Yesterday, we began our five-year retrospective on the 2017 MLB Draft by looking at how the Yankees’ first five picks have panned out so far. Needless to say, at this point in time, the top of that draft class is looking pretty good, with a back-of-the-rotation starter, a solid bullpen piece who profiles as a potential starter, a solid middle reliever, a potential starter still in the minors, and an outfielder who was called up to the big leagues for the first time yesterday afternoon counted among the team’s draft haul. Not a bad group of players, that’s for sure.
A draft is more than just five rounds, however (ignoring, of course, the pandemic-shortened 2020 draft), and in many ways, the difference between a good team and a great one is how they are at finding major league contributors after the first few rounds. While, as there always are, far more misses than hits at this stage of the draft — several of the players the Yankees selected between Rounds 5 and 13 were out of baseball after the 2019 season — the 2017 draft saw the Yankees find a number of diamonds in the rough, even if one of them is rather painful to think about.
Round 13: Eric Wagaman
Rounds 5 through 12 are, for the most part, a dead zone for the Yankees; while some of them are still active, they haven’t exactly been lighting up the system, and represent at this stage of their development organizational filler more than anything else.
You’d be forgiven for lumping first baseman Eric Wagaman, selected with the 392nd overall pick out of Orange Coast College, in with this group prior to the start of the season — assuming you knew his name, of course. Over the course of his minor league career, his performance with the bat has been a cross between the 2022 version of Joey Gallo and the 2022 version of Kyle Higashoka: in short, he was a black hole at the plate. Because of this, Wagaman began the year on the Somerset Patriots’ Development List, which is just a kind way of removing him from the active roster without releasing him — not exactly a glowing endorsement.
Wagaman, however, worked his way back to an active roster (in this case, the Hudson Valley Renegades), and is currently in the middle of the best season of his career. Through 29 games, he has six home runs, one short of his career high (which he did in 88 games back in 2019). His strikeout rate is at a career low (14.0 K%), while his walk rate is at a career high (17.5 BB%). While he’s a bit old for High-A — in his age-24 season he’s almost a year and a half older than the average player in the league — it’s a solid step in the right direction for a player whose career has risen from the ashes.
Round 18: Garrett Whitlock
Early on, it was clear that the Yankees had a shot at the steal of the draft in Garrett Whitlock, chosen with the 542nd pick out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Going over slot in order to sign him after an injury-filled sophomore year, the Yankees expressed faith that they believed his true potential to be much more than a mid-round pick.
After a brief cup of coffee in the Gulf Coast League and Pulaski in 2017 in which he flashed an ability to pile up strikeouts without also piling up walks — a rare ability at that level — Whitlock flew through the system in 2018, posting a 1.86 ERA in 120 innings across Single-A Charleston, High-A Tampa, and Double-A Trenton. Returning to Trenton to start the 2019 season, he continued his strong performance, with a 3.07 ERA in 70 innings, and it looked like he would be up in the big leagues in a swingman role sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, a torn UCL ended his 2019 campaign in July, while the COVID-19 pandemic prevented any chance of return in 2020.
At this point in time, the Yankees had a decision to make. Whitlock was at this point eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Based on his pre-injury ability, there was little reason to doubt that he would have been added to the 40-man to protect him. Because of the Tommy John surgery and the pandemic, however, not only had he not yet reached Triple-A, it had been more than a year and a half since anybody had seen him throw. The Yankees gambled, and left him unprotected.
What they didn’t account for was the fact that Whitlock was posting his throwing sessions on Instagram, and the Boston Red Sox were watching. They took a chance on the young righty, and well, the rest is history. Whitlock became an important member of the 2021 Red Sox bullpen and a thorn in the side of the Yankees. This year, he has taken up a spot in the starting rotation, and while he has not been quite the dominant version of himself as he was in relief, he’s been more than effective.
This one hurts.
Round 19: Ron Marinaccio
Selected with the 572nd overall pick, Ron Marinaccio fills two important roles for the Yankees. Number one, he makes sure that the Yankees didn’t completely lose out on pitching prospects outside of Clarke Schmidt in the first round, as every other one besides him who has made the majors has done so with another organization. Second, and much more importantly, he gives the Yankees their native of Toms River, New Jersey, a position that has been left vacant since Todd Frazier left after the 2017 season.
Transitioning immediately from the starting rotation to the bullpen, Marinaccio made a good first impression in the Gulf Coast League and followed that up with a 1.77 ERA in 20 innings across 10 appearances with Pulaski in 2018. Following his promotion to Staten Island, however, his career hit a bit of a stand-still: he allowed more than a run per inning in Staten Island in 2018, while his ERA dropped to “just” 4.18 with Single-A Charleston in 2019.
Following the pandemic, however, Marinaccio returned as a brand-new pitcher. He was lights-out with the Somerset Patriots and Scranton RailRiders, posting a WHIP of 0.935 across both levels; with Scranton, he posted a 38.0 K% and a 7.4 BB%, leading to a K-BB% of 30.6 that was his highest since his second go-round in Rookie ball back in 2018.
Fresh off this electric performance, the Yankees added him to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft (one which, thanks to the lockout, never actually happened). His presence on the 40-man roster, however, did facilitate his making the Opening Day roster. Although he has been used rather sparingly, making only 10 appearances through the first two months of the season, he has spent the majority of the season on the active roster. Primarily filling a “last man out of the ‘pen” role, Marinaccio has done an excellent job in a variety of roles — at various points this year, he has been thrown into high-leverage situations in extra innings, been asked to eat innings in a blowout, and to bridge the gap to the back of the bullpen when the normal high-leverage arms aren’t available.
Oh, and after giving up three runs in two-thirds of an inning back on April 28th, Marinaccio has not allowed a run to cross the plate in 7.1 innings while limiting opposing hitters to just a .285 OPS. Not bad for the literal last man out of the bullpen.
Round 22: Janson Junk
With the 662nd pick in the draft, the Yankees selected the pitcher with a name worthy of the first overall pick, Janson Junk. Unfortunately for him, his collegiate career appeared to be a case of nominative determinism, as he did indeed pitch like junk as a member of the Seattle University Redhawks, although to be fair, he was a walk-on, so the fact that he even pitched significant innings was impressive to begin with. Despite this performance, the Yankees liked what they saw.
Junk steadily climbed through the Yankees farm system despite never quite pitching all that well, and towards the end of the 2019 season, he became the pitcher moved around the system to make spot starts when needed, giving him cups of coffee with Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton. Things did not look good for Junk’s future career. Much like Marinaccio, however, Junk used the cancelled 2020 season to find himself, and he pitched well enough with the Double-A Somerset Patriots (1.78 ERA in 14 appearances, 12 starts) that the Yankees were able to flip him to the Los Angeles Angels for Andrew Heaney.
Okay, they lost the trade, and Heaney didn’t exactly look great even before the Yankees acquired him, but for a prospect, being traded for a guy who is already in the major leagues is not an insignificant accomplishment.
After five appearances with the Rocket City Trash Pandas, the Angels’ Double-A affiliate, Junk got called up to the big leagues. He made his MLB debut on September 5th. He’s spent most of 2022 in Triple-A with the Salt Lake Bees, although he did make a cameo appearance on May 28th.
Round 37: Tanner Burns
Towards the end of the draft, teams often begin to draft players that are long shots to sign, in the hopes that they might actually be able to convince them to join the organization. Typically, this involves high school players with strong college commitments that teams do not believe they can persuade to sign.
Tanner Burns was one such Hail Mary the Yankees threw in 2017. After an elite performance on both sides of the plate as a senior, Burns was taken in the 37th round (1112th overall) by the Yankees. As you know, he did not sign, preferring instead to honor his commitment to Auburn University. That proved to be the right decision by far, and by the time he returned to the draft in 2020, he had skyrocketed to the back of the first round.
Ultimately, Cleveland picked him with the 36th overall pick, and he has been everything the Guardians could ask for. He made his debut with High-A Lake County last year and more than held his own; this year, with Double-A Akron, he has been downright elite, posting a 2.08 ERA and striking out more than a batter per inning across his first seven starts.