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Clarke Schmidt has reached a pivotal point in his Yankees development

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Approaching five years since being drafted, former first-round pick Clarke Schimdt still has a lot to prove as he tries to carve out a consistent major league role.

Cleveland Indians v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Yankees surprised many in the 2017 draft when they selected Clarke Schmidt with the 16th overall pick in the first round. Schmidt had been trending toward top-10 pick territory before blowing out his elbow late in the college season for South Carolina. The Yankees took him, knowing that they would have a talented pitcher waiting on the backside of his rehab. However, it’s now been almost five years since Schmidt was drafted, and the near-26-year-old has yet to carve out a steady role with the major league team. The upcoming season will thus be crucial for his development, as he’s still a long way from establishing himself as a major league regular.

Schmidt recovered to begin his professional career late in the summer of 2018. After a handful of outings with the Yankees’ two Gulf Coast League teams, Schmidt arrived in Staten Island for a pair of Short-Season-A outings before wrapping up his campaign with just 23.1 innings pitched. He pitched his last game on August 5th that season and the workload was considered modest, even by the light standards of a player coming back from Tommy John surgery.

The right-hander headed into 2019 nearly two full years removed from his procedure and with all the expectations that come to first-round pitchers with a strong college pedigree. Even as Schmidt put in his heaviest workload as a professional on the field by tossing just over 90 innings on the season, it was not incident-free. He would be sidelined in late-May when he experienced pain in his forearm, and the recovery cost him nearly a month of the minor league season. He had also missed a little over two weeks earlier in the year with a minor injury.

In a perfect world, Schmidt’s 90-inning total would have led into a season where he could have followed up with a heavier workload, but that did not happen. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was limited to working at the alternate training site in Scranton. It was reported that he threw just over 50 innings there, while earning a callup to the major leagues late in the season (appearing in there games).

Coming out of the pandemic-shortened season and with the Yankees penciling in a starting rotation where three potential options had not thrown many innings the previous year, it looked like Schimdt would be on the shortlist to fill the holes that always arise in a starting rotation. But it was not to be, as an elbow injury in spring training sidelined the righty before his 2021 campaign could take off. The pain — which he described as similar to tennis elbow — lasted well into the season and limited him to just 44.1 innings across the minors and majors.

Heading into 2022, Schmidt has thrown just 164.2 innings as a professional. Even in the age of reduced workload for major league starters, the Yankees had three pitchers throw more than 140 innings last season, and four reach that mark in 2019.

Considering that Schmidt has both MLB and Triple-A experience, he could be in competition for a major league roster spot before the end of spring training. After all, the Yankees used 15 different starting pitchers in 2021, with 12 of them (including Schimdt, briefly), working in the traditional starter role and not just as an opener. There will certainly be a role for Schimdt in the Bronx at some point in the season if he can reach out and grab it.

Despite his recent history of injuries, Schmidt is still considered one of the Yankees’ top 10 prospects by MLB.com, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus heading into 2022. In addition, while not ranked as one of their top 10 Yankees prospects, Baseball America believes he has the best curveball in the team’s minor league system. The talent is there to be a major league starter, but questions are understandably starting to emerge as to whether Schmidt can remain on the field often enough to maximize his ability.

Clarke Schmidt has something to prove this coming year. He has been generally successful on the field in the minor leagues, but those results have not carried to the major league level, albeit in a small sample size. 2022 will be a big year for Schmidt to show that he can handle the starter’s workload and potentially break through as one of the starting pitching options during the year and moving forward.