There was a time, in the not too distant past, when minor league player development happened outside the intense scrutiny of all but the most obsessive fans. Most paid little attention to the farm teams unless they happened to live in a city that hosted one, and only the most well established prospects were on anyone’s radar. Newly drafted, and therefore typically furthest away from the majors, players were of little interest, particularly after you got beyond the first couple of rounds. In 2000, for example, Dustin McGowan was the second player taken with a first round compensation pick. I think I’ve always been above average in terms of prospect awareness but I remember essentially nothing at all about any of the players taken after him.
The technological revolution of the past couple of decades has changed all of that. Some fans still pay little attention to the minor leagues, but the incredible availability of information gives every fan the option to follow every player under a team’s control, when in the past they could not.
Over the course of his time here, previous GM Alex Anthopoulos and his player development crew earned a reputation for savvy drafting (Deck McGuire and Chad Jenkins notwithstanding). From his first draft class in 2009, ten players have now made the majors at least briefly, and most have seen significant playing time. In fact, Danny Barnes makes the eighth player (unsigned Kris Bryant not counted) from 2010 alone. So one of the ways that obsessive fans would be judging the Shapiro/Atkins administration would naturally be to obsess over their first draft class.
Reviews were mixed in the days following the draft. Some observers were quick to ask “why this guy and not that guy?” on a few selections, and the choice of some pitchers that were projected as relievers seemed odd. But while there were some critical comments, the group wasn’t considered a failure either. It is a fundamental principle that player development is a years-long process and and one should not put too much stock in initial success or failure. So with that caveat, what kind of first impression was made by did the first draft under the new regime? Let’s take a look.
TJ Zeuch – RHP – 21 years old – 1st Round
The Blue Jays first round choice may not have been the guy every draft watcher was expecting, but he had a leg-up on the popularity campaign as soon as fans found out his name was pronounced very similarly to “Zoinks!” Once he was signed and got into game action, he made another good impression. He showed good results with a solid fastball/curve/slider mix that benefited from his 6’7″ frame. Most of his game action came in Vancouver where his stats reflect both quality strikeout rates and good control and command. He made two late season appearances for Lansing, where the BABiP monster raised his ERA, but the rest of his results were very good, particularly two walks and 14 strikeouts in eight IP. The organization has to be impressed by what they’ve seen so far.
J.B. Woodman – CF – 21 – 2nd Round
I’ve commented before that this was the choice I didn’t much like on draft day. I had my eye on another outfielder that they passed over in order to select Woodman, but I can’t complain about his 2016 performance. Woodman was described as not having “a true plus tool” but that he had solid fundamental skills and that’s what his performance suggest. He was praised for his defense in CF where he has an above average arm as well as for his quickness afoot (he stole 10 bases in 13 attempts) and doubles power. Plus, after a slow start in June, he slashed .301/.397/.427 over July and August in Vancouver, and OPSed 1.075 in a small sample at Lansing.
Bo Bichette – SS – 18 – 2nd Round
This, on the other hand, was the pick everyone loved initially and he went right out and made us all even more enthusiastic. The son of longtime Colorado Rockies 3B Dante Bichette set fire to the GCL using a striking unorthodox swing to pile up a .427 batting average before a bout of appendicitis sidelined him for almost six weeks. He also showed excellent power posting a .732 SLG in his 22 games played. If he can carry that over into next spring, he might get to line up with with several of his fellow 2016 draftees, and Vlad Guerrero, Jr. for the Lansing Lugnuts next year.
Zach Jackson – RHP – 21 – 3rd Round
This is another pick not everyone understood, since it’s rare that teams find a guy who’s clearly a reliever and is still worthy of a high round draft selection. Jackson made it on the field relatively late, and didn’t find much success early on, but from July 28 through the end of the season his ERA was 1.26 and began racking up the strikeouts. His walk total was a bit elevated, but you have to count this as a successful debut overall and he looks to be Lansing’s closer next season with a good spring.
Joshua Palacios - CF – 21 – 4th Round
Another college outfielder, and another player with MLB bloodlines, Palacios probably wasn’t the guy most fans assumed would step up and make a big impact, but he served notice that he was worth some coverage. After 13 fairly ordinary games in the GCL, he moved up to Vancouver and found a groove. He hit .355 for the Canadians with a .909 OPS and 17 steals in 21 tries. He and Woodman may spend a lot of time moving up the ladder together and ultimately he may give way in CF and move over to left, but if he keeps running and hitting like that, they will find a place to play him. One thing he’ll look to develop is a bit more power in his swing. He hasn’t yet hit a professional home run.
Cavan Biggio - 2B – 21 – 5th Round
The name carries weight, but no one is yet saying that his talent is reminiscent of his dad. But even though his skill set is considered more average, he got off to a good start as a professional. Through his first 18 games he was hitting .354 and seemed to be in the midst of a lot of big moments. He regressed for a while thereafter, but finished with a respectable .749 OPS and joined Zuech, Woodman, and Palacious for a cup of coffee in Lansing at year’s end.
Lower Round success stories:
8th round – Kyle Weatherly: Started off rough but turned it on in Mid-July working as a piggy-back starter/reliever, and posted a 1.57 ERA over his last six appearances (27.2 IP). Might be a sleeper for next year.
18th round – Bradley Jones: Jones has been featured twice in recent weeks in my Minor League Updates and each was well earned. Jones was drafted as a 3B but played more first than third due to the presence of Guerrero. It’s unclear to me whether he has the defensive skills to play 3B as he climbs the system, but where he is assigned next spring might be telling, if he breaks with the same team as Guerrero (which is likely to be Lansing) then they will appear to be resigned to playing him mostly at 1B. If they hold him back and send him to the Canadians then it will surely be because they want him to get regular reps at the hot corner. Offensively, he got steadily better as the season went on, hitting .346 in August with a 1.109 OPS.
32nd Round – David Jacob: Jacob is an interesting case for a lower round first baseman, as he showed a good eye (.392 OBP) with solid power. Baseball history is littered with low-round guys who looked good in short-season ball, however. File this one away for a couple of years at least.
Finally, I would be remiss to not mention Angel Alecia (20th round), Connor Eller (22nd), Brayden Bouchey (33rd) and Jared Carkoff (35th). All of them are RHP drafted out of college who pitched exclusively in relief this year and put up excellent numbers. Eller had 8.6 K/9 and the other three were all well above that. None had excessive walk numbers, the highest ERA was Alicia at 2.76, and three of the four had impressive WHIP despite heavy use. No one can say that a low-round college pitcher who debuts as a successful short season reliever is a “prospect”in any real sense, but the Danny Barnes and Matt Dermody and Aaron Loup of 2020 has to come from somewhere. In any case, this piece isn’t about being a legit prospect but about good first impressions, and these guys have reflected well on the amateur scouting so far.
Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports