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June 17, 2005
Drafting College Closers
The practice of drafting college closers early in the draft and then advancing them quickly through their organization's minor-league system has taken hold in some circles, perhaps on the heels of the success of the Nationals' Chad Cordero and the rapid promotion of Huston Street to the A's closer's job. In last week's draft, college closers Craig Hansen (St. John's) and Joey Devine (North Carolina State) were both taken in the first round by contending teams with perceived bullpen issues.
Devine, the 27th overall pick by the Braves, has already agreed to a $1.3 million signing bonus and has been assigned to the Braves' high-A club in Myrtle Beach. Hansen, a Scott Boras client, might have dropped in the draft to the Red Sox because of perceived signability issues, falling to 26th overall. He hasn't signed yet. Many analysts have suggested that Hansen and Devine could be the first two products from this draft to reach the majors.
In light of these picks, I wanted to find out two things. One, is this really a growing trend, or just a concept that's received attention lately and thus is fresh in my mind? Two, how successful has that tactic been for the teams that have spent high picks on college closers? If this is a successful tactic for the major-league organizations, it might also be one for fantasy owners who can stash away minor leaguers on their reserve or ultra rosters. This is especially pertinent to those who have supplemental drafts this summer following the June entry draft.
I'm going to look at the first two rounds, and focus specifically on those pitchers who either closed in college or were drafted with the idea that the pitcher would close as a professional. This leaves out those starters converted to relief work in the minors or position players converted to pitching (such as Chad Orvella). The player pool will consist of players taken in the first two rounds, dating back to 1996, when Braden Looper went to the Cardinals with the third overall pick. I'll look to see if that player actually reached the major leagues, how long it took him to do so, and whether he closed once he got there.
Huston Street (#40; first-round compensation pick, Oakland A's): So far, so good for the A's and Street. The sidearmer blew through three minor-league levels in 2004 and has assumed the closer's mantle in less than a calendar year. This is the blueprint all of Joey Devine's future fantasy owners hope he follows.
Ryan Wagner (#14; first-round pick, Cincinnati Reds): Wagner made it to the major leagues more quickly than anybody on this list, making all of nine appearances in the minors before his recall in mid-July of 2003. Once he hit the major-league level, major-league hitters hit back. Wagner did well enough in 2003, but 2004 was a rough season; he had a very pedestrian 37/27 strikeout-to-walk ratio to go along with a 4.70 ERA in 51 2/3 innings, and spent part of the year at Triple-A Louisville following a June demotion. On the surface, his 2005 numbers might look worse (5.50 ERA), but nearly two runs of his ERA can be attributed to one very unlucky game at Coors Field on June 3. Nonetheless, Wagner has yet to record his first major-league save. The Reds still consider him their future closer, but that future has been pushed back a little.
Chad Cordero (#20; first-round pick, Montreal Expos): Many draftniks had slotted Cordero to fall to the third or fourth round, and his selection was widely considered a signability pick. Thus, it was a bit of a surprise to see him reach the majors in August 2003, and to see him pitch well in a limited sample. Cordero picked up his first save that September, but he didn't fully assume the closer role until June 2004. He split the duties last year, picking up 14 saves, but now has the full-time job and currently leads the majors in saves with 21.
David Aardsma (#22; first-round pick, San Francisco Giants): Aardsma also ascended rapidly to the major leagues, earning a spot on the Giants' Opening Day roster in 2004. Like Wagner, he's had his struggles at the major-league level and hasn't recorded his first save. The Giants eventually sent him down, then converted him to a starting role, then traded him to the Cubs two weeks ago in the LaTroy Hawkins deal. Aardsma has remained a starter for Double-A West Tenn in the Cubs' system, and it looks like he won't be closing in the near future.
Scott Beerer (#47; second-round pick, Colorado Rockies): Beerer, a closer with Texas A&M, has been slow to develop for the Rockies. He's currently in the low-A South Atlantic League, where he's putting up decent, but not great, numbers. Beerer turns 23 on July 4, so there might be a sense of urgency to promote him to high-A ball.
Royce Ring (#18; first-round pick, Chicago White Sox): Originally drafted by the White Sox, Ring went to the Mets in the Roberto Alomar trade (Version 1.0). Ring stalled out as a closer candidate at Triple-A Norfolk and was actually sent back down to Double-A midway through 2004. Ring's control was the major factor in holding him back. While that's correctable, right now he no longer projects to be a closer. He did, however, make his major-league debut in late April, but has been relegated to lefty specialist status.
Jesse Crain (#61; second-round pick, Minnesota Twins): It took Crain just two calendar years to make the majors, where he's now sharing the set-up duties with Juan Rincon. Joe Nathan is fairly established as the Twins' closer and isn't especially old, so it may be a while before Crain closes, but this still has to be considered a successful pick.
No college closers were taken in the first round in 2000 or 2001.
Jeremy Ward (#71; second-round pick, Arizona Diamondbacks): Ward advanced rapidly through the Diamondbacks' system after he was drafted, reaching Triple-A Tucson by the end of 1999. An elbow injury that led to him having Tommy John surgery in July 2000 stopped that progress, and although he attempted to make a quick comeback, he's never been able to fully recover. Ward is still pitching in the minors, this year for the Triple-A Richmond Braves, but he has never made it to the majors.
Robbie Morrison (#47; second-round pick, Kansas City Royals): Morrison made it up to Double-A by the end of the 1999 season, but then a shoulder problem slowed down his progress and eventually forced him to have surgery. Outside of 12 games in 2002, he never advanced past high-A ball again. He last played in the independent Northeast League last year.
Matt Anderson (#1; first-round pick, Detroit Tigers): A quick promotion doesn't always portend major-league success. Anderson made it to Detroit by June 1998, posting a 3.27 ERA in 44 innings in his first season there. Like Wagner, Anderson struggled the following year, eventually getting sent down to Triple-A Toledo, a level he had skipped on the way up. He came up for good beginning in 2000 and took over the closer's role in 2001, four years after he was drafted.
Anderson was once the hardest thrower in the major leagues, purportedly hitting up to 102 mph on the radar gun. Unfortunately for Anderson, his command of his fastball was fleeting and he lacked another pitch to contrast with that fastball. A shoulder injury in 2002 essentially ended his career as a closer. Now with the Rockies, Anderson has had to re-invent himself and no longer throws nearly as hard. It's unlikely that he'll close again, ending his career with 26 major-league saves. For a player who was taken with the first overall pick in the draft, that has to be considered a disappointment.
Chad Harville (#63; second-round pick, Oakland A's): Harville first made it to the A's in 1999, appearing in 15 games. Unfortunately, his quick ascension didn't translate into long-term success, and he never fulfilled his "closer of the future" promise, logging just one save in the majors so far. Now with the Astros, he's still on the fringes of the major-league roster and no threat to close in the immediate future.
Braden Looper (#3; first-round pick, St. Louis Cardinals): Looper first made it to the major leagues in 1998, when he had a four-game cup of coffee with the Cardinals. His real value to the team, however, was that he was part of the package that landed them Edgar Renteria in a December 1998 trade. He didn't take over the closer's role for the Marlins until midway through the 2002 season. While he's been reasonably successful as a closer since then, the amount of time it took for him to ascend to the role may have caused many of his original owners to lose patience with him. His selection probably worked out better for the Cardinals than his fantasy owners.
Billy Koch, taken with the fourth overall pick in the 1996 draft, started out his professional career as a starter after starting for Clemson in college, so he doesn't qualify for this analysis.
Twelve pitchers overall were drafted in the first two rounds from 1996-2004 with the idea of making them a closer right away. Of those 12, three are currently closers and one is a former closer, unlikely to close again. Two pitchers, Ryan Wagner and Jesse Crain, are in the majors in important roles with the chance still likely that they'll eventually close. That's six of 12 that can be considered remotely successful, although as we saw above, some of those successes were qualified successes at best. That rate isn't especially bad, especially when you compare that rate of success to high-school starting pitchers drafted in the same rounds over the same period of time. It's not a risk-free decision to use one of your early ultra picks on a closer drafted from the college ranks, but it could result in a quick profit for you.