Imagine you're a scout for a major-league team. On Wednesday, you're watching a prep hitter outside of Kansas City who will likely go very high in the draft. The next afternoon, you're off to Topeka to watch a prep pitcher that can hit the mid-90s. On Friday, it's a Wichita State Shockers conference tilt with two "of note" college starters. While the college starters have more certainty to their game, the prep options are certainly more "boom or bust" types. Your opinion on the four players will be valued. Are you going to like what you see more at the college game? Or are you likely to want to roll the dice?
To be honest, a major league team would be very negligent to ignore preps, college players, or international talent. All facets play to a better system. Having all cylinders functioning is preferable to other options. While this assessment will look specifically at Cubs 2014 sixth-round pick Dylan Cease specifically, it will also look in general at selecting "risky" players.
Preps are usually more risky than college players, for the same reason international signings are more risky than stateside selections. With more available time to develop, a player has more time for things to go wrong. From injuries, to slumps, to getting outclassed by the competition, each level can be the pitfall for any player.
When an 18-year-old pitcher is drafted out of high school, there are quite a few things that could go wrong. Hitters aren't that much more certain, in general. However, an arm ailment won't necessarily be a career crusher for a hitter.
Before I get to Cease, I wish to look at two recent draft compilations from teams other than the Cubs. Neither is even remotely desirable. The first is the list of first-rounders by the Brewers. Notice the last decade or so of Milwaukee picks. I understand that the last few may be tied up in the minors, and possibly set to debut soon. Nonetheless, those are some horrible returns on investment. Whether pitchers or hitters, preps or college, they haven't gotten much of anything.
The next look, which might even be worse, is at the recent first rounders by the Phillies. That is a different sort of terrible. Unlike Milwaukee, Philadelphia has tended (heavily) toward prep selections. Before Aaron Nola, they went with 13 of 14 preps in the first round. This works well when Cole Hamels or Gavin Floyd is chosen. It is much less worthwhile when it's Zach Collier or Anthony Hewitt. Drafting preps is rolling the dice.
Some aggression in drafting is necessary, lest a team end up with a bunch of pitchers throwing around 92 miles per hour. Also, most of the good "gamble" picks are gone by the end of the sixth round or so. Some will remain into the later rounds, but they likely have college commitments that the Collective Bargaining Agreement makes virtually unbreakable.
Cease's first action as a pro was getting Tommy John surgery. Rated just below Tyler Kolek (who the Marlins took with the second overall pick in the June draft) a year ago, his elbow problems tanked his draft status. Undaunted, the Cubs selected Cease anyway, and sent him quickly to get his Tommy John procedure performed.
Going a bit out of character, I'm going to give my current percentage rankings of Cease's career. I won't do this regularly, but it explains a point from earlier this week if I put down some numbers for current reference. They aren't meant to hype Cease, or criticize him. These are my current takes on his career. Needless to say, you are welcomed to chime in yourself.
As a prep pitcher, coming off of TJS, I put his likelihood of not escaping Advanced-A Ball at 40 percent. So many things can derail a career before Double-A that I'm comfortable with that. There's an additional 30 percent chance that Cease will (in my estimation) reach Double-A and/or Triple-A, but not the majors. That would leave a 30 percent chance he makes the big leagues. I give him a 10 percent chance of a career with a big-league WAR above 10.
That might sound like I'm kicking him when he's down, or unrealistically positive to you. Either way, I'm good with it. Curiously, I would put Kolek's percentages in about the same range, and he was drafted before Kyle Schwarber.
I really enjoy numbers. Even throwing incongruous looking numbers out there gets discussion going, and gets you to tell me how wrong you think I am. Which may push me to change my mind, which I'm good with. With the percentages idea, the numbers can be in flux rather regularly. When Bijan Rademacher was drafted, his likelihood to make it to Double-A would have probably been in the 20 percent range. As he's likely Tennessee-bound, the question now becomes:"Will he make the majors?" And everyone is entitled to an opinion.
Some of those opinions could even turn out to be true.
Circling back to Cease, looking at the numbers, some might assume that (with the posted numbers), he has only a 30 percent chance of helping the team. That is missing a few things. Imagine he returns from TJS and is pitching well in South Bend next July. The Cubs are sniffing for a division title, and are looking for a veteran arm to put them over the top. (I'm thinking a Cole Hamels-type.) As the deadline approaches, many a GM would be enamored with picking up Cease for a pitcher he won't be needing in a re-build mode. Or, perhaps, one that's just too expensive to keep.
If Cease would be flipped in a trade, he would have served his purpose, and more than justified his signing bonus -- whether he goes on to a stellar career or not and even if some fans don't like the trade. Getting flipped to a willing party for a team improvement is one of the purposes of prospects.
As Cease progresses, or doesn't, his numbers would change. If he is mowing Midwest League hitters down, his likelihood of not reaching Double-A will drop, and his MLB likelihoods will rise. Few things in a development-based sport like baseball remain static, and likelihoods of success won't either.
Historically, the 169th overall pick has seen two players hit the 10 WAR mark. One played for a Cubs division winner. The other was less successful as a Cubs performer.
Dylan Cease was a great gamble pick. The likelihood of getting a solid contributor at that point in the draft was rather remote. If Cease recovers and figures things out, he could be a top-of-the-rotation option for a decade. Similarly, he could have the same lack of success that those Phillies or Brewers picks have had recently. When rolling the dice, the odds of major success need to be weighed against the odds of failure, and compared to what's left on the board.
This front office has been rather good in development these few years. Rolling the dice on Cease was a solid call. I look forward to tracking his rehab on my Twitter feed.