Sometime shortly after the St. Louis Cardinals selected Stanford third baseman Stephen Piscotty with the No. 36 pick in this year's MLB Draft, it became clear to anyone paying attention that the Cardinals had, for lack of a better term, shown their cards a bit. The scouting report given by the MLB Network included the fact that Piscotty led the Cape Cod League in hitting in 2011. James Ramsey, the Cardinals' No. 23 pick in the same draft, was also a standout performer in the Cape League last year. A trend was becoming clear.
Only after taking to Twitter with jokes about the Cardinals' Cape Cod preference did I realize that it wasn't an isolated occurrence. Both St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold and former Cardinals.com beat writer Matthew Leach were quick to point out how often the Cardinals go to the well for Cape Cod League alumni. As the draft went on, so, too, did the Cape League graduates—Wake Forest pitcher Tim Cooney in the 3rd round, Arizona pitcher Kurt Heyer in the 6th, Boston College shortstop Anthony Melchionda in the 14th.
The point here isn't to denounce drafting players from the Cape Cod League. On the contrary, many of this year's high picks played there last year, including No. 3 pick Mike Zunino, No. 5 pick Kyle Zimmer, and No. 9 pick Andrew Heaney. The list of Cape Cod alums is vast and impressive. The league is a destination for many of college baseball's best players and the level of competition is unquestioned.
Instead, the point is to assess the job the Cardinals have done drafting players from the Cape League in recent years. What percent of early picks have been Cape Cod League alumni? And how successful have they been in the pros?
I had to set some parameters, so an arbitrary endpoint alert is in effect. I decided to go back to the 2005 draft, former Vice President of Player Procurement Jeff Luhnow's first running the draft in St. Louis. The Cape Cod League statistics go back to 2000, and while two first-round picks from 2001 to 2004 were Cape League alums (2001 pick Justin Pope and 2004 pick Chris Lambert) I think the change in philosophy is a good place to start. I also only went five rounds deep in each draft—still high enough that players could be expected to have a reasonable chance of reaching the big leagues (relatively, knowing that the majority of players realistically have a microscopic chance of making it.)
That cross-section left me with 56 players drafted in the first five rounds since 2005, including this year. Of those, 19 played in the Cape Cod League the previous summer. That's roughly one of every three picks in the first five rounds since 2005. Don't ask how that compares to the rest of the league. I'm a man, not a machine, and I'm a man who doesn't know how to make a machine run those numbers for me in a way that's easy to understand.
What's more important is the professional careers of those 19 players. In the interest of being fair, let's give those drafted from 2009 to present - players that can reasonably still be considered prospects - a free pass. We'll discuss them in a bit. Looking at the nine players drafted from 2005-2008, three have made their major league debut as of this writing.
Those three players—Tyler Greene, Adam Ottavino and Mark Hamilton—have a combined WAR of 0.1. Mark McCormick and Nick Webber are out of baseball. David Kopp reached AAA in 2011 but isn't a noteworthy member of the Cardinals organization. Kyle Russell, a 4th round pick in 2007, went unsigned and was drafted by the Dodgers in the 3rd round in 2008; he's still floating around their minor league system. Shane Peterson was traded to the Oakland A's in the Matt Holliday deal in 2009 and is with their AAA affiliate. Jermaine Curtis currently plays for AAA Memphis.
As stated, the issue isn't the number of players who have graduated to the majors from those drafts; it's the value that those players have provided that is a problem. I think Tyler Greene has the chance to be at least league-average, but the fact remains he'll turn 29 this August and hasn't produced much at the major league level. Adam Ottavino might stick as a decent bullpen option in Colorado, but bullpen arms rarely provide much WAR and shouldn't be first-round picks. Mark Hamilton is most likely a Quad-A player.
The outlook for the future is more optimistic. The Cape Cod alums drafted from 2009 on include Joe Kelly, Zack Cox, Jordan Swagerty and Kolten Wong, all four of whom appear on FanGraphs' most recent ranking of the organization's 15 best prospects. Others include catcher-turned-pitcher Robert Stock, supplementary pick Seth Blair, and recently unsuspended catcher Cody Stanley. Wong in particular has the looks of a player who will break the Cape Cod Curse, crushing AA pitching on the fast track to Busch Stadium. For whatever reason, the recent selections seem to have more potential for major league success than those in the early years.
It's often said that expectations of picks, even those in early rounds, should be tempered—that if Ramsey turns into Skip Schumaker (whom he was compared to by MLB Network on draft night) it wouldn't be a disaster. On the contrary, if Ramsey produces 2.9 WAR in his career it will be viewed as a victory for the Cape Cod contingent.
Derrick Goold did an excellent piece using eerily similar parameters to illustrate the organization's ability to draft players capable of reaching the majors during the Luhnow Years, as he labeled them. The takeaway from that article is that while quantity is nice, quality is just as important. The Cardinals have struggled to get either from their Cape Cod selections up to this point.
Scouting and drafting players from the Cape Cod League will be very important for the organization going forward. And whether it's scouting, developing or some combination of both that's plagued the Cardinals in recent years, it's a problematic trend. Whatever strategy they're using to evaluate the Cape Cod League, it may be time to rethink it.