On Day 1, pitching talent trumps injury fears
Recent swarm of elbow surgeries does little to influence teams' Draft strategies
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Heading into the first night of the First-Year Player Draft, there appeared to be two immovable forces: the undeniable strength of this class running head on into a disturbing injury trend across baseball.
There was no question that the top talent of the 2014 Draft class is all about pitching, both in terms of quantity and quality. At the same time, the rash of hurlers, big league and otherwise, being sidelined and needing Tommy John surgery has been alarming. While the game is still looking for answers to the frequent trips to Dr. James Andrews, would there be any kind of reaction when it came time for teams to select amateurs? Would teams shy away from the risk involved in drafting pitchers, even though the evaluation of the class pointed to that being where the talent was?
In the end, talent won out. Forty-one pitchers were taken in the Draft's first 74 picks, a sign that teams went right after the best crop. It started right at the top, with three arms coming off the board in the first three picks. Six of the top 10 were pitchers, and at one point in the middle of the first round (Nos. 14-19), six straight arms were taken.
"A couple of things came into play," said White Sox scouting director Doug Laumann, whose organization took N.C. State lefty Carlos Rodon at No. 3 overall and then got high school right-hander Spencer Adams in the second round. "No. 1, it was a pitching-heavy Draft. It still is a pitching-heavy Draft. No. 2, [due to] the lack of position players, when you're stacking your board, pitchers dominated our board particularly."
The White Sox weren't the only organization to go after pitching on Thursday night. The Cardinals had four picks, and they used all of them on arms, two high schoolers and two college guys. The Royals used three of their four Day 1 picks on pitching, including both first-round selections. Several teams selected two pitchers on the night.
So what happened to the fear of the risky investment? Why didn't teams run screaming in the other direction, nabbing the less injury-prone and thus "safer" hitters? It goes beyond what Laumann said about it being clear that the mound is where the best players are this year.
"I got a lot of questions all week from local media about the exact same thing," Laumann said about the Tommy John surgery epidemic. "Quite honestly, I gave the same answer that it's hard enough for us to pick the right player or pitcher based on ability and all the other factors. For me to pretend or try to predict whether someone is going to get injured, I've never been, or will be, smart enough to make that determination."
And it's not like those who have succumbed to a torn UCL have an M.O. or follow a pattern. They're not all undersized or violent throwers or guys who lack physicality. They don't all have bad arm action or throw too many breaking balls. Without that kind of trend, how could an organization figure out which players to avoid?
"There are certain things you might want to shy away from [in terms of mechanics], things you try to predict that could be causes of potential future injuries," Laumann said. "I'm not in the business of trying to play doctor or God and predict who will break or not. You take the best arm and hope for the best. Had we tried to overanalyze Chris Sale in 2010, we may not have taken him."
Indeed, several teams passed on Sale because of his lack of physicality and lower arm slot, with the prevailing thought that year, at least at the top of the Draft, that he was a prime candidate to break down. The ace left-hander fell to the White Sox at No. 13, and all he did was reach the big leagues the summer he was drafted en route to making back-to-back All-Star teams. Sale also proved his durability last season, surpassing 200 innings. Teams sometimes overanalyze, missing out on a talent because of the desire to avoid a perceived injury risk.
"I remember a Draft I ran back in the early 2000s; we wanted to take a particular pitcher," Laumann recalled. "There were several opinions in our room that thought he would break down in A ball. The guy we took, it was thought, would be fine. The one we took was the one who broke down. The one we didn't take just retired after a 10-year career. I don't think there's a rhyme or reason."
It seems that teams on Thursday took the reverse tack on this issue. If pitchers are more fragile than ever, perhaps it's best to load up on as many as possible. The adage that "you can never have enough pitching" is really being put to the test with all of the injuries, so teams might have felt it was time replenish the coffers, especially given this class's strength.
"Sometimes there's safety in numbers," Laumann said. "I remember talking to Paul Snyder -- he was one of my mentors -- 15-20 years ago. He said that in order to get one pitching prospect to the big leagues, you need 10 of them. Some are going to break, some aren't going to be as good as you think. In my mind, I just take the guys who are the best guys on the board."
For some teams, that best guy on the board was a pitcher who had already broken down. The Blue Jays took East Carolina's Jeff Hoffman at No. 9, while the Nationals nabbed UNLV's Erick Fedde at No. 18. Both college right-handers underwent Tommy John surgery this spring.
"For teams to take a guy who had Tommy John, it speaks to the fact that the industry -- I don't think it's too worried about it," said Laumann, adding that the successful return rate of pitchers after surgery may have emboldened teams to take those pitchers. "Those two talents you thought would be top five to eight picks, and you're sitting in the teens? You think, 'We can wait [for them to get back].'
"I think more than anything, it speaks to the fact if teams are taking players who are already broken, maybe the Draft class isn't as good as people thought."