Baseball's amateur draft was completed this week. Much of the focus of the attention has, rightly, been on the first few players drafted like Dansby Swanson who was chosen first in the country by the Arizona Diamondbacks. The draft, however, lasts 40 rounds. The players chosen in the final rounds are not all seen as top prospects, but are often drafted for the simple reason that the big league teams need to fill several minor league rosters with decent players. Players drafted in the late rounds rarely become impact players, but there are exceptions. Lorenzo Cain was taken by the Royals in the 17th round in 2004. Astoundingly, a generation ago Mike Piazza was drafted by the Dodgers in the 62nd round in 1988.
The round in which players are drafted not only reflects how their talent has been evaluated, but also influences how those players will be used. A top round draft pick in whom a team has invested millions of dollars will be given more chances to succeed, and will get the benefit of the doubt relative to other lower round prospects as he progresses through the minor league system. Despite the inevitable favoritism shown towards higher round draft picks, over time those players who do not hit will lose out to players who have hit well in the minors who may have been drafted in later rounds.
For pitchers, however, the situation is somewhat different. As the trend of larger pitching staffs, lower pitch counts and more relief innings continues, the demand for pitching remains, as always, substantial, but teams need different kinds of pitchers and track players accordingly, based on when they were drafted and how much money has been invested in them. While developing young draft picks into solid major league starters remains an important, and very difficult, task for all teams, there is also a need for back of the bullpen relievers.
Those pitchers are unlikely to develop into stars, or even consistent starters, but are still important for any winning team. The 11th, 12th and 13th pitcher on a staff are essential, but paradoxically, they are not indispensable. These pitchers are not expected to pitch for more than a few years in the big leagues, are often not high round draft picks and have not had a lot of money invested in them by their teams. Therefore, if they pitch well, often relying on throwing hard, for a few years and then get hurt, the team does not lose much. For a team like the Mets, for example, Matt Harvey losing a year to Tommy John surgery was a big deal, but if a pitcher like one time 24th round draft pick Erik Goeddel gives them a couple of productive years before giving in to injury, it is not a particularly a comparable problem.
Star pitchers like Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Sonny Gray and David Price were all first round picks and thus were tracked into their current roles from the times they began their professional careers. They also represented major investments for their teams so their success was more important to their teams than that of other minor leaguers.
The first two pitchers selected and signed from the 2014 draft, Tyler Kolek and Carlos Rodon, received signing bonuses of over $6 million. Aaron Nola, the third pitcher selected in the draft got a $3.3 million bonus. Pitchers selected in the 10th-20th round never receive bonuses comparable to that. Teams are limited to spending less than $150,000 for players drafted in the 10th round.
Thus, pitchers drafted in the late rounds represent much smaller investments for the teams and are therefore expendable. This creates an incentive for the teams to push those late round draft picks who throw very hard, but perhaps don't have command of enough pitches to make them a starter or even a closer, through the minor league system quickly with little concern for their futures. There is less incentive to spend time with these pitchers, who are perceived as not having very high ceilings, on things like developing more pitches. These are the kinds of pitchers who can be found in the back end of bullpens, but rarely in starting rotations.
At first cut, this approach may seem exploitative, but it works for many pitchers as well. Most pitchers are not drafted with the hopes that they will develop into a top of the rotation starter for many years; and few players have the talent to develop that way. Instead, by using relievers at the big league level for a few years before they hurt their arms or lose a little velocity off their fastball, teams are strengthening their bullpens and providing more opportunities for players to have big league careers, albeit frequently brief ones. This structure underscores the different incentives for players and management and suggests that perhaps more pitchers are getting injured, because teams only care about their top prospects.