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September 18, 2020 at 12:30 PM

2017 Draft Retrospective: A Houck of a debut

Thank you for checking in on the newest entry in our draft retrospective series. Tuesday was a pick-by-pick rundown of 2017, while today we will dig a little deeper into a few of the more interesting and prominent draftees. For a quick list and links to player pages, check out our
Draft History page.

2017 Draft

The Red Sox had come crashing back to Earth after the surprise World Series title back in 2013. After last-place finishes in both 2014 and 2015, ownership decided a change was in order. Enter Dave Dombrowski. The Red Sox improved markedly in 2016, winning the first of what would be three consecutive American League East championships, partially due to the win-now trades the former President of Baseball Operations is known for, sacrificing prospects and sometimes overpaying to get the player he felt would most improve the team. When those trades were combined with the graduation of Andrew Benintendi and impending promotion of Rafael Devers, the prospect cupboard was left pretty bare headed into the 2017 draft. Though there is a long way to go developmentally for many of these players, a situation complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, early returns on potential impact major leaguers have left much to be desired.

The Vitals
President of Baseball Operations: Dave Dombrowski
Director of Amateur Scouting: Mike Rikard

Major Leaguers drafted and signed
Tanner Houck (1st round, 0.3 bWAR)

Unsigned players who reached the major leagues

Top 100 Prospects

Too early to tell
This draft is the first in this series in which few players selected by the Red Sox, whether they signed or not, have made the major leagues. As of September 16, only 33 players of those selected in June 2017 and signed have reached their respective big league clubs and appeared in a game. In the Red Sox system, only two players, Tanner Houck (pictured, above) and Michael Osinski (pictured, right), have even suited up for Pawtucket and made it to Triple-A, and Houck, of course, made his MLB debut just this week.

These players have had only two full seasons of professional baseball to develop and improve, as the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and only Houck has been part of the 60-man player pool for Boston, spending his summer in Pawtucket playing in simulated games. This is not a lot of time to evaluate whether a player will be able to make an impact on the major league roster, especially when some players, including Zach Schellenger and Tyler Dearden, have been slowed significantly by injuries, limiting development time even further.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in almost all prospects' developments, as the minor league season was canceled completely and only major league clubs are playing in competitive games. This has left only simulated games at each team's alternate training site for prospects to participate in. However, space is limited, as players on the 60-man player pool and not part of the 28-man active roster are allowed to train at the alternate training site. For this particular draft class, this has a particularly strong impact, as a lion's share of players must be added to the 40-man roster this offseason or be exposed to selection in the Rule 5 draft—although as it stands, now that Houck has been added to the roster, no other players from this draft class appear likely to be protected from selection or selected.

However, early returns could be better
While it seems as though the Red Sox have one surefire major leaguer from the draft—in some role, be it starting or in the bullpen—in Tanner Houck, returns from other players selected in this draft as not as rosy. Only 13 of the 32 players signed in this draft have appeared in the top-60 prospect rankings and Houck, sitting at No. 10, is the only one currently ranked by SoxProspects (although Tyler Esplin, Zach Schellenger, and Alex Scherff are all unofficially in the next five who just missed). Only six have been ranked in the Top 20 at any time during their time in the system to date, with many of those players, such as Cole Brannen and Alex Scherff, seeing their ranking gradually fall rather than rise.

Retention rates of the 32 signees in this draft also do not indicate this draft will be looked back upon fondly. Just over three years later, only 17 of those players remain in the system and none of the 15 who departed the organization were used in trades. David Durden and Beau Hanna both retired in advance of the 2018 season to return to college sports, the former to football and the latter to Division II baseball. Andrew Carber was the first cut-down victim, departing the Red Sox organization in June 2018 after just two professional innings pitched. Two additional players were released during 2018, while another seven would only experience one full professional season, all getting released in either January or March 2019. Three others have been cut since and of those that were let go, just one caught on with another organization in 25th-round selection Kory Behenna, who spent the second half of 2018 and all of 2019 with Detroit before getting released in July 2020.

Other players still in the organization have not delivered on their potential. Brannen (pictured, left) is a prime example of this trend. The high school outfielder was ranked among the top 60 prospects available for selection by both Perfect Game and Baseball America, with a position not far behind on MLB Pipeline's list. He was selected No. 63 overall in the second round and agreed to a bonus of $1.3 million, a little more than $300,000 over slot, to spurn his commitment to Georgia Southern. He had an athletic frame and was (and is) a strong defender with reportedly plus speed who hit .439 his senior year of high school, showing ability at the plate against competitive Georgia pitching. While he was not expected to be able to put on weight to have power be a significant part of his game, scouts dreamed on a glove-first outfielder who could hit enough to the gaps to let his speed play. However, he has not shown any ability to get the ball into the air and posted a ground ball rate near 70 percent with a sub-.500 OPS in his first full professional season starting with Greenville before a demotion to Lowell. His numbers did not improve when he returned to Greenville in 2019, slashing .204/.276/.247 across 442 at-bats for the Drive. His speed also did not come as advertised, playing more above-average than truly plus. It would take a rare turnaround for Brannen to put himself back onto the prospect radar.

Injuries haven't helped
Injuries have also slowed development for several players. Sixth-round pick Zach Schellenger has struggled to stay on the mound, even back to his time at Seton Hall. He pitched only 13 innings for the Pirates during his draft year and was limited to 16 1/3 innings in his first full professional season, followed by another stint on the injured list last season. He has only thrown 67 2/3 career innings and though he has the pitch mix to succeed in a major league bullpen role, he has not been healthy enough to refine his craft, particularly his control. 

Two pitchers have also gone under the knife for Tommy John surgery. Fourth-rounder Jake Thompson had just started his transition into the bullpen as a result of control problems and the lack of a clear third pitch, making four appearances at Salem in 2019 before an elbow strain would result in the surgery. Thompson, who was an All-American and national champion at Oregon State, is likely an up-and-down emergency relief option, but could carve out a more permanent role for himself if he can make strides with his control and he comes back strongly from his surgery.

Kutter Crawford
(pictured, right), a 16th-round selection from Florida Gulf Coast, had quite the year in his first professional season, earning SoxProspects' Breakout Pitcher of the Year award in 2018. He pitched 112 2/3 innings in Greenville, striking out 120 hitters with a 2.96 ERA, earning himself a cup of coffee in Salem in August. Although he was most likely headed to the bullpen, given his high-effort delivery and lack of a third pitch after his fastball and cutter, he put himself on the radar as a potential MLB arm. He took a step back in 2019, pitching mostly in Salem, though he did appear in Portland for five starts and earned Carolina League All-Star honors. He had his Tommy John surgery in late 2019 and was expected to miss the 2020 season before it was canceled entirely.

A third pitcher, 14th-round pick Aaron Perry, had two separate injuries to his throwing elbow, pushing back his professional debut more than two years. He suffered a stress fracture in his right elbow in 2017 and he did not appear in a game after being selected out of Hurricane High School in West Virginia. Subsequently, Perry had Tommy John surgery in May 2018. He finally made his debut on June 26, 2019. He pitched 21 innings for the GCL Red Sox in nine appearances and was able to miss bats, with 19 strikeouts, but also walked 18 batters. Perry was committed to Kentucky and projects as a reliever, as he has a high-effort delivery. 

Tyler Dearden, selected in the 29th round out of Rancocas Valley Regional High School in New Jersey, has also had several injury concerns that could stunt his development. A back injury cut his 2018 season with Lowell short, ending a promising campaign in which he slashed .306/.364/.459 in 170 at-bats. He also missed the first half of 2019, getting in only 208 at-bats across 60 games with Greenville. As a result of his time on the shelf and his status as a high school draftee, there is a wide range of outcomes for Dearden, though his ceiling as a bat-first corner outfielder becomes less likely the more time he spends on the injured list.

Can Houck save the draft?
The team's first-round pick, Tanner Houck, was a consensus top-30 prospect and was selected No. 24 overall. Long and athletic, standing at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, the right-handed pitcher uses a unique delivery from a low three-quarters arm slot reminiscent of Chris Sale. He had the pedigree, anchoring the starting rotation for Missouri and spending two summers with the collegiate national team. He still has a chance to start, but if not, his fastball/slider mix will play up and fit well in the back of a major league bullpen.

Houck was one of the many players who Brian Bannister tinkered with to unlock additional potential. While at Missouri, Houck threw primarily a two-seam fastball with a frisbee slider that had 10-to-4 movement and made him very tough on right-handed batters. During 2018, the Illinois native experimented with an altered repertoire that featured a four-seam fastball and a more vertical curveball, along with a changeup, with the thought that the changes—as well as significant mechanical tweaks—would give him a better chance to remain a starter, particularly by making him more effective against lefties. However, the changes did not all take, and Houck returned to his two-seamer and slider mix, though the four-seam fastball remained as a secondary offering. He would move quickly through the system, starting 2019 in Portland. It was here that he first experimented with a role in the bullpen before a move to Pawtucket midway through the year. If the Red Sox were still competing for a playoff spot in September, it was possible that he was going to be part of the equation. After the Red Sox were eliminated, he reported to the Arizona Fall League to work in a rotation role. 

Houck's chances to remain in the role long-term will depend largely on his ability to get lefties out with more consistency. In 2018, right-handers managed just a .219/.307/.363 line with 66 strikeouts and 27 walks in 271 plate appearances against him, while lefties hit .274/.368/.410 with 45 strikeouts and 33 walks across 248 plate appearances. The splits remained similar in 2019 with an even more stark divergence in peripherals:  Houck held righties to .227/.311/.384, with an excellent 64 strikeouts against 15 walks in 226 plate appearances. Lefties hit .283/.383/.363 with just 43 strikeouts to 31 walks in 249 chances. With even minor league teams loading their lineups with lefties against him, it shows the challenge he faces to stay in a starter role. Like Justin Masterson, a pitcher to whom Houck has frequently been compared, teams will continue to simply force him to beat lefties to win. If he isn't able to then his destination is likely the bullpen, where his manager will be able to spot him in more favorable matchups. The two keys to his figuring left-handed hitters out will be the development of a new split-fingered fastball, added this season in the place of his changeup, and command of the four-seam fastball to the glove side, inside on left-handed hitters. 

With none of the other high picks panning out as of yet and no late-round selections having emerged, it seems as though it is up to Houck to become the class's impact major leaguer. He is right on the doorstep of a more permanent major league role and made an encouraging debut as a starter on Wednesday, striking out seven batters in five innings. However, now that he has been added to the 40-man roster and will begin using his three option years, the time to decide whether his transition to the bullpen will be permanent or not will come soon. With little other help from the 2017 draft on the immediate horizon, Houck's role and his effectiveness in it will determine how much value the team will get from this class. If he can prove his worth at the major league level, whether it's in a high-leverage bullpen role or as a starting pitcher, this draft will look much better.

Missed Opportunities
It's still early to make a call on many players inside and outside the organization, but there are some 2017 draftees that have made an impression with their major league teams. Of the signed draftees to make their major league debuts, nine were picked before the Red Sox selected Houck. The most obvious miss is MLB Pipeline's No. 9 prospect, Nate Pearson, who was drafted No. 28 overall and is a promising starting pitcher for Toronto. Jeter Downs, acquired in the Mookie Betts trade and a top-100 prospect in baseball, also went No. 32 overall to Cincinnati. Several players on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 list were selected between Houck and Cole Brannen, including Drew Waters (No. 41 overall), MLB Pipeline's No. 27 prospect, No. 35 Spencer Howard (No. 45 overall), and No. 53 Luis Campusano (No. 39 overall).

Later on in the draft, Daulton Varsho, a catcher from Wisconsin-Milwaukee that has appeared in 16 major league contests, went to Arizona five picks after Cole Brannen. James Karinchak, who has been worth 0.7 bWAR since his major league debut in September 2019, was selected out of Bryant one pick after Tanner Nishioka in the ninth round, though Nishioka was a senior sign and Karinchak commanded a $138,300 bonus.

Final Thoughts
This draft has the potential to be in the same realm as the 2013 draft, where only five players selected by the Red Sox made the major leagues, contributing a combined 0.9 bWAR. While there seems to be a solid major leaguer in Tanner Houck knocking on the door of Fenway Park, it's unclear who will follow him in donning a Red Sox uniform. COVID-19 has complicated matters, stunting the development of most, while affording a few time get healthy. It will be a few more years before the story of this draft will be able to be accurately told in full, but it doesn't seem like Red Sox fans will like what it says.

Photo Credit: Tanner Houck, Michael Osinski, Cole Brannen by Kelly O'Connor