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May 3, 2007
In Sunday's draft notebook, I characterized Missouri State southpaw Ross Detwiler as a "safe and solid pick." For saying so, I got taken to task by a reader, who asked just how safe any pitcher can really be. The answer in the end is, not very safe at all. Right now, it's almost certain that a college pitcher, Vanderbilt's David Price, will be selected by the Devil Rays with the first overall pick in June. In addition, the first ten picks in the draft could feature as many as four college pitchers, with anywhere from six to eight more being selected in the 20 picks that comprise the rest of the first round. Taking a look at the first five college arms selected in each draft of the new millennium, one finds some disturbing patterns.
Under The Knife (3-for-5): Hale missed all of 2003 and 2004 following rotator cuff surgery, and a second procedure to clean up scar tissue. Traber's original bonus was reduced by more than 75% when doctors found structural damage in his elbow--he pitched three years before a Tommy John procedure in 2003, the same year Diggins had his own TJ.
Summary: Johnson looked like an astute pick when he was assigned to the High-A Florida State League for his pro debut, and put up a 2.47 ERA in 13 games with 92 strikeouts in 69.1 innings. He'd reach the majors the following year, but really never pitch well again. He had some makeup issues, as well as some rough mechanics than created inconsistency with his command and secondary pitches. He was in the indy leagues in 2005, given a second chance by the Athletics, but is out of baseball this year.
Like Johnson, Wayne is out of organized baseball after pitching in just 26 big league games. He was a mistake pick and overpaid in the first place, drafted for his plus-plus command as opposed to plus-plus stuff. All but written off after missing two years, Hale's 2005 return was met with little fanfare, but he actually pitched pretty well last year and is continuing to do so at Double-A this season. He's not really a prospect anymore at 28, and has no ceiling, but he just might get there, and that's impressive as is.
Traber lasted one year with the Mets before moving to Cleveland in the Roberto Alomar trade. Like Wayne, he was more of a finesse pitcher, but as a lefty, it gave him more projection. He spent all of 2003 with the Indians' big league squad, but didn't see the majors again after surgery until last year with the Nationals. Pitching very well for Washington's Triple-A squad this year, he'll likely be back. Diggins pitched very well in the minors, reaching the big leagues in his full-season debut following a 1.91 ERA in seven Double-A starts. He was never the same following surgery. A two-way star in college, he tried to continue his career as a hitter, but is now out of baseball.
2. Cubs: Mark Prior, RHP, Southern California (Bonus: $4 million)
Under The Knife (3-for-5): After a long period of troubles, Prior had shoulder surgery in April. While I'm not counting it here, Brazelton had Tommy John surgery while still in high school. Smith had rotator cuff surgery in 2002 that all but ended his career. Van Benschoten has had not one, but two arthroscopic shoulder surgeries, and a third on his non-pitching arm for good measure.
Summary: Prior needed just nine minor league starts--striking out 79 in 51 innings--before reaching the big leagues, and the following year he was one of the best pitchers in the game. The rest of the story is well-documented. Brazelton is a simple bust, and never made any advancement from being a big guy who threw hard and changed speeds well. Karp was highly comparable to current Nationals prospect Garrett Mock, in that scouts never understood why a player with his size and stuff couldn't get minor league hitters out more consistently. Smith was a surprise at seven, though in Baltimore's defense he arguably had more arm strength than any lefty available; it's possible that he came in as damaged goods. Van Benschoten was also a surprise pick in the sense that he led Division I in home runs in his final year at Kent State, and many teams preferred him as a hitter. The choice to develop him on the mound looked like a good one before the shoulder problems, though he is pitching well at Triple-A this year and could still pay some dividends.
1. Pirates: Bryan Bullington, RHP, Ball State (Bonus: $4 million)
Under The Knife (1-for-5): Bullington had shoulder surgery in 2005, and missed all of last year. Saunders missed all of 2003 because of a torn rotator cuff, but he opted out of surgery and instead went through a rehabilitation program.
Summary: Teams were surprised when the Pirates opted for Bullington over high school sensation B.J. Upton with the number one overall pick. Like Van Benschoten, he's looking good in his return from surgery, with a 1.17 ERA in five Triple-A starts. At the same time, he has just 14 strikeouts in 30.2 innings, and doesn't project as more than a back-end starter in a big league rotation at this point. Francis was among the top prospects in the game by 2004, and is entering his third year as one of the better pitchers in the Colorado rotation. Saunders would likely be in a rotation with another organization, with his avoidance of surgery an interesting angle to his story. Ring was a bit of a reach at the 18th pick--he was the best reliever in college on a performance level, but he didn't have great stuff. He's bounced between Triple-A and the majors over the last three years, recently getting promoted to the big leagues by San Diego. Brownlie is an interesting case, and he's maybe an injury case and maybe not. He entered the 2002 season as the best college pitcher in the draft, but a bout of what was classified as biceps tendonitis sapped him of velocity and dropped him in the draft. While he was never diagnosed with any further problems, his velocity never returned and he was released this spring after four mediocre seasons.
3. Tigers: Kyle Sleeth, RHP, Wake Forest (Bonus: $3.35 million)
Under The Knife (1-for-5): Sleeth had Tommy John surgery in 2005. While it doesn't count against him, Maholm required facial reconstruction surgery in 2004 after getting hit with a line drive.
Summary: Sleeth serves as a warning to tinkering with pitchers too much. His delivery was always violent and he threw across his body, but his elbow didn't snap until Detroit tried to alter his mechanics. He missed nearly all of 2005 and 2006, and has been awful coming out of the bullpen this year at Double-A Erie, posting an ERA of 11.88 while allowing 23 base runners in 8.1 innings. Stauffer agreed to a much smaller bonus when a pre-contract physical found weakness in his shoulder. While he's avoided the disabled list since signing, he's also never come anywhere close to showing the stuff he had in college. Maholm's career was in question at one time following the 2004 incident, but he made a full recovery from it and now is what he was always projected to be, a solid innings-eater. After setting NCAA records for strikeout rate as the University of Houston's closer, Wagner's tale is somewhat similar to Sleeth's--concerned that his low three-quarters delivery caused too much stress on his arm, the Reds tried to lift his arm angle, and he's never pitched that well since. He dropped back down this spring, but he's hardly dominating. It's ironic that Wagner was way ahead of Cordero on the scouting reports going into the draft, and now he's pitching junk innings for the Nationals while Cordero closes for them.
2. Tigers: Justin Verlander, RHP, Old Dominion (Bonus: $3.12 million)
* Wade Townsend was selected eighth (Orioles), but did not sign
Under The Knife (3-for-5): Humber had Tommy John surgery in 2005, while Rice teammate Niemann battled shoulder problems for 18 months after signing before undergoing a "minor" procedure to clear out his rotator cuff. After a loss in velocity and command last year, Diamond had a TJ this spring.
Summary: While it certainly looks like it now, Verlander was anything but a slam dunk as the number two overall pick. He barely had a winning record in his final year at ODU, and his walk rate was a source of concern. At the same time, his stuff was above and beyond any other arm, so chalk one up for the scouts. Humber made a remarkably quick and effective return from ligament replacement surgery, and could be getting another big league look soon as the Mets struggle to find a fifth starter. Niemann took nearly two years after signing to finally get to 100%, but he's now on track join the Devil Rays rotation at some point in the second half of the season. Sowers has developed as expected, quickly turning into a major league ultra-finesse southpaw. Diamond put up some healthy numbers in the minors, though many scouts always saw his future in the bullpen. One is now left to wonder if the lesser workload would have gotten him to the big leagues before his elbow went pop.
6. Blue Jays: Ricky Romero, LHP, Cal State Fullerton (Bonus: $2.4 million)
Under The Knife (2-for-5): After sitting out a year, Townsend looked way off in his pro debut, and missed all of 2006 recovering from Tommy John surgery. With Carrillo, while it's not 100% as of press time (he's getting a second opinion), he left his last start with elbow pain and an MRI found a torn ligament--Tommy John surgery is likely enough to count him here.
Summary: Toronto shocked observers when they took Romero at six. Not that he wasn't the best lefty in the draft, just that his talent didn't warrant that high of a pick. He's pitched well in the minors, but rarely dominated, currently sporting a 5.17 ERA at Double-A. Between the year off for not signing and the year off for surgery, Townsend is 24 year old and just now making his full-season debut, but at least he's pitching well. Pelfrey has been healthy and moved quickly, though his lack of an effective breaking pitch has caused problems in the big leagues. Broadway was a low-ceiling/move-quickly pick who was pitching well at Triple-A, but left his last start with back soreness. Carrillo initially looked like a better prospect than any of them besides Pelfrey before his elbow problems began early last year.
1. Royals: Luke Hochevar, RHP, Tennessee (Bonus: $3.5 milllion)
Under The Knife (1-for-5): Lincoln's highly disappointing pro debut made more sense after Tommy John surgery this spring.
Summary: It's obviously for too early to come to any conclusions here, although other than Lincoln, these five are moving pretty quickly. Hochevar and Reynolds are making their full-season debuts in Double-A, while Morrow made the big league squad after a dominating spring performance. Miller was considered the best player in the draft but fell due to budget concerns, and now he's struggling in the Florida State League. The sixth college pitcher taken last June? Tim Lincecum.
Not So Safe After All
While a good number of these players are in the nascent stages of their career, 14 of the 35 players detailed here have already had shoulder or elbow surgery, including eight Tommy John procedures. Of the ten players selected among the top five from 2000-2001, none of them are currently on a big league roster, and half of them are out of baseball. While I'm hardly going to make any sort of argument for TINSTAAPP, I'll definitely think twice before classifying a college pitcher as 'safe' again.