The White Sox system has been improving overall in recent years, but it’s strength has consistently been starting pitching prospects. Throw in the MLB staff plus Erik Johnson (who has “lost” prospect status due to his time in the majors) and the White Sox could argue that they have the best starting depth in baseball outside of the Washington Nationals. Baseball, more so than any other major sport, is less about drafting for need and more about drafting the best player available, signability and how a team can develop a player.
Brady Aiken and Michael Matuella will likely both be on the board when the Chicago White Sox are picking 8th in the 2015 MLB Draft on June 8. A year ago, that would have seemed impossible. Most were assuming that Aiken would currently be pitching in either the Houston Astros or Miami Marlins’ farm systems and that Matuella would be headlining Duke University’s pitching staff en route to becoming the first overall pick this year.
How things have changed. How did we get here?
After the Astros passed on Carlos Rodon and picked Aiken first overall last year, there was little doubt that Houston would sign him. Now infamously, the Astros’ found an “abnormality” in Aiken’s arm and lowered their agreed upon $6.5 million offer to $3 million. Aiken passed and now the Astros have the second overall pick this year as compensation and Aiken’s previously injury-free arm required Tommy John surgery after just 12 pitches for the IMG Academy in Florida.
Matuella is a different story. The big 6-foot-7 right hander benefitted from pitching in the same area as Carlos Rodon and Jeff Hoffman as scouts were seeing a starter with a 97 mph fastball complimented by three average-to-plus offspeed pitches. Matuella had previously dealt with back injuries but was healthy coming into the year after battling back injuries previously. Then he also required Tommy John surgery.
Last year the pick was easy for the White Sox. Aiken was off the board, they weren’t enamored with Tyler Kolek, Hoffman was injured and Aaron Nola wasn’t as strong a pick as Rodon, touted as the best lefty prospect since David Price. This year? Not as easy, even if they are picking 8th. We’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of taking a roll of the dice on Aiken or Matuella – two prized, but damaged arms.
Why the Sox should take Aiken or Matuella
- Ace potential. At this time last year Aiken was drawing comparisons to Clayton Kershaw and Matuella was receiving hype as the next big time right-hander to come out of college a la Justin Verlander or Jered Weaver. A lot of pitchers have had surgery and come back, so it shouldn’t be overlooked that both of these pitchers have huge ace potential.
- The Sox can develop starting pitchers. Whether or not you want to credit that to Don Cooper having a trickle down effect, it’s undeniable that the Sox are able to churn out serviceable arms that are sometimes no-doubters (Chris Sale, Rodon) and sometimes completely out of left field (Hector Santiago, Jose Quintana, Frankie Montas). The Sox teach control and a diverse arsenals to raw power pitchers so it wouldn’t be shocking for them to take Aiken or Matuella, slow their arms down, develop their offspeed stuff and teach them a cutter to compliment their fastballs and decrease a dependence on throwing gas. When you look at how the Sox develop position players, it makes more sense to draft and develop a pitcher and hopefully trade from a pitching surplus down the road (See: Jake Peavy, Hector Santiago, Addison Reed).
- The Sox are the best in baseball at keeping their players healthy. This chart from FanGraphs is a few years old but it shows the effect that Herm Schneider has. The aforementioned emphasis on stuff over power is a large part of why the Sox keep pitchers healthy. It’s why the organization didn’t have the same concerns other organizations had about Chris Sale and Tyler Danish, it’s why they still could have drafted Hoffman last year and it’s why they drafted Bryce Montes de Oca as an insurance policy on Rodon last year. Matuella and Aiken are low mileage and have now undergone their reconstructive surgeries so the White Sox could gamble on their training staff keeping one of the two healthy.
- Can sign at a discount. Aiken or Matuella have slipped to 22 and 23 on Major League Baseball’s draft rankings. Whereas the duo might have commanded higher bonuses in the past, they’ve lost a lot of leverage in negotiations. Last year Hoffman (who just hit 99 mph in his pro debut) slid to ninth overall and signed for $3 million, $2.7 million lower than the slot value the Sox could have offered him at third overall. Lucas Giolito, now baseball’s number eight prospect, was projected to go second in 2012’s MLB Draft. He ended up going 16th and signed for $3 million, $3.2 less than he could have gotten at number two. This year’s ninth pick has a slot value of $3.4 million and 22 and 23 have values of $2.1 million. If the Sox can nab one of Aiken or Matuella and get them to sign for $2.1 million, it gives them $1.3 million extra to play with and the flexibility to go overslot in later rounds, which is very critical in wake of losing their second and third round picks after signing David Robertson and Melky Cabrera.
Why the Sox shouldn’t take Aiken or Matuella
- There will be safer picks available. Whether it’s one of Vanderbilt’s aces Carson Fulmer or Walker Buehler, or a local kid in either Louisville’s Kyle Funkhouser (from Palos Heights) or Illinois’ Tyler Jay, there will be a safer pick on the board for the Sox. According to MLB’s Jim Callis, the Sox are very much in on Fulmer and Jay and he has Funkhouser and Buehler slipping past them in his mock.
- The injury concerns. Not every injured prospect comes back like Giolito or Hoffman. Former No. 2 pick Jameson Tallion is still a top 30 prospect in all of baseball, but hasn’t pitched since 2013 after he underwent Tommy John surgery. Former No. 1 pick Mark Appel battled forearm tightness earlier this year and is just an average pitcher as of right now. Current Charlotte Knight Kyle Drabek was once a top prospect in baseball, then had two Tommy John surgeries. While the Sox might be better than most at keeping their players healthy, there is no guarantee Aiken or Matuella harness their full potential.
- Unsignable. If Aiken or Matuella are taken eighth, they might demand money befitting that slot. A year ago, both were looking at No. 1 overall money, so they might try to recoup those loses. It would be risky for them to do so, but it was risky for Aiken to pass up the Astros last second offer of $5 million last year.
In the end, the Sox likely won’t draft Aiken or Matuella, but the opportunity to get ace potential for under-slot has to be very appealing to the Sox so that they can go over-slot later in the draft.
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