Two Baltimore-area high school baseball standouts were drafted early in the 2021 MLB Draft, and both chose to forego their college commitments to begin their professional careers this summer.
Former Severna Park High School shortstop Jackson Merrill was selected in the first round (No. 27 overall) by the San Diego Padres. He reportedly signed for $1.8 million. Former Gilman School right-handed pitcher Peter Heubeck was taken in the third round (No. 101 overall) by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He reportedly signed for $1.27 million. Both had wildly successful senior seasons that served as launching pads for their professional careers.
But pro ball wasn’t always in Merrill’s mind. He committed to play baseball at Army in the fall of 2019 because he valued how a West Point education would set him up for the rest of his life. Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of his junior season in the spring of 2020, briefly halting his development as a ballplayer.
“At the beginning of quarantine, really, there wasn’t much [my father and I] could do,” Merrill said on Glenn Clark Radio July 15. “All the fields and parks were closed, so you couldn’t really go anywhere. Really, for me, I’m going to be completely honest, before the summer season last year, I wasn’t doing too much. I was honestly kind of lazy, I’ll admit it.”
However, his baseball stock quickly rose. He enjoyed a solid summer with his travel team, 5-Star Carolina. That led him to flip his commitment from Army to Kentucky, which competes in the SEC, considered the best conference in college baseball. Then came the transformation of his 6-foot-3 frame. In November 2020, he committed to working out every single day rather than doing so a few times a week, as he had done before. He weighed 195 pounds by the time his senior season rolled around this past spring, marking a significant uptick in his size and strength.
Between his performance during the summer of 2020 and the weight he put on, he realized he could play pro ball. He then hit .500 with 13 homers and 39 RBIs as a senior at Severna Park en route to earning 2021 Capital Gazette Player of the Year honors. He also led the Falcons to the MPSSAA Class 4A state title game, where they fell to Sherwood, 5-4.
Merrill received more and more attention from scouts as the season went along.
“Draft-wise, definitely a late bloomer,” Merrill said of himself. “We went into the first game of the high school season, maybe four or five scouts at the first couple games. Go to the middle of the season, it was probably 10 or 15 or 20. By the time the playoffs came, we had one where there were 55 or 60 scouts there. It rose really quickly throughout the season.”
Merrill worked out for Padres before the draft, but he didn’t necessarily anticipate going to San Diego ahead of time. He only expected to go late in the first round or early in the second. The Padres called Merrill’s adviser a couple selections before they picked and said they’d take Merrill if he was still available at No. 27.
As of mid-August, Merrill was playing shortstop for the Padres’ Arizona Complex League entry to get his feet wet in pro ball. He hopes to stay at the position long term.
“It’s definitely my hope. That’s my home position. I love playing there,” Merrill said. “I definitely have some room to fill out, so it could push me to third base or maybe [a position that doesn’t require as much agility]. But I am pretty fast, I am pretty long. My arms and legs are pretty long, so I feel like any position is really good for me.”
Heubeck’s position is a little more defined. He’s a pitcher — and a good one. The 6-foot-3, 170-pound right-hander posted a 1.20 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 64.1 innings en route to Gatorade Maryland Baseball Player of the Year honors. He also helped lead Gilman to the MIAA A Conference title for the first time since 2010.
The Dodgers left no stone unturned to ensure they lured Heubeck away from his Wake Forest commitment. Just before Heubeck agreed to terms with Los Angeles, he spoke with Dodgers star pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler — an introduction of sorts to the organization.
“That was surreal. That was so crazy,” Heubeck said on Glenn Clark Radio July 29. “I mean, Clayton Kershaw’s going to be an easy Hall of Famer, and Walker Buehler is my favorite pitcher in the major leagues. He has been for the past couple of years. It was just unbelievable. They’re obviously super nice. We just talked for a while about baseball, about offseason, in-season and just had a really good conversation. It was crazy.”
Heubeck said the Dodgers were an attractive organization with which to start his career because of how well they develop pitchers. Buehler, 27, is an excellent example. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-hander was drafted out of Vanderbilt in 2015 and was one of the best young starters in the game by 2018.
Though Heubeck will take longer to develop as a high school arm, he already has some ideas in mind about how he can take steps forward.
“Throughout high school, I’ve just been attacking people mostly with fastball and curveball,” Heubeck said. “I’m really looking to develop a changeup — I have a changeup, but just to throw it more, especially to more advanced hitters. I’m in Arizona right now until the season ends. I’m just really looking to put on some weight, get a lot stronger and hopefully go further in games and maybe throw a little bit harder with extra weight gain.”
Former Gilman star Gavin Sheets made his big-league debut with the Chicago White Sox this summer. Sheets helped out Heubeck during the draft process, and now Heubeck hopes to join him in the majors in the future.
“Seeing Gavin, seeing how he works out during the offseason and seeing his work ethic, it shows you what it takes to be a professional baseball player,” Heubeck said. “Watching him helps a lot. He sets a good example.”
To hear more from Merrill, listen here:
To hear more from Heubeck, listen here:
Photo Credits: Colin Murphy and Courtesy of Gilman School
Originally published Aug. 18, 2021