The First-Year Player Draft Changes The Landscape
A few dates always have a prominent spot on my calendar, and the first-year player draft is right at the top of the list. I would characterize this year's draft as perhaps a bit deeper than usual, though from a pitching perspective I don't think there were any "once in a decade" arms coming out. In this era of baseball, the draft is a critical component of finding players who are most likely to help your organization, and in case you haven't noticed, for many it's all about who can help our organization soon. Until fairly recently, draft picks began their professional careers at the bottom of the ladder and gradually worked their way up to the big leagues. Today, at least partially because of free agency, many teams, especially in smaller markets where they can't afford to buy established talent, look for players they can get into the mix as soon as possible. At least one pitcher in this year's draft is a very good example of that strategy. Let's look at a handful of pitchers who have impact talent.
Mark Appel (Houston Astros)
In my book he was clearly the most refined pitcher in the draft, and he went first overall. The Pirates selected him in the first round last year, but he declined to sign and returned to Stanford where he simply built on his already impressive resume. He has a big arm, albeit not quite as big as third-overall pick Jonathan Gray, a full and effective arsenal and the polish that will likely see him in an Astros uniform very soon - maybe even later this summer. Houston GM Jeff Luhnow has a plan, and he is working it well, which I always like to see when evaluating pitchers in any system. They nabbed a pro-ready talent, a native of Houston, and someone who could create buzz for a franchise trying to find its way, so there is a lot to like about this pick.
Some say Appel is slightly more advanced than Stephen Strasburg was at this point in his career, and I actually think those observations merit consideration. I don't think he has the ceiling of Strasburg, but he does have an abundance of poise on the mound and might actually be better prepared for the challenges of major league hitters. If your league allows it, grab him and take the chance that he signs and moves up to Houston in August or September. If you are in a keeper, that suggestion is even more emphatic. He can help Houston, and a fantasy team right away.
Kohl Stewart (Minnesota Twins)
When you look at the Twins system, you see two things. They have been collecting quite a few raw talent position players who are showing developmental progress, and while there isn't much really close to major-league ready, they do have a handful of power arms that could be a nice complement to the hitters if they also come along. Alex Meyer, whom they acquired in a deal with the Nationals, is the standout on this list. However, with Stewart in the mix, Meyer drops to second on their pitching prospect depth chart.
I actually debated whether to list Appel or Stewart first on my draft grid. Stewart, a high schooler, probably has stuff that is on par with Appel or Gray, but he is still clmbing to his ceiling, and is more athletic than either of the top college arms. He is increasing velocity as his frame fills out and his mechanics become more efficient, so we haven't seen all he can be yet. Regular readers know of my expectations for Jameson Taillon who came out of high school in 2010. He is in the penthouse suite of my prospect pitching watch list, and he has been near the top from pretty much day one. Scouts feel Stewart is perhaps a better prospect than Taillon coming out, and while I am not quite ready to go that far, he is the best high school pitcher to show up recently. It will be awhile before he arrives in Minnesota, but I think the Twins are constructing a group of players who could make them formidable in a few years.
Jonathan Gray (Colorado Rockies)
Gray rounds out the big three with regard to arms in this draft, and he wasn't far behind the top two on my list. He is the paramount power arm, sitting mid-high 90s and touching triple digits from a 6-foot-4 , 240, frame. Think Gerrit Cole of the Pirates who was the first overall pick in 2011 and just made his major-league debut earlier this week. Gray also has a quality slider and a developing change, so the components are there for the complete package.
Like Cole when he first turned pro, I see Gray as a bit of a thrower who is still learning the fine points of pitching, and while the overpowering arms are certainly worthy of considerable attention, I am usually cautious about rating them as high as pitchers who have already shown the capacity to pitch. Further, going to Colorado will slightly detract from his projected value. Two kinds of pitchers can generally succeed in Coors Field, arms that can blow hitters away, and pitchers who can keep batted balls on the ground. Gray certainly profiles as the former, and he could see Colorado fairly soon, though I would not expect it to happen this season.
Phil Bickford (Toronto Blue Jays)
After the top-three pitchers, the field quickly became diluted. There were quite a few very good prospects, but they weren't really blue-chip caliber like Appel, Stewart or Gray. I had a group of three that I had in my next tier including Bickford, Marco Gonzales who went to St. Louis and Ian Clarken who went to the Yankees (as part of an excellent draft for the pinstripers, by the way). I gave the nod to Bickford based on raw potential, but it was close and the other two warrant attention as well.
The Blue Jays depleted their incredibly deep pool of young pitchers in trades this off-season so it wasn't surprising to see them focus on stocking up, and they have always had a fondness for high upside high school arms. Toronto took Bickford with the 10th pick overall, and I am sure they love his already eye-catching fastball. It explodes out of his hand, and he can command it very well, so they see the potential. He still needs to do a lot of work to develop quality secondary stuff, but the Jays are typically confident that they can take the raw ability and mold it into a quality major league pitcher. He is unlikely to see Toronto any time soon, but file the name away.
Gonzales and Clarken are both lefties - a commodity that wasn't as plentiful among the 2013 top pitching prospects. Gonzales went at No. 19 and while he is a college pitcher with a lot of composure on the mound, he is not considered a high-ceiling type. He has an average fastball, but I love a pitcher who shows the ability to command the strike zone, and has a clear feel for the changeup - his two best attributes. He could make it to St. Louis fairly quickly. I really felt Clarken had the most upside of any lefty in the draft and was surprised he dropped so low (33rd overall). He's another high schooler who has some work to do, but I like his fastball and love his curve.
Some Notable Rotation Happenings
Gerrit Cole (PIT) - His debut against the Giants was successful, and there is a very good chance he is up to stay. He certainly has the pedigree, and a cannon arm, so the Pirates expect great things. He still needs to be a bit more consistent with his secondary stuff, so there could be a few bumps, but he has a bright future.
Jon Lester (BOS) - After getting off to a promising start, Lester has had trouble finding the plate in his most recent outings. He walked a career-high seven in his last start, and that is not at all like the Lester we knew and loved. His performance likely suggests a mechanical problem, and he can hopefully rebound soon.
Esmil Rogers (TOR) - He has looked pretty solid as a fill-in for the Jays injury depleted rotation, but he wasn't really stretched out enough to go deep into games. If he continues to perform well, there is a good chance he could hold onto a spot even as the rotation gets healthy. Check on his numbers as his pitch counts and innings rise.
Ross Ohlendorf (WAS) - Ohlendorf was signed over winter to act as organizational depth after a brutal 2012 with San Diego. His 2013 numbers in Triple-A were ordinary, but he got the call when the Nats ran out of viable options, and he looked good against Colorado. Is that motion deceptive? It distracts me, so I say it's worth watching just to reminisce about 1920's windups.
Dillon Gee (NYM) - Gee has had some lingering flexor tendinitis all season, which at least partially explains his ineffectiveness. However, he's been better lately, and I think if he is healthy, there is a good chance he could stick in the Mets rotation even after Zack Wheeler gets the call. Long term, he's a much better option than Jeremy Hefner.
David Price (TB) - I was recently asked who I would target to acquire as a starting pitcher who is significantly underperforming this year. I thought about it and replied, actually I already own many of them (Price, Strasburg, Morrow, Kennedy). I really do believe Price and the others listed here will be back with a vengeance.
The Dodgers finally pulled the inevitable trigger and named Kenley Jansen their closer. He'll take over for Brandon League, who has always been better in a set-up role, and odds are Jansen will run with it, this year and into the future ... I made a point to watch Minnesota's Glen Perkins in a couple of recent outings, and I came away impressed. He has come into his own, and looks the part of a genuine closer ... In Miami, the plan was supposedly to let the situation dictate who would close any given game, but at least recently, Steve Cishek has again been getting the calls. He's not a very safe option, but he appears to have the reins in his hands ... Joe Nathan has been lights-out as the closer for Texas, and the Rangers hold a club option for next year, so I am intrigued to see what the plan will be for Joakim Soria who could be back in the next 3-4 weeks. Perhaps a set up role initially, but if he looks sharp there will be huge demand for one of them.