Grading the New York Yankees on the 2017 MLB Draft
In an expected transition year, the Yankees instead lead the American League East behind a potent offense. Four promising position players—Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, Blake Rutherford and Jorge Mateo—headline their farm system with hopes of one day teaming up with Gary Sanchez and baseball's new overlord, Aaron Judge.
This likely factored into the Bronx Bombers' thinking when they plucked nine pitchers with their first 10 picks. Eight are righties, and eight come from college. If one or two pan out as impact arms, they will have an even scarier squad down the road. Many, however, profile as relievers.
Here's a breakdown of the Yankees' draft with grades for their top selections.
1.16 (round, overall pick): Clarke Schmidt, RHP, South Carolina
If the Yankees wanted a college pitcher with pick No. 16, they could have snagged Florida's Alex Faedo, Oregon's David Peterson or Missouri's Tanner Houck. D.L. Hall, who is ESPN Insider Keith Law's No. 8-ranked prospect, is also more polished than the typical prep hurler.
They instead rolled the dice on Clarke Schmidt, who underwent Tommy John surgery in April.
The South Carolina righty made a strong case for first-round billing before going under the knife, posting a 1.34 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 60.1 innings. This might have been the range for him pre-surgery, as Baseball America's John Manuel projected a healthy Schmidt going No. 15 days before the injury reveal.
By nearly all accounts, the Yankees reached on a high-upside gamble. MLB.com ranked him No. 49, which is far more generous than Law's No. 74 appraisal. As he wrote after the opening round, his concerns aren't entirely related to health.
"The Yankees must believe Schmidt is a top-10 talent when healthy, given the risk with TJ guys—most come back 100 percent, but many don't," Law wrote. "Given what I'd seen from Schmidt as far as both his stuff and delivery before this year, I didn't think he was likely enough to remain a starter to rank him there."
Perhaps Schmidt is one of the lucky ones to return stronger than ever, in which case the Yankees may have stolen a front-line starter. His outlook before surgery, however, did not stand out over the likes of Faedo or Peterson enough to warrant the considerable risk.
2.54: Matt Sauer, RHP, Ernest Righetti HS
After reaching in Round 1, the Yankees might have poached a first-round talent in Round 2.
Baseball America and MLB.com both ranked California high school pitcher Matt Sauer No. 28 before the Evil Empire took him off the board with pick No. 54. The 6'4" righty already fires heat with room to grow, and his slider profiles as another plus pitch.
According to KSBY.com's
3.92: Trevor Stephan, RHP, Arkansas
The Yankees continued to accumulate pitchers on Day 2, adding Arkansas righty Trevor Stephan. In his lone season playing for the Razorbacks, the transfer student recorded a 2.87 ERA with 120 strikeouts and 20 walks over 91 innings.
New York is often drawn to physically imposing hurlers, and the 6'5", 225-pound junior fits that bill. He relies on strong control and an overpowering heater, but his full arsenal remains unrefined. MLB.com's scouting report said he's "likely to become a reliever who relies heavily on his fastball."
Although it's never the primary goal for a high pick, the Yankees wouldn't mind landing a high-leverage bullpen option. If he signs, fans will appreciate him rejecting the Boston Red Sox when they drafted him in the 18th round last year.
4.122: Canaan Smith, C/OF, Rockwall-Heath HS
Don't get used to reading about a hitter and/or high school draftee.
Canaan Smith imposed fear into Texas prep pitchers, who walked the catcher at a Barry Bonds-like rate. Although the lefty will get a chance to swing if he signs, the Yankees declared their intentions to move him away from the plate by announcing him as a right fielder.
Smith could honor his commitment to Texas, where he may parlay his big bat and plate discipline into a bigger signing bonus in three or four years. Then again, Baseball America's No. 366-ranked prospect may have a tough time passing on anything close to the pick's $433,100 value, per MLB.com.
5.152: Glenn Otto, RHP, Rice
Glenn Otto threw 131.1 innings over the past two seasons. This wouldn't be out of the ordinary, except for the fact that he's a relief pitcher.
Rice has a reputation of overworking their pitchers. Six years ago, Minor League Ball's John Sickels noted a concerning pattern of the school's alums wearing down in the big leagues. (Add Tony Cingrani and Tyler Duffey to that list.)
Otto might have already felt the wrath of overuse; he allowed 25 runs in his junior season after relinquishing as many in his freshman and sophomore seasons combined. He still, however, accumulated 81 strikeouts over 59.2 innings.
MLB.com ranks him No. 96 with a plus fastball and curveball, but a reliever with command issues isn't the most appealing fifth-round selection.
6.182: Dalton Lehnen, LHP, Augustana College
Of the 18 pitchers selected through Round 25, only Dalton Lehnen will shop at Ned Flanders' Leftorium.
Why do the Yankees dislike southpaws, and what did they see in Lehnen to deviate from the script? The 6'2" lefty struck out 61 batters in 52 innings with a 2.60 ERA for the Division III school, leading him to become the highest pick in program history, according to the team's site.
South Dakota's top prospect in this class, per Baseball America and MLB.com, might flourish with more eyes watching. Yet he's another hard-throwing hurler with a noteworthy possibility of future bullpen work.
7.212: Dalton Higgins, RHP, Dallas Baptist
Maybe New York's scouts just like the name "Dalton." They made it two in a row by selecting Dalton Higgins, a right-handed reliever who posted a 3.15 ERA this season.
Yankees fans will fondly recall Dallas Baptist, as rising prospect Chance Adams—a 2015 fifth-round selection—also went to the Texas school. Yet little about Higgins stands out, as he doesn't throw overly hard or wield a dangerous secondary pitch. He also needed a huge jump to strike out a batter per inning, a rate MLB teams almost expect from a trusted reliever.
Maybe they can strike lightning in a bottle twice and convert another Dallas Baptist reliever into a bright starter, but Adams' minor league success doesn't bolster Higgins' chances.
8.242: Kyle Zurak, RHP, Radford
That's it for Daltons, but far from the last right-handed pitchers. Radford's Kyle Zurak continues the long run of hurlers with a higher probability of filling a major league relief role.
The 6-foot senior culminated his college experience by collecting 73 strikeouts in 60 innings. Primarily used in the bullpen, he went the distance in one of four starts.
Ranked outside of Baseball America's top 500, Zurak seems like another attempt at signing someone below the pick's slot value.
9.272: Austin Gardner, RHP, Texas-Arlington
Stop if you've heard this one before: The Yankees selected a hard-throwing, right-handed college relief pitcher.
Baseball America ranked five prospects named "Austin," but Austin Gardner isn't one of them. Like most of their other picks, he produced plenty of strikeouts (55 in 44.2 innings) from the bullpen.
Do the Yankees plan on stretching these guys out in the minors, or is their plan to unearth a couple of usable relievers? The latter, likely tied to reallocating their bonus pool elsewhere, isn't the wisest plan.
10.302: Chad Whitmer, RHP, Southern Illinois
The College Right-Handed Pitchers' Association—no, that's not a real thing—must have some dirt on Yankees management. Southern Illinois' Chad Whitmer represents the eighth one taken in 10 rounds.
But hey, at least Whitmer started in school. He did so fairly well, tallying a 3.46 ERA with just 26 walks in 104 innings.
"Whitmer is a durable starter with a decent three-pitch mix and enough pitching know-how that he'll probably carve up the low minors and have folks talking about him as a potential sleeper," Mike Axisa wrote for River Avenue Blues.
Some added velocity could help him escape an organizational-depth label.
20.602: Ryan Lidge, C, Notre Dame
It's not often a .239 hitter with four home runs in four years gets drafted. Ryan Lidge's work behind the plate likely earned him that distinction.
The Notre Dame senior—whose cousin is former Houston Astros closer Brad Lidge—drew 35 walks in 58 games and owned a .992 fielding percentage in 2017. As of now, he's a depth pick with a ceiling of "defensive-minded backup catcher." With an enhanced appreciation for pitch-framing, some of those guys may stick around for longer, more prominent careers.
25.752: Riley Thompson, RHP, Louisville
As the talent pool dwindled, the Yankees took some fliers on high-ceiling prospects unlikely to sign for a low cost. Baseball America's Teddy Cahill called Louisville's Riley Thompson "almost certainly not signable in the 25th round," which makes sense considering his publication ranked the righty No. 290.
Despite pitching just 14.2 innings for the Cardinals as a redshirt freshman, he flaunted major potential with 23 strikeouts. The reliever throws a wicked heater into the mid-high 90s, and the Yankees could theoretically groom his curveball and changeup into starting-caliber secondary offerings.
MLB.com said Thompson could vault into a first-round candidate if he stays at Louisville, but nobody knows for sure how the 20-year-old will respond to sports' most decorated organization offering him a job.
29.872: Tristan Beck, RHP, Stanford
How the heck did Tristan Beck fall this far? MLB.com ranked the Stanford starting pitcher No. 53 overall. Baseball America (No. 41) likes him even more, but he fell all the way to No. 872, where the Yankees finally halted his grueling wait.
After an encouraging freshman campaign, the draft-eligible sophomore missed all of 2017 with a stress fracture in his back. MLB.com's scouting report compared his situation to that of Cal Quantrill, whom the San Diego Padres selected with last year's No. 8 pick as he recovered from Tommy John surgery.
It's fair to believe MLB clubs know something the general public does not. Even if they don't, he's more likely to stay at Stanford for another year and try again for a higher slot in 2018. This late in the draft, the Yankees had to take a chance.
37.1,112: Tanner Burns, RHP, Decatur HS
It's safe to say MLB.com's No. 39 prospect would have gone before Round 37 if he expressed any interest in signing.
The Georgia prep pitcher didn't hide his intentions, confirming his commitment to Auburn on Wednesday. Steven Williams, a catcher New York picked two rounds earlier, also appeared to divulge his desire to enroll at Auburn.
Most picks this late don't get signed anyway, so it was worth a shot.
The Yankees' draft success ultimately depends on who signs. Their choices will look far better if any late-round dart throws (Thompson, Beck, Williams, Burns and Mississippi State outfielder Jake Mangum) make an unexpected decision.
If not, they loaded up on low-ceiling college pitchers for no reason.
They drafted enough arms to form an entire team, but very few of them have a feasible future in the rotation. Schmidt might pan out as a major starting asset, but it was an unnecessary risk given the strong alternatives available. Given the first-round pick's injury concerns and the ensuing armada of bullpen options, signing Sauer is imperative.
It's now on their system to develop these guys into more than run-of-the-mill relievers who light up the radar gun. Although targeting pitching made sense, they invested an overwhelming majority of their draft capital on players plying a volatile craft. Even if one of their mid-tier picks succeeds, fans won't celebrate a decent middle reliever emerging from the group.
Perhaps playing the numbers game is the only way to harness a healthy pitching staff. Also drafting one third baseman wouldn't have hurt.
College stats obtained from The Baseball Cube and official team athletic pages.