About a month ago, Nick Piecoro of AZCentral.com put together a remarkable article. I was skeptical, but Piecoro is not your average sports writer. He’s privy to the likes of advanced metrics and you can find his name popping up on FanGraphs from time to time. He’s an excellent source of Diamondbacks information and you really should read him.
This article was unique and not unique at the same time. It was unique in the sense that Piecoro managed to interview the scouts that drafted Arizona’s top eleven picks in the 2013 draft and hear their thoughts about each kid after scouting them for months or even years. This is a perspective that we don’t get to encounter very often and the opportunity should be enjoyed. This article was not unique in the sense that this is the third year that Piecoro has done this feature and, lucky for us, we can read the archived pieces, too!
In the space below, I’m going to check-in on the progress of the eleven rookies mentioned in Piecoro’s article and you can see just how far they’ve come since being drafted. If you have the time, I strongly suggest that you read Piecoro’s article first, then proceed to the analysis of their rookie campaigns.
1st Round (#15): RHP Braden Shipley, University of Nevada
Shipley was a guy who shot up draft boards in the weeks leading up to his selection. There were thoughts that he could go sixth overall to the Marlins, but once they passed, it became clear that the Diamondbacks would have a chance to land him. He began his college career as a shortstop and moved to the mound during his sophomore season. By the time his junior season ended, he was a first round selection. The thing you’ll notice in all of the pre-draft comments about Shipley is that he’s nowhere near his potential because he has only been pitching for a couple of years. With that said, he’s already got the stuff to be a successful pitcher and is a very athletic kid, so the thought is that once he irons out the little things with experience and professional coaching, he’ll really have a chance to become dominant.
Since turning pro, he’s had his role reduced simply to avoid wear and tear on his arm. He’s never thrown a lot of innings at a high level, so the Diamondbacks are easing him into his pro career. At Hillsboro of the Northwest League, he made two and three-inning starts so as not to overexpose him. He was recently promoted to South Bend of Midwest League where he’s made two five-inning starts.
Overall, he’s been hit around a little bit but the strikeout totals are there and he’s not walking batters very often. Also of note, he’s generating a lot of ground balls, something that a pitcher has to do to be successful at Chase Field. It’s obviously very early to draw any conclusions about Shipley, but you have to like what you see given that he pitched a full college season and is now 29 innings into his pro career, far more than he’s pitched at any other point. He’s held his own in Single-A and will probably start there again in 2014.
The Verdict: successful debut but not earth-shattering.
Supplemental 1st Round (#36): RHP Aaron Blair, Marshall
Blair has followed Shipley in the minors from Hillboro to South Bend. Maybe it’s intentional and maybe it’s not, but it would appear that the organization is trying to move them along together, which would make sense given that they were both advanced college pitchers when drafted.
In the Northwest League, Blair was given a longer leash and he gave up fewer hits, but he walked more batters and struck out fewer than Shipley. He’s more of a pitch-to-contact guy than a pure strikeout man but has the velocity to be a power pitcher when needed. His changeup is well ahead of his curve from reports. He has a big frame (6’5″, 230lbs) and looks to be a workhorse in the making.
I’m not sure how high the ceiling is for Blair. I get the feeling that he was a very safe pick but not a guy that is expected to ever be dominant at the major league level. A lot of that depends on his development of the curveball because a strong third pitch could really propel him.
The Verdict: solid debut but not spectacular in any way.
2nd Round (#52): OF Justin Williams, LA High School
Recently promoted to Missoula of the Pioneer League, Williams is a big kid with big power. He was highly-touted out of high school and it came as no surprise when he was taken in the second round. Raw power is hard to come by and Williams has the body and strength to produce it.
Like most high school selections, he’s a raw talent. The approach at the plate will have to change given that he’s struck out 40 times in 45 games while only walking nine times. The balance in those numbers will come with professional instructions and more appearances against advanced pitching. Reports paint a picture of Williams as a very hard working kid with a desire to learn, so growth is definitely expected. The pop is there even though he’s only hit one home run this season, as is evidenced by his 16 doubles.
Williams’ body will likely limit him to left field, especially as he ages. He’s thick but powerful and athletic for his size. It’s going to be a long climb for him and his fellow high school draftees, but the future is bright.
The Verdict: nice rookie campaign with plenty of encouraging signs.
3rd Round (#88): 1B Daniel Palka, Georgia Tech
Palka was assigned to Missoula of the Pioneer League to begin his debut. It was a surprising start for a guy that was thought to be a solid college bat with power. He destroyed the Pioneer League for two-plus months before being promoted to Hillsboro of the Northwest League just last week.
A power bat out of Georgia Tech, Palka has kept up the reputation during his debut. In 59 games, he’s hit eight home runs and 20 doubles while avoiding big strikeout numbers and taking plenty of walks. Described as a masher, Palka has done just that since turning pro.
Palka’s body will limit him to first, so the bat is going to have to keep carrying him. So far, so good, though, and he’ll have to keep the production up if he wants to make a real case for himself. I’d like to see him reach at least High-A before 2014 is over and I think he has a real chance at that, if not more.
The Verdict: impressive debut but only played at lower levels.
4th Round (#120): OF Matt McPhearson, MD High School
McPhearson is another kid who was highly-touted out of high school. His athleticism is undeniable and I was very impressed when I saw him in the AZL in person last month. The kid can fly and has center fielder written all over him.
At 5’8″ and 165-pounds, he’s never going to be expected to hit for much power but he can put it in the gap on occasion. He’s really struggled to adjust to pro pitching in his first season, striking out 41 times in 38 games in the Arizona Rookie League. He’s taken quite a few walks, though, suggesting that it’s not his understanding of the strikezone that needs to change but rather something mechanical. He’s swiped 15 bags in 18 tries, so the speed is there and definitely useful.
The sky is the limit for McPhearson but adjustments will clearly need to be made. Luckily for him, he’ll be surrounded by professional coaching from this point forward. Like Williams, he’ll have to climb the ladder and we shouldn’t expect a ton right out of the chute. Instead, look for him to develop slowly over time.
The Verdict: slow start but the tools are there.
5th Round (#150): INF Jamie Westbrook, AZ High School
A local product out of Gilbert, Arizona, Westbrook is described as a tremendous talent with a great work ethic. He’s a thick kid who is pretty compact, but there’s power in his body. He’s strong and athletic despite his vertical limitations. Seeing him in person, I was really impressed with the athleticism and power, especially to the opposite field. The kid can hit.
Originally assigned to the Arizona Rookie League, Westbrook was just promoted to Missoula. He handled the AZL with ease, hitting a homer, eight doubles and eight triples in just 40 games. His 21:17 K:BB ration was very impressive, too. It’s been tougher sledding since the promotion, but he’ll work through it and grow along the way.
Second base is the eventual home for Westbrook. He can play short in a pinch, but second is where his body will force him to play the vast majority of his innings. The bat will have to continue to click but his swing is compact and he’s got some pop, so I think he’ll continue to hit. He has a some plate discipline, too, so although he has a long way to go, he’ll likely continue identify pitches that are worth swinging at and drive them.
The Verdict: good start with lots to be excited about.
6th Round (#180): OF Colin Bray, Faulkner State College
A good athlete with room to fill out, Bray is long and slender at 6’4″ and 205-pounds. He’s a plus runner with excellent speed on the bases and out of the box. A former football standout, he’s got strength, too, but isn’t necessarily a power hitter. He is making adjustments to his swing now that he’s reached pro ball as most young hitters do.
His pro debut in the Pioneer League has been relatively successful. He’s hit for average and gotten on base at a reasonable clip, but strikeouts have been a little problematic as he’s racked up 52 strikeouts in 54 games. It’s not an appalling total, but something you’d like to see improve given that the caliber of pitching he’ll see will only improve as he moves up. The power department has been somewhat disappointing as he only has 12 extra-base hits in 231 at-bats, but he wasn’t necessarily drafted to be a power hitter.
The frame and athleticism are things worth getting excited about. He has an ability to put the bat on the ball and one would think that the power will come. He’s not likely to ever be a real home run threat but instead more a doubles hitter who hits for average. Reports of him being a plus fielder are encouraging and I’d imagine the organization will keep him in center as long as possible. He’s 14 for 20 in stolen bases on the year and his base-stealing is likely to improve through coaching as well.
The Verdict: good athlete, nice debut but time will tell on adjustments.
7th Round (#210): LHP Daniel Gibson, University of Florida
Gibson was taken out of the University of Florida and assigned to the Hillsboro Hops. He was very good in the Northwest League and was recently promoted to Single-A South Bend where it’s been more of the same in a small sample. A lefty reliever, he was a solid prospect out of high school but went to Florida on scholarship and had an up and down career with the Gators. He has good velocity for a lefty and is noted for having a little deception in his delivery, increasing his effectiveness.
As a reliever, the first thing I look for are splits, especially with a lefty. Gibson has been effective against both righties and lefties thus far in his debut, which is very encouraging. The strikeout totals are right where you’d like to see them and he’s limited the walks and hits. Perhaps most encouraging is the number of ground balls that he’s generating. I’ve touched on it before, but ground balls are critical at Chase since fly balls have a way of finding themselves over the fence (see: David Hernandez).
The signs are clearly encouraging. It appears that the organization has decided to leave Gibson in the relief role and he can move quickly there. His ultimate utility will be decided upon whether or not he can consistently get righties out at the higher levels. But, so far, so good.
The Verdict: excellent debut, could move up the ladder very fast.
8th Round (#240): RHP Brad Keller, GA High School
If there’s one scouting story that’s a “must-read” in Piecoro’s article, it the one about Keller. It’s phenomenal. Do yourself a favor and read it!
Since being signed, Keller has pitched in the Arizona Rookie League and has done so with impressive results. He’s a big kid at 6’5″ and 230-pounds. Professional strength and conditioning will help him maximize that size and use it to his advantage. His velocity took a nice jump during his senior year of high school and into the pros with him now reaching 93mph. As he gets stronger and refines his mechanics, I’d even look for that to improve a tick.
In 54 innings this year, Keller has struck out 59 and walked 21. He generates a fair share of ground balls, too. Given how raw he was out of high school, I’ll take this all day long. Opponents are only hitting .276 against him, which is pretty impressive given that the defense behind him is rough around the edges.
I saw Keller in person late in July and was really impressed. He actually didn’t start the game but relieved Dallas Newton after the fourth inning. Keller came in and immediately attacked hitters with the fastball. As scout TR Lewis notes, he’s fearless and came out firing. I love the bulldog makeup of this guy as he doesn’t nibble. He has a plan and he just pounds the zone. I’m excited to see what the future holds for Keller as I think with refinement and coaching he’s got the chance to be a steal for the organization in the eighth round.
The Verdict: excellent rookie season, adjustments will only make him better.
9th Round (#270): C Grant Nelson, St. Louis University
Nelson is unique in that he made a position switch before his senior year of college and went behind the plate from third base. As a third baseman, he was an underwhelming prospect in that he lacked the range scouts like to see there. Behind the plate, he has plus athleticism and strength, including a very good arm. The bat lagged behind his defense and that’s really the question for him.
As no surprise, he’s struggled to adjust to professional pitching. He started in the Northwest League but wasn’t playing regularly and didn’t hit well at all. He was recently sent down to Missoula of the Pioneer League and has continued to struggle at the plate in a small sample. The strikeouts are rather worrisome and he clearly has adjustments to make.
Nelson has had a rough debut, but that was somewhat expected. He’ll refine his swing and approach over the winter and likely spend time in extended spring training next year to grow his ability as both a hitter and catcher. He’s got a long ways to go and we’ll know a lot more by the end of 2014.
The Verdict: tough start, lots of work to do.
10th Round (#300): RHP Jimmie Sherfy, University of Oregon
Sherfy is a really tough player for me to talk about. Given that the author is an Oregon State Beaver through and through and that Sherfy pitched for the Oregon Ducks, I’ve had an internal struggle about the guy. Fortunately, he doing very well for himself and looks like a guy that can help the Diamondbacks’ bullpen in the relatively near future, so I suppose an exception can be made.
He’s a funky right-handed reliever all the way and has been flat-out dominant in his rookie campaign. He destroyed the Northwest League before being promoted to Single-A South Bend where he’s kept up the pace. He’s striking out nearly two batters an innings and walking no one. In 14 appearances, he’s only given up seven hits and one earned run, showcasing his dominance. With velocity in the mid 90’s, Sherfy can really mow ’em down.
The ceiling is that of a 8th or 9th inning guy down the road. He has the stuff and the persona for high-leverage situations. He’s not a big guy but is a great athlete and should continue to be very successful as he climbs the ladder. At this point, I’d love to see him reach AA by the end of 2014 and he could see the major as soon as late 2015.
The Verdict: great debut, totally dominant, needs to be challenged.
Of the eleven players picked in the first ten rounds, only two players (McPhearson and Nelson) have really struggled. Three have really dominated (Sherfy, Gibson and Palka) while most others have been solid players with lots of upside still intact. It’s way too early to give this draft a grade, but you have to like what you see as the early indications are mostly very good across the board.
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