Ranking the 2014 MLB Draft's 10 Biggest Injury, Signability Risks
The 2014 Major League Baseball draft is finally upon us. It's the one time of the year when fans of all 30 teams gather together to celebrate the hope and optimism that comes with adding new and exciting talent to the sport.
However, as fun as it is to speculate about what your favorite team will do, it's not all sunshine and rainbows for players and teams. Sometimes, reality sets in, whether it is due to an injury or a player wanting a lot of money, making it difficult for two sides to reach an agreement.
That's the situation a few of this year's top players find themselves in just days away from what is supposed to be the biggest day of their lives.
There is no protocol for declaring for the MLB draft; players are eligible to be drafted when they graduate high school, have three years of college or play one year at a junior college. High school and JUCO players have leverage because they're still young enough to get better and can improve their stocks substantially to earn more money as higher picks.
Here, we'll take a look at the 10 players in the 2014 draft class who have injury concerns and/or will be looking for more money than their current talent warrants. They are ranked on a scale of 1-10, with one being someone to avoid at all costs and 10 being a no-doubt signee.
Players are listed in descending order through a combination of overall future potential and injury/signability risks (and the player's likelihood to return to form from any injury).
Jeff Hoffman, RHP, East Carolina
One of the top two college pitchers coming into the season, along with NC State left-hander Carlos Rodon, East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman had his junior season cut short when he needed Tommy John surgery in early May.
Hoffman's injury was the first major blow to the college ranks after all the problems MLB teams were having keeping their own players healthy.
Is Hoffman Worth the Risk?
Even though Hoffman won't pitch for a team until next May, at the earliest, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which he doesn't come back at least close to the level he was before. He was a projected top-three pick with a sturdy 6'4" frame, a plus fastball-curveball combination, a workable changeup and above-average command.
Tommy John surgery isn't the death blow it used to be, so Hoffman's chances of returning to 100 percent are better now than they ever have been. Pitchers with his arm and his stuff don't come along all the time, so as long as a team has patience, he will be a good starting pitcher for a long time.
Risk Rating: 10
Monte Harrison, OF, Lee's Summit West HS (Missouri)
With so much talk about injuries hampering the top of this year's draft class, it's refreshing to just talk about a great athlete who has a big decision to make.
Missouri prep standout Monte Harrison is going to be a first-round pick on Thursday, possibly going in the top half of the round to a team such as Kansas City (which knows him very well). He also received a scholarship to play wide receiver at the University of Nebraska.
In a case like this, Harrison has the ability to leverage his free ride to a major university in order to maximize his earning potential with his first MLB contract.
Is Harrison Worth the Risk?
Teams that love ceiling and athletes will find it hard to resist the temptation to draft Harrison. He's an elite runner right now with the defensive chops to stick in center field as a professional, giving him tremendous value moving forward.
There are concerns about Harrison's ability to hit. He relies heavily on his upper half instead of using a strong lower half and hips to generate bat speed and power, though there is above-average raw pop in the swing and more on the way as his frame fills out.
The bat speed is far from bad with his current mechanics, but Harrison would benefit from pro coaching right away to fix the flaws and tap into his enormous upside.
Risk Rating: 9
Justus Sheffield, LHP, Tullahoma HS (Tennessee)
A select few colleges don't lose commitments to Major League Baseball. Vanderbilt is one of them, as it is a good school and its baseball program is one of the best in the country—not just on the field, but also when it comes to developing players for the draft.
Justus Sheffield is committed to the Commodores and has extra incentive to attend, as his brother Jordan is a freshman with the team. Jordan was drafted by the Red Sox in the 13th round last year but would have gone much higher if not for Tommy John surgery.
According to Zach Birdsong of The Tullahoma News, Sheffield does appear to be leaning toward signing if he's taken in the first round.
That's not a lock to happen. Some teams may not be willing to spend a high pick on a shorter pitcher (6'1", 180 pounds), but Sheffield is a left-hander who throws three above-average pitches with good control.
Is Sheffield Worth the Risk?
It depends on what you're looking for. There's very little doubt that Sheffield will end up carving out an MLB career, but with his lack of size and no plus pitch in his arsenal, his ceiling is limited to more of a mid-rotation starter instead of a potential No. 1 or No. 2 guy.
A team that wants to hit on a high draft pick can plug Sheffield into its system and get a quality big leaguer. If he's set on getting paid like a first-round pick, though, that could be problematic when it comes to signing him.
Risk Rating: 8
Erick Fedde, RHP, UNLV
Like Hoffman just days before him, Erick Fedde's season came to a screeching halt when he opted to have Tommy John surgery to fix an elbow issue. That wasn't a very good week for the draft, to say the least.
Is Fedde Worth the Risk?
Unlike Hoffman, who is likely to be a first-round pick, Fedde will have to wait longer to hear his name called on Thursday. He was projected to be a top-10 pick when the season started, so it will be interesting to see if the UNLV star is willing to accept less money.
Fedde has virtually no leverage in this spot. If we use the typical Tommy John surgery recovery time, he won't be ready to pitch until next May. The college baseball regular season ends in May, so unless UNLV makes a run to the College World Series, he won't have an opportunity to throw for scouts in a game situation.
Teams also have to be weary of Fedde's slight 6'4", 170-pound frame. He struggles to repeat his delivery, putting more undue stress on the arm and shoulder, but when everything is clicking, he has two plus pitches and average command to work with.
Risk Rating: 7
Jacob Bukauskas, RHP, Stone Bridge HS (Virginia)
On the surface, nothing should be holding Jacob Bukauskas down in the draft. There's a lot to like about the early graduate, who is just 17 years old.
Unfortunately, the North Carolina commit has made it known that he wants to attend college. In a letter sent to scouts, via Baseball America, he wrote, "When confronted recently with the timeline and logistics realities in front of me, I feel like it will be better for my overall personal development (socially, emotionally, etc.) to experience college."
We have seen these tactics before, most famously from Josh Bell in 2011 before the Pirates took him in the second round and signed him away from a Texas commitment for $5 million. The new draft rules prevent Bukauskas from getting a bonus that high, but if he goes in the top two rounds, as expected, a multimillion-dollar deal isn't out of the question.
Is Bukauskas Worth the Risk?
Based on raw stuff, Bukauskas would be a wise investment for teams. He's got a live arm with a mid-90s fastball that can touch higher, and he flashes a solid-average slider and throws a changeup with good arm speed.
But there are limits to how effective Bukauskas can be. He's listed at 5'11", 180 pounds with no physical projection left. His command is erratic, and he loses his release point often. That's a potential relief profile, so he would be best served by going to college and ironing some things out.
Risk Rating: 5
Cameron Varga, RHP, Cincinnati Christian Academy (Ohio)
Cameron Varga is one of the most unique case studies in the 2014 draft. He's a 6'3" right-hander with the build to profile as a 180-inning starter and a plus fastball with velocity in the low 90s and some movement.
The North Carolina commit didn't get to show off his stuff during last year's showcase circuit, due to biceps tendinitis and a cyst in his stomach that required surgery. While those weren't major injuries, the arm problem is enough to raise some red flags.
There is also the age factor. Varga is one of the oldest high school players in this class, turning 20 in August, putting him behind fellow draftees who only turn 19 this year.
Is Varga Worth the Risk?
Varga's raw ability is good enough to get him drafted in the first compensation round or, more likely, the second round. He's got the fastball and two average off-speed pitches to project as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
His mechanics aren't very good, as he stays too upright throughout the delivery and puts extra pressure on the arm to generate velocity. It would be in his best interest to attend North Carolina, prove health isn't going to be a problem and take advantage of the fact that he will be eligible for the draft again in just two years.
Risk Rating: 4
Michael Cantu, C, Foy H. Moody HS (Texas)
Michael Cantu, like Monte Harrison, is one of the few two-sport athletes in the 2014 MLB draft with a big decision to make. Unlike Harrison, however, the Texas native isn't likely to be taken on Day 1 and forced to turn down a seven-figure deal. He also doesn't have the luxury of a football scholarship to fall back on.
He played quarterback in high school but is committed to the University of Texas baseball program. Cantu does have the ability to hit for a lot of power if the hit tool develops.
The 18-year-old has limited athleticism on the field with no speed at all and poor blocking skills behind the plate. He could end up as a first baseman or designated hitter in the future.
Is Cantu Worth the Risk?
High school players with power and questionable hit tools are usually given the benefit of the doubt because of their age and potential to develop with the bat. A team that loves Cantu's power, which is plus in batting practice, could pop him sooner than expected and offer a nice signing bonus early on Day 2.
However, as the game has changed, so has the way clubs draft. Athleticism has taken the place of power, so Cantu doesn't have the kind of value he once did. Going to Texas, which isn't far from his high school, could be appealing as he attempts to turn himself into a Day 1 selection three years from now.
Risk Rating: 4
Jack Flaherty, RHP/IF, Harvard-Westlake HS (California)
The debate about Jack Flaherty prior to the draft is about how much he wants to play the infield. His write-up on MLB.com notes that the North Carolina commit may end up on a college team because he likes playing every day.
That's certainly Flaherty's prerogative, though it isn't one that will likely produce big results down the line. He's a pitcher all the way and has the kind of stuff and strike-throwing ability to move quickly for a high school arm.
There's nothing exceptional about what Flaherty throws—fastball in the low 90s, slider with some tilt, average changeup—but it plays well because of his athleticism and his ability to repeat a clean delivery.
Is Flaherty Worth the Risk?
Flaherty doesn't have a good swing with decent bat speed and no loft to generate backspin that drives the ball, so a team that drafts the 18-year-old will have to convince him that the mound is his best (only) shot at having an MLB career.
Another option that could be explored is one the Red Sox used with Casey Kelly after the team drafted him in 2008. He was a pitcher who wanted to play shortstop, so Boston allowed him to do so as a way of showing the right-hander that his future was on the mound.
Kelly flamed out with the bat, hitting .226/.283/.348 in parts of five minor league seasons, so he moved back to the mound and made it to the big leagues with San Diego in 2012 before Tommy John surgery threw his career off track.
Flaherty could take that path if a team is determined to add him to its system, as there's a quality No. 4 starter in there who could be drafted in the second or third round.
Risk Rating: 3
Forrest Wall, 2B, Orangewood Christian HS (Florida)
First, it must be said that Forrest Wall has already pulled off one of the great feats of this draft by being a top-100 talent. High school players limited to second base are usually taboo because there's so much pressure on the bat and their defense is already an obstacle, which is why they're at the keystone.
Wall's problem's on defense stem from lack of arm strength due to shoulder surgery in 2011. He doesn't get much zip on the ball, making double plays and throws from deep in the hole a chore. That means his bat has to be absolutely fantastic to project as a quality MLB player.
Is Wall Worth the Risk?
The good news is that Wall's bat has the potential to be that good. He's got an excellent left-handed swing with plus bat speed. The North Carolina commit is short to the ball, projecting more for doubles than homers, but the batting-average potential and on-base potential are very high.
Despite the hit tool and athleticism, high school second basemen are hard to predict in the draft. He's likely going to be an early Day 2 selection, but is that good enough to keep him from a scholarship to North Carolina, where he will have three years to prove that the position limitations aren't as significant as they appear?
Risk Rating: 2
Brandon Finnegan, LHP, TCU
Brandon Finnegan is going to be a Day 1 selection in the 2014 draft, but an undersized (5'11", 190 pounds) left-hander with violent arm action is volatile.
It doesn't help that he pitches at a school that has burned out other notable pitching talents in recent years. (Matt Purke is the most notable example.)
The final cherry on Finnegan's sundae came when he was shut down with left shoulder soreness at the end of April. The left-hander has since returned and racked up 125 strikeouts in 91.1 innings this season.
Is Finnegan Worth the Risk?
Finnegan will always be a scary prospect because of his arm action, but a left-hander who throws a mid-90s fastball and an above-average slider and performed at a high level at a major college program won't last long.
The TCU ace has reliever written all over him, though a team that really believes in the stuff can let him start until he proves incapable of handling the workload. He can move quickly and pitch in the back of a bullpen by the end of 2015.
Risk Rating: 1
If you want to talk sports, hit me up on Twitter.