The Philadelphia Phillies are on the clock with control of the first overall pick in the swiftly approaching 2016 MLB Amateur Draft..
When taking over as president of the Phillies last year, Andy MacPhail brought with him his longtime simplistic view on how to build a baseball team; grow pitching from within and buy the bats.
“My theory was that you can find the bats— you can find them and you can buy them,” said MacPhail in a spring training interview the The Morning Call’s Kevin Cooney. “But it is a known fact that if you are in the free-agent starting pitching market, there’s a lot of risk there and probably more risk there than other places.”
General Manager Matt Klentak has also emphasized the Phils desire to continue adding pitching. In the aftermath of his first big trade, the Ken Giles deal with Houston, Klentak reiterated this point: “You have to add to your inventory, short and long term. That has been a goal of our organization, and it will always be a goal of our organization going forward.”
The new Phillies management is embracing the old baseball axiom that you can never have too much pitching. With that in mind most draft experts are predicting that the Phillies will select a pitcher on June 9th to kick off this year’s MLB Amateur Draft.
The 2016 class includes three pitchers who Baseball America ranks as the top three talents in this year’s draft, led by University of Florida’s LHP A. J. Puk, who our own Matt Veasey called on the Phillies to select just last week.
The other arms ranked at the top by BA are high school pitchers Riley Pint and Jason Groome. Keep in mind these are the three top talents as rated by BA, not a prediction of where they will be drafted.
Since 1965 when Major League Baseball initiated the Amateur Draft only three high school pitchers have been selected first overall. Those three high school arms selected first overall – David Clyde (1973), Brien Taylor (1991), and Brady Aiken (2014) – have proven unable to enjoy any success at the big league level to this point.
If we’re to use history as our guide, it would be easy to say Puk should be the pick. Many Phillies fans also seem to prefer selecting a college pitcher following the rapid ascent and accomplishments of Aaron Nola, who was taken with the 7th overall pick in 2014.
That’s not to say a high school pitcher can’t make it on the big stage, and make it fast. In 2006 the Dodgers picked Clayton Kershaw out of high school with the 7th overall pick. In his age 20 season, Kershaw started 20 games. The lefty is now a 3x Cy Young Award winner and the most dominant pitcher in baseball.
The following year Madison Bumgarner was chosen 10th overall by the San Francisco Giants in the first round. Bumgarner made 18 starts in his age 20 season. For an encore, Bumgarner went 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA in four post-season starts as the Giants went on to win the 2010 World series.
With the Phillies publicly stated philosophy of building the arms from within, and the three top rated prospects by Baseball America being pitchers, it’s difficult seeing them take a position player.
Listening to Klentak speak about not rushing prospects to the Majors until the organization is certain there will be no cause to send them back down, the Phillies are clearly approaching this rebuild in what they believe is the correct way. They want to get it right rather than get it fast, if that is the choice.
If management believes that Groome or Pint has the highest upside among their options, then it wouldn’t be surprising to see them select either pitcher. The Phillies are looking for an ace, a true number one starting pitcher to anchor an already young, promising staff.
After reading numerous scouting reports by some of the industry’s foremost experts, I believe that pitcher is Jason Groome. Often compared to Kershaw, Groome is a big left-handed pitcher with a devastating 12-6 curve and dominant fastball. The standout curveball, which Groome commands so effectively, was given a 65-70 grade (on the 20-80 scale) by ESPN’s Keith Law.
Like most stand-out high school pitchers, Groome rarely throws a changeup. But scouts who have seen him consider that offering as presently average, but with good arm speed – a sign that he’s on the right track in developing the pitch further. Additional work on that changeup will give Groome three plus to plus-plus pitches when he debuts in the big leagues.
Fangraphs has predicted the Phillies will select Groome next month. Their Jesse Burkhart wrote “At 6-foot-6, the ball comes out effortlessly from a clean arm action and a mid-3/4 release with downhill angle…With more physical strength coming and a chance for three plus pitches, Groome is as advanced as a 16-year-old pitcher can be and has no discernible ceiling with these tools at this age.”
SI.com’s Cliff Corcoran wrote that “Groome is unanimously considered the top amateur baseball player in the country” and relating to the pitcher hailing from nearby Barnegat HS in New Jersey called him “something of a hometown pick for Philadelphia and thus even more likely to be the draft’s top selection.”
Perfect Game on Groome – “Just a special, special arm. Easy mid 90’s and touches upper 90’s.”
A Vanderbilt commit, Groome is certainly not a shoe-in to be the Phillies pick next month. Another of the favorites, Puk has been throwing much better after some early season struggles.
Two things concern me about Puk, however. The first is the fact that he comes from the SEC, as did Nola, who played for LSU and entered the draft after his junior season.
However, when you compare the college numbers of the two pitchers, Nola was far more effective. Nola is already pitching better than projected when the Phillies chose him with the 7th overall pick just two years ago, and his ceiling now appears to be that of a strong number 2 starter.
Nola’s career numbers at LSU were 30-6 with a 2.09 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP, and a 6.63 SO/BB ratio. Puks numbers in his three years at Florida are 16-9 with a 3.39 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP, and a 2.88 SO/BB ratio.
As the draft quickly approaches let’s look at how these pitchers did in their final collegiate junior season, more indicative of where they are entering the draft process.
Nola started 16 games and went 11-1 with a 1.47 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP. Puk has started 12 games this year for the Florida Gators. He has a 2-3 record with a 2.88 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP.
I know these most basic numbers don’t tell the whole story on either pitcher, but it’s pretty obvious Nola that had the better collegiate career. Puk may become a very good big league pitcher, but is he a future ace? This is the top overall pick we are talking about, so that is what you want to land.
My second concern regarding Puk is that he had to leave a game earlier this year with back spasms. He missed his next start, but has bounced back strong. It could be nothing, but back injuries scare me.
Since they will be investing millions of dollars in their pick, I’m confident that the Phillies will do their due diligence on Puk’s physical condition, as well as on everyone else they’re still considering.
In my opinion the Phils need to land an ace to lead their pitching staff. I believe Groome gives them the best chance of securing a true number one pitcher over the long haul.
Yes, it’s true that Groome may be a bigger gamble than Puk. But this isn’t the time for the Phillies to be timid. They need to take the pitcher they believe has the highest ceiling, not the highest floor.