Early Returns

One of the aspects of baseball’s amateur draft that keeps interest low is the delayed gratification. Even a “fast-track” pick such as David Price may not appear in a Devil Rays uniform until late next season, while high schoolers such as Michael Moustakas could be three or four years away, if they ever make much of an impact at all.

Last year’s draft is an instructive case. Of the top ten picks, only two—Clayton Kershaw and Billy Rowell—were selected out of high school. What’s more, six of the eight college picks were pitchers. Andrew Miller, Brandon Morrow and Tim Lincecum have all reached the majors from that group, and it appears that Lincecum and perhaps Morrow are here to stay. On the flip side, none of last year’s top four picks have made it.

Let’s look at the early returns from last year’s top ten picks, and get a glimpse of what we might expect from the same group at this time next year.

These guys have made it

As I mentioned, Miller, Lincecum and Morrow have already reached the big leagues. Lincecum has exceeded just about all the short-term expectations set for him. Out of his first seven big-league starts, five of them have been of the quality variety. While the Giants may have intended his first stretch in the majors to be a short one, he’s already one of their more reliable options, and I think he can safely give up his apartment in Fresno.

Morrow and Miller are on much shorter leashes. Morrow has pitched great so far this year, racking up more than a strikeout per inning in 21 appearances. He’s been effective despite walking the same number. The question facing the Mariners is how much longer Morrow should pitch out of the bullpen. Seattle flirted with the idea of stretching him out earlier in the season (after all, if you had Jeff Weaver in your rotation, wouldn’t you consider all the options), and he was a starter his last year in college. He would have more value that way, and at some point the M’s may need to let him re-develop that skill in Tacoma.

Miller actually made his debut last September. Not only that, but his left-handedness gave rise to the rumor he might sneak on to the postseason roster for the Tigers. He didn’t, but he’s back in the majors this year as a starter, at least for a few outings. He has shown himself capable of the job in his brief audition, and while he’ll likely return to Toledo before the month is out, he is cementing his position as the number one option should the Tigers need reinforcements.

Of this year’s draft crop, there are plenty of players who could follow this sort of path. The most obvious is David Price. That said, I suspect the Devil Rays won’t be overly aggressive with his development, especially since there are so many other promising arms in their system and the team is probably another two years away from competing.

The more likely candidate is Price’s college teammate Casey Weathers. He won’t have the challenge of facing professional hitters more than once in a game. What’s more, the Rockies farm system is hardly clogged with high-upside arms he’ll have to displace to make it to the big leagues.

ETA: Not quite yet

While the top three picks in last year’s draft are behind the schedule of selections five, six, and 10, they aren’t far off. The highest-profile of them is Luke Hochevar, currently pitching in Double-A Wichita. Even accounting for the adverse environment of the Texas League, Hochevar isn’t living up to expectations. His ERA is pushing 5.00, he’s giving up more than a homer every 8 innings, and he’s recorded only one quality start since April.

Things are much rosier for Greg Reynolds and Evan Longoria. Reynolds is pitching in the same hitter-friendly Texas League and has dominated, giving up no more than two earned runs in any of his seven starts. There’s reason for concern, though: He hasn’t pitched since May 15 due to shoulder soreness. If he comes back quickly, he could still make a September debut, but surely the Rockies won’t press the issue.

Longoria has cooled off since starting the season on a tear, but still has an OPS over .900 in the Double-A Southern League. He rocketed through the Rays system last year, and so long as he can improve on his June OPS of .548, he’ll likely make his way to Durham at the All-Star break. Simply by virtue of being a hitter, Longoria is a better bet than Hochevar or Reynolds, looking like a very solid use of last year’s #3 pick.

While I mentioned Price in the previous section, I think he’s more likely to be in this group come June 2008. The other college pitchers taken among the first 10—Daniel Moskos and Ross Detwiler—will probably be counted among this group as well. Longoria’s trajectory seems like a reasonable blueprint for the Orioles and Brewers to follow with Matts Wieters and LaPorta, respectively. Aside from Hochevar’s ineffectiveness, the top three picks from last year’s draft have proceeded just about as top prospects should, and the Pirates, Nats, O’s and Brewers shouldn’t expect much more from their first-round picks this year.

Long way off yet

High schoolers are high-upside picks, or at least they better be, because the risk is great. Even if there’s nothing funky about a pitcher’s delivery, the wait time—at least three years, sometimes more—allows for plenty of deviations from the expected path. Case in point: You have to go back to the 2004 draft to find a high school pick who has appeared in the majors. (They are Homer Bailey, Billy Butler and Philip Hughes.) For a high school first-rounder who has made much of an impact, you need to go back to 2003 and Delmon Young.

The story is no different for 2006 selections Kershaw and Rowell. Both are playing in low-A ball and it would take an impressive development path for either of them to do much for their parent club before 2010. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just the way it is.

What’s interesting, though, is looking at a couple of 2006 picks in low-A ball side by side. Here are their stat lines:

  • Player 1: 302/384/492
  • Player 2: 250/345/375

The first is Rowell, the second is the player selected right before him by the Reds, Drew Stubbs. Rowell’s stats are based on only 18 games this year, but the more dramatic comparison is in birthdates: Rowell is almost four full years younger than Stubbs. Heck, Joel Zumaya is younger than Stubbs.

My goal isn’t simply to mock the Reds for picking a college player who may or may not be able to hack it in the Midwest League. But if you’re going to pick a player several years off, might as well get one with a high upside. And Reds fans, you may want to take pleasure in Pittsburgh’s pain. Their #1 pick last year, Brad Lincoln, is on the shelf all year due to injury.

There are plenty of high-upside players who look to follow a longer-term path from the 2007 draft. While the ESPN commentators talked about Josh Vitters as a “fast-track” pick even as a high schooler, they used a definition of “fast” you might not find in Webster’s. Michael Moustakas might be farther off still: Despite his athleticism, he doesn’t really have a position at this point.

However far off the position players are, that goes double for pitchers Jarrod Parker, Madison Bumgarner, and Phillippe Aumont. The ceiling for any of these guys (three years out, anyway) is probably Homer Bailey. And as a Brewers fan, I’m obligated to point out that the floor is represented by the player chosen just before Bailey in 2004, Mark Rogers. If you’re going to make a pick with the hopes of getting the next Scott Kazmir or Cole Hamels, the corresponding risk is sky-high.

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