2020 and 2021, but he played some third base and center field as a freshman in 2019. The Mariners in recent years have shown they value defensive flexibility with players like Dylan Moore, Shed Long Jr., Ty France and Donovan Walton all getting considerable playing time at multiple positions, so McLain being able to handle both the infield and outfield could be enticing for Seattle.

Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston

With Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodríguez and Zach Deloach headlining the outfield depth in the farm system and Kyle Lewis, Taylor Trammell, Jake Fraley and Mitch Haniger in the big leagues, it may not seem like outfield a position the Mariners should address with its top pick. Well, Sam Houston outfielder Colton Cowser is one of two college outfielders who may be too enticing for the Mariners to pass up, especially based on Dipoto’s recent comments regarding targeting more upside than usual.

Cowser, who is MLB Pipeline’s No. 10 prospect in the draft, is a very tooled-up left-handed hitter who possess 60 grades for hitting and speed and a 55 grade for his glove.

Cowser is seen as more of a line drive hitter with an average power tool, but it’s believed he has more power that can be tapped into, and his 2021 season showed that may be the case.

Cowser, who stands 6-3 and weighs roughly 200 pounds, had himself a nice career for Sam Houston, slashing .354/.460/.608 with 24 home runs, 112 RBIs, 31 stolen bases and more walks (76) than strikeouts. His 2021 showing was especially strong at .374/.490/.680 with 16 home runs, 52 RBIs, 17 stolen bases and 42 walks to 32 strikeouts. Clearly, the power came through in a big way during his final college season, and Cowser may have more overall offensive upside than initially anticipated.

The Mariners pride themselves on dominating the strike zone at the plate, so Cowser’s track record of working walks while limiting strikeouts and being willing to hit to all fields is important to consider.

Cowser has the instincts and speed to stick in center, per MLB Pipeline, but his arm is average, so he could turn out to be an above-average defensive left fielder. He played all three outfield spots and even some third base in college and summer ball.

A very good athlete with developing power, defensive flexibility and plus speed, Cowser could be the next great outfield prospect in Seattle’s farm system.

Sal Frelick, OF, Boston College

If the Mariners are looking for athleticism in the form of elite speed in the outfield and on the bases, Boston College’s Sal Frelick may be their guy.

While Cowser likely offers a higher offensive ceiling due to his apparent untapped power potential, being more of a physical presence at 6-3, and possessing a better overall offensive profile, the 5-9 Frelick looks like someone who could be a force at the top of an MLB lineup when he makes his eventual big league debut.

Frelick’s calling cards are his blazing 70-grade speed paired with a 60-grade hit tool from the left side of the plate.

He combines those skills with great plate discipline, walking 60 times in his college career while striking out just 50 total times in 102 games. That type of hit-speed combo along with an ability to control the strike zone screams leadoff hitter.

MLB Pipeline rates Frelick’s power at below average (45), but the site gives him an above-average (55) grade for his glove and an average grade (50) for his arm. With his speed and glove, Frelick should be able to handle center field going forward, which is where he played in 2021 after playing mostly right field earlier in his college career.

Like McLain, Frelick has experience across the diamond, playing some shortstop and second base in college and summer ball along with his typical outfield playing time.

Frelick, MLB Pipeline’s No. 11 prospect in this year’s draft, boasts a career .345/.435/.521 slash with 12 HR, 63 RBIs and 38 stolen bases. In 2021, Frelick slashed .359/.443/.559 with a career-high six home runs, 27 RBIs and 13 stolen bases in 48 games.

Clearly a plus athlete despite his shorter stature, Frelick can do a lot of great things on the diamond, and you could make a strong argument that his athleticism and upside are what Dipoto was alluding to last week.

The 2021 MLB Draft kicks off with the first round at 4 p.m. on Sunday.

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