Because of last winter’s free agent binge, the Yankees didn’t pick until the second round (55th overall) of the 2014 amateur draft. They used that pick on Jacob Lindgren — a lefty reliever out of Mississippi State. At first blush, taking a reliever in the second round seems a little silly. After all, relievers only throw around 50-80 innings a year, which means even the elite bullpen arms tend to be much less valuable than many starting pitchers. Going by Fangraphs, even the best reliever — Koji Uehara — was worth just 3.3 WAR last year, while only six others were worth more than 2 WAR. Across baseball, a total of 204 players eclipsed the 2 WAR mark.
But given the expected outcome of a second round pick, the Yankees decision to draft a reliever may not be as foolish as it seems. In fact, it may actually be a wise move. According to work done by Matthew Murphy and Sky Andrecheck, a player selected with pick 55 is worth around 1.5 or 2 WAR on average before he hits free agency. So if Lindgren can net at least two wins over the next six or seven years, the Yankees would still come out ahead. For reference, Boone Logan — a good, but not great lefty reliever — was worth 1.7 fWAR for the Yankees from 2010-2013.
Here’s what the experts are saying about Lindgren:
He regularly reaches 93-94 mph with his fastball with heavy life and arm-side run. He’s tabled his curve and changeup in a relief role, sticking to the heater and his hard, plus slider in the low to mid 80s. His stiff delivery likely leads him to a future relief role as well, and his 16.8 strikeouts per nine indicate he can dominate in that job. Lindgren lacks command, and his control usually is just enough. — Baseball America
His fastball sat in the 88-90 mph range as a starter, but that has shot up to the 92-94 range in relief. That velocity plays up even more because of his slider, which flashes plus-plus with outstanding late tilt that is practically unhittable for left-handed hitters. — Keith Law
His best pitch is a wipeout slider that arrives at 82-84 mph with late bite. His fastball has jumped from 87-91 mph as a starter to 91-95 as a reliever. Because Lindgren has a sinking changeup and throws strikes, a pro team could be tempted to develop him as a starter. But his stuff plays up as a reliever, and he could reach the Majors very quickly in the role. He has closer upside. — MLB.com
Based on these reports, Lindgren certainly sounds like a guy would be capable of racking up 2+ WAR over the next few years, but as with any prospect, nothing’s guaranteed. Guys like Paco Rodriguez, Chad Cordero, Tanner Scheppers, Rex Brothers, and Bryan Shaw became successful relievers shortly after being drafted. Still, we’ve seen plenty of early-round relievers fail to pan out, despite being labeled “nearly ready for the big leagues” — Ryan Wagner, Craig Hansen, Eddie Kunz, Daniel Schlereth, and Chance Ruffin are a few names that come to mind. The Yankees have also been burned in the past by selecting early-round reliever. I have vivid memories of J.B. Cox from draft day 2005. Some analysts pegged Cox to make it to the majors later that season, but due to a plethora of injuries and makeup problems, Cox never threw a pitch in the big leagues. There was also Ryan Bradley in the late 1990’s, who debuted the year after he was drafted, but threw just 12.2 innings before flaming out with command issues.
Every draft selection is risky, especially once you get past the first few picks. But with Lindgren, these risks aren’t as great as with many of the other players who were still on the board. As a reliever, Lindgren has limited upside, and will never be as productive as recent second round picks like Jon Lester, Giancarlo Stanton, or Joey Votto. Still, there’s a decent chance Lindgren will be the first of this year’s cohort to play in the majors, and more likely than not, he’ll be able to provide at least some value to the Yankees sooner rather than later. He may even be able to help this summer given the team’s dearth of lefty relievers. By drafting a college reliever, the Yankees essentially swapped upside for certainty, and with pick 55, that’s probably a trade worth making.