The amateur draft is less than a month away and teams are starting to hunker down, getting in those final scouting trips and narrowing down their list of potential picks and players with the good faces.
Chris Paddack was once of those draft prospects. In his senior year at Cedar Park (Texas) High School in 2015, he went 11-0 with a 0.46 ERA and 134 punchouts in 75 innings. He fell to the eighth round for several reasons, however: (1) He had a commitment to Texas A&M; (2) he already was age 19½ on draft day; (3) his fastball sat at 89 to 92 mph; and (4) while he already had that plus-plus changeup we’ve seen as a rookie, he had no third pitch.
The Marlins drafted him, steering him away from A&M with a $400,000 bonus. Paddack quickly emerged as a strike-throwing machine in the minors, but barely a year after the draft, the Marlins traded him to the Padres for Fernando Rodney, a deal that it appears the Marlins will long regret.
Paddack will start Tuesday for the Padres. In his first seven starts, he is 3-1 with a 1.55 ERA and .130 batting average allowed. It’s obviously early in his major league career, but he clearly looks like an elite starter. With Paddack and the upcoming draft in mind, I thought it would be interesting to examine this question: Where do the best starting pitchers in the game come from? How much of an outlier is a guy like Paddack, an eighth-round pick who was traded as a minor leaguer?
Using various criteria, I created a list of the top 75 starters in the game right now. Career value was not a factor, so pitchers such as CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and Adam Wainwright did not crack the top 75. Shohei Ohtani has top-75 potential, but he is out for the season with Tommy John surgery so did not make the list. Workload was a consideration, so reliable innings eaters such as Mike Fiers and Mike Leake did make the list.
The basic answer to our question: 60 of the pitchers came via the draft and 15 via international signings (either as Latin American amateurs or from Asia). Let’s dig deeper.
Breaking down the draft: 60 players
College: 34 pitchers
Two-year college: 2
High school: 24
First round: 35
First round, top-30 picks: 26
Teams and their scouts do an excellent job of sorting through the thousands of amateur players each draft. Even though the baseball draft remains less predictable than the drafts of the other professional leagues, 58 percent of the pitchers were first-round picks. If you narrow the definition of a first-round pick to the top 30 selections, it’s still 43 percent. Of those 26 picks within the top 30, 17 were top-10 overall picks, so more than a quarter of our elite starters were top-10 selections in the draft.
But that also means talent can still be found in the lower rounds:
Second round: 3 pitchers
Third round: 2
Fourth round: 5
Fifth round: 3
Rounds 6-10: 7
11th round or later: 5
A closer look at the draft stories of those five late, late picks:
Brandon Woodruff (11th round by Brewers in 2014 out of Mississippi State): Woodruff actually was the last pitcher to qualify for the list, so he is a borderline top-75 starter at this point, but I like what I’ve seen from him in 2019. He battled injuries in college and had a 6.75 ERA in 37 innings during his draft year, which explains why he fell.
Robbie Ray (12th round by Nationals in 2010 out of a Tennessee high school): His velocity dipped as a senior (he still threw three no-hitters), and he had a commitment to Arkansas. The Nationals gave him a $799,000 bonus and traded him as a minor leaguer to the Tigers in the Doug Fister deal, then the Tigers traded him to the Diamondbacks.
Caleb Smith (14th round by Yankees in 2013 out of Sam Houston State): A small-college lefty with control problems (68 K’s, 60 walks in 89 innings), Smith developed as a pro, although he never was considered much of a prospect. The Brewers actually took him in the 2016 Rule 5 draft and sold him to the Cubs, and the Cubs returned him to the Yankees. The Marlins got him from New York for Mike King, and Smith is having a breakout season.
Mike Fiers (22nd round by Brewers in 2009 out of Nova Southeastern): A small-college righty without much of a fastball and a strange, over-the-top delivery, Fiers has defied the odds in large part because of the deception in that unique motion.
Tanner Roark (25th round by Rangers in 2008): Roark had been a Friday night starter for Illinois as a junior in 2007 and had a low-90s fastball, but he went undrafted. Ruled academically ineligible before his senior season, he ended up pitching nine innings for the Southern Illinois Miners of the Frontier League to get ready for the 2008 draft — and gave up 25 runs, good for a 21.41 ERA. The Rangers took a flier on him anyway (and later traded him to the Nationals for Cristian Guzman).
Breaking down the 35 first-round picks
High school: 17
Given the even split between the two categories, you would expect a fairly even split in the draft between college and high school pitchers — and that’s what we’ve seen over the five previous drafts. Of the 95 first-round pitchers, 49 have been college pitchers, 43 from high school and three from junior college.
For what it’s worth, remember that 17 of the first-round picks were top-10 selections. Of those 17, 11 were college pitchers. The 17:
Note that Taillon is the only high school pitcher drafted in the top five to make our list. Teams are generally averse to drafting high school pitchers that high: In the past 15 drafts (2004 to 2018), there have been just 11 high school pitchers taken in the top five picks. It’s difficult to make a blanket statement about not drafting high school pitchers — hey, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner were high school picks — and some recent picks such as Brady Aiken, Tyler Kolek and Riley Pint have struggled or battled injuries. Maybe prospects such as MacKenzie Gore and Ian Anderson can break the trend.
International: 15 players
Country of origin
Dominican Republic: 3
South Korea: 1
I was surprised that only three Dominican pitchers made it — Luis Severino, Domingo German and Luis Castillo. One of those is currently injured, and the two others made it on the strength of their strong starts in 2019. Maybe it’s just a current lull. Johnny Cueto is injured; Carlos Martinez is injured and likely to return as a reliever; and Ervin Santana was an All-Star in 2017, but he has since pitched himself out of the majors. All three would have made this list in the recent past.
Trades … lots of trades
So, this is interesting: How many of our 75 pitchers are still with their original organization? Just 22 of them, as it turns out; 53 are not.
Maybe that’s not a surprise. Players leave as free agents. Veterans such as Justin Verlander and Cole Hamels get traded away from rebuilding teams. But get this: 29 of the 75 were traded as minor leaguers or after just a few innings in the majors. Two of them were traded twice as minor leaguers: Chris Archer and Luis Castillo (actually, Castillo technically was traded three times). Gio Gonzalez was traded three times, and two others were traded twice before they had reached 30 innings in the majors (Jake Odorizzi, Robbie Ray). One was released as a minor leaguer (Jose Quintana). That doesn’t include Rich Hill, who has been released three times as a major leaguer and granted his free agency by a few other teams.
There are many roads to the majors. Some of those trades were typical prospect trades, dealing a highly regarded prospect for a proven star, such as the Blue Jays trading Noah Syndergaard to the Mets for R.A. Dickey, then the reigning Cy Young winner. Or Carlos Carrasco going from the Phillies to the Indians for Cliff Lee. Or Zack Wheeler going from the Giants to the Mets for Carlos Beltran.
Here, let’s look at the 29 players traded as minor leaguers (seven had big league innings but were still rookies when traded). We’ll divide them into players ranked as a top 100 prospect at the time of the trade (or in the offseason following the trade) by Baseball America or MLB.com and those not ranked when traded (the highest ranking is listed):
Fried, Gonzales and Ray had previously been ranked in the top 100, but not when traded. The Reds selected Keller from the Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 draft and traded him to the Royals.
But some were classic “What were they thinking deals?” in retrospect, including the Padres trading Corey Kluber to the Indians in a three-way trade that netted them outfielder Ryan Ludwick (who hit .228/.301/.358 in two seasons with the Padres). The Indians also stole Mike Clevinger from the Angels for Vinnie Pestano. But the Indians also traded Archer to the Cubs for Mark DeRosa. The Cubs would trade Archer to the Rangers for Matt Garza — but later trade Ryan Dempster to the Rangers for an obscure eighth-round pick named Kyle Hendricks. The Rockies acquired German Marquez from the Rays for Corey Dickerson.
And then we have the Marlins
We all know about the Marlins trading away Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna, but imagine this rotation: Chris Paddack, Luis Castillo, Domingo German and Trevor Williams, along with Smith. The current ERAs of that foursome: 1.55, 1.76, 2.70 and 3.40. And they were all Marlins, given away in a series of horrendous trades.
German: Signed by the Marlins out of the Dominican Republic in 2009, they traded him — along with Nathan Eovaldi — to the Yankees in December 2014 for Martin Prado and David Phelps (and cash).
Williams: A second-round pick out of Arizona State in 2013, the official transaction has Williams going to the Pirates for Richard Mitchell. In reality, Williams was compensation for the Marlins signing away pitching coordinator Jim Benedict from the Pirates. Benedict lasted two seasons with the Marlins.
Paddack: The Marlins decided in June 2016 that they just absolutely had to have Fernando Rodney.
Castillo: Originally signed by the Giants, the Marlins acquired Castillo in 2014 for Casey McGehee. That’s good. The rest is bad. A month after the Paddack trade, Michael Hill decided he just absolutely had to have Andrew Cashner and went back to the Padres and sent four players, including Castillo, to San Diego for Cashner, Tayron Guerrero and Colin Rea. When Rea immediately came up with a bum arm, he was sent back to the Padres and Castillo returned to the Marlins. In January 2017, however, seeking starting pitching help in the wake of Jose Fernandez’s death, the Marlins traded Castillo to the Reds for Dan Straily.
All these deals came under Hill, who has been the president of baseball operations since September 2013 and survived the regime change to Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter. The most important aspect of running a franchise is to assess your own talent. The Marlins have failed miserably in this area.
Team of origin
Back to the original organization idea. There isn’t one franchise that has proved particularly adept at finding pitchers. No team has more than four original players on the list, and 27 organizations have at least two. The Cubs (Rich Hill) and Reds (Mike Leake) have just one apiece, while the Athletics were the only franchise with zero. Here are the four organization with four originals on the list:
Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Walker Buehler, Kenta Maeda. All four are still with the Dodgers. Ryu and Maeda are part of the Dodgers’ excellent legacy in signing pitchers from Asia — obviously, resources and location help there — that began with Chan Ho Park and includes Hideo Nomo and Hiroki Kuroda. Kershaw and Buehler were first-round picks, with Buehler sliding to the 24th pick overall in 2015 due to concerns about a sore elbow (indeed, he had Tommy John surgery soon after signing).
Phillies: Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Nola. Hamels was a first-round high school pick in 2002, while Happ was a third-rounder out of Northwestern in 2004. Happ went to the Astros as part of the Roy Oswalt trade in 2010, while Hamels went to Texas in 2015. Carrasco was signed way back in 2003 out of Venezuela and traded to the Indians in 2009 in the Cliff Lee deal.
Padres: Corey Kluber, Miles Mikolas, Zach Eflin, Max Fried. None of the four is still with the Padres. Their histories:
Kluber: Fourth-round pick in 2007 out of Stetson, part of that three-way trade in 2010.
Mikolas: Seventh-round pick in 2009 out of Nova Southeastern, reached the majors with San Diego in 2012, traded to the Pirates (Alex Dickerson went to the Padres), eventually went to Japan for three seasons before signing last year with the Cardinals.
Eflin: First-round pick out of a Florida high school in 2012, traded with Yasmani Grandal for Matt Kemp in December 2014, then traded by the Dodgers to the Phillies for Jimmy Rollins.
Fried: The seventh overall pick in 2012, traded a few days after Eflin to the Braves in the Justin Upton package, part of A.J. Preller’s failed “win now” strategy.
Blue Jays: Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, Matthew Boyd, Joe Musgrove. Stroman is still in Toronto after being the 22nd overall pick in 2012 out of Duke. Syndergaard was a first-round pick (38th overall) in 2010 and traded in the 2012-13 offseason for R.A. Dickey; he had emerged as a top prospect after a strong season at Low-A in 2012. Boyd, a sixth-round pick out of Oregon State, was part of the David Price trade, along with Daniel Norris. Musgrove, a first-round pick in 2011 (46th overall) out of a California high school, was part of a 10-player trade with the Astros in 2012 (J.A. Happ was the main guy going to Toronto). At least Dickey and Price helped the Blue Jays to the playoffs in 2015, and Dickey helped in 2016 (as did Happ, although that was after the Blue Jays had reacquired him).
Least likely top-75 pitcher
Probably Jose Quintana. The Mets signed him out of Colombia in 2006 as an amateur. He pitched a few innings in the Venezuelan rookie league but got hurt, and the Mets released him. The Yankees signed him in 2008 but let him become a minor league free agent. The White Sox signed him — and since 2012, he ranks 12th in the majors in pitching WAR, and dealt to the Cubs in 2017.
There are other surprising success stories. Jacob deGrom, for example, was an eighth-round pick out of Stetson, where he had a 4.48 ERA as a junior after moving from shortstop.
Still, Quintana is the only guy who actually was given up on. Twice.
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