MLB draft’s best player reactions, social moments from Day 1

  • Joined ESPN in 2016 to cover the Los Angeles Rams
  • Previously covered the Angels for MLB.com

It was an unusual MLB draft, for sure, staged remotely in the midst of contentious negotiations over an uncertain return. But it was a real, live sporting event, one typically defined by hope for a brighter future, so — we’ll take it! Yes, it felt a little off. No, it wasn’t what we were all clamoring over. But for a few hours on a Wednesday night, we got to talk and think about baseball — about what teams got better and what teams got it wrong and who might be the next Mike Trout.

Watch the 2020 MLB draft on ESPN and the ESPN App

Thursday: Rounds 2-5, starting at 5 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

Draft tracker: Analysis, highlights of every first-round pick

Unconventional as it might have been, the first round of what will be only a five-round MLB draft was a welcomed change and a necessary distraction. Below are five major takeaways:

‘A call to action’

The proceedings began with what MLB commissioner Rob Manfred described as “a call to action” amid nationwide protests over racial inequality, an important declaration for a league that was notably slow to release a statement in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Manfred identified systemic racism and inequality as “devastating problems” and acknowledged that baseball “can do more as an institution.”

“We want to utilize the platform afforded by our game to be not only allies, but active participants in social change,” Manfred said, with all 30 team executives displaying Black Lives Matter signs from their remote offices. Earlier, the Boston Red Sox issued a strong statement acknowledging the racial slurs that have been prevalent in their own ballpark. Later, Austin Martin, the Vanderbilt infielder who went fifth overall to the Toronto Blue Jays, was seen wearing a “More Than An Athlete” shirt.

College heavy

There was a sense heading in to the draft that teams would lean a little more heavily toward collegiate players, both because of the strengths of this draft and the importance of larger sample sizes for college players, as opposed to high schoolers in a year devoid of baseball. And so it wasn’t all that surprising that this marked the first time in the draft’s 57-year history that none of the first seven picks was a high school player.

The SEC alone had nine players picked in the first round. And five colleges — Arizona State, Minnesota, Texas A&M, New Mexico State and Duke — matched or broke their earliest ever selections, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information. Eleven of the first 15 picks were from the collegiate ranks, the most since 1992.

If you feel like you heard the terms Zoom and Rapsodo and TrackMan a lot, there’s a reason: With the coronavirus pandemic keeping all of us apart, teams were more reliant on video conferencing and advanced data than ever before.

Virtual setups

If anyone came close to matching the opulent setup of Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury in the NFL draft — came close, not matched — it was probably Theo Epstein. The Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations had the World Series trophies, the guitar, the grand piano and, to top it all off, the sprinting kid.

But Reid Detmers, the Louisville left-hander taken 10th overall by the Los Angeles Angels, looked the most comfortable. Ed Howard, the local shortstop who went 16th to the Cubs, had the best cheering section. And Heston Kjerstad got bonus points for the ecstatic dog.

Throw away those mock drafts

The first surprise came early, when the Baltimore Orioles selected Kjerstad, a corner outfielder from Arkansas, with the second pick. Kjerstad might have the best left-handed power in this draft. But ESPN analyst Kiley McDaniel didn’t have him ranked higher than seventh in any of his three mock drafts, and Baseball America listed him no higher than ninth. Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, the consensus No. 2 player on most pre-draft ratings, slipped all the way down to the fifth pick, which means he might someday join a Toronto infield — a lineup, at least — that also includes Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio.

Some also were surprised to see high school infielder Carson Tucker go in the first round to the Cleveland Indians with the No. 23 pick. But not his brother, Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Cole Tucker. He called it seven years ago.

Rags to riches

In three years, Nick Gonzales went from not being recruited by anybody outside of Austin Peay State University to becoming the seventh overall pick (by the Pirates). During that same time frame, Spencer Torkelson went from being undrafted out of high school to going first overall out of Arizona State University (to the Detroit Tigers).

Torkelson had been a consensus No. 1 pick for a while, but the moment still seemed to shock him. In an interview during the draft broadcast — in front of movie posters for “Caddyshack,” “The Sandlot,” “Jaws,” “Tombstone” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” all released well before he was born — Torkelson said, “You could punch me in the face right now and I don’t think I’d feel it.”

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