Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has overseen five Rule 4 drafts since the team hired him away from the Rays in October 2014. The first two have already proven to be significant successes. The next two, however, look like missteps, and it’s not yet clear if the organization got back on track in 2019. With his administration’s sixth draft in progress this week (L.A. has the 29th overall pick), let’s take a snapshot of the team’s performance in the draft under Friedman by looking back at the Dodgers’ first-round picks from the last five years. In that time, the Dodgers have made nine first-round selections, signing seven of those players. Two of them already look like busts, but three others could be cornerstone players for the new decade. As for how the team’s two 2019 first-rounders will pan out, it’s too early to say, but there’s some reason for optimism, both for those two players and for the team’s overall approach to the draft.
#24 – Walker Buehler, RHP, Vanderbilt University
Friedman and company hit pay dirt with their very first pick, though that wasn’t immediately apparent. Buehler had Tommy John surgery just three weeks after signing for a $1.78 million bonus, didn’t make his professional debut until August 2016, and had just five minor-league innings under his belt entering 2017. That season he flew up the minor-league ladder, from High-A to the majors. In 2018, he finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. In 2019, he was an All-Star and finished ninth in the Cy Young voting. Still just 25, Buehler’s now clearly the Dodgers’ best pitcher and one of the ten best pitchers in baseball (seventh in my personal rankings). In 329 major-league innings, he has struck out 378 batters, posting a 3.12 ERA (129 ERA+), 1.04 WHIP, and 4.61 strikeout-to-walk ratio. On top of that, Buehler has emerged as a true ace in postseason, with a 2.72 ERA across six career starts and, over the last two postseasons, just one run allowed in 19 2/3 innings against the last two eventual world champions. If you were to redo the entire 2015 draft knowing what we know today, Buehler would go no lower than second, behind actual number-two pick Alex Bregman. The Dodgers got him with the 24th pick, the administration’s first and easily best selection thus far.
#35 – Kyle Funkhouser, RHP, University of Louisville [did not sign]
Funkhouser was coming off what seemed like a down-year as a junior at the University of Louisville when the Dodgers selected him 35th overall with the compensation pick they received when Hanley Ramírez signed with the Red Sox. The team offered him more than the $1.75 million bonus associated with that slot, but Funkhouser opted to return to Louisville in the hope of placing higher in the 2016 draft. The decision backfired. Funkhouser had a similarly underwhelming year as a senior and fell to the fourth round, where the Tigers selected him and signed him for $750,000. Funkhouser has since struggled in his Triple-A opportunities, walking 64 men in 72 innings over 20 starts at the level. He will turn 27 in March and could fall short of the majors entirely.
Still, this was a very successful draft for L.A. In addition to Buehler, the Dodgers made hay in some of the later rounds, taking righty reliever Josh Sborz in the second round, bat-first prospect Willie Calhoun (they key piece in the 2017 Yu Darvish trade) in the fourth, Edwin Ríos in the sixth, Matt Beaty in the 12th, and, way down in the 28th, Kyle Garlick, who was traded to the Phillies in February for lefty reliever Tyler Gilbert, a 2015 6th-rounder. All five of those later-round Dodgers picks have seen time in the majors already, with the unexpected success of Ríos, Beaty, and Garlick, all of whom debuted in 2019, a credit to the organization’s player development and bleeding-edge approach to hitting.
#20 – Gavin Lux, SS, Indian Trail High School, Kenosha, Wisconsin
Four years after the Dodgers selected him out of a cold-weather high school, Lux is L.A.’s Next Big Thing. A consensus top-four prospect heading into 2020, Lux is set to be the Dodgers’ everyday second baseman whenever play resumes and is the favorite to be the next NL Rookie of the Year. Possessed of a broad skill base, Lux isn’t elite in any one area, but he does everything well on the diamond (hit for average, power, and patience, run, field, and throw) and would be viable at shortstop if the Dodgers decide to move Corey Seager—Lux’s top PECOTA comparable per Baseball Prospectus 2020—or let Seager walk as a free agent after next season. I hesitate to quote Lux’s 2019 batting line here, as it may set expectations too high (think Joc Pederson in 2014), but for the sake of full disclosure: the dude hit .347/.421/.607 across the top two levels of the minors with 26 home runs and eight triples, including nearly breaking the (admittedly hitter-friendly) Pacific Coast League with a .392/.478/.719 line in 232 plate appearances. Lux capped his season with a major-league call-up and a pinch-hit home run against the eventual world champions in his first postseason at-bat. Lux still has to prove himself in the majors, but it’s not a given that Buehler will have a better major-league career.
#32 – Will Smith, C, University of Louisville
Speaking of PECOTA comparables, Smith has drawn some fun ones the last two years, including Josh Donaldson (who was a minor league catcher) in 2019, and Gene Tenace and former Dodgers farmhand Carlos Santana (sorry Dodgers fans) in 2020. Ignore the fact that those guys all spent significant time at other positions. Smith is an above-average defensive catcher. Indeed, when, a year after having failed to sign Funkhouser, the Dodgers took his college catcher with the compensation pick for losing Zack Greinke to the Diamondbacks, Smith’s receiving was his top selling point.
Focus instead on what those comps augur about Smith’s future at the plate. It’s exactly the kind of power-and-patience profile that represented the best-case scenario for Smith coming out of college, and it has already earned him the starting job with the major-league team. Smith hit .252/.337/.571 in 196 plate appearances as a rookie last year, slugging at a 45-homer pace, a product of the organization’s restructuring of his swing. Going forward, Smith is likely to walk a bit more, homer a bit less, and remain a valuable full-timer and a productive bat behind the plate at a time when those are few and far between in the major leagues.
#36 – Jordan Sheffield, RHP, Vanderbilt University
The Dodgers selected Sheffield with the compensation pick they received after Funkhouser returned to school. An undersized righty who missed his freshman year at Vanderbilt following Tommy John surgery, Sheffield has disappointed as a professional thus far, largely due to control issues. Moved to the bullpen after missing three months with a strained forearm in 2018, he spiked his already strong strikeout rates, but his wildness increased, in turn. After being promoted to Double-A last May, Sheffield walked 32 men in 37 2/3 innings. He didn’t get much of a look as a non-roster invitee this spring, turned 25 last week, and should no longer be considered a prospect.
Later in the 2016 draft, the Dodgers nabbed righties Dustin May (third round out of a Texas high school) and Tony Gonsolin (ninth round out of Saint Mary’s College of California), both of whom reached the majors last year, as well as slugger DJ Peters (fourth round, Western Nevada College) and righty Mitchell White (second round, Santa Clara University). Could it be that the Friedman administration’s best draft was not the one in which it took Walker Buehler and five other major leaguers?
More from Cliff Corcoran:
#23 – Jeren Kendall, CF, Vanderbilt University
Thus far, the current Dodgers administration has shown a general preference for drafting college pitchers and bat-first position players. The one time they spent their top overall pick on a toolsy, athletic player with an unproven bat was when they selected Kendall with 23rd overall in 2017. Thus far, the returns have not been encouraging. A speedy centerfielder, Kendall can run, catch, and throw as advertised, but the hitting hasn’t happened. Forced to repeat High-A in 2019, he added some power, but still hit an anemic .219/.319/.469 with 147 strikeouts in 96 games in the hitter-friendly California League. He then fell significantly shy of that performance over 68 plate appearances in the even more hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League, striking out a whopping 31 times (46 percent of his PAs). Kendall did nothing to change perceptions as a non-roster invitee to major-league camp this spring, and when play resumes next year, he will be a 25-year-old who has yet to reach Double-A. It may be too early to call him a bust, but you can no longer call him a prospect.
#30 – JT Ginn, RHP, Brandon High School, Brandon, Mississippi [did not sign]
Ginn spurned the Dodgers and a reported $2.4 million bonus to go to Mississippi State in an attempt to improve his draft slot. He had a strong freshman season in 2019 (3.13 ERA, 5.53 K/BB in 17 starts), but made just one start in 2020 before requiring Tommy John surgery. Nonetheless, he has reentered the draft this year, hoping for a comparable slot based on his past performance.
Coincidentally, the Dodgers’ top pick to sign in 2018 was West Virginia University’s Michael Grove (2nd round, 68th overall), a right-handed college pitcher coming off a season lost to Tommy John surgery. Grove lost his junior year to the surgery but made his major-league debuting in 2019 in High-A. The 6-foot-3 flyballer struck out 73 men in 51 2/3 innings in the hitter-friendly Cal League, but a .412 opponent’s average on balls in play inflated his ERA. Given that sill-recent surgery, Grove might benefit from the 2020-shutdown and could be fast-tracked to the majors after returning to action, most likely in Double-A, in his age-24 season next year. The biggest concern is the need to increase his workloads, which could result in a Julio Urías-like swing role at the major-league level, at least in the near future.
#25 - Kody Hoese, 3B, Tulane University
A bat-first third baseman who should nonetheless be able to stick at the position, the 6-foot-4 Hoese bet on himself by rejecting a 35th round selection by the Royals in the 2018 draft and remaining at Tulane. Unlike Funkhouser, he won big, hitting .391/.486/.779 as junior and moving all the way up to the 25th pick in the 2019 draft, landing a $2.7 million signing bonus. After raking in 19 games in Rookie Ball, he jumped up to the full-season Midwest League and found things a bit more challenging. The Dodgers expect him to move quickly once play resumes, which is important, because he will be a 23-year-old in A-ball when that happens. The potential is here for an all-around bat (average, power, and patience) from a competent defensive third baseman.
#31 – Michael Busch, 2B, UNC Chapel Hill
Drafted with the compensation pick received after Ginn refused to sign, Bush is another bat-first player. A stocky, six-foot, left-handed hitter, Busch spent most of his playing time in college at first base in left field, but the Dodgers think he is athletic enough to handle second base. The obvious comparison here is Max Muncy, but Busch has yet to prove he can handle the keystone or professional pitching. Busch appeared in just 10 minor league games after signing, eight of them at second base, split between Rookie ball and the Midwest League, followed by five games in the Arizona Fall League (just one at second base). It’s difficult to draw conclusions from so small a sample, but one thing is clear, his plate discipline is elite. In those 15 games, Busch drew 16 walks against nine strikeouts, which tracks with his college career, in which he drew 143 walks against 101 strikeouts in 184 games. Though four months younger than Hoese, Busch will also be 23 when minor-league play resumes next year.
Lux, Hoese, Busch, and the pending free agencies of Justin Turner (this fall) and Seager (after the 2021 season) could reshape the Dodgers’ infield for the new decade, but all three prospects have things to prove to make that happen, and the lack of a 2020 minor league season complicates that significantly.
Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.