Headlined by first-team All-ACC pitcher Austin Love, three North Carolina baseball players heard their names called on Day 2 of the MLB Draft on Monday, bringing UNC’s streak of consecutive drafts with at least one selection to 44.
The first draft pick of the Scott Forbes era, Love was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the third round with the 90th overall pick. The Arizona Diamondbacks took Caleb Roberts in the fifth round with the 138th overall pick before the Cincinnati Reds selected Justice Thompson in the sixth round with the 180th overall pick.
After redshirting as a true freshman in 2018, Love established himself as UNC’s relief ace in 2019, appearing in a team-best 36 games and logging a 3.18 ERA in 68 innings. The right-hander struggled to the tune of a 6.75 ERA over 14 2/3 innings during the shortened 2020 season. But armed with improved fastball command, he seamlessly transitioned to starting this spring, going 10-4 with a 3.71 ERA over 17 games (16 starts) and 102 innings.
Love’s 129 strikeouts in 2021 were the ninth most among Power 5 pitchers and four shy of the UNC single-season record, set by Andrew Miller in 20 games (18 starts) and 123 1/3 innings in 2006. As good as he was all season, Love was sensational over the final month. Highlighted by back-to-back complete games against Louisville and Georgia Tech, the Salisbury, North Carolina, native tallied a 2.89 ERA in 53 innings over his last eight games (seven starts).
Love is the second Tar Heel pitcher in five years to be selected by the Cardinals in the third round after St. Louis took Zac Gallen 106th overall in 2016. The No. 90 pick this year, used on Love, came with an MLB-determined bonus slot value of $657,600.
Buoyed by a strong fall and preseason at the plate, Roberts became the first true freshman since Chad Flack in 2005 to bat cleanup for UNC on Opening Day on Feb. 15, 2019. Roberts, however, struggled to find much success offensively in his first two seasons, slashing .221/.367/.272 in 57 games. Hoping to turn things around, the Coral Springs, Florida, native spent the 2020 offseason retooling his swing, and it showed this spring, as he hit .270/.442/.476 with 10 homers and 36 RBIs across 55 games. He also displayed a better eye on his way to 44 walks compared to 41 strikeouts.
Primarily a catcher in high school, Roberts – who entered the transfer portal two weeks ago – moved to right field as a freshman and steadily improved at the position over the last three seasons, notching five outfield assists in 2021. He was announced as a catcher during the draft.
Roberts is just the second Tar Heel to be drafted by the Diamondbacks. The other – Austin Bergner in 2018 – didn’t sign. The No. 138 pick, with which Roberts was selected, has a slot value of $402,000.
Thompson drew some scouting interest coming out of Northwest Florida State College last summer, but his draft stock took off after his ACC debut against Virginia. Playing in front of a large contingent of scouts, he went 3-for-4 with a homer, a double, a bunt single, a steal and two spectacular catches. He ultimately finished the season hitting .304/.386/.444 with seven homers and 15 stolen bases in 17 tries, and was named a second-team All-ACC selection.
Some scouts expressed concerns about Thompson’s bat after he struck out at a 27.8% rate in 54 games. But as a 70-grade runner and 60-grade fielder according to Baseball America, Thompson has some of the most exciting tools in this draft class. After the Reds picked Thompson, MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis said the center fielder “has the upside to be a star.”
Thompson is the seventh Tar Heel to be drafted by Cincinnati and the first since Zack Gahagan – who didn’t sign – in 2017. Thompson’s slot value is $272,500.
In addition to Love, Roberts and Thompson, two members of UNC’s 2021 recruiting class were drafted Monday.
Anthony Solometo – the No. 28 prospect and No. 2 left-handed pitcher in the class, according to Baseball America – was picked by the Pittsburgh Pirates with the first pick of the second round (No. 37 overall), which comes with a slot value of $2 million. Third baseman James Triantos – the No. 59 prospect in the draft according to Baseball America – was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the second round with the No. 56 overall pick, which carries a slot value of $1.28 million.
The 2021 MLB Draft wraps up Tuesday with Rounds 11-20, beginning at 12 p.m. on MLB.com.