In my last article, I looked at baseball’s aces, and determined that the huge majority of them were first round picks in the major league amateur darft. With that in mind, we’re going to go to the source, examining outcomes for first-round picks over the past 10 years.
I’ve split the draftees into seven categories, including top, middle, and bottom of the rotation starters, pitchers who ended up in the bullpen, those who have not reached the majors but could still be useful big leaguers, and busts. The final category, prospects, might seem similar to the minor leaguers who still have some potential, but these are the guys who are truly still too young to judge, while the longer-term minor leaguers have lost their first-round luster but still have a chance to salvage some value as a major leaguer.
This is somewhat subjective, but it’s important to distinguish a recently drafted high schooler who still might be a top-of-the-line starter from a long-term minor leaguer who now can more reasonably hope to help his team as a low-end starter or long reliever.
College pitchers are generally considered to be more of a sure thing, while high schoolers are often taken for their upside, so I’d expect that a higher percentage of the high school pitchers will turn into top and middle of the rotation starters, but a larger portion will also bust, while more of the college starters who don’t fulfill their front-of-the-rotation potential are able to add some value in the bullpen or as spot starters. We’ll start with 2003, an ugly year for pitchers, and move forward to more fruitful drafts, through 2010, after which point it’s simply too soon to make a determination on how their careers will play out.
2003 was a tough year for pitchers. Chad Billingsley and John Danks, both high schoolers, were the two best picks in the first round. While the bullpen is often a second option for pitchers who can’t make it in the rotation, all three college pitchers who ended up in the bullpen were always ticketed for late-innings duty, as David Aardsma, Chad Cordero, and Ryan Wagner each pitched in relief from the beginning of their minor league careers. The best reliever in the class, Jonathan Papelbon, lasted until the fourth round, while a little-known (and just plain little) righty from a suburb of Seattle would be taken 1,408th overall and become the best pitcher taken that year, although Tim Lincecum would wait until after his Golden Spikes-winning junior year at Washington to begin his professional career.
In a turnaround year for amateur pitchers, 18 hurlers were selected in the first round in 2004. Two gradually rose to the top. The first pitcher selected (No. 2 overall), Old Dominion righty Justin Verlander, has since become the best pitcher in the game, while Jered Weaver, the other standout, saw eight starters go before him. Phil Hughes, out of Foothill High in California, was the best of a mediocre high school crop that also included Homer Bailey.
Two pitchers from the California State system led the pitchers from this draft, as Matt Garza (Fresno) and Ricky Romero (Fullerton) were the best first-round starters. Lincecum, then a draft-eligible sophomore, was once again selected and did not sign, this time in the 42nd round by Cleveland, while his current battery mate Buster Posey was taken by the Angels as a high school pitcher with the sixth-to-last pick, No. 1,496 overall.
2006 was one of the most prolific drafts for pitching of all time, with a frontline starter each from college and high school leading the way. Lincecum finally signed after being drafted for the third time, 1,250 picks earlier than he was the year before, at the No. 10 slot. Six teams will forever rue the day they passed up the Golden Spikes winner for another pitcher, largely due to his diminutive stature. The only team not disappointed with the pitcher they took before Lincecum was his team’s longtime rival, the Dodgers, who selected Clayton Kershaw, the best high school pitcher taken in the past decade. Los Angeles’ ace, taken out of Highland Park High School in Texas, could soon become the first $200 million pitcher, but that wasn’t yet apparent when he was taken seventh overall in 2006.
The Rays made David Price the first left-handed pitcher to be selected first overall in more than 15 years, and they certainly haven’t been disappointed. After winning the Golden Spikes, the highest award for a college pitcher, Vanderbilt pitcher Price moved on to the highest award a pro hurler can win, the AL Cy Young, just last season.
The high school crop was led by Jarrod Parker and Madison Bumgarner, two pitchers who currently qualify as mid-rotation but who could certainly be ace material by the time all is said and done. At this point age becomes an issue because many of the high school pitchers are still developing, while the college hurlers’ careers are much more defined as they peak and generally begin to decline. Other than Price, Ross Detwiler is the next best college pitcher, and while that’s not a name that generally strikes fear in the hearts of opponents, he is a component of a Nats rotation that could be the best in baseball this season.
2008 was an ugly year for amateur pitchers. Only eight went in the first round, with college hurlers Christian Friedrich, Brian Matusz, and Andrew Cashner the best of a fairly miserable bunch. The Dodgers took Ethan Martin 15th; Martin, the only high school pitcher in the first round, was sent to Philadelphia last summer in exchange for Shane Victorino. He ranks sixth in the Phillies’ top 10 prospects according to BP’s Jason Parks.
The first three pitchers in this draft couldn’t be on two more different paths. Stephen Strasburg was the clear choice for first overall, and despite some injury-related bumps in the road looks as much like a pitcher with the potential to win multiple Cy Youngs as he did on draft day. Zack Wheeler, taken sixth, is one of the best pitching prospects in baseball and looks like he may pair with fellow first rounder Matt Harvey at the top of the Mets’ rotation for years to come.
Meanwhile, the pick before Wheeler, Balitmore’s Matt Hobgood, looks as much like a bust as a pitcher possibly can at the age of 22, after three underwhelming seasons in rookie and A-ball and a 2012 lost to rotator-cuff surgery. Jacob Turner has the most big-league experience of all the high school players, but in Wheeler and Shelby Miller there are two potential aces in the high school class.
Two collegiate hurlers from the 2010 class, Harvey and Chris Sale, have already established themselves as dominant big-league starters, while the rest of the college crop has more or less fallen off the map. Drew Pomeranz went to Colorado as the centerpiece of the Ubaldo Jimenez swap, while Hayden Simpson (Cubs), Alex Wimmers (Twins), and Deck McGuire (Jays) have essentially fallen off of prospect rankings lists entirely. Meanwhile, the four high school pitchers have yet to taste the majors, with Jesse Biddle (Phillies) and Jameson Taillon (Pirates) the most likely to have a long-term impact.
Overall, while the large percentage of high school players who have yet to have a big-league impact makes it difficult to evaluate the relative value of the first-round picks, it is interesting that six of the college pitchers (Sale, Strasburg, Price, Lincecum, Verlander and Weaver) became frontline starters while only one high school pitcher (Kershaw) did.
While college pitchers outnumbered high schoolers in these drafts, it’s important to note that the balance has been a lot more even over the past three years, with 16 of the 40 starters (40 percent) being taken from the lower level. It will be interesting to see whether the next pitchers to join the upper echelons of major league baseball have a more even balance between collegiate and high school draft picks. I’ll explore the next crop of aces developing in the minors in my next article.