Last week I took a look at the Yankees’ 2018 draft class to see how some of their selections have performed in their first taste of professional baseball. Some of their draft picks got off to hot starts in rookie ball and a couple players have started to stand out as potential steals, but the sample sizes are so small that it’s hard to make a real evaluation in a lot of cases. This week I took a look at the 2017 draft class to get a feel for how the Yankees did in their draft evaluations now that there’s a legitimate sample size to dissect.
The Yankees made a clear decision to prioritize pitching with their high profile selections in 2017. In the first round they took a chance on Clarke Schmidt, a pitcher who stood out in the SEC, but was recovering from a recent Tommy John surgery when the Yankees made him the 16th overall selection. Schmidt signed for $2.18 million, well below slot, and spent most of his first minor league season rehabbing his elbow. In six starts this season, Schmidt has posted a 4.23 ERA and a 3.14 FIP, while striking out 8.78 batters per nine innings. At 23-years-old, Schmidt could move quickly through the system, as long as he proves he’s durable enough to handle a starter’s workload.
The Yankees used the money saved on Schmidt to sign high school pitcher Matt Sauer with a $2.5 million bonus in the second round. Sauer recorded a 3.90 ERA in 67 innings last season, a solid campaign for a 19-year-old pitcher in Low-A ball. Unfortunately, Sauer only made two starts in 2019 before going down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. Sauer has impressive stuff, with a mid-90’s fastball and a sharp breaking ball, but his future value rests on his Tommy John recovery for now.
In the third round, the Yankees turned their attention back to the SEC and selected Trevor Stephan out of Arkansas. Stephan dominated at Low-A in 2017 and High-A to start 2018, before earning a promotion to Trenton. He wasn’t quite as good in 83.1 Double-A innings, but posted a respectable 3.95 xFIP. The right-hander features a running fastball in the low-to-mid-90s and a slider that could make him an intriguing bullpen option in the future. Stephan has a combined 3.65 ERA and 3.71 strikeout to walk ratio in 172.2 minor league seasons since he was drafted, so the Yankees have to be intrigued by his potential moving forward. Because it’s 2019 and he’s property of the New York Yankees, Stephan is currently sidelined with a back injury, but at least it’s not his arm.
With their fourth round pick, the Yankees selected their first position player, high school outfielder Canaan Smith. In fact, Smith is the only position player drafted by the Yankees in the first 11 rounds of the 2017 draft. It looks like they might have done well to select the six-foot, 215 pound outfielder. Smith was outstanding in his rookie league debut, posting a .289/.430/.422 slash line in 57 games, but took a step back in 2018. Smith recovered nicely and is having the best stretch of his career to start 2019. The stocky outfielder has a .922 OPS in 30 games at Charleston this season and owns an impressive 164 wRC+. The Yankees might have found themselves a reliable bat and a future big leaguer in the fourth round.
The Yankees continued to stockpile pitchers when they grabbed 6-foot-5 right hander Glenn Otto in the fifth round out of Rice. Now ranked as the Yankees’ No. 26 overall prospect, Otto has only pitched 53 minor league innings, but the results have been good. His 10.72 K/9 is a good indication of his above average stuff, and his combined 2.38 ERA is impressive, especially considering he’s struggled with command at times.
In rounds six through eleven the Yankees continued to stockpile pitchers, and many of them have posted respectable minor league numbers. Right-hander Dalton Higgins, the Yankees’ sixth round pick, has been utterly dominant out of the Charleston bullpen in 2019. Higgins has punched out 23 batters and walked zero in 17 innings in Low-A with a 1.59 ERA so far this season.
In hindsight, the Yankees can’t be too disappointed with their pitching selections of Schmidt, Sauer, Stephan, and Otto in the first five rounds of the draft. While none of the four project to be future stars, all four pitchers rank in New York’s top 26 prospects (MLB.com) two years later and have showed enough to suggest they could have MLB futures. In addition, the selection of Smith as their one notable position player investment looks to be a pretty good one as well. The final evaluation of the 2017 draft class could very well hinge on Schmidt’s ability to remain a starter, as the other four arms have more of a typical relief pitcher’s repertoire. The Yankees very rarely have picks at the very top of the draft, so finding solid MLB caliber talent throughout the first few rounds is paramount. Finding the occasional Aaron Judge doesn’t hurt either.