by Matt Wilkes

A rundown of the Reds’ 2021 first-round draft picks

The first round of the 2021 MLB Draft is in the books, and the Reds led all teams with three picks on day one. Here’s what to know about each selection.

No. 17 overall — Matt McLain, shortstop

With their first selection of the night, the Reds chose Matt McLain, a 5-foot-11 shortstop out of UCLA who bats and throws right-handed.

MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades (out of 80)

Hit: 60 | Power: 50 | Run: 60 | Arm: 60 | Fielding: 50

McLain was drafted with the 25th overall pick by the Diamondbacks in 2018, but he chose to turn down the money and attend college instead. He struggled in his freshman season, hitting just .203/.276/.355 in 249 plate appearances while he was forced to play third base and center field due to UCLA’s depth at shortstop.

But McLain came out of the gates hot in 2020, batting .397/.422/.621 with three home runs in 64 plate appearances before COVID ended the season. McLain had a huge junior year that restored his high draft status. In 41 games and 226 plate appearances, he hit .333/.434/.579 with nine home runs and as many walks (34) as strikeouts, although he did miss some time with a broken thumb.

McLain’s power and plate discipline improved each year in college.

  • 2019: 6.8 BB%, .152 isolated power
  • 2020: 6.3 BB%, .224 ISO
  • 2021: 15.0 BB%, .246 ISO

As a college player, McLain is inherently less risky than a high-school prospect, although he may not have the highest ceiling. One word that sticks out in a lot of scouting reports is “safe.” The feeling is that McLain will get to the big leagues quickly and hit for a high average with decent power and plus speed. Depending on the given scouting report you read, there’s skepticism about whether he can stick at shortstop in the long run. Some reports feel he’ll wind up at second base — where he played a bit in the Cape Cod League in 2019 — or center field.

Here’s what various outlets and writers have to say about McLain, who will turn 22 next month:

  • FanGraphs: “He’s a high-probability big leaguer.”
  • MLB Pipeline: “He’s always had very good bat-to-ball skills with surprising power, but there’s even more pop in his right-handed swing now.”
  • Baseball America: “He has a short, direct swing and consistently lines balls hard from gap to gap. He has a knack for finding the barrel, separates balls from strikes and rarely chases outside the strike zone. He is a consensus above-average to plus hitter and projects to hit at the top of a lineup for a first-division team.”
  • Reds Minor Leagues (Doug Gray): “This pick feels like a safe big leaguer. It might also be one where the upside isn’t potentially as high as some other players that will be going in the first round tonight.”
  • The Athletic (Keith Law): “He should be very quick to the big leagues and has some star potential as long as he stays at shortstop.”

McLain was MLB Pipeline’s 12th-ranked draft prospect and FanGraphs had him at No. 11. Most mock drafts had McLain going several picks ahead of where he ended up. In MLB Pipeline’s final mock draft, writer Jonathan Mayo had him at No. 10 overall and Jim Callis had him at No. 14. FanGraphs’ final mock draft had McLain going 12th overall.

The slot value for the 17th pick is $3,609,700. Notably, the Reds have the fourth-highest bonus pool in this year’s draft at $11,905,700. Keith Law expects McLain to sign at or above slot value.

No. 30 overall — Jay Allen, outfielder

With their second selection of the night, the Reds took 6-foot-2 outfielder Jay Allen from John Carroll Catholic High School in Fort Pierce, Florida. He’s committed to play at the powerhouse University of Florida.

MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades (out of 80)

Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 50 | Arm: 55 | Fielding: 50

You’ll see the word “athlete” used a lot with Allen. He was a three-sport star in high school, also excelling in football and basketball. He threw for over 6,000 yards and 60 touchdowns on the football field and scored nearly 1,000 career points on the basketball court. A right-handed hitter and thrower, Allen batted .357/.491/.571 with 12 extra-base hits, including two home runs, in 108 plate appearances during his senior season on the diamond. The center fielder also stole 22 bases.

The other word you’ll see associated with Allen is “power,” as most scouting reports love his raw power and feel he’ll grow into more as he matures and gets stronger. Allen, of course, comes with some risk as any high school player does. The big concern with Allen seems to be with his ability to hit for contact. But with his athleticism, you have to think he’ll only get better as he starts focusing solely on baseball.

Here’s what various outlets and writers have to say about the 18-year-old:

  • FanGraphs: “Allen is a big, athletic future corner outfielder with the potential for speed and power, but also some questions on the overall hit tool.”
  • MLB Pipeline: “Scouts like his swing and he’s likely to add strength to his super-athletic frame, pointing to a lot of extra pop.”
  • Baseball America: “Allen impressed evaluators with his ability to drive the ball to both sides of the field this spring, against solid pitching, and those who believe in his bat think he has a chance to add solid power in the future.”
  • Reds Minor Leagues (Doug Gray): “Allen could be a centerfielder with power and a solid average down the line who can also do a little bit of damage running the bases.”
  • The Athletic (Keith Law): “He has a sweet right-handed swing that should lead to future power and shows the arm for all three outfield spots.”

The slot value for the 30th pick is $2,365,500.

No. 35 overall — Mat Nelson, catcher

With their third and final selection of the night, the Reds took Mat Nelson, a 5-foot-11 catcher out of Florida State University who also bats and throws right-handed.

MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades (out of 80)

Hit: 45 | Power: 55 | Run: 30 | Arm: 60 | Fielding: 45

Nelson was a 39th-round pick by the Phillies in 2018 but opted to go to college and earned himself plenty of money in the process. His first two years in college were solid but unspectacular. In his freshman year, he hit .277/.439/.439. He followed that up by hitting .250/.410/.383 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Nelson really blossomed in his junior year, growing into more power that helped him hit 23 home runs and post a ridiculous .443 ISO in 237 plate appearances. He hit .330/.436/.773 overall in his third year at Florida State.

Nelson’s power certainly sticks out — especially for a catcher — but so does his patience at the plate. He had a 13.5% walk rate during his college career. But there’s certainly concern about whether he’ll make enough contact in professional ball, as he also had a 24.1% strikeout rate. Defensively, Nelson is highly regarded for his arm strength. Reports are all over the place on his framing and blocking, however; some call him “fringy” while others feel he’s above average. As MLB Pipeline puts it, “how much a scout likes him will depend on when they saw him.”

Here’s what various outlets and writers have to say about the 22-year-old:

  • FanGraphs: “Huge power and an ability to play a premium position”
  • MLB Pipeline: “There are some strikeout concerns that lead to ups-and-downs, but teams might be willing to look past that if they believe he’ll keep getting to the power that made him one of the Division I leaders in home runs in 2021.”
  • Baseball America: “Nelson is old for the class but has a chance to be an everyday catcher with some power.”
  • Reds Minor Leagues (Doug Gray): “The risk is that he can’t make enough contact to hit well enough to progress up the ladder. The upside is that he figures it out and can be a .250 hitter with 25 home runs and quality defense behind the plate and a staple in your lineup.”
  • The Athletic (Keith Law): “Nelson…has improved his game at the right time, hitting better within the ACC than outside of it. He’s a fringy defender but has…a chance to stay at catcher.”

The slot value for the 35th pick is $2,095,800.

Photo Credit: Steve Cheng, Bruin Report

Matt got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Columbus. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

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[…] five pitchers and four position players — all from the college ranks — to add to their three picks from day 1. Let’s review what to know about each player […]