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Three dark horse candidates for the Mariners first round pick

Are you ready for, ready for... A perfect storm, perfect storm

By now you know the narrative. The Seattle Mariners have been linked heavily to guys like UCLA shortstop Matt McLain, Boston College outfielder Sal Frelick and Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser. These guys make sense Seattle at pick no. 12 and fit the team’s draft model. High-contact, low-strikeout bats with college experience and some track record to their names. They dominate the zone, and they have for a couple years now.

But the 2021 MLB Draft is a different animal than the last couple iterations. General Manager Jerry Dipoto and Scouting Director Scott Hunter don’t have the luxury of a competitive balance pick to help fluff the team’s maneuverable bonus pool. There’s reason to believe Seattle is targeting a high-upside prep infielder in the second or third round this year. If that is the case, they’ll likely need to give their first round pick a haircut, or sacrifice a few picks in rounds 10-20 to make the pick fit the bill.

McLain, Frelick and Cowser all have plenty of suitors in the 8-15 range, and may not afford the team a huge discount. That said, I’d bet good money whomever the Mariners end up selecting with their first pick does not get full slot value.

For that reason, Seattle may “reach” with their first pick in an effort to save some money. Here’s a few guys that would not only accomplish that, but fit the Mariners recent draft model.

Gavin Williams, RHP, East Carolina

Williams is entering his second draft-eligible year after going unselected in the truncated 2020 draft. Last year, scouts considered Williams a hard-throwing, high-leverage closer-type of arm. He had struggled with command over his first three years on campus, and also struggled with minor injuries. Over 68 collegiate innings from 2018-2020, Williams issued 32 free passes and held a 1.221 WHIP for his career. Good, but not great for a guy who’d touched 99 mph.

Turn the page to 2021 and Williams was a different animal. Over 81.1 innings this season, the Pirates’ ace struck out 130 batters and walked just 21. His 1.88 ERA and 0.959 WHIP were both career-bests. The fastball was still up to 99, but Williams was now working with two big breaking balls and a changeup. The formers both flashing plus with regularity.

The question Dipoto and Hunter will have to ask is whether the track record is robust enough to pull the trigger. Williams will be 22 years old, so he doesn’t have much leverage as it pertains to returning to school. The 12th pick in the draft carries a ~$4.4 million slot value. I feel pretty comfortable saying the Mariners could land Williams for $4 million, maybe cheaper. In that case, the team opens up at least $400,000 to tack onto a second or third round pick to sweeten the deal. This is by no means a reach in my opinion. It’s more of a leverage play. I have Williams ranked the 4th best college arm in this class behind Jack Leiter, Kumar Rocker and Sam Bachman.

Ryan Cusick, RHP, Wake Forest

Cusick has had first round buzz for the better part of the entire draft cycle. Like Williams, Cusick can run it up into the high-90s, touching triple digits. For now, he’s a two-pitch guy with a huge fastball and a low-80s 12-6 bender that has flashed plus, but is more often than not solid average thanks to fringy command. Cusick does have a cutter and a changeup, though he failed to throw either with any sort of regularity in 2021, mostly because he simply didn’t have to.

Over 70 innings this season, the Demon Deacon posted a 4.24 ERA with a 1.386 WHIP. Good, but not great. The 32 walks are a step in the right direction with respect to previous career marks, but the 65 hits he surrendered are peculiar for a guy who throws as hard as he does.

The issue for Cusick right now is simply optimization. While the fastball is 96-98 most nights, it doesn’t possess great shape. His spin direction and spin efficiency have both been a work in progress. Coming from the Wake Forest pitching lab, Cusick surely understands how to get to where he needs to be, he just fails to do so on occasion.

There may not be a better landing spot than Seattle for the big, athletic righty. Seattle has done wonders for Logan Gilbert’s profile/repertoire, and could take a similar path with Cusick. At his best, Cusick could become something akin to Tyler Glasnow. But there’s definitive relief risk here too.

Cusick would afford the Mariners a pretty substantial haircut, potentially in the $3.5 million range. Saving $1 million with your first round pick really provides some creativity with future picks.

Gunnar Hoglund, RHP, Ole Miss

Seattle hasn’t been connected to Hoglund, but I’d be awfully surprised if the team wasn’t all over him prior to him tearing his UCL in April. Indeed, Hoglund had Tommy John surgery in May and figures to be sidelined into the 2022 season recovering and rehabbing.

Prior to the injury, Hoglund was solidifying himself as a top ten pick and one of the three best arms in the class. The fastball is generally 92-94, but was up to 97 this season. He couples that with a plus slider in the mid 80s that he throws with conviction and supreme command. Hoglund has always had exceptional control and command for his entire arsenal, including a fringy changeup that has seen improvements over the course of his collegiate career.

Over 62.2 innings this season, Hoglund struck out 92 batters, issuing just 17 walks. He posted a 0.910 WHIP this season, a shade better than his 0.931 WHIP from a year ago.

Hoglund is an awfully good bet to stick in a rotation at the big league level so long as the arm comes back to full strength. He’d likely see Everett toward the middle of the 2022 campaign.

I don’t think Hoglund saves you a ton of money, but like Williams, he could probably be had for around $4.1 million bucks. You’re drafting a top ten talent here. If you can be patient, Hoglund, in addition to Gilbert, Hancock and Kirby is quite a four-headed monster.

The 2021 MLB Draft is July 11 and starts at 3pm PST.