MLB: Did Yankees Play It Too Safe With Top Draft Picks?

New York Yankees Introduce Masahiro Tanaka

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A funny thing happened when the New York Yankees saw closer David Robertson entering free agency after the 2014 season: they let the star reliever walk. By showcasing uncommon restraint, GM Brian Cashman and the organization ended up with two first-round picks in the 2015 MLB Draft, including the club’s highest draft position (16) since 1993. Here’s what the Yankees got with their earliest draft picks in two decades — ones that were very much on the safe side.

1. James Kaprielian, UCLA (First round, 16th pick)

With its No. 16 pick, New York selected James Kaprielian, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior at UCLA who turned 21 in March. His large frame and quality changeup fits the profile of big right-handers favored by the club’s development team (see Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda), but Kaprielian does not light up the radar guns, instead staying in the low 90s with his heater.

MLB.com’s scouting report has Kaprielian with an overall score of 50 (out of 80) while his slider and command rank at 55 (above average). His changeup scored the highest marks at 60. Because he throws a curve to round out a four-pitch arsenal and showcases solid control, scouts project him to be a middle-to-back-of-the-rotation starter. (Think Eovaldi with less power and more command). He was the No. 22 daft prospect before the Yankees selected him at 16.

Damon Oppenheimer, head of the Yankees amateur scouting team, praised Kaprielian’s swing-and-miss stuff as well as his makeup and performance on Team USA in a statement released after the selection (per NJ.com). Kaprielian averaged over a strikeout per inning last season in the Pac-12 Conference as the ace of the Bruins staff. The young right-hander’s consistency is what makes him a candidate to join the rotation a few years down the road.

Anyone who recalls the Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain experiments knows the Yankees have not developed a frontline starter in many years. Perhaps aiming for the middle of the rotation is a safer bet. Critics of the trade say the Yankees played it much too conservative with the early selection. As for the team’s No. 30 pick, the front office targeted a defense-first shortstop.

2. Kyle Holder, University of San Diego (First round, 30th pick)

In selecting Kyle Holder with the club’s 30th pick, the Yankees again emphasized the sure thing over the potential for a big impact. Holder was rated the best defensive player in this draft, with MLB.com giving him a 60 (of 80) for both fielding and throwing as a shortstop. His exceptional range, arm, and hands make him a candidate to go tot he highest level at short, though questions exist about Holder’s ability to keep himself in a Major League lineup.

Power is not on the table, but scouts like his improvements at the plate in 2015, when he hit .348 in 228 at-bats. On the plus side, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound right hits from the left-hand side and rarely strikes out. Some see potential as Holder devotes himself fully to baseball after spending his early college career as a two-sport player (basketball is the other). Yankees fans that have seen Stephen Drew, Brendan Ryan, and Didi Gregorius manning the six hole for the club in recent years know the frustrations involved with running out a defensive-minded shortstop, but the defense has to be there.

For a team that has not developed a power position player in ages, the Yankees did not make any moves in that direction with their first-round picks. Perhaps the team envisions a future when the contracts of Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, and Alex Rodriguez are going off the books. That $70 million in annual salary would go a long way toward buying a slugger off the free agent market. For now, it’s difficult to expect a power surge coming from the farm system.

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