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The Yankees’ faith in Clarke Schmidt is paying off

The right-hander has developed from draft-day question mark to legitimate top prospect.

MiLB: APR 16 Florida State League - Marauders at Tarpons Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2017, the Yankees made a surprising move with their first-round pick in that year’s MLB Draft, taking South Carolina pitcher Clarke Schmidt 16th overall. Schmidt was projected to go somewhere around the middle of the first round until an elbow injury derailed his season, ultimately requiring Tommy John surgery.

At the time, the Yankees’ selection of Schmidt was seen as a gamble to get an underslot first-rounder, and also pick up Matt Sauer in the second round. In our end-of-draft review that year, we described the move then as part of a larger effort to draft college pitchers as a sort of buckshot strategy; the Yankees took as many pitchers as they could up front in the draft in the hopes that a few of them would pan out, rebuilding what was a shallow part of the team’s talent pool.

Fast forward to 2020, and pitching prospects have become the majority of the organization’s top-tier talent. They’ve gotten pitchers from a variety of moves, but one of the arms leading the way and proving the club’s gamble worthwhile is Schmidt.

The Yankees have handled Schmidt carefully since drafting him; the organization has avoided putting too much stress on his repaired arm. The right-hander didn’t pitch at all in 2017, and logged only 23.1 innings in the Gulf Coast League and with the Staten Island Yankees collectively in 2018. Things ramped up in 2019, as Schmidt threw 90.2 innings and collected 102 strikeouts while pitching to a 3.47 ERA. Schmidt topped out at Double-A Trenton, but he could begin this year at Triple-A Scranton depending on how his spring goes.

Schmidt’s workload has nearly reached his peak when pitching for the Gamecocks, a sign that he’s truly ready to progress as a starter. Schmidt threw 111.1 innings for South Carolina during his sophomore season in 2016, showcasing slightly stronger strikeout material, but also finding the center of hitter’s bats more often. The quick progression back to his college form has drawn notice from baseball scouts, and this offseason Schmidt was graded as the 62nd best prospect by Baseball America.

His ascension, joining the organization’s top prospect Deivi Garcia, is a great sign that the team has improved in scouting and developing their pitchers. The Yankees took plenty of pitchers over the recent years in the first round, and before Schmidt they didn’t find a lot of success. International free agents have paid dividends for the team, netting them Garcia and one of their best pitchers in Luis Severino, but Schmidt stands out as the beginning of the team hitting on domestic pitcher development as well.

Schmidt’s road to the majors is far from finished. The 23-year-old still has to prove that he can continue to expand his innings limit, with an injury-free season hopefully seeing him throw somewhere around 140 innings. He also has to make enough of an impression to leapfrog several pitchers that are closer to the major-league rotation, with only one spot seemingly up for grabs at the moment. Based on his return to form, though, it would be a surprise if he didn’t make it at this point.