Peter Gammons: Top of MLB Draft remains uncertain

carlos rodon

N.C. State’s Carlos Rodon.

We all get the risks involved in drafting pitching, risks and uncertainties that go way beyond these high school kids throwing 95-100 who face five times the inevitability of Tommy John Surgery than the guy who makes it to the big leagues at the age of 25. We saw it in the 2011 draft; two of the three high school phenoms (Dylan Bundy, Jose Fernandez) have already had the TJ procedure, and Archie Bradley has been sidelined and finding himself. And two other pitchers from that high school draft, Jeff Hoffman of East Carolina and Erick Fedde of UNLV, have had the operation in this draft season as college juniors.

We see the issues last June’s top pick, Stanford righthander Mark Appel, has had adjusting to professional baseball. His first 15 pro starts have produced a 6.02 earned run average. His five starts this season in the California League have totaled 14 1/3 innings, 27 hits, an 11.93 earned run average, and that doesn’t count the time he spent back in Kissimmee, Florida working in the extended spring training program, where he was hit hard in his last outing last Monday.

Thus we see how uncertain the top of Thursday’s draft remains. There are rumors circulating among teams that the Astros may try to strike a pre-draft deal with Orlando shortstop Nick Gordon, Tom’s son. Or they will take San Diego high school lefthander Brady Aiken, who two general managers Sunday each said has “separated himself from the rest of the field.” There have been suggestions they could draft California high school catcher/outfielder Alex Jackson, considered the best potential power bat.

Or they could take N.C. State lefty Carlos Rodon, the power fastball/putaway slider master who is the closest to big league ready, so ready that if he went to a contender he might be able to work out of the bullpen in September. So if Houston passes, Miami might take Rodon to help their pen for the stretch drive, as well as bring another Cuban-American to Miami to eventually pair with Fernandez. Or the Cubs might take Rodon with the fourth pick. Then again, they might not, as they are disinclined to take a pitcher that high.

Then you watch Shae Simmons this weekend blowing away the Marlins in Miami, throwing 97 with a yakker of a curveball. And who is this Craig Kimbrel aide-de-camp? He’s 23 years old, 5-10 or 5-11 (hey, taller than Kimbrel), was a 22nd round pick out of Southeast Missouri State in 2012—a year in which the Braves got RHP Lucas Sims, their best prospect, and Alex Wood in the first two rounds. In 101 minor league innings, Simmons had a 145-44 strikeout-walk ratio and 1.43 earned run average. “The Braves know pitching,” says a rival general manager. “They’re amazing.” Which is why they are in first place despite a lineup that is very pitchable.

The only player out of last year’s draft now in the major leagues is Corey Knebel of the Tigers, a sandwich round selection from the University of Texas. Out of that 2011 draft, the first pick, Gerrit Cole, is Pittsburgh’s number one. The 19th pick, Oakland’s Sonny Gray out of Vanderbilt, is the number one starter on the Athletics.

The third selection in that first round was Trevor Bauer, who had his issues developing with the Diamondbacks, was traded in a three-way swap for Didi Gregorius, went to Cleveland and this weekend followed a Corey Kluber gem with six strong innings of his own in back-to-back nights in which the two pitchers struck out 20 and walked two.

Now, the Indians are three games under .500, six games behind the Tigers and 1 ½ games behind the second place White Sox. But if they continue to get Danny Salazar back on track in the minors and if Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin have good stretches, several advance scouts believe that the Indians may have the pitching to be very dangerous in the second half.

Right now, Kluber is an all-star, 80 innings, 3.04 ERA, 95-18 strikeouts to walks. “His power, movement and command is rare,” says one advance man. “He’s one of the most underrated pitchers in the league. It seems as if good hitters are happy to just make contact.” The fastball sits 94-95, the biting cutter 89-90.

Bauer was up to 99 Friday, his strike percentage over 65, and the progress he’s made in command of his fastball and the adjustment to professional thinking draws a mirabile dictu. Indians management credits Terry Francona, pitching coach Mickey Callaway and agent Joel Wolfe for their collaboration with Bauer, a testament to an organization that constantly exhibits intellectual and practical flexibility.

The Astros have begun to be more flexible with their developmental pitching plan, which has not worked for Appel, and has been criticized in and out of the organization, a plan that can be resculpted. However, on the major league level, the recent surge by the Astros is the product not of spreadsheets, but really good coaches brought in this winter. There were those in the organization for years that believed in Dallas Keuchel, the former two-way Arkansas star, who worked his way up after being drafted by Bobby Heck because he grasped pitching. But pitching coach Brent Strom, the former Cardinals minor league coordinator, has done an exceptional job. Collin McHugh, claimed off waivers from Colorado in December, has gone from a conventional sinker/slider guy to using his four-seamer and curveball, expanded the zone and has been very good. Jarred Cosart, the big arm acquired by Ed Wade in the Hunter Pence deal, is coming along.

And, speaking of coaching, while Gentleman George Springer—the greatest player out of Avon Old Farms since Juan Nieves and Brian Leetch—has taken off, the Houston approach has consistently improved. No surprise why John Mallee was thought of so highly by Marlins players, and should have an impact on Jon Singleton and Domingo Santana (two more parts of the Pence deal) when they arrive.

But it’s hard with pitching, physically, mentally, hard to project, hard to predict. Shae Simmons? Kluber was a fourth round pick of the Padres, acquired on the trading deadline in 2010 in a three-way deal that sent Jake Westbrook to the Cardinals. Rays people are talking about Chris Archer being a potential Cy Young contender in another year, and he’s gone from Cleveland to the Cubs for Mark DeRosa and on to Tampa Bay for Matt Garza.

Vanderbilt’s Tyler Beede had a disappointing second half, struggled with his command in the SEC Tournament and heard he was “falling” deep into the first round. Then he hit 99 and was brilliant in Vandy’s regional opener, and many feel he won’t go deeper than the 10th pick. But even if he does, Beede should remember that Roger Clemens’ junior season dropped him to the 19th pick. Mike Mussina dropped to the 20th pick, and they are in the top 25 starting pitchers in WAR of all time.

If Rodon should fall to the Cubs, most of us will be happy to be announcing and reporting the pick, not making it.