The 2021 Draft Class Will Be Remembered For Its Prep Shortstops. Meet The Top Four Prospects.
The 2021 draft will be remembered for its high school shortstops.
Since 1981, when Baseball America was founded, there hasn’t been a draft class with this concentration of teenagers at shortstop, the game’s most glamorous position.
Only once before in draft history, in 1973, were four high school shortstops selected among the top 10 picks. Hall of Famer Robin Yount, drafted third overall, headlined that year’s prep shortstop class.
This year, Jordan Lawlar of Texas, Marcelo Mayer of California, Kahlil Watson of North Carolina and Brady House of Georgia all merit top 10 selection on talent. All four have a good chance to go top 10 on draft day, especially in a down year for college hitters.
Even in a stronger year for college hitters, the upside of this group of prep shortstops might be too much for teams to pass up at the top of the draft.
After all, high school shortstop is a prized demographic among scouting departments, as one director explained earlier this year when it started to become obvious that this quartet was shaping up to be special—historic, even.
“The supply of really good defenders at a premium position who can also provide huge offensive impact—it’s just exceptionally rare,” the scouting director said. “That’s why these guys, the Bobby Witts and the CJ Abramses of the world, don’t get out of the top six or seven picks. They’re a commodity.
“If you are a slam dunk offensive impact and you’re sticking at that position, in my mind you are going in the top five picks.”
Going back to 2000, Baseball America has never ranked more than three high school shortstops among the top 30 draft prospects in any given class.
This year, Lawlar (No. 1), Mayer (No. 2), Watson (No. 6) and House (No. 7) all rank inside the top 10, and each player has been talked about as a potential top five pick in our conversations with industry sources when attempting to forecast this year’s first round.
“There has been a lot of heat in to see those guys, and rightfully so,” said another scouting director. “I would not be surprised if one of those guys goes off the board earlier than expected. Everyone is dreaming on that everyday shortstop.”
Beyond the prospect rankings and the mock draft best guesses, what makes this group of four players so special?
Baseball America spoke to all four high school shortstops to go beyond the hype, to get a better sense of the players’ games, their backgrounds and what to expect from them at the next level.
In short: What separates them from the pack?
There was never a specific moment in Jordan Lawlar’s life when he realized he had a chance to play professional baseball. He was just always a little bit better than his peers in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, one of the more competitive areas for baseball talent.
“I just feel like I’ve always maybe been a step ahead with everything I’ve done on the field,” said Lawlar, who hit .400 in all three of his varsity seasons at Dallas Jesuit High. “Obviously, starting baseball in Texas young is definitely a good first step. I feel like I’ve always been able to hit it a little bit farther or field it a little bit better. But I think that just goes back to the work.”
Being the top player in your region is one thing, but being the top player over the summer while competing against the best players from all over the country is another. That’s exactly what Lawlar did, thanks to his high-level offensive performance in every 2020 showcase event and an all-around tool set that shows no area of weakness.
“He’s a middle-of-the-field shortstop, and his tools are all there,” said one scout. “All you’re waiting for is for him to be more physical. There are no glaring weaknesses with this kid.”
While Lawlar is responsible for his success on the field, he credits his mother Hope as the reason he’s been able to get his opportunities and thrive in the moment.
“She’s been huge. She’s been my rock,” Lawlar said. “She’s the reason I have been able to be on the summer circuit as much as I have. She works all the time for that, and she gets me to where I need to be.
“And just in the backyard when we were young or in the living room (working out) during Covid. We have been doing that stuff for years now . . . all that work has been put in and she’s been there all the time for me. So she’s huge for me and just a hard worker, and the fire that she has for whatever she does is a motivator for me.”
Now, Lawlar stands at the top of a 2021 draft class that could be lined up several different ways depending on the evaluator.
“I can’t find much negative to say about him,” said another scout. “He’s what they look like. Athleticism, premium position. He’s got power.”
What stands out about Lawlar is his well-rounded game. He excels in all areas on the field. He hits. He runs. He defends. He throws. And he has power projection too thanks to a 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame that should add plenty of muscle in the coming years.
“I started strong and I ended strong,” Lawlar said, talking about his senior season. “I was able to produce on all levels. Hit some homers and also get on base a ton, steal a lot of bags—I think I was 32-for-32.
“I moved all around (the batting order)—leadoff and then I went to the three-hole—really just did all of it offensively. So that was fun. And then defensively I was pretty good. Can’t say flawless, but pretty close to flawless. I had a good teammate up the middle with (second baseman) Connor Chavez. We like to joke around and say we are like Carlos (Correa) and (Jose) Altuve—because he is a smaller guy.”
While Lawlar made the Texas connection for his Dallas Jesuit middle infield comparison, the player he looks up to the most is Derek Jeter. The Hall of Famer is the reason why Lawlar is a Yankees fan in the middle of Texas and the player he aspires to be like on and off the field.
“I was always glued to the TV watching him play whenever I could and I just loved the way he played and the person he is,” Lawlar said. “What he was able to do, and obviously he is in the Hall of Fame, almost unanimous. I think there’s a lot to say about that, but he is a good role model to have.”
While the totality of Jeter’s career is something Lawlar aspires to, he also marvels at the simplicity and explosion of Carlos Correa’s swing and points to Andrelton Simmons as a shortstop he looks at defensively.
“He’s amazing,” Lawlar said of Simmons. “He’s just fun to watch. He gets to balls and he always makes the play, throws it right on the money. Just the things he does are insane.”
As for his own game, Lawlar views himself as a pure hitter, first and foremost. He is focused only on putting the barrel on the ball and hitting it hard somewhere, knowing the results after that aren’t up to him and the home run power will naturally follow. He’s been fairly consistent with his mechanics over the years, though he has quieted a leg kick recently to help get more consistent timing against better pitchers.
As a defender, Lawlar’s plus speed gives him confidence with his range and lets him get to balls that would be out of another player’s reach. Beyond physical tools, he takes a lot of pride in understanding the nuances of the game: knowing what his pitchers like to do on the mound, reading swings and staying on top of hitters’ tendencies and shifting his positioning based on the count or game situation.
Lawlar also puts a lot of thought into what he’s like off the field. That shouldn’t be surprising for a player who looks up to a leader like Jeter.
“That’s huge for me,” Lawlar said. “That’s honestly probably bigger for me than any athletic thing you can do—or sports in general. Just being a good person and really just having that good character.
“That’s been ingrained in me through my upbringing from my mom. She’s always been huge on that and I don’t fault her for it. I’m happy I’m like that and I just see the world that way.
“I think it helps on the field. Communication and leadership is huge. To win and to be successful in baseball . . . I think you can never be too good of a teammate.”
That also extends to non-teammates. Lawlar has looked at the other standout shortstops who are his peers and been excited with what the group has collectively been able to—and will continue to—accomplish.
“I’m friends with a lot of the guys at the top of the shortstop class and have watched them play for a while now, and we are good friends,” Lawlar said.
“It’s fun to see. I would say it’s almost like a fraternity of high school shortstops and it’s just fun. It’s fun to be a part of it and to watch those guys go out there and kill it like they’ve been doing, it’s amazing to watch.”
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Eastlake High in Chula Vista, Calif., is a bit of a powerhouse in Southern California. The San Diego-area program recently produced shortstop Keoni Cavaco, who was selected by the Twins with the 13th pick in 2019.
Marcelo Mayer is the next great infielder to come out of the program and should top Cavaco’s mark in the draft, with a real chance to join Adrian Gonzalez, from the 2000 draft, as the second player out of Eastlake to become the No. 1 overall pick.
Mayer was voted the best pure defensive infielder by scouting departments in Baseball America’s preseason polling, but he’s far from a glove-first sort of shortstop prospect.
“He may be the best hitter in the draft, period,” said one scout.
“He’s the best player I’ve seen this year,” said another.
While Covid impacted players around the country, it was particularly problematic for players on the West Coast, who generally dealt with stiffer restrictions and had to travel much greater distances to get across the country to attend summer events that mostly took place in the Southeast.
Because of that, Mayer made a decision early on that limited his exposure to the scouting community but greatly benefited his game.
“We took a family decision and said that we wouldn’t travel at the beginning of the summer,” Mayer said. “It was very different. We pretty much just stayed home, and I used those couple months that we didn’t play to just work out, get stronger, get faster.
“Really, when the summer starts, you don’t get to do those things since you are always traveling. So we really took advantage of that time we had.”
By the time scouts were able to put eyes on Mayer on a national level, they saw a player who made the game look tremendously easy.
While Mayer spent a lot of time working on his explosion and lateral mobility in his down time, he isn’t the fastest shortstop in terms of foot speed, but his actions, internal clock, soft hands and deft footwork all give him exceptional ability to slow the game down and stand out as one of the more advanced defensive shortstops in the country.
“To be honest, I think it was something I was born with,” Mayer said. “I’ve always been a really good athlete. Played every single sport. So just staying athletic . . . having the right coaches to teach me the fundamentals and how to use my hands correctly is really what I did from a young age.”
Mayer’s main non-baseball sport was soccer, which is unsurprising after seeing how he moves on the diamond. A talented midfielder and striker who was pressured by some of his coaches to drop baseball and pursue soccer, Mayer instead opted to leave the pitch around eighth grade to focus on baseball.
Around that same time, Mayer also stopped switch-hitting—which he had done going back to around the time he was in fifth grade—to focus on his pure lefthanded swing.
“I figured that I could hit lefty pretty well,” Mayer said. “We said, ‘Why take 100 swings each side when I could take 200 from the left side?’ ”
Mayer uses a simple offensive approach where he is looking for a strike and something to square up as hard as possible, but he’s happy to take a walk if pitchers don’t come to him. And while that approach has remained the same, his batted ball profile has evolved over his high school career as he has naturally gotten stronger and more powerful.
That was both a natural occurrence and a strategy that his father Enrique, who played baseball in college and serves as Marcelo’s hitting and fielding coach, helped him devise.
“Freshman year, I am hitting hard ground balls to low line drives,” Mayer said. “Sophomore year a little more elevated. Junior year a little more elevated, and senior year more elevated—which has resulted in a lot of home runs.
“What tends to happen is young kids are focused on hitting the ball in the air, but those are fly outs. You really need to get your strength before you try to focus on lifting the ball a little more, so that’s what we did.”
That approach and offensive development led to 13 home runs this spring during Mayer’s senior season in one of the more competitive leagues in the country.
Now he’s right in the middle of one of the most competitive shortstop classes we’ve seen.
“It’s pretty rare,” Mayer said of the group. “You see all of them do great things and then you go out and do great things yourself. It’s very eye-catching.
“I like to think of myself as the best of the pack, and that’s the way I carry myself on the field—even though they are all great players and all buddies as well.
“So you wish them the best and you also hope for the best for yourself.”
Kahlil Watson’s path has been a bit different.
He didn’t grow up in a baseball hotbed like Southern California, Texas, Florida or even Georgia—all states which routinely produce the most high school prospects.
Watson didn’t grow up playing travel ball consistently. He wasn’t regularly on the summer showcase circuit. He didn’t watch baseball on TV all that much. And he didn’t really have a favorite team.
But he was always great at the game and he always dreamed about a future as a professional player.
“I always knew that (there would be) some time in my life where baseball would just keep going, and I always dreamed about being an MLB player or going to the pros and stuff like that,” Watson said.
“It started when I was young. I started playing Dixie Youth when I was about 4 or 5. Dad stuck me up in there, and I also played basketball and football (as well).
“Going into every sport I played, I was kind of the best one on the field. I just took it upon myself and kept playing, kept playing . . . You have that mindset when everything comes easy and you just know you can hit the ball. This year, that’s when everything started to become hot.”
The heat started for Watson over the summer, when his precocious feel for hitting against some of the best pitching in the country made him one of the bigger risers in the class. Entering his senior year at Wake Forest (N.C.) High, he wasn’t as big of a name on national radars because he played other sports and wasn’t consistently on the circuit as an underclassman.
“My dad always said that it’s just too much money to waste on playing in these big events as a freshman, sophomore and junior,” Watson said. “But going into my senior year, that’s when he fully committed and was like, ‘OK, we are going to get you in these big events because you are invited to them.’
“Ever since then, he has been putting me to work, putting me to work. Making sure I stay on it . . . Last summer, it was definitely a breathtaking (experience), just to perform with other people and (play with) higher ranked people and see myself compete with them.”
In a class filled with plenty of high-level athletes, Watson could very well be the most impressive of the group.
That athleticism is derived from his natural talents, as well as his extensive history playing football and basketball.
“He’s the best athlete at shortstop in the draft, man,” said one scout. “He might have the best upside.”
“He is damn good,” said another scout. “He has probably the most pure athleticism and raw talent, and he might be the best guy I’ve ever had in my area.”
Watson believes playing football helped him out tremendously on the baseball field, especially with the strength gains that came from getting in the gym every morning around 5 a.m. once he got to high school.
“We would go straight into lifting,” Watson said. “And every day before our water breaks, we had to run sprints. And that helped me out with my speed and pro agility stuff.”
Watson played all over the field on the gridiron, starting with safety during his freshman year but quickly expanding to wide receiver, cornerback, linebacker and quarterback—depending on what the team needed. It got to the point where Watson would only go out at receiver when he was getting a pass thrown in his direction.
Other teams picked up on that, so the team had to implement a few running plays as decoys to keep them honest.
If Watson wanted to play football in college, success seemed like a safe bet.
“My football coach asked me, ‘What are you going to do? Are you going to let the football guys give you scholarships and stuff?’ I said: ‘Just hold off on that.’ ”
He was focused on baseball. It was the first sport he played growing up and always was his biggest passion. Growing up as the youngest of seven, with plenty of cousins nearby as well, Watson thinks back to when he was growing up and how baseball was always the sport of choice for the group during family gatherings.
“They would come over to our house and we would play baseball,” Watson said. “We used to be competitive, we would chirp a lot and get mad at each other. Almost every morning around 8 o’clock—as soon as the sunrise hit—I would go outside and hit rocks with a bat, anything.
“Baseball, ever since I was little—I’ve been with it.”
Watson still thrives off of that competitive energy and loves when his high school games get a bit chippy. He likes to show emotion on the field and likes when the players he’s going up against do the same.
“When I get out there on the field, it’s all about handling business,” Watson said. “Ever since I committed I took it upon myself that I have to keep working. Just because I committed to North Carolina State, it doesn’t mean the work is done. So when I step on the field, I give it my all. When you see me, you will see me compete.
“I am kind of chirpy, but I like it when other teams chirp against me because I motivate off of that.”
Watson isn’t only competitive against his opposition, but also the other shortstops in his class.
“I would say two people stand at the same spot as me,” Watson said. “But any others—I don’t think they have the same speed as I do. So that’s where I have an advantage. And then the athleticism, I think I have more athleticism than anyone in the prep shortstop (group). For me that is how I look upon it, but I will still keep putting my work in. I don’t think about it.
“Like on the mock drafts and all of that stuff when they say, ‘This person is doing this and this person is doing this.’ I was like, ‘OK, they can get the hype up, but I still look at it as: You have to keep doing what you have to do.’ ”
The target has been on Brady House’s back from the start of the 2021 draft cycle.
House was a known name in national scouting circles because of his tremendous track record of hitting as an underclassman at numerous showcase events and travel ball tournaments, against the top pitching of his peers and against some of the top pitching in older classes as well.
The most physical of the top group of shortstops in the class, there’s a case to be made that between House’s hitting ability and massive raw power, he has the loudest offensive upside.
“The tools that matter, he has them,” said one scout. “He has the most important tools, which are power and hit. He’s very, very talented.”
“The track record, power and strength is all there,” said another scout. “Pitch recognition is really solid. It’s just a long track record, and he is pretty freaking good . . . I don’t think he will struggle to make the necessary adjustments.”
It has become common for players who enter the year as the top prospect in a class to get nitpicked. That was the case for House last summer, when he entered the showcase circuit as the presumptive top player, but the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Georgian has consistently produced.
This spring at Winder-Barrow High in the Atlanta area, he hit over .500 with eight home runs and 28 walks to nine strikeouts against high-quality competition.
House worked hard over the offseason to improve his approach, and it seems to have paid off.
“I had to work on things that I didn’t show well in the summer,” House said. “The main thing I wanted to improve on was my approach at the plate. I feel like last summer I was too aggressive swinging at pitches that I usually don’t swing at, just trying to do too much with the ball and muscle it up and put it over the fence.
“This season, I just focused on getting a pitch I wanted early in the count and doing something good with it, doing something productive with it. I didn’t try to hit bombs and do all that stuff. Just tried to put it in play, hit it where it was pitched. When there were two strikes on me, I would shorten up and swing at pitches that the umpires were going to call a strike.”
After realizing that his handset had gotten a bit higher than he liked, House lowered his hands over the offseason to get a more direct path to the ball this spring. And while the mechanical and physical adjustments were necessary, House’s mental approach to the game in terms of adjustments and realizing what he’s trying to do at the plate are just as important as bat speed or 70-grade raw power to his offensive success.
“I think most of hitting, especially for me, is mental,” House said. “I want to study the pitcher before I face him. I want to see what’s his go-to pitch, so whenever I go up there, first at-bat, I have an idea what he’s going to throw me. He may not throw it, but at least I have an idea of what he’s going to do with that pitch or what he’s going to throw to me.
“(That) and remembering your previous at-bats. I don’t want to let go of any at-bat I had. If I went up there first at-bat and he got me on two curveballs I will go up there next at-bat knowing he got me on two curveballs and do something that second at-bat knowing what he was doing in the first one.”
While House was happy with his offensive production this spring, he was equally excited about how he performed defensively. Similar to the pressure he received as the presumptive top prospect in the class during the summer, there’s plenty of scrutiny on House as a bigger-bodied shortstop whom evaluators suggest might move to another position.
House understands that pressure but has worked hard to prove he can stay in the middle infield.
“Going out in the field I felt really, really good with my side-to-side movement as a shortstop,” House said. “Last summer I was a little bit bigger, so I focused on leaning up. And for the spring I feel like doing that really helped me with my side-to-side movement.”
“Defensively, my approach is going to be different than the other shortstops because I am a little bit bigger than the other shortstops,” House said.
“My approach is just (that) I need to stay with my side-to-side movement and stay low as much as I can. It takes a little bit more work for me than the other guys because I am bigger. As long as I am good with my side-to-side movement, my first step to the ball, and as long as I stay low, I feel like that will be pretty good for me.”
After proving his game on both sides of the ball this spring, House has managed to avoid the prospect fatigue that’s been an issue that highly touted high school players have dealt with in recent draft classes.
He’s solidly in the mix at the top of the draft with the other three shortstops around the country and excited to share the stage with Lawlar, Mayer and Watson.
“I feel like we have all played with each other,” House said. “Whether it’s USA Baseball, showcases, travel ball—we all were together at some point during the summer, and I know there’s a bunch of talented shortstops out there just from playing with them over the summer.
“I’m happy that I’m able to share this ’21 class with the other shortstops.”