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Checking back in on the Yankees’ 2017 Draft class: the first five rounds

With a farm system filled with position players, the Yankees went all-in on right-handed starting pitching in 2017.

Chicago Cubs v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Headed into the 2017 season, the Yankees had a farm system that was highly-rated, but position-player centric. Seven of the top 10 prospects, including the top five, were position players — and that’s not including Gary Sánchez, who had exhausted his prospect status when he took over the American League for the final two months of 2016, and Greg Bird, who had missed the previous year due to injuries but had stormed onto the scene at the end of the 2015 season.

Cognizant of their organization’s makeup, the Yankees approached the 2017 MLB Draft with a clear strategy in mind: draft all the pitchers. Out of the 40 picks the team made, 28 were pitchers, most of whom were of the right-handed college arms. The idea, at the time, seemed to be that with that many arms, at least some of them had to amount to something. That was five years ago this week. How has this draft held up? Let’s take a look back and see where those prospects stand today.

Round 1: Clarke Schmidt

With the 16th pick of the draft, the Yankees selected Clarke Schmidt, a pitcher from the University of South Carolina. At the time, it was hard to say whether the pick was a reach or that the Yankees had been able to secure somebody who slid down the board — Schmidt had started the year ranked in the 40s, had been steadily climbing the draft boards, then had his season cut short in April due to a UCL tear that required Tommy John surgery.

Needless to say, the pick confused many people, as was reflected in the poll we ran here at PSA immediately after the pick was in.

After making his debut in 2018, Schmidt steadily climbed through the system, reaching Double-A Trenton by the end of 2019 and becoming the Yankees’ second-ranked prospect according to MLB.com. He would have a cup of coffee with the big league club during the 2020 season before returning to Triple-A Scranton during an injury-filled 2021 season that saw him throw only 41 innings at a professional level.

While the Yankees still view him as a starter long-term, Schmidt is slowly establishing himself as an important part of the 2022 bullpen, with a 3.26 ERA in 19 innings across 11 appearances.

Round 2: Matt Sauer

Back in 2017, Matt Sauer was considered the coup of the draft. A pitcher from Ernest Righetti High School, Sauer fell out of the first round due to his commitment to the University of Arizona. Using the money saved from signing Schmidt under-slot, the Yankees were able to pry him away from his college commitment.

Needless to say, the PSA readership was thrilled.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, things immediately went downhill from here. Sauer took a bit of time adjusting to professional hitters, and then required Tommy John surgery two starts into the 2019 season. Although the 2020 cancellation of the minor league season hampered the development of most pitchers, Sauer used that time to get healthy. He is currently with the High-A Hudson Valley Renegades, pitching to a 3.02 ERA in his first 10 starts.

While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Sauer sits among prospects, it’s important to note that he’s just 23 years old, the exact average age for pitchers at the High-A level. For what it’s worth, FanGraphs seems fairly high on him despite ranking him 24th among Yankees prospects, saying that, “If he can remain healthy, he looks like a future part of a big league rotation.”

Round 3: Trevor Stephan

Taken by the Boston Red Sox in the 18th round after an elite season as the closer for Hill College, Trevor Stephan opted to transfer to Arkansas, where he would be converted into a starter, instead of signing. That proved to be the prudent move for the right-hander, as he parlayed a strong season into a third-round selection by the New York Yankees.

Our readers were optimistic, even if they considered him to be a tier below Sauer. After all, why wouldn’t they be optimistic? If Stephan panned out, they basically stole a pitching prospect from the Red Sox, thanks to his decision to bet on himself.

Stephan had a strong debut with the Short-Season Staten Island Yankees in 2017, with a 1.39 ERA across 10 appearances (nine starts). A strong start with the Single-A Tampa Tarpons earned him a promotion to Double-A Trenton early in 2018. All signs pointed to a player that might force his way onto the fast-track for the big leagues, and although he struggled with his command at Trenton, he cracked the Yankees’ Top 10 prospects prior to the 2019 season. Unfortunately, the bottom fell out in 2019 to the point that he was returned to Tampa for six weeks in an attempt to get him back on track.

Headed into the 2020-2021 offseason, Stephan was a former Top 10 prospect who had not yet reached Triple-A and who had not pitched professionally for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this, the Yankees declined to add him to the 40-man roster after the season, leaving him unprotected from the Rule V Draft. Cleveland, however, liked what they saw from him at the end of the 2019 season and, believing that he was ready for a bullpen role at the major league level, selected him with the 15th overall pick in the draft.

He made the roster after an impressive spring training, striking out 16 batters while walking just two in 10 innings of work. Over the past year and two months, Stephan has carved out a role in the Guardians bullpen, and while he has yet to gain consistent trust in high-leverage innings, all signs point to a long career as a middle reliever.

Round 4: Canaan Smith-Njigba

Finally, in the fourth round of the draft, the Yankees picked a position player, Canaan Smith-Njigba. A first baseman/catcher out of Rockwell-Heath High School who the Yankees announced as an outfielder, Smith-Njigba looked like the prototypical Yankees slugger. Left-handed bat? Check. Six-foot, 210 pounds, with room to grow at 18 years old? Check. Strong plate discipline? He walked 57 times as a senior in high school, so check-plus.

The PSA readership — or at least, those still tuned in to the draft four rounds in — were understandably thrilled.

Joining the Yankees’ Gulf Coast League team right after the draft, Smith-Njigba made a strong impression right out of the gate with a .289/.430/.423 slash line. Unfortunately, he struggled with the Staten Island Yankees in 2018 to the tune of a .191/.281/.316 slash. Despite this, the Yankees opted to promote him to full-season ball in 2019 as a 20-year-old, and fortunately, he did not disappoint: he hit 11 home runs and 32 doubles in 124 games, adding up to a 154 wRC+; additionally, he flashed some speed, swiping 16 bases and recording three triples.

Smith-Njigba’s value as a prospect had not been higher, and with the Yankees already having more than their share of corner outfielders, first basemen, and designated hitters, Brian Cashman decided that the 2020-21 offseason was time to cash in. He sent the 22-year-old, along with three other prospects, to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for pitcher Jameson Taillon.

At the moment, it looks like the Yankees made the right move. Smith-Njigba has immense power potential and is reportedly being called up today, but so far in his career, it remains just potential — he hits the ball on the ground almost two-thirds of the time, not exactly a recipe for extra-base hits. Taillon, meanwhile, has been a critical part of the best starting rotation in baseball this season. Even if Smith-Njigba learns how to properly elevate the ball, it’s unlikely that the Yankees will be feeling too much remorse on this deal.

Round 5: Glenn Otto

After deviating from their pattern in the fourth round, the Yankees went right back to the right-handed pitcher well in the fifth, selecting Glenn Otto from Rice University. While in college, Otto primarily worked out of the bullpen, striking out 11.6 batters per nine across three seasons. Pitching through shoulder injuries in his final season, Otto struggled compared to his normal standards, allowing as many runs as he had in the previous two seasons combined.

Ever the optimists when it comes to prospects, our readers once again were fairly high on Otto upon his selection, although we were definitely getting to the point of the draft where “I barely even know who you are” would win in a landslide if it were an option.

Due to his fairly low velocity and despite his arm trouble, the Yankees set out to turn Otto into a starter. Unfortunately, it took two years for that experiment to get off the ground, as Otto largely pitched out of the bullpen with the Staten Island Yankees in 2017 and spent most of 2018 on the shelf due to blood clots in his shoulder.

Once he got on the mound in 2019, he pitched well as a member of the Tampa Tarpons, posting a 3.83 ERA. He did, however, battle rib injuries that limited him to 14 appearances (12 starts). Because of this, he opted to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, and in truth, it was as a member of the Surprise Saguaros that Otto began to put himself on the map as a prospect, as he allowed just five runs on 10 hits in 24 innings of work, striking out more than a batter per inning in the process.

Following the cancelled 2020 season, Otto started 2021 as a member of the Double-A Somerset Patriots. He pitched extremely well, posting a 3.17 ERA and a sub-1.000 WHIP in 65.1 innings, earning him a promotion to Triple-A Scranton. After just two starts as a member of the RailRiders, he was on the move again — this time headed to the Texas Rangers as part of the blockbuster deal that brought Joey Gallo to the Bronx.

Otto made his MLB debut throwing five shutout innings against the Houston Astros on August 27, 2021, and although he did struggle down the stretch last season, he has begun to establish himself as a solid bottom-of-the-rotation piece for the Texas Rangers, with a 4.24 ERA (5.12 FIP) across eight starts so far this season.