Breaking Down the Indians Risky First Round Pick

For much of the Mark Shapiro-led era the Indians have been highly predictable – and equally unsuccessful – when it comes to the organization’s draft track record. From Shapiro’s first draft as GM, 2002, through his final year at the helm, 2010, Cleveland went the collegiate route early and often; 10 of the club’s 14 first round picks spent at least one year at the collegiate level.

As for their success, well, they would hit on their picks as often as Jose Ramirez this year. Beginning in 2002 here’s a list of the club’s first round picks:

Jeremy Guthrie – the former Stanford alum never did figure it out with the organization, though he was often bounced between the pen and rotation. He did develop into a highly paid league-average starter.

Matthew Whitney – dominated the lower levels for a couple years as an older prospect but never learned how to hit even mediocre pitching.

Micah Schilling – former prep second baseman never hit.

Adam Miller – regularly listed among the game’s top prospects; he was never able to make his way through the injury nexus.

Brad Snyder – quintessential Quad-A guy

Michael Aubrey – widely recognized as one of the most advanced bats in the 2003 draft, his career was wrecked by back injuries. He never did hit for a lot of power, though, slugging just 89 homeruns in 2,263 minor league plate appearances.

Jeremy Sowers – soft-tossing Vanderbilt southpaw owns a 174-to-132 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the big leagues in 400 innings pitched.

Johnny Drennen – had a couple shining moments in the minors but would eventually flame out in Class AA.

Trevor Crowe – if you look up the phrase “replacement level player” you’ll find a picture of Crowe.

David Huff – his dominance as a 23-year-old between Class AA and Class AAA proved to be the anomaly.

Beau Mills – posted video game-esque numbers with Lewis-Clark State College; Mills would play his final professional season at 25.

Lonnie Chisenhall – porous defense and an inability to solve left-handers just got the former top prospect demoted back to Class AAA.

Alex White – lively armed right-hander is still trying to figure it out as a starting pitcher.

Drew Pomeranzsometimes good, rarely healthy.

Fourteen first round picks and just two decent big leaguers.

But with the promotion of Shapiro to President and subsequent in-house hiring of Chris Antonetti into the GM role the franchise’s blasé draft approach of safe, low ceiling mantra has morphed into more of a “best player” approach. The team has added the high ceiling prepsters likes defensive wizard Francisco Lindor, Clint Frazier, and Justus Sheffield as well as supremely toolsy outfielder Bradley Zimmer with four of their last six first round picks.

So, in that regards, it’s not really surprising to see the Indians gamble on taking another high ceiling prospect in Monday night’s opening round of the draft – Brady Aiken.

By now much of the baseball world, both those that follow intimately and those that remain on the outer fringes now that the Astros selected the 6-foot-4 man-child with the first overall pick in last year’s draft and then tried to lowball the southpaw after some questions came back following his post-draft physical.

Aiken would spurn Houston’s offer, head to a JuCo, and eventually undergo Tommy John surgery to repair his wonky elbow. Adding to the mystery enveloping his draft status were some interesting facts reported by FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel:

McDaniel first reported in his April Draft Rankings the following:

“There is persistent, consistent and detailed buzz coming from many sources that there is more to Aiken’s injury that just a clean surgery like Erick Fedde, Jeff Hoffman or Lucas Giolito from recent years. I won’t repeat the specific rumors, but the worst versions of it say there are career-threatening at play, while others say it’s merely an increased risk of further injury going forward.”

McDaniel would update Aiken’s status in a pre-draft chat writing, “The teams that are considering taking him have seen [the medical reports] and they’re generally better than expected but it’s more complicated than a normal TJ, so there’s some extra risk.”

Teams taking Tommy John survivors early in the draft are certainly not unheard. As McDaniel pointed out the Nationals took Giolito, my #5 prospect, and Fedde, my #84 prospect, in the opening round. And Toronto grabbed Hoffman early in an opening round as well.

So it’s not surprising that Aiken, post-surgery, would find his name getting called early Monday night.

But as a Tribe fan, well, I feel like we’ve traveled down this path before – unsuccessfully.

During the club’s most recent rebuild the front office opted to ship off Cliff Lee (and Ben Francisco) for a quartet prospects: Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson, and right-hander Jason Knapp.

While Carrasco has developed into a solid mid- to upper-rotation arm, it was Knapp who was considered the key to the Lee trade and “thought to have [the] best chance of any pitcher [in the Cleveland farm system] to pitch at the front of a major-league rotation.”

The problem, of course, was that Knapp – the key to dealing away their second consecutive Cy Young Award winner – was actually on the disabled list at the time of the trade. The diagnosis: bicep tendonitis in his right shoulder. Turns out it wasn’t tendonitis and he required surgery shortly thereafter to remove loose bodies. The Indians would eventually release Knapp a couple years later.

Now back to Aiken.

The Indians pushed their theoretical chips to the table once in centering a massive deal around a young, injured pitcher and luckily for the organization Carrasco took some unexpected leaps within the last year-plus. Otherwise, they would have had zilch to show for dealing away Cliff Lee.

So what do the Indians do years later? Push their proverbial chips to the center of the table once again and select a young, injured pitcher in the middle of the first round. And while it worked out tremendously well for the Nationals and Giolito, it’s important to note – once again – that this isn’t the typical Tommy John surgery (for whatever reason).

More risk.

Throw in the fact that he’s 19, hasn’t pitched much over the last year-plus, and has barely dipped his toe into the injury nexus that all young pitchers have to navigate through.

And then there’s the fact that the Indians track record of developing high school-aged arms is as lengthy as Moonlight Graham’s big league career. Going back to the 2002 draft the franchise has drafted and graduated three high school-aged arms: Aaron Laffey, T.J. McFarland, and T.J. House. Some of the club’s bigger prep arm misses: Miller, Chuck Lofgren, Trey Haley, Dillon Howard, Kieran Lovegrove.

The point: By drafting Aiken the Indians took the most combustible position in any draft – high school arms – and added levels of complexity with his less than stellar injury history.

Photo Courtesy of Scott Kurtz via studentsports.com.

 



About

After serving as a video scout/analyst for Baseball Info Solutions, Joe Werner began writing at his original site, ReleasePoints.com. He’s since transitioned into his current niche, prospect analysis, at ProspectDigest.com. He has been fortunate — and incredibly blessed — to have some of his work published and mentioned by several major media outlets, including: ESPN, Cleveland.com and the Baseball Research Journal. He can be reached at: JosephMWerner@yahoo.com.