With 30 rounds to go, baseball’s amateur draft will wrap up today. These late-round picks are not insignificant. Last night’s Yankees starter, Chase Whitley, was a 15th-round pick. Tonight’s starter, David Phelps, was a 14th rounder. There will be some eyes focused today on the Trenton rehab outing of Shawn Kelley, who was taken in the 13th round. Even Yankees closer Dave Robertson didn’t go until the 17th round.
That said, each draft class seems to be largely defined — at least initially — by its top pick. It’s the early measuring stick. For this year’s Yankees draft class, that means left-handed reliever Jacob Lindgren, who right now is most defined by a question of immediacy: how soon he can get to the big leagues?
“He’s obviously advanced,” amateur scouting director Damon Oppenheimer said. “He’s obviously gotten out really good hitters. There’s some history with guys (getting to the big leagues quickly as college relievers), but there’s also some history with guys getting to the big leagues as relievers too quick and it doesn’t last. We’d like to get impact and longevity from him, not just something that’s real quick.”
When his selection was announced on MLB Network, the TV analysts immediately suggested the Lindgren could be the first player from the entire 2014 draft to reach the big leagues. Lindgren said he didn’t hear it because the celebration around him was too loud.
“I think that’s pretty cool that people think that,” he said. “But making it to the big leagues is not easy. It’s going to take hard work. I have to keep developing my game and getting better one day at a time. If the Yankees, if they think it’s my time to go up, I’m ready for it.”
College relievers seem especially poised to move quickly as long as they produce and doors open. Robertson was in the big leagues after just one full season in the minors. Other relievers have moved more quickly, their college careers having set a strong foundation for the big leagues.
“Absolutely (it helps prepare you),” Robertson said. “I felt like in college I didn’t know as much as I know now as far as holding runners, making pitches, what to do in certain situations with the ball. But it definitely helped me being able to pitch in short spurts; being able to pitch the next days coming. It probably is the fastest way to the big leagues, I would say, is being a reliever. It can also be the fastest way down when you come up and down, up and down (from Triple-A). But it’s definitely one of the fastest ways to get to the big leagues because, if you throw strikes and you get guys out, there’s usually always a need for bullpen help.”
Although they obviously pitched at different times, both Robertson and Lindgren pitched late-inning situations for major SEC teams.
“Great league,” Robertson said. “SEC is a tough conference. There are some tough games there. Those are some battles.”
Granted, in the big picture, pitching the eighth or ninth inning in college seems like nothing compared the eighth or ninth inning in the big leagues. But Robertson said the college experience is still a legitimate testing ground, a chance to get used to key situations with adrenaline pumping and very little room for error.
“At the time, (pitching in college) is the most important thing you’re doing,” Robertson said. “As the levels go up, it becomes more and more and more important to be able to pitch in those situations. You learn how to pitch at a new level, not just a new level on the field, but a new level mentally and physically.”
So how quickly can Lindgren get to the big leagues? It’s not unheard of for a highly touted college reliever to get to the majors in the year he was drafted, but I think of former Red Sox reliever Craig Hansen, who was a first-round pick in 2005, got to the big leagues in 2005 and had an ugly major-league career. I also think of former Yankees second-round pick J.B. Cox — terrific closer at the University of Texas, went 63rd overall — who had injury problems, stumbled in the upper levels and never got to the big leagues.
Lindgren could move quickly. In theory, he’s the kind of pick that’s poised to do that. But it’s really hard to know right now what exactly he’s going to do in the next few months and years.
“I think that’s unfair to put those expectations on a kid,” Joe Girardi said. “You want to get the kid in the organization, see how he’s throwing, how he’s doing, and not put too much pressure on him in that first year. I think you also have to look at how many appearances he had in college, how many innings. You don’t want to abuse the kid.”
Associated Press photos