Making the big leagues is a challenge of epic proportions. So many promising names — even those considered elite for their age — flame out along the way, and to be part of this select group of baseball players to make it all the way to the majors is already an outstanding achievement.
You might wonder where I’m going with these musings. With that in mind, we’ll turn our attention to the Yankees’ starting rotation, and its nearly-full capacity of first-round picks.
Scrolling through Roster Resource, yours truly had the realization that four out of the Yankees’ five projected starters were all selected in the first round. Now, this is one of those cases where you know all the things that make this statement true, but probably never necessarily thought of it in that specific light.
This realization led me to wonder about how, amidst the difficulty of making the majors, even first-round picks can take all different kinds of paths to get there. Plenty of them don’t even make it this far — lefty Ian Clarkin was Aaron Judge’s fellow first-round pick in 2013, and he never made it the majors, even after his trade from the organization in 2017.
Stretching out the Yankees’ situation a little bit more, veteran and former first-round pick Luke Weaver might very well be the first man up. Since he has a big-league deal and the team might be hesitant to start Will Warren just yet, Weaver could fill in should someone get hurt in spring training. In the scenario where Nestor Cortes is the only one missing time and Weaver fills in (a somewhat reasonable thing), the Yankees’ starting rotation would be entirely made of first-rounders.
This is admittedly a very specific scenario to think about. Regardless, it’s fascinating to think about in relation to the MLB Draft. Cole, Rodón, Weaver, Marcus Stroman, and Clarke Schmidt have few things in common aside from the fact that they were all pitchers taken in the first round once upon a time. The differences between them show all the paths one man can take to get to the show.
The Golden Boy — A story of success through and through
Cole was one of this century’s best draft prospects. As Josh detailed in his Top 100 Yankees writeup, the ace turned down a tempting offer to join the Yankees as the 28th overall pick out of high school in 2008. It turned out to be a shrewd move, as Cole shoved at UCLA and moved all the way up to the first overall pick by Pittsburgh in the 2011 MLB Draft.
There were hardly any bumps in the road as Cole breezed through the minors. He was a consensus top-20 prospect prior to 2012 and then a consensus top-10 prospect prior to 2013. When he debuted at PNC Park in June 2013, he had spent less than two full season in the Pirates’ farm system.
It is my belief that to a certain extent, we lost some perspective on how effective he was in Pittsburgh, because of just how great he became after moving to the Astros. Between 2013-16, Cole pitched to a 3.23 ERA across 579.1 innings and even got a top-five finish for the NL Cy Young as the Bucs saw their greatest stretch of success since Barry Bonds roamed the Steel City outfield.
2017 was a disappointment for sure, but Cole was still a league-average sort of arm, and then it all changed following his trade to Houston. Maybe he wasn’t quite the beast that he is now, right from his first season, but seldom any arm is. Studs of an earlier generation, such as Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer, all dealt with bits of struggle early in their careers.
It’s difficult to find a more comprehensive story of success from start to finish than that of Cole.
Carlos Rodón — When injuries get in the way of promise
Back in 2014, Rodón was taken third overall in the MLB Draft out of NC State. His talent was so immense and widely acknowledged that you’d have been hard-pressed to find someone first-guessing the White Sox for picking him over the likes of future MLB stars like Kyle Schwarber, Aaron Nola, and the lefty’s Wolfpack teammate, Trea Turner. Heck, Rodón’s already had a better career than the two prep pitchers taken before him, Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek.
Much like Cole, Rodón reached the big leagues fairly quickly, making his debut in 2015 and tossing over 300 innings across his first two seasons in the majors. He had league-average numbers, but for a young twenty-something on a rebuilding Pale Hose squad, the future was bright. But Rodón would throw under 250 innings combined from 2017-20, with almost half of that total coming in just one season (2018).
Rodón dealt with multiple injury issues, including undergoing Tommy John surgery, all of which severely impeded his development. It looked like the southpaw would just go down as a first-round bust, and the White Sox even non-tendered him after 2020. Anyone could have taken a flier on him.
Fortunately for Chicago, they brought Rodón back for one more shot in 2021, and it worked out brilliantly. They finally caught a glimpse of the arm they drafted. He threw a no-hitter in April, made the All-Star team, pitched to a 2.37 ERA in 132.2 innings, and finished fifth in AL Cy Young Award voting as the White Sox won their first division title in 13 years.
Having successfully revitalized his big-league status, Rodón made $21.5 million in 2022 with the Giants, excelled again as an All-Star, and used an opt-out to help land his current lucrative deal with the Yankees. The pessimist would say that the rest is history, as Rodón was both a shell of what he was from 2021-22 and injured as well. But the hope is that the lefty can remain relatively healthy and find his best form in 2024. He’s resurrected his career once before, anyway.
Stroman, Schmidt, and Weaver — A range of outcomes
In the back of this version of the Yankees’ rotation, we have three first-round selections with their own unique tales. Stroman’s is solid, Weaver’s is less ideal, and Schmidt’s is still being written. None were as lofty a draft pick as Cole or Rodón, but all have, of course, made the majors.
Nabbed 22nd overall out of Duke University by the Blue Jays in 2012, Stroman didn’t take that long to reach the majors. He quickly emerged as one of the more exciting youngsters in the AL East, but like Rodón, also underwent early injury issues (albeit ones that didn’t linger). Stroman forged a path as a Top-100 prospect, put in a strong rookie campaign in 2014, and made an impressive comeback from a torn ACL in spring 2015 to become in impact arm on Toronto’s first playoff team in 22 years. He then delivered back-to-back 200-inning seasons from 2016-17 and was the Jays’ starter in the do-or-die 2016 AL Wild Card Game won by Edwin Encarnación.
While to a certain extent, Stroman never quite became the arm that we once envisioned, he’s made himself a fantastic career as a steady No. 3 starter on a good team. He hasn’t experienced the same heights as Rodón’s ridiculous 2021-22, but he’s been far more consistent and has even made two All-Star appearances of his own to go along with a 116 ERA+ in 1,303.2 innings. Stroman has continued to put in yeoman’s work with the Mets and Cubs since leaving Toronto, and now he’ll try to do the same in New York.
It is far too early to make any real assumptions about how the career of the 2017 pick Schmidt will turn out, but between Stroman and Weaver, it’s interesting to consider them among his possible paths.
Like Schmidt, Weaver was also a common name on top prospect lists when he was coming up with the Cardinals. St. Louis took the Florida State product near the end of the first round in 2014, and he was in The Show just two years later. It’d be speaking falsehoods to act like he’s had the career that Cardinals prospect enthusiasts once envisioned, though. He never found his footing in St. Louis from 2016-18, and to their credit, they decided to flip him while they could still parlay his talent into something better. Weaver was a key part of the deal that brought 2022 NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis.
As for Weaver? Well, he’s found a way to hang in there for nearly a decade now, even if intermittently. He’s bounced from Arizona to Kansas City to Cincinnati to Seattle and New York over the last two full seasons alone. He has made a career out of being an occasional replacement starter, filling whatever role the team needs him to, and even now with Weaver at age-30, pitching coach Matt Blake has hope for for something more.
Post-draft Tommy John surgery and the COVID-19 pandemic have conspired to muddle Schmidt’s development, and New York’s constant win-now state has made it hard to find big-league rotation opportunities. Still, he threw 159 innings last year and will have a good chance for more in 2024. He has the stuff and ability to at least be that guy long-term, just like he could continue to evolve and perhaps carve out a more lucrative career like Stroman, establishing himself as a reliable starter. It’s too early to tell.