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Drafting Injured Players

I got an interesting question in the comments of yesterday’s stock report for corner infielders, and I felt it deserved an answer in a full post, because it’s a very relevant question. Here’s the question:

"Do you believe an injured player is a good opportunity to buy low? Over the last few drafts I found picks like Kyle Gibson and Tanner Scheppers to be really good for the teams involved. Should teams really [be scared] off when a player hurts themselves? Just to give you an example, Anthony Ranaudo this year, should teams really be scared off given his previous track record?"

Thanks to Jeffrey for the question, as it has become a more relevant question in recent years.

Not too long ago, an injury, especially one that would require lengthy rehab, could scare off the vast majority of teams. For pitchers, blowing out an elbow or a shoulder essentially tanked your draft stock, and you stood no chance of getting any sizable bonus.

That all started to change in the middle of this decade, with the ice really being thawed when the late Nick Adenhart received a $700,000 bonus despite a major elbow injury after being drafted in the 14th round of the 2004 draft. That signing represented a big shift in thinking about injuries, and more and more teams have started entering the risky waters of drafting injured players.

A quick run through the last three drafts shows that no less than 14 teams have invested a draft pick in the 11th round or higher on a player coming off an injury that could be seen as significant. That includes 3 first round draft picks, two of which went to the Yankees (Andrew Brackman and Slade Heathcott). You can argue that Heathcott shouldn’t be included in that group, but recovery from ACL surgery is still significant, as is the shoulder injury he suffered in the spring. Any player having to DH due to injuries in their draft season represents significant risk, especially when speed is a part of their game.

Here is a quick list of those players coming off or about to receive Tommy John surgery that were either given a significant bonus or were drafted in a significant position with that knowledge:

-Luke Bailey, C, Tampa Bay, 4th Round in 2009
-Andrew Brackman, RHP, New York Yankees, 1st Round in 2007
-Cameron Coffey, LHP, Baltimore, 22nd Round in 2009
-John Gast, LHP, Texas, 5th Round in 2007 (DID NOT SIGN)
-Colby Shreve, RHP, Philadelphia, 6th Round in 2008
-Alex Wilson, RHP, Chicago Cubs, 10th Round in 2008 (DID NOT SIGN)

So with four players signing for significant bonuses, it’s obvious that Tommy John surgery isn’t seen as a disqualifier anymore.

What about shoulder issues? Here’s another list:

-Ryan Berry, RHP, Baltimore, 9th Round in 2009
-Sam Dyson, RHP, Oakland, 10th Round in 2009 (DID NOT SIGN)
-Anthony Gose, OF/LHP, Philadelphia, 2nd Round in 2008
-Tanner Scheppers, RHP, Pittsburgh, 2nd Round in 2008/1st Supplemental in 2009

Two of the four signed on the first go-around, and Scheppers signed with more questions lingering last year. Shoulder issues aren’t seen as a huge deal like they used to be, but scouts are generally more cautious around shoulder injuries than elbow injuries.

Ok, what about more minor elbow issues? I’ve got some of those, too:

-Kyle Gibson, RHP, Minnesota, 1st Round in 2009 (officially forearm stress fracture)
-Brett Hunter, RHP, Oakland, 7th Round in 2008 (Elbow Soreness)
-John Lamb, LHP, Kansas City, 5th Round in 2008 (Elbow Fracture from car accident)
-Adam Reifer, RHP, St. Louis, 11th Round in 2007 (Tendinitis and a stress reaction)

Each of those players signed. Gibson is lumped in here, because most consider forearm issues a precursor to elbow issues. Whether you believe that or not is irrelevant, because this is a discussion about how teams view injuries, and plenty of teams thought Gibson might be on his way to Tommy John surgery in the near future.

To answer the question, I think teams have made it clear that they generally don’t shy away when the value is right. There’s a lot of risk in signing players coming off injuries. However, it does provide some value, depending on how you view it.

Looking at the injured players of 2009, sure it has the potential to provide excellent value. At the top, Kyle Gibson was able to be taken by the Twins with the 22nd pick, which shouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t hurt, but they did have to pay slot money ten slots higher than their pick to sign him. They got good value for their draft slot, but it might not have saved them any money. The best possible value I can see of the injured players from 2009 is in Luke Bailey. The Rays were able to not only get a 1st round talent in the 4th round, but they also signed him for 2nd round money. They essentially won on both counts, and that’s where the value lies.

I do think it is way too early to call this sort of strategy a sound one. What if Tanner Scheppers’ shoulder needs surgery in July? What if Gibson does indeed fall victim to Tommy John surgery? You may not be able to tie that surgery with the pre-draft injury that crept up, but that’s always going to be in the back of your mind. Since this is such a new strategy, I generally take a wait-and-see approach. The Bailey signing represents one of the best signings in the entire 2009 draft to me, as they got value for their slot in terms of both talent and money. Getting a 1st round talent in the 4th round for 2nd round money is great, and with the success rate of Tommy John surgery being approximately 90%, it’s a sound investment.

It’s all about your risk preference. Some teams feel they need to invest in more risky players to get value, while others are very risk-averse. It depends on what you can take. If you have a very limited budget, you don’t want to wrap up too much of your budget in a player that’s hurt. That’s common sense, but it’s something that a lot of fans don’t think about. There’s value to be had, but there’s risk there, too. As medicine advances, we’ll see more calculated gambles into the injured player market, but right now, it’s going to proceed at a relatively slow and steady pace.

How does this affect 2010? I don’t know yet. Anthony Ranaudo represents the most significant injury time of the top prospects, but he’s come back pretty well so far in a couple of outings, with more to come tomorrow. He might not make this list if I were to make it 5 years from now if he’s all the way back in June. However, if you start seeing players go down with injuries, remember that it’s all about risk and return, and unless the price is right, investing in injured players just might be too risky to take.