Last week, MLB Pipeline declared Joey Bart to be the best catching prospect in baseball and the best defensive prospect in the Giants’ system. These are really nice acknowledgements by the cool kids, as it’s exceedingly rare to see the Giants’ farm system recognized for anything remotely positive. Most of their “recent” success involved Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner (and Matt Duffy, if you’re feeling generous); but, not all of their prospect “hits” have wound up on their major league roster.
Last month, MLB.com took a look at the best and worst first-round draft picks for every team since 2009, and Zack Wheeler (taken with the 6th pick in 2009) was rated as the team’s best performer since then. The rest of the NL West shakes out with a lot of familiar names: Corey Seager for the Dodgers (#18 in 2012), Kyle Freeland for the Rockies (#8 in 2014), Trea Turner for the Padres (#13 in 2014), and A.J. Pollock for the Diamondbacks (#17 in 2009).
But Zack Wheeler wasn’t even the best player the Giants drafted in 2009. Brandon Belt was their fifth pick (#147 overall) and he’s accumulated 22.9 bWAR over his career. Obviously, Wheeler’s biggest contribution to the Giants was netting them 44 games of Carlos Beltran back in 2011, but with the Mets, he’s provided 6.4 Baseball Reference wins above replacement across four seasons. His career has largely been defined by injury, but when he’s been healthy, he’s been extremely effective.
As Grant pointed out in March 2018 (before Wheeler’s best season), the Giants haven’t really managed to develop effective pitchers after Madison Bumgarner.
Since then, Ty Blach, Chris Stratton, a no-hitter, and a handful of maybe-they’ll-be-good-one-day relievers are all the Giants have to show for their farm system. Either the game has changed and left the front office behind, or they were getting a lot luckier with their pitching before 2009 than we had previously thought.
Of course, nobody expected Dereck Rodriguez to have a standout season like the one he had, because Dereck Rodriguez wasn’t even a Giants prospect, first and foremost, and the only person who seemed to know about him was Pablo Sandoval, who helped recruit him as a minor league free agent.
Andrew Suarez seems like he’s more in line with this group Grant mentions, but as I shamelessly pointed out in my season review last month,
Suarez’s K/9 (he had 130 in his 160.1 IP) was 56th-best in MLB, just behind Jon Lester’s 7.38 and ahead of the Brewers’ Chase Anderson and Jhoulys Chacin, Tanner Roark and Kyle Hendricks, and 12 spots ahead of Keuchel himself (6.73). But this was Keuchel’s age-30 season and a walk year. His K/9 peaked at 8.4 in his age-27 season, when he won the AL Cy Young Award.
Does that mean I think he’ll wind up the NL Cy Young two years from now? I don’t know! Probably not! But... still... maybe?
No, December Bryan. Oh no no no. There’s no chance of that happening. But still, in the moment, it felt good to write that. Suarez’s 2018 might be his peak, and even if it was solid, it still didn’t show the same degree of potential as previous successful Giants draftees. But, again, Suarez wasn’t a first rounder, either (taken in the 2nd round in 2015).
Let’s take a look at every first rounder since 2009 and see if we can quickly answer the question posed in the headline:
2009 - Zack Wheeler | 92 games | 6.4 WAR
2010 - Gary Brown | 7 games | 0.1 WAR
2011 - Joe Panik | 540 games | 7.0 WAR
2012 - Chris Stratton | 45 games | 0.5 WAR
2013 - Christian Arroyo | 54 games | -0.2 WAR
2014 - Tyler Beede | 2 games | -0.3 WAR
2015 - Phil Bickford | 0 games
2016 - Bryan Reynolds | 0 games
2017 - Heliot Ramos | 0 games
Those are definitely some names. Remember how hyped we were for Gary Brown? Remember when the Giants could’ve traded him straight up for Carlos Beltran rather than Zack Wheeler?
Sent to the Brewers in mid-2016 as part of a deal for Will Smith, his fastball and slider regressed in pro ball and he missed time with a drug-of-abuse suspension in ‘17. Still active, he logged a 4.67 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings as a Double-A reliever this year.
I’d say getting Will Smith back for the Giants makes him a worthwhile first round draft pick, but that’s only because I don’t believe in the sanctity of prospects. Oh sure, always strive to draft and develop, but hoarding and overvaluing them is a slippery slope. A lot of geniuses love the smell of their own farts and drafts, farm systems, and player development can easily become ego extensions and every baseball exec the resulting Ozymandias.
Bryan Reynolds allowed the Giants to trade for Andrew McCutchen, a move I think we’d all agree worked out well. There’s still a lot of excitement around Heliot Ramos, and, uh, Chris Stratton had a great April. That really leaves Joe Panik, and it’s pretty clear that MLB.com snubbed him.
Panik has had his own injury history, but he’s still been healthier than Wheeler and has done more to help his team win, both in the regular season and playoffs. If you don’t want to make WAR the be all / end all stat, that’s fine, and by doing that it seems clear that MLB.com based its decision on the perception that Panik’s stock is falling while Wheeler’s is rising.
That might be fair, especially if the Giants do wind up trading Panik and he falls into a bench role on another team, but in the moment, it smells a little New York bias-y. So, let’s take them together. Can Joey Bart be as good or better than Zack Wheeler and/or Joe Panik? It all depends on if we think he can approximate Buster Posey’s career, which is a really nutty thing to believe. If Buster Posey’s career were repeatable, then there’d be a lot more Buster Poseys.
Posey posted 12.8 Baseball Reference wins above replacement in his first three seasons, easily better than both Panik and Wheeler. Had it not been for Scott Cousins, Posey would’ve topped their WAR totals after two seasons. Let’s say Joey Bart can be, at his ceiling, maybe two-third’s the player Buster Posey is — that still puts him ahead of Panik and Wheeler, at least in the short-term. MLB.com seems bullish on Wheeler’s future, but they also seem to feel the same way about Bart’s.