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General | Top Ten | 5/11/2009

Prep Pitchers Are Risky

David Rawnsley     

High-school pitchers are historically one of the most-debated prospect demographics among scouts. Some teams go to the extent of a de-facto policy against drafting a high-school arm at the top end of the draft, believing that young pitchers are too risky to warrant offering a seven-figure signing bonus to sign.


Looking back at a decade of draft history, one can see a definite trend away from high-school pitchers in the first round. From 1999 to 2002, there was an average of eight high-school pitchers selected in the first round each year. Over the last four years, that average is 4.25—even with an exceptional class in 2007.


Here’s a look back over the last 10 years at high-school pitchers taken among the top 30 picks, and how they have fared (the number selected in the first round is noted in parentheses):


1999 (8)

Texan Josh Beckett could have been the first and only high-school righthander ever taken first overall in the draft, but the Devil Rays opted for Josh Hamilton instead. Beckett went second to the Marlins. The Phillies’ Brett Myers was a solid pick at No. 12, but two pitchers (Josh Girdley/Expos and the late Gerik Baxter/Padres) topped out in low Class A.


2000 (8)

Many were taken, but few excelled. There were five high-school pitchers selected in the top 10 picks and none, inexplicably, ever pitched in the big leagues, including the infamous Matt Harrington, selected seventh overall by the Rockies. Righthander Adam Wainwright, picked 29th overall by the Braves, has had the only consistently-successful big-league career, though most of his success has been with the Cardinals.


2001 (9)

Four of the decade-high nine pitchers have reached the majors. Gavin Floyd was picked fourth by the Phillies and yet found his niche with the White Sox, while Jeremy Bonderman has been successful in Detroit after being selected by the A’s. Texas righthander Colt Griffin, the eighth pick overall, was definitely among the least successful—despite being the first prep pitcher on record to reach 100 mph.


2002 (7)

The first three high-school pitchers picked that year were Chris Gruler (Reds/3rd), Adam Loewen (Orioles/4th) and Clint Everts (Expos/5th). The other four selected in the first round were Zach Greinke (Royals/6th), Scott Kazmir (Mets/15th), Cole Hamels (Phillies/17th) and Matt Cain (Giants/25th). Wrong order obviously, but teams did eventually identify four of the top young arms in the game.


2003 (3)

Twenty position players were taken among the first 30 picks in an unusually hitter-oriented draft class. John Danks (Rangers/9th) and Chad Billingsley (Dodgers/24th) were two of only three-high school pitchers selected.


2004 (6)

While four of the six high-school pitchers taken have reached the big leagues, none has distinguished himself yet, although Phil Hughes (Yankees/23rd) has shown flashes.


2005 (3)

The high-risk factor often associated with high-school pitchers is graphically evident this year. The Marlins’ Chris Volstad was the first prep pitcher selected—at a very late 16th overall. By all indications, he is a future No. 1-type starter for the Marlins. Lefthander Mark Pawelek was the next pitcher, by the Cubs at No. 20, and has already been released.


2006 (5)

The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the first high-school pick at No. 7, has shot ahead of his peers in this draft group.


2007 (7)

This draft produced an exceptional group of young pitchers, none better than Rick Porcello, who the Tigers stole with the 27th overall pick. Others, like Jarrod Parker (Diamondbacks/9th), Madison Bumgarner (Giants/10th) and Tim Alderson (Giants/22nd), will be joining Porcello in the big leagues before long.


2008 (2)

This was the antithesis of the 2007 class with only two high-school pitchers selected. Only one, converted third baseman Ethan Martin (Dodgers/15th), signed, while the other Gerrit Cole (Yankees/27th) ended up in college.


So with that checkered history as a backdrop, what’s going to happen in 2009?


Although there is no singular pitcher who stands out above his peers like Porcello, Kershaw or Beckett did in their draft years, there is a core of six arms who appear to have established themselves firmly as first-round picks: The half-dozen are lefthanders Matt Purke and Tyler Matzek, and righthanders Jacob Turner, Zach Wheeler, Shelby Miller and Matt Hobgood.


While high-school pitchers are notoriously fickle and inconsistent in their performances, this group has been solid virtually every time out this spring, showing scouts mid-90s fastballs, pitching deep into games and most importantly, staying healthy. All except Hobgood were consensus first-rounders coming into the spring and have maintained their draft stock in virtually the same slot they began the season.


Who comes after these preferred six is more of a guessing game.


Mychal Givens entered the spring near the top of the draft charts, but his velocity has not stood out as it did on the showcase circuit last summer and some scouts have reversed course and see again as primarily a shortstop. There have been other top pitchers such as Michael Heller, Colton Cain, Slade Heathcott and David Renfroe who are also top-level position prospects. Very few young pitchers have been set back by injury, with Chad Thompson (Tommy John surgery) being the most obvious exception.


As for the top 10 prep pitchers overall in this year’s draft, here’s how the PG Crosschecker staff sees them and their possible draft position with the 2009 draft just a month away.

Rank Pitcher Pos# High School/Hometown Projected Pick/Range
1 Matthew Purke LHP Klein HS, Spring, Texas 5th-10th
2 Tyler Matzek LHP Capistrano Valley HS, Mission Viejo, Calif. 8th-12th
3 Zack Wheeler RHP East Paulding HS, Dallas, Ga. 8th-15th
4 Shelby Miller RHP Brownwood (Texas) HS 12th-20th
5 Jacob Turner RHP Westminster Christian Academy, St. Charles, Mo. 15th-20th
6 Matt Hobgood RHP Norco (Calif.) HS 20th-30th
8 Chad James LHP Yukon (Okla.) HS 25th-40th
7 Keyvious Sampson RHP Ocala Forest HS, Ocala, Fla. 30th-40th
9 Brody Colvin RHP St. Thomas More HS, Lafayette, La. 35th-45th
10 Michael Heller RHP Cardinal Mooney HS, Bradenton, Fla. 40th-50th
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