By Jay Blue
Blue Jays from Away
Pitchers are risky. In fact, they're more likely to go from top prospect to bust than any other type of player and high school age pitchers are more so. Just look at some of the high school pitchers that the Blue Jays have drafted over the past several years to see how many of these guys have either fallen off the radar or had their rise to the big leagues waylaid.
The Jays' most recently-drafted high school pitcher, Sean Reid-Foley has been rising fairly steadily and is now in triple-A despite a set back last year that had him repeating double-A to start 2018. Nick Wells, selected right behind Reid-Foley in 2014, was traded to Seattle and has stalled in A-ball with the Mariners. Patrick Murphy, selected in 2013, missed a few years due to injury but is finally back on track, peaking (so far) in double-A for one start this year. Conner Greene, selected in the eighth round in 2013, is struggling in double-A (for the third season) in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Matt Smoral (2012) has flamed out, as did Tyler Gonzales (2012), and both were selected in the supplemental round between rounds one and two that year. From 2011, Jeremy Gabryzwski is out of baseball (from what I can tell) although Daniel Norris is still going strong. Tom Robson (Ladner, B.C.), picked in the fourth round, is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. The Blue Jays picked four high school pitchers in the first two rounds in 2010. Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard are the headliners but Justin Nicolino and Griffin Murphy are also on that list.
The Blue Jays' track record with college pitchers going in the first round is also a little hit and miss. With T.J. Zeuch looking fairly solid in double-A, Jon Harris has struggled with consistency, Jeff Hoffman has been up and down with the Rockies and, going back further, it took Deck McGuire a change in organization and seven years to just get a taste of the major leagues.
So if pitchers are risky (especially high schoolers), there must be better results by taking hitters. And the Chicago Cubs were prominent in setting that trend while they were bottoming before winning the World Series in 2016. From 2011 to 2015, the Cubs had high picks in the first round and selected Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ with their first picks in each of those years. All of whom have been seen as successful. Bryan already has 102 home runs in the majors and Baez has 61 while Schwarber has hit 57 and Happ 32 (in just 164 games).
The only pitcher whom the Cubs have selected in the first round who has made any impact whatsoever has been Andrew Cashner (2008) who has spent most of his career elsewhere and brought the Cubs Anthony Rizzo who has posted an .862 OPS over seven seasons with the Cubs, amassing 27.3 rWAR with Chicago.
While the Cubs have, for the most part, nailed their first-round picks in the 2011 to 2015 period, their second-round picks have been more risky with just DJ LeMahieu earning more than 1.0 rWAR and all of his value has come with the Colorado Rockies, winning the NL batting title in 2016 and playing in the All-Star Game twice. LeMahieu was traded to Colorado for minor leaguer Casey Weathers (who has never cracked the big leagues and is currently playing in the independent American Association) and Ian Stewart who last played in the big leagues in 2014 and hit just .201/.292/.335 in his one year with the Cubs (so, that trade didn't exactly work out for the Cubs).
While the Blue Jays have had fairly mixed drafts in the top few rounds (selecting a fairly even mix of pitchers and hitters), in 2017, they went all in on hitters, prioritizing college bats for the first six rounds. In fact, the only player who wasn't a pitcher was fireballer Nate Pearson (who has had a rough season but still shows tremendous potential). The Jays went almost exclusively with college hitters. They took Logan Warmoth 22nd overall and took high school catcher Hagen Danner in the second round before going with another catcher, collegian Riley Adams in the third, shortstop Kevin Smith out of the University of Maryland in the fourth, infielder Cullen Large in the fifth and outfielder Brock Lundquist in the sixth. The Jays also got Kacy Clemens in the eighth.
While Adams and Warmoth have gotten off to rocky starts in their first full pro year, Smith and Clemens both had phenomenal starts with Lansing, moving up to Dunedin while Lundquist has been showing a lot of pop after returning from off-season hand surgery. Large is swinging the bat well after he missed some time with an injury. Danner won't get underway again until the short seasons start later this month.
Where are the pitchers? 10th rounder Justin Dillon has taken a huge leap, pitching as high as Buffalo and he's currently in New Hampshire in just his first full season. Colton Laws (7th round) is struggling in Lansing but Zach Logue (9th round) has pitched his way out of Lansing. Donnie Sellers (11th round) is currently seeing some issues mainly with consistency with the Lugnuts.
With the riskiness of pitchers in general are the Blue Jays employing a strategy that isn't like how clubs like to select goalies in hockey? In that sport, goalies are rarely selected at the top of the draft due to high volatility. Are the Blue Jays getting good value from their later picks by selecting safer, college pitchers with some upside whom they can polish into pitchers who exceed the expectations of their draft slot?
Is the fact that the Jays are focusing on college hitters (with a couple of exceptions, including this year's selection of Jordan Groshans in the first round) an indication of what we'll see as the 2018 draft continues today and tomorrow? Are the Jays following the Cubs' example by focusing their higher picks on hitters?
It's not an exact comparison because the Cubs picked in the top ten selections all five years between 2011 and 2015 and having top four picks twice. The Jays' highest pick in recent memory was at number nine with Jeff Hoffman.
But the Cubs won a World Series with the type of top-of-the-draft talent that they got between 2011 and 2015 and that blueprint may not be bad to follow.
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