It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. There’s no rule saying that late round draft picks will not succeed- instead they are given the challenge of proving themselves at every level. The professional careers of all 2012 draft picks has just begun. But two low rounds pick by the Rays have distinguished themselves so far: right-handed relievers Ryan Garton and Nicholas Sawyer.
Garton immediately stood out to me as a potential late round steal. Garton, a 5’11″, 170 senior coming out of Florida Atlantic University was FAU’s ace in 2012, but that means nothing in this context. Even though he will be 23 in December, what distinguished him was that he had been converted from position player to pitcher just two years earlier, that he appears to have some projection remaining, and finally, his changeup. Garton’s high-80′s fastball was mediocre and his curveball still needed plenty of work. But his changeup was a clear plus pitch with outstanding late sink and great arm action. His stuff played up thanks to a deceptive delivery. He had a chance. Could he put a repertoire together around his delivery and changeup to get hitters out? That was the question and remains a question. But so far, so good. Garton has appeared in 6 games for Short Season-A Hudson Valley, and he has been untouchable. He has gone 9 innings allowing not a single run, earned or unearned, on 2 hits, striking out 13 while not walking a single batter. He also has forced a 55.6% groundball rate. His FIP is 0.31. Hitters have managed a .065/.065/.097 line against him, striking out in 42% of their plate appearances. He’s been absolutely dominant and it looks like no fluke. The sample is so small that we can’t conclude anything. But let’s put it this way: if the “true batting average” that a pitcher should allow is .250, the probability of him forcing hitters to go 2 for 31 against him is .0084. That’s nearly 120 to 1. This is Short Season ball we’re talking about here. Garton is nowhere near the big leagues and undoubtedly nowhere near this good. But the longer he keeps it up, the clearer it will be that Garton has a legitimate chance, an opportunity greater than the players drafted around him, to make it to the big leagues and even succeed.
Nick Sawyer was the Rays’ selection in the 40th and final round, but he was no cupcake non-prospect by any means. He was, in vintage Rays fashion, another upside selection, featuring electric stuff and no idea where it was going. Maybe we were all wrong. The Rays already admitted it. You don’t see a team start a late round pick at one level and then almost immediately promote him except in case of desperate need because of an injury. Well, Sawyer was an exception. The Rays sent him to their lowest US team, the GCL Rays, and he made just 3 appearances spanning 4.2 innings, striking out 6 while walking 2, before the Rays bumped him up to their more advanced Rookie team, the Princeton Rays. There he has struck out 4 while walking none in 2 appearances and 2.1 IP. It seems pretty clear what happened- the Rays weren’t sure if Sawyer could control his arsenal. Turned out he could and they promoted him. Sawyer throws a low-90′s fastball with late bite to go along with a dynamic 11-to-5 curveball, and he also throws from a deceptive delivery. And by the way, he doesn’t turn 21 until September. He’s relatively young and he has nice stuff. That’s a good combination. Sawyer has a ton of work he stills needs to do as he works his way to full season ball and beyond. But his arsenal is electric and the potential is there.
Maybe neither of these pitchers pan out and this is the peak of their careers. Or maybe we look back and wonder how in the world these two players slipped so far in the draft. The former is more likely- but especially in light of everything we have seen, don’t discount the latter.