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Toolshed: 2015 Draft retrospective

The 2020 First-Year Player Draft is coming, and without regular-season baseball being played yet due to the coronavirus pandemic, it could be the first big Major League Baseball event of the summer. The 2020 edition is likely to be held on June 10 and be as little as five rounds,

The 2020 First-Year Player Draft is coming, and without regular-season baseball being played yet due to the coronavirus pandemic, it could be the first big Major League Baseball event of the summer. The 2020 edition is likely to be held on June 10 and be as little as five rounds, but it still will mark the beginning of the professional careers for several of the game’s future top prospects. To get fans prepared for the big day on the baseball calendar, Toolshed will spend the coming weeks looking at Drafts of the recent past, starting with this review of 2015.

Biggest storyline at the time — The Astros and their bonus pool: This series won’t touch on the 2014 Draft, but it’s where we have to start with the 2015 analysis. While in the midst of its pre-title rebuild, Houston used the No. 1 overall pick on Brady Aiken in 2014, but failed to sign the high-school left-hander after reportedly discovering an elbow issue in a post-Draft MRI and subsequently lowering its bonus offer. As a result, the Astros received the No. 2 overall pick in 2015 on top of their regular No. 5 overall selection. Add in the 37th overall selection — a Competitive Balance-round pick acquired from the Marlins — and the Astros had three selections before most organization had two. They also boasted a $17,289,200 signing pool, giving them more than $3 million more than the second-biggest pool belonging to the Rockies. That allowed Houston to take two top prospects in LSU infielder Alex Bregman (second overall) and Florida prep outfielder Kyle Tucker (fifth) and then take a big swing with Georgia prep outfielder Daz Cameron (37th overall). A high bonus demand caused Cameron to drop out of the first round, but because of its large pool, Houston was able to swoop in and offer — and sign him for — $4 million, well above the $1,668,600 assigned to the slot. Cameron was eventually a big part of the trade that brought Justin Verlander to the Astros ahead of the 2017 World Series. Bregman has become the best Major Leaguer of the Draft class so far, and at age 23, former top prospect Tucker was on the cusp of joining the big club full-time this season. 
Biggest storyline since — Walker Buehler lasting to the Dodgers: To keep this column from getting too Astros-centric, let’s pivot to a competitive team that managed to get even richer in the 2015 Draft. Nine pitchers, including four from four-year colleges, were taken off the board before the Dodgers selected Buehler at 24th overall. It was somewhat of a stretch to see the Vanderbilt right-hander drop that far. MLB.com had him ranked as the 11th-best talent in the class, but concerns about Buehler’s durability given his size at 6-foot-2, 170 pounds were enough to make him slide. Those proved to be well-founded pretty quickly as Buehler needed Tommy John surgery in August of his Draft year. What happened after the surgery, though, has probably made a lot of teams wish they could go back and roll the dice on Buehler. The Los Angeles hurler reached the Majors in 2017 and has a career 3.12 ERA over 329 innings in the bigs since. He’s coming off his first All-Star season and finished ninth in the 2019 NL Cy Young voting after posting a 3.26 ERA and 215 strikeouts in 182 1/3 frames. He’s arguably taken over for Clayton Kershaw as the Dodgers’ ace, and his 5.5 bWAR is tops among 2015 Draft pitchers, well above hurlers taken higher such as Dillon Tate (-0.2), Carson Fulmer (-1.2) and Kolby Allard (0.6). Los Angeles was en route to its third straight NL West title in 2015 and has won four in a row since. The Dodgers certainly didn’t need to end up with the best pitcher in the Class of 2015, but they’re not complaining five years later.
How the first overall pick aged — Dansby Swanson, shortstop, D-backs: It wasn’t necessarily a slam dunk that Swanson would go to Arizona. MLB.com had Brendan Rodgers ranked above Swanson as the top talent in the Draft, though it was close between the two shortstops. There were rumors that the D-backs might aim for a more guaranteed smaller signer in the hopes of using the savings on later picks. Instead, the club went with what seemed like a good mix of experience and talent in the Vanderbilt slugger. The pick wasn’t the befuddling part. What befuddled many was Arizona’s decision to trade Swanson to the Braves the very next offseason in a deal that netted Major League pitcher Shelby Miller. Because of his hit tool, plus speed and good bet to stick at short, he ranked among the top-10 overall prospects in the game heading into the 2016 and 2017 seasons — the latter No. 4 ranking coming after he’d already received 129 at-bats in the Majors. Swanson hasn’t quite lived up to that potential, however, over his last three seasons. He’s yet to post an wRC+ above 92 in a full Major League season, leaving the bulk of his value to come from the defensive side. There’s something to be said for being a steady contributor to a perennial National League contender.
Biggest dropoff — Tyler Jay, first round, sixth overall: Jay was a closer during his days at the University of Illinois, but most evaluators agreed he had the four-pitch mix and impressive control to work as a starter in the pros. As such, the Twins taking him at No. 6 wasn’t exactly a reach at the time; MLB.com ranked Jay as the ninth-best prospect going into the Draft. But as things stand now, Jay is the only player taken from the top nine picks who has yet to reach the Majors. Neck and shoulder injuries limited him in 2016 and 2017, and he became a full-time reliever again at Double-A in 2018. Control issues have been a problem since then. He walked 19 in 28 innings for Double-A Pensacola last season, and by June, he was traded to the Reds for cash. He showed more promising results at Double-A Chattanooga (3.03 ERA, 33 strikeouts, 12 walks in 32 2/3 innings), but has yet to see Triple-A. A former Top-100 prospect, he isn’t ranked as one of the Reds’ top 30 prospects due to his injury history and limited role in the bullpen.
Biggest early-round steal — Paul DeJong, fourth round, 131st overall: Going into 2015, DeJong was an infielder/catcher at Illinois State who already had been taken in the 38th round of the 2014 Draft but chose not to sign. The Redbirds slugger helped his stock with an impressive Northwoods League campaign in the summer and a second straight season featuring an OPS above 1.000 in the spring as a junior. But it still wasn’t enough to get him in the top-100 picks. The Cardinals even announced him as a left fielder, instead of a spot behind the plate or on the dirt. Five years later, DeJong is coming off his first All-Star season after hitting a career-high 30 homers and posting a 5.3 bWAR as a shortstop. A lot of that value comes from his defensive work at the six. DeJong led Major League shortstops with 26 Defensive Runs Saved in 2019, and his 13 Outs Above Average ranked fifth. In other words, he’s the shortstop the D-backs hoped they were getting with Swanson, except he was taken 130 selections later and signed for $6.3 million less with a $200,000 bonus.
Best pick, rounds 6-40 — Chris Paddack, eighth round, 236th overall: The Marlins had dreams for the 6-foot-4 right-hander out of Texas when they took him in the eighth round and signed him for $400,000, well above the $173,100. Part of that was based on Paddack adding some velocity to his average fastball while continuing to play off his plus-plus changeup and promising curve. Unfortunately, the Marlins may have cut bait too soon. Paddack was dealt to the Padres straight up for Major League reliever Fernando Rodney in June 2016 after only six Class A starts. He needed Tommy John surgery soon after the swap and missed all of 2017. But then Paddack broke out with a 2.10 ERA, 120 K’s and only eight walks over 90 innings between Class A Advanced and Double-A in 2018, thanks in part to the velocity that enabled him to throw in the mid-90s. San Diego liked enough of what it saw to add Paddack to the Major League rotation straight from the beginning of the 2019 campaign, and the right-hander was an NL Rookie of the Year contender for much of the summer before finishing with a 3.33 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 140 2/3 frames. He’s the Padres’ top pitcher now, at least until MacKenzie Gore reaches the Majors, and his 2.7 career bWAR is already third-best among 2015 pitchers behind only top-30 picks Buehler and Mike Soroka.
Best picks by organization — Astros: This shouldn’t be a shock given the size of that signing pool, but even having two top-five picks and one more in the top 40 selections doesn’t guarantee anything. The Astros had the good fortune of seeing Bregman drop to them at No. 2 overall, and the third baseman has been easily the most productive Major Leaguer of the Class of 2015 yet. His 22.4 bWAR is the highest of the group — DeJong is second at 11.7 and Andrew Benintendi third at 9.9. His numbers have only gotten better with each coming year, topped off by a .296/.423/.592 line and 41 homers en route to finishing second in last season’s AL MVP race. Tucker hasn’t become an everyday Major Leaguer yet, but with his power/speed combo, the tools are there for him to be a major contributor soon. As mentioned, Cameron’s inclusion in the Verlander trade that helped Houston capture the 2017 World Series justified his pick and big price tag. What’s more, Trent Thornton, Myles Straw, Patrick Sandoval , Zac Grotz, Garrett Stubbs and Tom Eshelman all made the Majors after getting selected by the Astros in 2015. That’s eight players so far, and that number is likely to hit double-digits when Cameron and Riley Ferrell get their turns in the bigs. Not bad for a single Draft.

What to watch next from Class of 2015: Three 2015 picks still remain among MLB.com’s Top-100 prospects — No. 24 Rodgers (third overall pick), No. 41 Ke’Bryan Hayes (32nd overall) and No. 94 Ryan Mountcastle (36th overall). Rodgers already has seen the Majors with the Rockies and probably would have graduated last season if he hadn’t suffered a torn right labrum in July. Hayes and Mountcastle aren’t far behind after spending all of 2019 in the International League for separate reasons. Mountcastle, the reigning IL MVP, has shown plenty of readiness with his bat, but needs to find a defensive home with the Orioles. Hayes would be a Gold Glove candidate right away at third base for the Pirates, but could use some offensive refinement. 

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.

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