2015 Draft: Yankees balance probability with projects on Day One

Day One of the 2015 amateur draft was both surprising yet completely predictable for the Yankees. They used their first round pick on a player they’ve been connected to for weeks, and they did take three college players with their three picks. New York’s second and third selections seemed to come out of left field though. At least in the sense that we hadn’t seen them connected to those players this spring.

The Yankees went probability first, upside second on Day One this year. Getting safe players — safe by draft standards, which means not safe at all! — likely to contribute at the MLB level was the priority over getting players with impact potential. That’s nothing fans want to hear, of course, but it’s very easy to say they should take more risk when you’re not the one with your neck on the line. And besides, the Yankees haven’t had much success developing their risky picks the last few years. Let’s review Day One.

Kaprielian. (Daily Bruin)
Kaprielian. (Daily Bruin)

Fit The Profile
UCLA RHP James Kaprielian fit the Yankees’ profile so perfectly that I’m not sure why I ever thought they might take someone else once we knew was going to be available. Deep repertoire? Check. Command? Check. Big? He’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 200 lbs., so check there too. Southern California product? Also check. Scouting director Damon Oppenheimer loves his SoCal pitchers. He shows it year after year.

“Kaprielian is a guy we’ve scouted for a long time, and we’re really happy we were able to get him,” said Oppenheimer in a statement following the draft last night. “He has three quality pitches, throws strikes and generates a lot of swings-and-misses. On top of that, he has great make-up. He compiled a quality track record in a good league and performed well for Team USA.”

Kaprielian, who the Yankees selected with their first round pick (16th overall), was the team’s safe pick on Day One. Safe by baseball draft standards, I mean. No prospect is ever really safe. Kaprielian throws three pitches, including a fastball that jumped from 89-92 mph to 93-95 mph later in the spring, as well a very good changeup and a solid curveball. He locates all three pitches well and has even messed around with a slider/cutter at times.

Pitchers with good fastballs who can control two offspeed pitches tend to have a ton of success at the college level, which Kaprielian certainly did with the Bruins. The Yankees have had some success developing pitchers like Kaprielian, the polished college guys, though he has better command than someone like David Phelps and better stuff than someone like Adam Warren. He’s someone they can just plug into the farm system and not worry a whole lot about. Safe is boring, but safe also has value.

Holder. (San Diego Union Tribune)
Holder. (San Diego Union Tribune)

Carrying Tool
In the wake of Derek Jeter‘s retirement, the Yankees have gone full doomsday hoarder with shortstop prospects. They signed several top shortstops as international free agents last year, traded for young Didi Gregorius in the offseason, and selected San Diego SS Kyle Holder with the 30th overall pick last night. That was the compensation pick for David Robertson.

“Holder is about as elite a defender as we’ve seen come through the college ranks. He’s got a tremendous glove. He also had a productive year offensively and does not swing and miss,” said Oppenheimer after making the pick. Holder fits the no hit/all glove mold, which is far from exciting, but that’s also Holder’s starting point. He’s not a finished product and he did hit .348/.418/.482 with as many walks and strikeouts (19) in a major college conference this spring, so it’s not as if he’s never hit.

What Holder offers more than anything is a carrying tool in his high-end defense. Quality shortstops are hard to find. There’s a reason dudes like Brendan Ryan stay in the league for a decade. The Yankees have to figure out a way to get Holder to be a passable hitter — the league average shortstop is hitting .246/.297/.356 (80 wRC+) this season, by the way — to maximize his value, which won’t be easy. Frankly the Yankees have kinda sucked at developing bats lately and there are reasons to doubt their ability to help Holder.

The Yankees took on a project with Holder and it’s fair to question his overall upside. The best case scenario seems like a solid regular, which would be a pretty great outcome for the 30th overall pick, but Holder is also extremely likely to get to the show as a defensive specialist, even as an up-and-down utility guy. Holder is starting from a pretty high base and any sort of development with his bat suddenly puts him in the everyday player conversation.

Degano. (MVC-Sports.com)
Degano. (MVC-Sports.com)

Long-Awaited Lefty
The history of the New York Yankees is littered with great left-handed starters, from Whitey Ford to Ron Guidry to Andy Pettitte to CC Sabathia. They’re the Bronx Bombers first and foremost, yes, but their historic success is also built on quality southpaws. For some reason that demographic has been largely ignored in recent years, with 2013 draftee Ian Clarkin the notable exception.

The Yankees went back to their roots with their third selection on Day One, taking Indiana State LHP Jeff Degano with their second round pick, 57th overall. “Degano is a left-hander with a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a good breaking ball. He throws a lot of strikes and has a quality athletic body,” said Oppenheimer of the 6-foot-4, 200 lb. southpaw. A power lefty? Where have guys like this been lately?

Of course, Degano is not without risk. He’s already blown out once, having Tommy John surgery back in 2013, forcing him to miss most of that season and the entire 2014 season as well. Degano started this spring a little rusty but was much better down the stretch and climbed draft boards as he started looking more like the pre-elbow injury version of himself. The Yankees are banking on that history.

More than anything, the Yankees are rolling the dice on a big southpaw with a power fastball and a quality breaking ball. Degano missed bats all spring — he struck out 126 batters (99 innings) this year, seventh most in Division I, and he did it while walking only 28 batters — and he’s a changeup away from being  a no-doubt starter, the kind of lefty starter the Yankees have lacked since Sabathia’s fade started. Learning a changeup is not easy, but the guys who already have changeups go in the first round, like Kaprielian.

* * *

The Yankees had … well I’d say sort of an atypical Day One. Kaprielian is a classic Oppenheimer pick but Holder and Degano are unlike any of their recent high selections. They’ve gone for big bats (Eric Jagielo and Aaron Judge), raw and toolsy athletes (Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott), or prep hurlers (Clarkin and Ty Hensley) the last three or four years. Holder and Degano are none of those things.

This draft was more about probability. Kaprielian’s very likely to be a big league starter as long as he stays healthy. Holder’s defense at a premium position means the offensive bar is low, and Degano will get a million chances as a lefty who misses bats. Even if he doesn’t learn a changeup, he goes to the bullpen to be a poor man’s Jacob Lindgren. The Yankees went safe on Day One this year, safe but with two project players in Holder and Degano who have the potential to be big league regulars with the fall back option of being high probability useful players.

2015 Draft: Yankees select UCLA RHP James Kaprielian with first round pick

(Los Angeles Times)
(Los Angeles Times)

For the third straight year, the Yankees went to the college ranks with their first draft pick. The Yankees selected UCLA right-hander James Kaprielian with their first round pick, the 16th overall selection, in the 2015 draft Monday night. They had been connected to him for weeks now.

Kaprielian, 21, had a 2.02 ERA with 114 strikeouts and 33 walks in 106.2 innings as UCLA’s ace this spring. He also threw the first nine-inning no-hitter in school history. Here’s my profile and here are some scouting report snippets from the pros.

Baseball America (19th ranked prospect):

Kaprielian knows how to finish hitters off when he’s ahead in the count, with a plus curveball as his best pitch. He can land it, vary the shape of it and bury it as a chase pitch, and his feel for the curve is his strongest attribute. He has dabbled with a slider as well but has focused on the fastball, curveball and solid-average changeup for most of the spring … In several April and May starts, his velocity improved, bumping 95 and holding 92-93 deeper into games.

MLB.com (22nd ranked prospect):

He didn’t have the best stuff in a U.S. collegiate national team rotation that included Louisville’s Kyle Funkhouser and Vanderbilt’s Carson Fulmer last summer, but Kaprielian did have the best “pitchability” and is the safest bet to become a mid-rotation starter in the big leagues. He works with an 89-92 mph fastball as a starter, and he’s effective at that velocity because he can locate it … Kaprielian’s best pitch is his changeup, and he also has a solid slider and a curveball to give batters a different look. With his command and strong frame, he’s built to be a starter.

Keith Law (27th ranked prospect):

Kaprielian will sit 90-94 mph, working more toward the low end of that spectrum from the stretch. He relies heavily on his slider and curveball, with the former being the superior of the two; it has short but sharp two-plane movement in the mid-80s. His curveball bends in between 78 and 81 mph and has more depth than the slider, but is merely average. He does an excellent job of keeping both down in the zone (or below) and limiting hard contact. Kaprielian’s changeup is firm at 84-86 mph. He barely uses it, but scouts are very intrigued by it and think it might develop into an above-average or plus pitch.

So one scouting report says Kaprielian’s best pitch is his changeup and another says it’s his curveball, which just reinforces the fact that the draft is a total crapshoot. Who knows what’s true? Kaprielian is listed at 6-foot-4 and 200 lbs., so he has the size scouts like to see in future starters. That’s pretty much the only consensus too, that Kaprielian can remain a starter long-term. Here’s some video:

It’s no surprise scouting director Damon Oppenheimer targeted a South California pitcher. He’s a SoCal guy himself and selected others like Gerrit Cole, Ian Clarkin, and Ian Kennedy from the area during his time with the Yankees. It’s also no surprise the Yankees went after a college player — Oppenheimer has admitted the team has learned towards college players in recent years because they’ve had more success developing them.

Kaprielian doesn’t offer ace upside but he does project to be a workhorse starter, and teams spend tens of millions of dollars on those guys each year. I would have preferred someone with a higher ceiling with the top pick — even if it meant taking on more risk — but the Yankees opted for a safer player and that’s fine too. Kaprielian was a no-doubt first rounder all year, so this wasn’t a surprise pick or anything. Slot money for the 16th overall pick is $2,543,300 and the signing deadline is Friday, July 17th. I expect Kaprielian to sign for that amount sooner rather than later.

2015 Draft: James Kaprielian

James Kaprielian | RHP

Kaprielian, 21, was a second or third round talent out of high school in 2012, but he was very strongly committed to UCLA. The Mariners rolled the dice in the 40th round but couldn’t sign him. Kaprielian spent his freshman season in the bullpen (1.55 ERA in 40.2 innings) before moving into the rotation as a sophomore and taking over as the staff ace. He had a 2.29 ERA with a 108/35 K/BB in 106 innings last year and has a 1.94 ERA with a 105/27 K/BB in 92.2 innings so far this year.

Scouting Report
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 200 lbs., Kaprielian was a classic projectable high school pitcher, and he’s developed into basically the opposite of what was expected. Instead of filling out and adding velocity, he’s become a much more well-rounded pitcher with the Bruins, one who throws four pitches for strikes. His fastball sits mostly 89-92 mph and he will show some 94s on occasion. Kaprielian’s best secondary pitch depends on the day – some days it’s his changeup, some days it’s his slider, and other it’s his curveball. The changeup is his most consistent offspeed pitch and he’ll throw it in any count, to both lefties and righties. Kaprielian has a great feel for setting hitters up and his command is better than solid thanks to his ultra-repeatable delivery. He’s as close to a finish product as you’ll find in this draft.

Baseball America, Keith Law (subs. req’d), and MLB.com ranked Kaprielian as the 19th, 27th, and 28th best prospect in the draft class in their latest rankings, respectively. For what it’s worth, Kaprielian has been connected to the Yankees in Baseball America’s first two mock drafts, which makes sense since he’s a Southern California pitcher and scouting director Damon Oppenheimer loves SoCal pitchers. Kaprielian doesn’t offer a ton of upside but he should climb up the minor league ladder in a hurry, and is a safe bet to carve out a career as a workhorse starter, pending good health. The Yankees pick 16th and 30th this year and I don’t think Kaprielian will last long enough to take him with that 30th pick. It’s 16th or bust.