Last week, I unveiled my top 50 prospects for the MLB Draft, and in my opening paragraph I alluded to this being one of the poorer draft classes (particularly at the top) since the turn of the century. That top became even thinner with the news that Brady Aiken had Tommy John surgery about two hours after the list went up, and now becomes even weaker with today’s news that Mike Matuella will also undergo Tommy John surgery.
What this means for Matuella: Let’s be clear—TJ might have a stronger recovery rate than some other invasive surgeries, but it’s still an invasive procedure with a nonzero failure rate, so this isn’t good news. As weird as it is to say about a college junior compared to a guy who was in high school at this point last year, Matuella doesn’t have a track record as strong or as long as Aiken does, as his “dominant” showings came just last spring. The Duke right-hander also suffers from spondylosis; a treatable—but degenerating—back disease, and as a taller pitcher those back issues are likely to cause just as much—if not more—concern as his elbow ligament.
Still, in a class that is lacking in front-line starters, Matuella is still likely to go in the first round, assuming his bonus demands aren’t outrageous. Last year, we saw Erick Fedde go 18th in a much stronger draft, and with all due respect to Fedde, he doesn’t have the two plus-plus pitches Matuella has shown at times over his Duke career. I’d expect a team like the Yankees or Braves, with big bonus pools, to be very interested in Matuella's services, and it’d be an upset if he’s still on the board before the start of the compensation selections.
What this means for the draft: Not great, Bob.
If this news “helps” anyone, it’s probably UC Santa Barbara’s Dillon Tate, as he’s the only pitcher with potential top-of-the-rotation stuff who is still healthy. Several of the teams I spoke with when compiling the list had Tate ahead of Matuella on their boards anyway, but this pretty much puts the nail in that respective coffin, for lack of a better term. It also could benefit Vanderbilt right-hander Walker Buehler, but his size and elbow issues are still troubling to many of the evaluators I spoke with.
What this injury really does is move up some of the mid first-round arms like Louisville’s Kyle Funkhouser, Virginia’s Nathan Kirby and Vanderbilt’s Carson Fulmer into that top-third consideration. All three of those arms have major red flags, be it command (Funkhouser), upside (Kirby) or violent delivery (Fulmer), but for teams who are looking to get ready-to-advance pitching into the system there will be no choice but to take a risk. This could also push a prep arm like Kolby Allard or Mike Nikorak up as well, but there are red flags there as well, and teams generally take the more advanced red flag in these types of situations.
Long story short, this was a less-than-ideal situation for teams with high draft picks before the Matuella injury, and while there’s still talent in this class, today’s news makes this the weakest top of the class I’ve ever covered.
What this could/should have meant for the draft, in a more just world: If there was ever a year where it would be fascinating to see what happens in a system with tradable draft picks, it would now be this year.
It’s not just the top picks that would be interesting to follow. Aiken and Matuella likely fall out of the top five, and there are a plethora of teams who normally wouldn’t have a chance to procure their talents who would likely pay a substantial price to get one of them in the system. Would a team like the Nationals, who are notorious for taking risks on arms, sacrifice their 2016 first-round selection plus some for a chance to move up from the second round of this year's draft? Would the Mariners take a chance and give up their second-round pick, a first-round selection in 2016, and a prospect to get into the top 15 and have a chance at one of these two arms?
Of course, trading of draft picks is currently not allowed by Major League Baseball. The reasons for this are complicated, but it essentially boils down to how it affects the current compensation system. But it’s not like all of this is impossible to implement even if you keep the current system. The trading of future picks would be very complicated—maybe impossible—because they would be subject to the compensation loss rules, but even if you could just trade 2015 selections, all it takes is a calculator to figure out what the allocated funds become with the traded picks. Instead of silly situations like the one we have now where Trea Turner has to pretend he’s a Padre for four months, we could have something much more interesting and make the draft actually watchable.
Someday, the trading of draft picks will be implemented and I’ll be a very happy man. It’s really unfortunate that it’s this year though, because it could have been a lot of fun.
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