Peter Gammons: The risk of drafting high school pitchers with top picks

jose fernandez marlins

We all want Jose Fernandez to be all right, hope the elbow sprain doesn’t lead to Tommy John Surgery. Our media medical guru and logical practitioner advises us to wait, and so we will, knowing that if, indeed, Fernandez ends up having the surgery it means that not only has a glittering career been sidetracked, but when we look back at The Pitching Draft of 2011 and we deal with the reality that the first three high school pitchers selected—three teenagers who were supposed to be franchise-changers named Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley and Jose Fernandez—will have all had some sort of serious elbow issue before they would have been drafted again had they gone to college.

And two of the half-dozen college pitching prospects for next month’s draft (who therefore turned down 2011 offers), Jeff Hoffman of East Carolina and Erick Fedde of Nevada-Las Vegas, have recently had the TJ procedure.

Three different teams say data shows that once a pitcher has Tommy John Surgery, he is likely to need another operation within seven years.

Which begs the question: is it worth drafting a high school pitcher with one of the top six picks knowing one has to pay him somewhere between $2M and $3M? Now, a year later, the Nationals drafted Harvard-Westlake H.S. pitcher Lucas Giolito after he had TJ. He is now a top prospect. “Giolito is a template to take to owners,” says one GM, but another says, “by the time he’s got two or three years in the big leagues, is he going to need another surgery? And we know the probabilities on pitchers with two Tommy Johns.”

It is part of the problem with this June draft. After NC State’s Carlos Rodon, the next best prospects are high school pitchers. One hears constant complaints that there are no bats, few positional players. “What happened was that 2011 was the last year before the system was going to change and we all knew we would be severely hamstrung starting with 2012,” says one GM. “So there were a lot of high school drafts that got extra money to keep them from going to college, drafts that would have been top picks had they gone to college for three years.”

Pirates outfielder Josh Bell was bought out of Texas. Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart was similarly bought out of Texas. Austin Hedges. Dante Bichette. Others.

Much else has obviously changed. Testing changed things beginning with 2005, a draft whose first round after Justin Upton included college position players Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki and Jacoby Ellsbury. Any one of those players would be top four or five next month; Ellsbury was the 23d pick, albeit much higher on Boston’s board.

Going back to 2011, the Pirates’ development and careful progression with no. 1 Gerrit Cole was safe, and productive; sometimes no team can know, and only time will tell if Houston’s experimental piggy-backing of last year’s no.1, a college pitcher named Mark Appel, is the reason he is back in Extended Spring Training, struggling (Saturday, only four outs). The Mariners took Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen with the second pick behind Cole. He’s still hurt. The D’Backs took Trevor Bauer with the third pick and ownership quickly gave up on his eccentric stubbornness, which may deliver a top of the rotation starter to Cleveland. Bundy and Bradley are not pitching.

The harder they throw, the harder they fall, and when we hear about a Texas high school righthanded pitcher named Tyler Kolek throwing 100 MPH, we think Colt Griffin, and how short Kerry Wood’s career unfortunately lasted. We remember that in high school Roger Clemens threw 80-82. We think of Appel, in Extended Spring. If there were an Evan Longoria or Ryan Zimmerman out there, the White Sox, Twins or Cubs, who need pitching, might take one and trade for pitching out of their positional overload, especially with the paucity of power in the testing era.

We hope Jose Fernandez is an outlier, and is healthy. But the more we know, the less we know. Period.


  1. There are no teams with “positional overload’. If you can’t hit, you can’t win. Until you have eight stud bats in your lineup – and no team does – you don’t have extra bats.

  2. Adi Heller says:

    this came out how many days before Fernandez went down? crazy.