Let’s take a look at two prep players from the 2008 draft:
Player A – 4.95 ERA in 132.2 career innings. 5.8 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9 ratios.
Player B – 4.14 ERA in 215.1 career innings. 6.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9 ratios.
Player A – 27.00 ERA in 3.1 innings. 8.1 K/9, 5.4 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9 ratios.
Player B – 2.55 ERA in 49.1 innings. 8.9 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9 ratios.
In each case, Player B has been better statistically. Player A is Quinton Miller, selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 20th round of the 2008 draft. Miller was signed for $900,000, breaking a commitment to UNC. Player B is Drew Gagnon, selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 10th round of the 2008 draft. Gagnon didn’t sign, and instead went to Long Beach State University. Heading in to this season he was the 49th best prospect in the 2011 draft, according to Baseball America.
I’ve been asked a lot lately about how the over-slot prep pitchers have worked out so far, and whether the Pirates made the right moves with all of their spending. The simple answer is that it’s way too early to tell. Take Miller and Gagnon, for example. Gagnon is just now establishing himself in the draft, and despite his strong numbers this year, his stock has slipped a bit, as he no longer ranks in the top 50 prospects. Miller, on the other hand, is in his third season as a pro, and in his high-A debut he got roughed up for ten runs in 3.1 innings.
It would be easy to say that the Pirates should have gone with Gagnon over Miller. However, this gives Gagnon the benefit of the doubt. He’s unlikely to pitch at the high-A level until the 2012 season. Meanwhile, Miller will be at the level all season. Gagnon looks favorable right now, but only for the shiny new toy syndrome. He hasn’t had a chance to pitch as a pro, and for that reason he hasn’t had a chance to struggle as a pro. There are no guarantees that he will go without struggling as a pro. In fact, if we look at both players closely, we see that they have the same skill set. Both throw in the lower 90s, although Miller has touched 95 in the past. Both pitchers also need to improve on their secondary pitches.
We also need to consider alternate timelines, which are based solely on speculation. Would Miller look better right now had he gone to UNC, facing a weaker group of talent along the way? Would Gagnon look worse right now had he signed with the Pirates, going up against tougher opponents? To expand further on this topic, let’s take a look at two other players:
Player A – 3.05 ERA in 65 innings. 6.8 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9.
Player B – 1.32 ERA in 54.2 innings. 9.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 0.2 HR/9.
Player A is Zack Von Rosenberg, and reflects his career numbers as a pro. Von Rosenberg signed for $1.2 M out of high school in the 2009 draft, and is currently pitching in West Virginia. Player B is Austin Kubitza, and reflects his numbers as a freshman with Rice University. Kubitza was the seventh round pick for the Pirates last year, but went to Rice after the Pirates failed to match his $1.5-2 M signing bonus demands.
Both pitchers currently throw in the 88-91 MPH range. Both pitchers are right handers. They are both tall, projectable pitchers, which gives them the chance of adding velocity in the future. They both have a good off-speed pitch. For Von Rosenberg, it’s a curveball. For Kubitza, it’s a slider.
Kubitza looks like he could be a first round pick when he’s eligible again in 2013. Looking at his numbers, it’s easy to say that he’s equal to, or better than Von Rosenberg. But it’s not that easy to compare the two. Kubitza is going up against easier talent. Von Rosenberg isn’t focused on winning games for State College and West Virginia, but instead on developing his pitches. Von Rosenberg could reach the high-A level by the end of the 2011 season. Kubitza won’t get there until 2013-2014.
It’s hard to analyze prep pitchers this early. The 2008 prep pitchers (which is mostly just Quinton Miller) would have been in their junior year right now. Ultimately the Pirates signed guys for over-slot prices because they projected to be players who could be first or second round picks three years down the line. The idea is to get the players in the system, let them develop in the system, and have multiple first round quality pitchers, rather than the alternative, which is only being able to select one of those players the next time the draft rolls around.
It’s easy to look at Gagnon and say he could be a second round pick. It’s easy to look at Kubitza and project him as a future first round pick. We’ve seen their numbers and we’re not grading them right now. Instead, we’re projecting, and holding off grades until they reach the pro level. Miller and Von Rosenberg are at a disadvantage, as are all of the other prep pitchers all throughout the game. It’s easy to say Miller wouldn’t be a top pick, because we’ve seen how he handles the pros. However, things could have been different for him had he gone to college. When we look at Von Rosenberg, we see a guy who throws 88-91 MPH. We give time to Kubitza to develop velocity, mostly because there’s no rush for him to add that velocity. At the same time, there’s a rush with Von Rosenberg, since he’s in the system, and we’re already looking for results.
In short, the prep players who sign are at a disadvantage. They’re already in the system, which means the expectations and the grades places upon them start much earlier than they would had they gone to college. Furthermore, they’re being graded based on results at a higher level, a level that they would have reached three years later had they gone to college.
There is a desire to grade the prep pitchers right now, but the reality is that it’s too early. We want to grade Quinton Miller right now, because he’s been in the system for three years. At the same time, we forgot all about Drew Gagnon until his name started showing up on the draft eligible list this year. That’s not saying that we can’t grade Miller along the way, and can’t say that his performance so far has been poor. It just means we need some perspective. The best way to get this is to look at comparable players.
Take Rudy Owens, for example. Owens was drafted out of high school in 2006, and signed in 2007. He pitched in short season ball in 2007, then again in 2008. In 2009 he had a breakout season in West Virginia, and carried that over to Lynchburg at the end of the year. In 2010, he carried his success over to AA, where he also added velocity at the end of the year, going from 88-91 MPH to 90-93 MPH. He didn’t break out until his third year, and didn’t add velocity until his fourth year.
By comparison, Miller is currently in his third year, and guys from the 2009 prep class are in the equivalent of what was the 2008 season for Owens.
Then there’s Chris Archer, who was traded this off-season from the Chicago Cubs to the Tampa Bay Rays as part of the deal for Matt Garza. Archer was drafted out of high school in 2006. Unlike Owens, Archer signed early, and pitched 21 innings in 2006. He pitched a half season in 2007, and a full season in 2008. It wasn’t until 2009 that he had a breakout season, putting up a 2.81 ERA in 109 innings in low-A. That came in his fourth year as a pro. He didn’t show up in the Baseball America handbook until 2010, when he was rated the 15th best prospect in the system. It wasn’t until 2011 that he turned in to the Cubs’ top prospect, allowing them to deal him to Tampa Bay for Garza. Along the way, he added velocity, going up to 92-94 MPH, and topping out at 97.
Archer took five seasons to go from being drafted to being a top prospect. In that time he added velocity, most of it coming over the last three years. It should also be pointed out that he’s still not a guarantee, as his control has been horrible at the AA level, and he hasn’t pitched above that level yet. By comparison, 2013 would be Quinton Miller’s fifth year in the system, and 2014 would be Zack Von Rosenberg’s fifth year in the system.
That’s something to keep in mind when we look at top prospect lists, especially ones that focus on the league as a whole. The Pirates have paid a lot to sign guys like Miller and Von Rosenberg, so the expectations are that some of those players will start to show up on the top 100 prospect lists, like Archer has. Every player is different, so we can’t assume the same timelines for each player, but looking at Owens and Archer as two examples, we can see that it’s still early to grade Miller, and way too early to grade Von Rosenberg. We can still grade their progress along the way, but it has to come with the proper perspective and the proper level of expectations.
The Pirates have put a ton of focus on the prep players in the last three drafts, so the obvious thing to do would be to focus on those players, and grade them every step of the way. That said, if you’re expecting those players to see a velocity jump from 88-91 MPH to the mid-90s right away, then your expectations are unreasonable. If you’re expecting them to be some of the top prospects in baseball after their first full season as a pro, then your expectations are unreasonable. On the other hand, if you’re grading them along the way, but giving them 3-5 years in the pros to fully establish themselves or add velocity, then you’re taking the correct approach.
So if you’re asking me how the prep players look, and whether the Pirates have made the right decisions, I could tell you how they’re doing so far. However, we’re going to have to wait a few years before we can start getting conclusive opinions on any of the players.