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The 2009 Draft in Review, Part One

Gee, wasn't that an awful game last night?

It felt a whole lot like one of last year's losses, to be honest. Lots and lots of baserunners, yet the Cardinals just couldn't seem to get that one big hit to break things open. They had eight hits in the first four innings, and pretty much nothing to show for it. Yep, just like 2008 all over again. There was even some bullpen frustration, in the person of one Jason Motte, in whom I am really beginning to lose faith. The really odd thing about Motte isn't that he's struggling, it's the way he's struggling. I'm sure I've been down this road before, so I won't belabour the point too very much, but remember when Motte came up last year? He threw really, really hard, stalked around like a crazy person on the mound, and filled the strike zone with fastballs. Sure, he didn't have much of another pitch, but when you throw that hard and consistently put the ball in the zone, you don't really need one all that badly.

Well, this year, Motte's control is markedly worse, and I can't decide if it's because he's lost confidence in his ability to just blow it by hitters or if his control is actually regressing. He's throwing more offspeed stuff, and that's where he's giving up most of his hits, to be honest. His delivery is slower and more measured now than it was early in the year when he was dominating, and he's much less animated on the mound. I honestly don't know what's going on with Motte, but I'm not sure it's just the usual struggles of a young pitcher trying to figure out how best to get outs at the major league level. And I'm sure lots of people will just piss and moan about how Motte is just awful, and I'm way overanalyzing this, but that is, quite frankly, bullshit. Pitchers struggle all the time, but this isn't just struggling. This is a guy who literally looks like a completely different pitcher, even from who he was just a couple months ago.

So what's the fix? Honestly, I don't know, because I don't understand the problem. I don't know if Motte has just lost confidence, or if trying to slow down his delivery to stay under control has caused this, or if he's gotten himself all screwed up trying to figure out a bunch of offspeed stuff, or if his arm is about to fall off. It could be none of the above, or it could be all of the above. Whatever the case, things are going badly wrong with Jason Motte, and the coaching staff needs to figure out some way to get him back on track, and fast. Does it say more about the coaches or me that I have absolutely no faith in their ability to do so?

Anyhow, enough of all that. In the comments section yesterday, there was some discussion of whether the Cardinals have made any real progress in the signing of Shelby Miller, their first round draft pick in June. Fourstick pointed out I haven't ever properly put together a draft review; shockingly enough, I realised I hadn't done so. I was certain I had written up such a document at some point, but no. Therefore, I scrapped what I had been mulling over for today (trust me, it was a pretty weak idea; you aren't missing anything), and decided that, with less than a week to go until the signing deadline for draftees, we should have a pretty good idea of how it turned out by now. And so I present to you, the El Vivi Birders Reader (put that one in your glossary, Yadi), my 2009 Draft Wrap.

I'm going to break this down round by round for the first seven rounds this week, then cover the rest of the draft as a whole next week. I was going to give letter grades, but instead decided to opt for a bit less concrete form of grading. Anyhow...

1st Round Pick- Shelby Miller, RHP Texas HS

This is the big one, really, the one we're all so worried about the Cardinals signing. Miller is the highest upside arm the Cardinals have drafted since probably Mark McCormick in 2005, and comes without the baggage of poor college performance and an injury history McCormick brought along. It was a gutsy pick at 19 for the Cardinals, who have shied away from players of this ilk in recent years, and a really excellent choice to boot. With the departure of Brett Wallace, the up and down season of Daryl Jones, and the graduation of Colby Rasmus to big league backup, Shelby Miller could very well be the Cards' #1 prospect next year if he signs, based entirely on projection.

The question, of course, is whether he'll sign, and I'm sure plenty of people out there are getting understandably antsy. Not to worry, I say, and this is why: Of the 30 players selected in the first round of this year's draft, only 13 have signed. That's right. Thirteen. What this says to me is that most of these other players have reached deals with their picks, but are waiting until the last second to announce them in order to push the resulting firestorm straight through the commissioner's office. I think 2009 is going to be the straw that finally breaks the draft camel's back and forces the league to do something differently in terms of slotting. Personally, I've always been against the slotting practice; the arguments that players in the league aren't getting paid as much as kids straight out of college, even though they've accomplished so much more and blah blah blah holds no water with me. No player is paid according to what he's done. Players are paid according to how much leverage they have. Players in the draft already have no choice as to where they're going, and now we want to limit how much money they can try to get? Doesn't seem too very fair to me. However, at some point, this whole mess is beginning to hurt the teams, the players, and the game itself. A slotting system isn't going to be fair, I don't believe, but I do think it's going to end up being necessary, just to make it so teams can actually draft, sign, and develop players in any kind of effective manner.

Alright. Enough of that digression. This is the bottom line: I think the Cardinals will sign Shelby Miller, and I think he's going to be very, very good. Even at a $4 million bonus or so, I think the Cards learned their lesson in the Rick Porcello fiasco; i.e. if you want the top talent, you're going to have to be willing to either buy it or invest in it. Investing is much cheaper than trying to buy it on the open market. If the Cardinals do somehow fail to sign Miller, I think it takes much of the lustre off this draft class.

2nd Round - Robert Stock, C, University of Southern California

In the second round, the Cardinals took one of the more intriguing picks available, choosing Robert Stock, the 19 year old former phenom out of USC. Stock was a two-way player at USC, and plenty of scouts and the like feel as if he has more potential on the mound than behind the plate. Nonetheless, the Cardinals took him as a catcher, and I completely agree with the move. He signed very quickly after the draft and was tossed right into short-season ball.

Stock has played at Johnson City since signing, and is currently hitting .351/.427/.567 with 4 homers. His BABIP is very high at .400, so he's definitely due for some regression there, but he's also hitting line drives at a 22% clip, so he is making hard contact on a consistent basis. The walk rate is a little low, with only 8 walks in 110 plate appearances, but that's the sort of thing that can certainly be worked on. Besides, when a guy is hitting as well as Stock has so far in his short pro career, it's tough to criticise him for not taking more pitches. I like his swing, particularly the way he uses his hands, though I think he could do a better job of syncing up his upper and lower body. Even so, his ISO is 216 right now, so he's doing a nice job of driving the ball at the very least.

Behind the plate, Stock has always grabbed good reviews, particularly for his arm, which generated fastballs as high as 95 off the mound. The rest of his defensive package is supposedly sound fundamentally, though there was talk as he moved through his college career that he had regressed in some of those areas. To me, I'm not all that concerned; as young as he was, playing at a major college program, I'm frankly impressed he managed to keep his head above water at all. (Remember, Stock graduated early from high school to start at USC when he was just 17.)

Personally, I'm thrilled the Cardinals allowed Stock to remain a catcher for now. The importance of positional value is tough to overstate, and to have a guy at catcher with the kind of offensive ceiling Stock has is a mighty valuable commodity. If he sounds a little like Bryan Anderson, that's probably because he is, a lefty-swinging catcher who projects to be an offensive-minded player down the road. The difference between the two is Stock doesn't have so many defensive questions attached, and a better, less handsy swing.

So does he end up at catcher or pitcher long-term? Well, as Azru pointed out in the comments over at FR, the Cardinals may not have actually liked Stock as a catcher better, but took the path of least resistance, as he wanted to be a catcher. They may still be looking at him as a pitcher down the road. But to me, when a 19 year old comes into pro ball and hits the way Stock has so far at such a premium position, I think you have to leave him there. To me, he's a catcher, and could be a damned good one. Also, and prepare yourself for a bit of a Dan 'n Al Moment here, you'll see a theme in some of the Cards' draft picks this year: taking players who are exceptionally young for their experience level. JuCo players with great tools, guys like Stock, that sort of thing. With Stock, who is only nineteen years old and yet has already played three years in the toughest college baseball conference in the nation, it's like getting a college player, but he's still the age of a high schooler.

Can I get a You Know, it Really Is?

3rd Round - Joe Kelly, RHP, University of California, Riverside

Let me get this out of the way up front: I'm a big fan of Joe Kelly. Players who can touch 99 on the gun, with a ton of movement, don't just grow on trees. Even so, Kelly never put up quite the number in college you would expect, getting hit much more than someone with his stuff should. He falls into one of those odd demographics, that of the somewhat raw college pitcher, and while I'm not normally a fan of that, I think the upside here could be significant. Kelly signed quickly after the draft (you'll notice a pattern here), and  has been pitching for short-season Batavia.

Kelly's line so far is a mixed bag. His ERA is very high, at 4.70, but his FIP is a full two runs lower, at 2.68. Ordinarily, you would think he's obviously been hugely unlucky so far, but his low FIP also features a 0% HR rate, which won't continue. So far, he's been much the pitcher he was in college, a guy with ridiculous talent who, for whatever reason, gives up more hits than he should. Let's call it the Adam Reifer syndrome. He's striking out hitters at a little less than a batter per inning, and is only walking 5.6% of hitters he's faced.

Kelly has three pitches, a plus-plus fastball that touches 99 (think of Ryan Perry, the reliever for the Tigers), a hard slider that rates a plus pitch, and a nice changeup that's average now, and might be just a tick above down the line. With three usable pitches, there's been some talk of moving Kelly to a starting role, and I don't think that would be a terrible idea. Personally, I still think he's a reliever down the line (he closed in college, and has mostly worked in relief so far as a pro), but putting him into the rotation certainly isn't going to hurt.

I'm not a big fan of Kelly's arm action; it's very long and somewhat slingy, and some scouts have theorized the reason he's so hittable is because hitters have an easy time tracking such a long arm action. I have no idea if that's the case or not, but I do think the Cardinals would do well to help him tighten up his delivery some.

Bottom line, I think the Cards did a very nice job on this pick. Kelly has a first-round arm, but fell to the third because his numbers are a little iffy. He could move very quickly through the system, and as we've seen this season, you can never have enough bullpen depth. Kelly's ceiling is as a closer, but I think it's more likely he ends up a fireballing setup man. Who knows, maybe he takes to starting, but he just feels like a reliever to me. I don't know why.

4th Round - Scott Bittle, RHP, Ole Miss

Now this one is interesting. It pissed off a bunch of people when the Cardinals took Bittle here, as he's a right-handed reliever with a pretty significant injury history. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Cards taking the exact same player every damned round, and especially when it's a type of player we already have too many of anyway. Of course, since trading away so many right-handed relievers, the cupboard is no longer quite so chock-full of them.

Bittle signed only recently, for a below-slot amount of $75,000. The delay, and the low amount, are based on his medical history, which includes lots and lots of shoulder issues, and the fact he's fifth-year college senior, and as such had absolutely no leverage. Scary? Yes. But the thing is, the numbers for Bittle don't lie.

He's put up literal Nintendo number pretty much every season, with his 2008 campaign being one for the ages. He struck out 16.6 batters per nine innings that year, and even this season, while missing time due to a shoulder strain, still managed to strike out 13.4/9.

Don't get me wrong, Scott Bittle is a definite risk. With his history of shoulder issues, you have to worry he has some sort of chronic problem and the Cardinals will never get anything out of him. But in the end, a fourth-round pick and less than a hundred grand is a fairly small gamble. And with those number, the payoff could be significant. He hasn't made his pro debut yet, but the Cards have him on a throwing program designed to strengthen his shoulder, and he's supposedly going to enter into the system at Palm Beach.

As for what it says about the Cards' drafting strategy, I'm not at all upset by them taking this type player. I know, I'm one who always clamours for more upside at the top of the draft, but as I've watched this minor league system evolve, I've softened my stance somewhat. I still want upside at the very top, the first round players, because that's where you have the true monster talents, I think, and you want to take advantage of those. Your core players mostly come from the first couple rounds, non- Albert division, anyhow. But as you move into these middle sort of rounds, there are lots of ways to go. And I've said it before, but I'll say it again: developing your own relievers is incredibly efficient, compared to actually signing them on the open market. We've all been very frustrated with the bullpen's performance of late; just think how much worse it would be if we were actually paying all these guys free agent prices.

If Bittle is healthy, he'll fly through the system. He has one pitch, his cutter, that is just unhittable, and a reliever's mentality. We may only be looking at a 3-5 year career for a guy like this, but even in just those years, he could be an extremely valuable commodity. I think he ends up a setup guy in the mold of someone like Keith Foulke: not overpowering, but with one pitch so good he can just air it out over and over again and get outs. I think it was a risk worth taking, as the Cardinals pulled yet another guy who had been projected as a first-rounder at some point.

5th Round- Ryan Jackson, SS, University of Miami

Of the first five draft picks the Cards took this year, all five had, at one point or another, been mentioned as possible first rounders. Bittle went in the supplemental round to the Yankees in '08 before they decided they didn't like his shoulder MRI, Robert Stock was Bryce Harper before Bryce Harper was Bryce Harper (okay, so the level of hype wasn't quite as high, but there was still talk of him making the majors by the time he was 20), Joe Kelly was projected as a mid-first rounder before his junior season, when his number just weren't great, and Shelby Miller, well, he is a first round pick. Add to that Ryan Jackson, the shortstop with the magic glove out of the U.

Jackson has been known as a defensive wizard for several years, but has been known as an offensive liability for almost as long. His sophomore year of college, he began to turn that reputation around, as he posted a .918 OPS, but he fell back just as hard his junior year, with a .741.

Jackson signed right around the same time Stock and Kelly did, and made his debut shortly after in Batavia. So far, what Jackson has done is pretty much exactly what you would expect from an all-glove, no-hit shortstop. The reports on his defense have been sterling, but he's hit only .236/.307/.261. He has yet to hit a home run.

Still, Jackson isn't completely hopeless at the plate. He's walking in more than 10% of his plate appearances, while striking out in 14%. Small victories, I know, but a good contact rate and plate discipline are certainly decent places to start. He may remain Adam Everett his whole career, but a guy like that still has plenty of value. That offensive spike his sophomore year points to there being more ability in his bat than we've seen so far as well. Regardless, Jackson was a steal in the fifth round, a player who entered the 2009 season in the conversation as the best collegiate shortstop of the class, and most analysts had pegged somewhere in the 3rd round. He plays a premium position, and plays it beautifully. The Cardinals certainly could have done worse here, and I think Jackson was a very good use of the pick.

6th round- Virgil Hill, OF, Los Angeles Mission College (JC)

Okay, first things first: Virgil Hill is the most athletic player the Cardinals took in this entire draft. While I doubt the veracity of his college coach's claim that Hill can run a 6.0 60 (that's off the charts, world-class sprinter speed; the best NFL return men usually fall in the 6.2-6.3 range), the fact is, Hill is extremely fast. His father is a professional boxer, so the athletic bloodlines are certainly there as well. Plus, you have to admit, Quicksilver Jr. is just too cool a nickname.

Here's the problem with Virgil Hill: he doesn't really know what he's doing at the plate just yet. He hit very well in college, but that was for a small JuCo school. Pro ball hasn't been all that kind to him yet, as he's hitting only .225/.317/.324 for the Cardinals' Gulf Coast League affiliate, the lowest level of minor league ball the Cards have in America. He's striking out in almost 30% of his plate appearances, and isn't walking a whole lot, either. He has stolen 9 bases, rather impressive considering he's only been on base 36 times.

Hill is clearly a long-term project, Daryl Jones with even better speed. If the minor league coaching staff can develop his bat, Hill could turn into a very useful player. It's impossible at this point to say what his ceiling might be, simply because he's so far away. But as a choice made purely on tools, I like this pick. Maybe Hill never develops into anything, maybe he turns into Carl Crawford. It's impossible to say. Nonetheless, this is a really exiting gamble.

7th round - Kyle Conley, OF, University of Washington

I'll be honest with you: I wasn't a fan of this pick when it was made. And so far, I'm still not a huge fan of it. Conley is a big, strong kid who plays primarily right field, a bit like Jon Edwards, one of my own favourite sleeper prospects who has been a sleeper going on three seasons now.

Conley started out at Low A Quad Cities after being drafted, and was clearly overmatched. He hit only .200, with a .542 OPS, and was striking out in a full third of his PAs. Wisely, the Cardinals moved him down a level before he got just absolutely buried, and he has taken off since moving to Batavia, hitting .375/.483/.875, good for an OPS of 1.358. (!) It's only 29 PAs, yes, but just the fact he's been able to make hard contact consistently since moving down is cause for optimism. Odd stat fact: at QC, Conley was striking out 33.3% of the time, but also had a 23% line drive rate. He either crushed the ball or missed it entirely, apparently, with very little in between; to me, that signifies a player who can hit a fastball really, really hard, but has little to no ability to recognise breaking pitches, missing them completely.

Conley is really kind of an odd pick, as he was a college senior, yet had fairly little experience playing baseball. He was a football player primarily through high school and some of college, and then tore up his shoulder on a checked swing early in his college playing days. He missed quite a lot of time with that, before coming back strong his senior season. Thus, you have a player who's already 22 and will turn 23 before opening day of 2009, yet has little experience playing baseball at a high level and is still very raw. He has a strong arm, but isn't all that athletic, so it's likely he won't be a plus fielder. Overall, it's kind of an odd combination.

What Conley does bring, though, is power, and plenty of it. He can hit a baseball a very long way, and has always been noted for his patience at the plate. In looking for a comp, maybe he's sort of a right-handed Adam Dunn, only without the hatred for America?

Bottom line, I thought there were other players the Cards would have done better to take here, but there are some intriguing things about Conley. I'm still not a huge fan, but that doesn't mean he couldn't turn into something good.

Alright, folks. That's it. I'll cover the rest of the draft picks next week, by which time we'll know for sure if Miller signed or not. Take care.

The Baron's Playlist for the 12th of August, 2009: Ladies' Day

 "Sick Muse"- Metric

"Cherry Tulips"- Headlights

"Suzanne"- Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions

"Forests and Sands"- Camera Obscura

"Drill 'Em All"- Ruth Wallis