June 9, 2009

Twins Draft Kyle Gibson, Three Other College Pitchers

As recently as last month University of Missouri right-hander Kyle Gibson was a consensus top-10 pick who Baseball America ranked as high as the No. 4 overall prospect in the draft, but his velocity dipping into the mid-80s late in the season caused his stock to drop. Gibson initially explained his struggles by saying that he'd been experiencing forearm tightness, which is often the precursor to significant elbow problems, but further examination revealed a stress fracture in his forearm.

While far from good news for a young pitcher, a stress fracture typically represents less of a long-term risk than standard arm injuries and most reports suggested that Gibson would be sidelined for weeks rather than months. Of course, rumors began swirling that Gibson had something more serious wrong with his arm and when the Twins' first pick rolled around last night his name remained on the board. That wasn't particularly surprising, but that the risk-averse Twins actually selected him was a shock.

Gibson was believed to be a fairly painless signing even before the injury and the Twins certainly target those types of players on draft day, but taking the plunge on a top-10 talent who scared other teams off due to a big question mark is way out of character. Whether or not the risk proves worthwhile depends on the accuracy of the Twins' medical evaluation and Gibson's healing power, not to mention his actual development as a pitcher, but before knowing any of that the pick strikes me as a pleasant surprise.

While considered one of the draft's elite pitchers Gibson doesn't project as an ace, but everyone from Baseball America and MLB.com to ESPN and Baseball Prospectus seems to agree that he's capable of becoming a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter and will be on the fast track to the big leagues once he gets healthy. Most of the scouting reports on Gibson were written before his velocity declined and the injury was discovered, but here's part of Baseball America's assessment:

He relies on two-seam fastballs more than four-seamers, usually pitching at 88-91 mph with good sink and tailing action, though he can reach back for 94 mph when needed. He has two of the better secondary pitches in the draft, a crisp 82-85 mph slider and a deceptive changeup with fade that can generate swings and misses. All of his offerings play up because he has excellent command and pitchability.

He repeats his smooth delivery easily, and his 6-foot-6, 208-pound frame allows him to throw on a steep downhill plane. If there's a knock on Gibson, it's that he hasn't added much velocity during his three years with the Tigers, but that hasn't stopped him from succeeding as soon as he stepped on campus. He led Team USA's college team with five wins last summer, including a victory in the gold-medal game at the the FISU World Championships.

And here's part of the ESPN.com scouting report:

Gibson has been a candidate for the 2009 draft's first round since a strong freshman year at Missouri. He's tall and projectable, already showing a solid-average fastball at 89-93 mph with good downhill plane. His changeup is ahead of his slider, although both project as above-average pitches. On days when he has the sharp slider, he'll miss plenty of bats. He's a first-rounder and a high-probability arm who should end up in the middle of a big league rotation in fairly short order.

There are tons of other similarly worded scouting reports, but the basic idea is that Gibson is a 6-foot-6 right-hander with a low-90s fastball, two solid off-speed pitches, great command, and a strong track record pitching against good college competition. He had a 3.21 ERA and 131-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 106.2 innings this year despite pitching through an injury for part of the season and playing in a hitter-friendly environment that averaged over 11 runs per game.

Gibson has been on the path to a top-10 pick for several years now, but a potentially short-term injury dropped him into the Twins' laps and they uncharacteristically decided to roll the dice. Time may show that the other teams were smart to pass on Gibson because of his uncertain health status, but I'm glad that the Twins gambled on him and added a high-upside arm to the organization that they really had no business getting with the No. 22 overall pick.

After snagging Gibson in the first round the Twins stuck with the college pitcher theme, taking Indiana left-hander Matt Bashore at No. 46, Florida right-hander Billy Bullock at No. 70, and Jacksonville State right-hander Ben Tootle at No. 101. In reading some of the pre-draft scouting reports Bullock sounded like an intriguing player who could be a solid fit for the Twins with one of their first two picks, so picking him up at No. 70 is another nice surprise.

Initially a starter, Bullock moved to the bullpen this year and became the Gators' closer while posting a 2.64 ERA and 50-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 48 innings. His control is spotty, no one seems to think much of his off-speed stuff, and serving up seven homers in 173 at-bats is a red flag, but Bullock also regularly works in the mid-90s with his fastball and was frequently dominant for one of the best teams in the country. Keith Law of ESPN.com calls him "the top college closer in this draft class."

Tootle had limited success as a college starter, posting a 4.56 ERA and 58-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51.1 innings against mediocre competition this year, but was slowed by a stomach virus that caused him to lose 20 pounds and fared much better last year with a 3.79 ERA and 79-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 86 innings. Tootle is another guy with iffy secondary stuff and a big-time fastball, so like Bullock he's a boom-or-bust pick who could end up as a hard-throwing reliever that the bullpen has craved.

Along with Gibson and a pair of hard-throwing righties out of Florida the Twins also picked up Bashore after the 6-foot-3 southpaw posted a 4.07 ERA and 108-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 95 innings for the Hoosiers. He won't light up radar guns like Bullock and Tootle, but Bashore has an above-average fastball with the command that the Twins always target in starters and was one of the better pitchers in the Big Ten while going 5-1 with a 2.36 ERA during conference play.

I'd like to have seen the Twins address the system's glaring lack of middle-infield depth with a first-day pick, but they've had an awful lot of success with college pitchers in recent years and Gibson, Bashore, Bullock, and Tootle are all good values based on various pre-draft rankings. Gibson falling to No. 22 is particularly good fortune and the Twins were daring enough to take advantage, which combined with adding a productive Big Ten starter and a pair of potential late-inning relievers makes for a nice haul.

Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

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