navigation-background arrow-down-circle Reply Icon Show More Heart Delete Icon wiki-circle wiki-square wiki arrow-up-circle add-circle add-square add arrow-down arrow-left arrow-right arrow-up calendar-circle chat-bubble-2 chat-bubble check-circle check close contact-us credit-card drag menu email embed facebook-circle facebook-square facebook faq-circle faq film gear google-circle google-square google history home instagram-circle instagram-square instagram linkedin-circle linkedin-square linkedin load monitor Video Player Play Icon person pinterest-circle pinterest-square pinterest play readlist remove-circle remove-square remove search share sign-out star trailer trash twitter-circle twitter-square twitter youtube-circle youtube-square youtube

You have to have a valid membership to attend this event

You have to have a valid membership to attend this event

Should Baseball Re-evaluate Its Approach To Everyday Players?

May 15, 2017
One appealing thing about MLB's amateur free-agent draft is nobody knows enough about it to encourage any of those intolerable "mock drafts" the NFL seems to inspire. That, of course, doesn't mean we can't mock the process -- and this just might be one of those years.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter has been at the forefront of those who, for years, has lamented the absence of multi-talented athletes available to baseball. That absence is attributed to the fact multi-sport athletes have virtually disappeared thanks to the rash of showcase events, travel and club teams that have become big business in virtually every sport.

Baseball, undeniably, is a game of contrasts -- a hitter can be Hall-of-Fame material if he fails 70 percent of the time (a .300 average), while a pitcher with a success ratio that high won't last long. But at the MLB level there is one constant; just about every position player has been a pitcher somewhere along the line in his career, just as most pitchers have been everyday performers (usually shortstop, outfield or first base) at one time or another. Only rarely do those talents combine in this day and age of specialization.

Which is why this year's draft is so interesting, and why some teams might want to use the Orioles' track record as a history lesson. The consensus two best talents in this year's class, high school phenom Hunter Greene and the top college player Brendan McKay, are two-way players considered good enough to be top-of-line draft picks as either pitchers or hitters.

Fortunately, the Orioles no longer have to worry about the top picks in the draft, thanks to their five-year winning streak, so they won't have to make any decisions on Greene, whose position is shortstop, or McKay, a first baseman. The Minnesota Twins and Cincinnati Reds have the first two choices and, presumably, will make at least the initial determination.

It will probably come as no shock Greene and McKay are getting at least slightly higher grades as pitchers because baseball has trended toward valuing pitching over hitting. Because he is 21 years old and has three years of college experience, the decision on McKay is perhaps a little more critical, but both the present and the past indicate it would be a mistake to rush to judgment on Greene. It might be time for a history lesson here.

Last month, Greene became only the third high school baseball player to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Bryce Harper was the most recent -- eight years ago in 2009 -- and if you've paid any attention at all you know how that worked out. 

It was 20 years earlier, 1989, that right-handed pitcher Jon Peters was an SI cover boy, in the process of setting a national high school record by winning 53 straight games, en route to a 54-1 record for Brenham (Tex) High School. Because he'd already had surgery after his second year, Peters went undrafted out of high school, went to Texas A&M and then Blinn College before his arm blew out and he was finished at the age of 21. He was never drafted by a major league team.

Most observers have Greene pegged as the top overall pick as a pitcher, but he and his advisors (can I guess agent Scott Boras might be involved?) might want to pay particular attention to the draft that took place in 1978. That's when the Orioles took Cal Ripken Jr. in the second round of the draft.

Like Greene (both have August birthdays), Ripken was a 17-year-old who played shortstop when he didn't pitch. Every team in baseball except the Orioles had him on its board as a pitcher. O's scout Dick Bowie was convinced Ripken could be a major league infielder, so there was no debate, as there would have been had any other team taken Ripken. His dad, and O's coach at the time, the late Cal Sr., was the only advisor in the family and privately insisted he wouldn't allow his son to start his career as a pitcher, rationalizing that at age 17 it should only be a fall back option if necessary. Let's just say it was a good call.

The Orioles actually have a pretty good record in cases like this, and Ripken was only the first time they went against conventional thinking. Nick Markakis was on every team's chart primarily as a pitcher, rather than a first baseman/outfielder, while Adam Loewen was the opposite -- getting higher grades as a hitter than as a pitcher.

Both were junior college players who were taken in the first round: Markakis as an outfielder, Loewen as a pitcher. There's no question the O's made the right call on Markakis, while Loewen remains a mystery to some even to this day. He wasn't able to control his wildness as a pitcher, and even though he eventually made it to the big leagues, he never really fulfilled his power potential as a hitter and perhaps should be considered another example in any argument about taking the position route first, with pitching a fall back possibility.

Also backing up that argument is the number of pitchers who started out as position players as opposed to pitchers turned hitters. And another, perhaps compelling, factor would be the alarming rate at which high school pitchers break down before making their mark. It's gotten to the point where you can almost rely on the "4S"  system: scout, sign and schedule surgery. You'd think it would be enough to send up a red flag for teams and for any prospects fortunate enough to have an option.

During his tenure with the Orioles, which preceded the club's recent rise, Andy MacPhail preached the philosophy "grow the arms, buy the bats." Even though baseball has spent much of the last decade reducing the role of starting pitchers that philosophy seemed to resonate throughout MLB.

But maybe it's time to reconsider. The Chicago Cubs under Theo Epstein took an exact opposite route to end the legendary 108-year World Series drought. First baseman Anthony Rizzo, third baseman Kris Bryant and outfielder Kyle Schwarber, successive first-round draft choices, make up a nice nucleus, while Epstein scrambled to patch together a pitching staff that's still in flux. There's a lot of athleticism in that lineup with Schwarber's transition from catcher to outfielder Exhibit A.

Meanwhile, the New York Mets put together an all-world pitching staff with Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Steve Matz and ... well, that doesn't seem to be working out too good. Young arms are sometimes too fragile to gauge correctly.

Maybe it's time for baseball to re-evaluate everyday players, the ones with multiple skill sets. Arms don't break down as often in the infield or outfield as they do on the mound.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com

Issue 233: May 2017