Leading up to the 2014 draft, just about all draft observers were convinced that the White Sox were dead-set on a pitcher with the third pick. Preferring college pitchers over prep arms, they liked Carlos Rodon over talented high school lefty Brady Aiken and hard-throwing righty Tyler Kolek. LSU’s Aaron Nola wasn’t considered first-overall material, but the White Sox liked him, too.
For those wanting a position player, Alex Jackson was an intriguing possibility. He was considered the best high school hitting prospect in the draft, and he was a catcher. For a hitter of Jackson’s hype, the second part is more of a hindrance than an asset, but for a catcher-starved team like the White Sox, it was an added bonus.
We know what happened — Rodon fell to the Sox at No. 3, and Jackson ended up going to Seattle at No. 6. The Mariners were so convinced in Jackson’s hitting ability that they immediately put him in the outfield to get him everyday plate appearances while sparing him wear and tear. After an encouraging start in the Arizona Rookie League the year he was drafted, he’s more or less struggled since. He hit .243/.332/.408 at A-ball Clinton with 34 walks to 103 strikeouts over 381 plate appearances, and that marked significant improvement over his first exposure to the Midwest League.
Jackson’s Seattle tenure came to an end on Monday when the Mariners shipped him to Atlanta in a change-of-scenery trade for a couple of fringe rotation types. The unceremonious end Jackson’s Seattle career is instructive in two ways.
For starters — heh — the White Sox were lucky to get Rodon, because the top of the draft has been kind of a mess. Rodon has teased with stretches of dominance amid longer-running efficiency issues, but considering he lost the bottom of the strike zone this year, he’s fared remarkably well on the whole.
And, if nothing else, he’s been healthy. The top seven picks show that’s far from a given, especially among the pitchers.
No. 1: Brady Aiken, Astros: Houston selected him first overall with the intent to sign him below slot, and considerably below slot when medical concerns about a UCL abnormality were leaked. Squabbling commenced between Aiken’s camp and the club, and ultimately they failed to come to terms. The Astros didn’t look like adults in the situation, but the embarrassment was short-lived. For one, Aiken underwent Tommy John surgery while pitching for a post-grad program in Florida. The Astros then received the No. 2 pick overall in the 2015 draft to compensate and selected Alex Bregman.
No. 2: Tyler Kolek, Marlins: The big Texas righty with a 100-mph fastball also underwent Tommy John surgery during the spring after 1½ years of pedestrian performance in rookie and A-ball.
No. 3: Rodon.
No. 4: Kyle Schwarber, Cubs: The White Sox missed out on who some say is the greatest hitter alive, even on one leg.
No. 5: Nick Gordon, Twins: Two and a half years removed from high school, the lefty-hitting shortstop — son of Tom, brother of Dee — had a decent year at High-A Fort Myers, but he doesn’t have a standout skill yet.
No. 6: Jackson.
No. 7: Aaron Nola, Phillies: If Rodon didn’t drop to the White Sox, Nola was the apparent backup plan. He started off with the Phillies showing his mettle — he has 189 strikeouts over 189 innings with just 48 walks — but he had major problems over his last eight starts of 2016, culminating with a DL stint for an elbow strain. He has so far avoided surgery.
That’s quite a minefield. Two and a half years removed from the draft, the White Sox still look like they made a right choice. The right choice is a matter of interpretation. You still might have faith in Rodon’s upside if he has a catcher who can handle him. You might rather have Schwarber in the lineup every day or Trea Turner (13th) somewhere up the middle, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
The other part? High first-round picks aren’t the best place to find a catcher this decade.
2011: The first catcher taken in this draft, Blake Swihart matriculated smoothly from a high school draft pick (26th overall) to the majors. Yet the Red Sox haven’t shown the greatest faith in him behind the plate. They moved him to left field after “he missed a copule pop-ups and was more or less made the scapegoat for the rotation’s problems,” and he injured his knee in Fenway’s cramped quarters, limiting him to just 19 games in 2016.
2012: Mike Zunino (third) made it to the majors within a year of signing with Mariners out of the University of Florida. He torched pro-ball pitching in his first full season, but even though he struggled at Triple-A Tacoma (.227/.297/.478), the Mariners still called him up. Four years later, he’s a good receiver and a lifetime .195 hitter.
2013: Reese McGuire (14th overall) has shown an understanding of the strike zone and a good arm, but his bat lacks any kind of punch. The Pirates traded him as a secondary piece to Toronto for Drew Hutchinson at the deadline, although that trade still seems weird.
2014: The Cubs made a token effort to keep Schwarber behind the plate but ultimately ditched it, which is more than the Mariners did with Jackson. That leaves Max Pentecost (11th) as the only true catcher of the group, although he’s had his own playing-time issues. Multiple shoulder surgeries have limited him to just 99 minor-league games. He’s hit in that limited low-minors experience, for what it’s worth.
2015: Tyler Stephenson (11th) was the best catcher in the draft and still available when the White Sox selected Carson Fulmer, but he hit just .216/.278/.324 for A-ball Dayton in 39 games last season. That’s not necessarily reason for discouragement since he’s just 19 years old, but it shows that it would’ve been a work long in progress for the White Sox.
The White Sox finally gave in to drafting a backstop by selecting Zack Collins with the 10th pick in June. Skeptics say he’s more of a hitter than a catcher, but given the high failure rate of draft picks — and catchers — hopefully the White Sox give him the time required to become one of the two.