Editor’s note: Please join me in welcoming Scott Schook to The Cardinal Nation staff. For over a decade, Scott has had a keen level of interest in the minor leagues with specific focus on the draft during the last six or seven years. Among his prior duties at Cardinals Farm was coverage of the low and high minors as well as targeted draft preview articles. Scott is also a regular contributor to the draft preview thread on the Post-Dispatch's forums.
With the 2015 First-Year Player Draft now in our rearview mirror, it is rather simple to spot a particular trend in the players the St. Louis Cardinals selected last week. While St. Louis farm director Chris Correa said in a May interview that any draft trend is typically happenstance, one particular trait stuck out from among the Cardinals’ draft picks this year - bat speed.
While flush with pitching prospects, the Cardinals had precious little in the way of offensive talent in their minor league system. The crown jewel of the position player crop, Stephen Piscotty, has had a strong year in his second turn at Triple-A Memphis, posting an .806 OPS and .352 wOBA to go along with improved power from his retooled swing.
However, beyond Piscotty, there is little impact in the short-term from the farm system. The position players after Piscotty are either likely role players (Jacob Wilson, Charlie Tilson, Aledmys Diaz, etc.) or too far away and underdeveloped to be relevant to the big league club at this time (Carson Kelly, Magneuris Sierra, Edmundo Sosa, etc.).
While teams rarely draft for need in the MLB Draft, the Cardinals were certainly able to balance the system with an injection of position players with notable bat speed. Nick Plummer (1st round), Bryce Denton (2nd round), Harrison Bader (3rd round), Paul DeJong (4th round), and Kep Brown (10th round) are all prospects notable for their ability to get the bat quickly through the zone.
Seven of the Cardinals’ first 12 picks in the initial 10 rounds were spent on position players, with catcher Jesse Jenner (7th round) and second baseman Andrew Brodbeck (9th round) joining the aforementioned bat whippers.
And in light of how today’s game plays, it makes sense. Pitching is now the name of the game. Hurlers are hitting record numbers in velocity. For example, ten years ago, the best starting pitcher velocity belonged to Rich Harden and his 94.3 mph four-seamer. Only one other starter, Roy Oswalt, topped 94 mph on average with his heater.
Last season, the best velocity went to Kansas City Royals starter Yordano Ventura who averaged 97 mph on the gun, and instead of just two, nine starting pitchers averaged at least 94 mph. In the bullpen, the number of relievers who averaged at least 95 mph on their fastballs has climbed from eight in 2004 to 17 in 2009 to 25 in 2014. Plus, factor in the abundance of bullpen specialization, and you have a recipe for dominant pitching. If you want to counteract that, you need guys who can get the bat through the hitting zone in hurry.
Another reason behind the emphasis on position players could be next year’s draft. While the landscape can obviously change over the next 12 months, the 2016 Draft looks like it will be an exceptionally strong class for pitching. In his incredibly early analysis of next June’s class, Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs ranked his top 31 prospects. 21 of them are pitchers.
Furthermore, scouts and evaluators agree at this stage the 1-1 pick comes down to two pitchers: Oklahoma right-hander Alec Hansen and prep right-hander Riley Pint. With the absurd amount of pitching and the potential for multiple top-50 picks next year, the Cardinals may be looking at reloading the pitching pipeline in 2016.
Speaking of pitching, if you checked my math, the Cardinals added five pitchers through the first 10 rounds: right-handers Jake Woodford (Competitive Balance Round A), Jordan Hicks (supplemental), and Ryan Helsley (5th round) along with left-handers Jacob Evans (6th round) and Ian Oxnevad (8th round). While none of the five project to have the upside of a Michael Wacha or Alex Reyes, Woodford, Hicks, and Oxnevad stand out as potential mid-rotation pieces with strong offerings.
Honestly, it also makes sense the Cardinals didn’t go insanely high-upside on the pitching front. They have the best pitching staff in baseball right now. They have multiple near-ready prospects in Memphis and Springfield. They have four important pieces in Reyes, Rob Kaminsky, Luke Weaver, and Jack Flaherty, who will not be far behind. The Cardinals could afford to add some solid but not quite spectacular pitchers to go along with their expected signing of big-time international pitching prospect Alvaro Seijas.
With a brand new collection of hitters with plus bat speed to go with a solid collection of pitchers, the Cardinals have added a fresh crop of exciting players who should bring some impressive talents to the system. Now, we will get to turn our attention to the short-season teams to watch these young men begin their professional careers.
Follow Scott Schook on Twitter @scottschook.
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