With the recent release of Bowman Draft and Bowman Sterling, I took some time yesterday to make a short list of players from the 2007 draft I might be interested in. Aside from the fact that I think this year’s BDPP auto list is disappointing, I’m pretty excited about some of the cards out there right now. Anyways, while sifting through the top 30 or so draftees, I started looking back at the past several drafts and which guys drafted by which teams tended to come out on top. I feel secure in saying that some teams draft very well on a consistent basis, some only draft position players well, some only pitchers, and some teams might as well save their money and not bother with the draft because they don’t get anything right. I won’t name any names, but if you look at the past 5 drafts, you’ll see what I mean.One team that has done a good job in the draft in the past 5-8 years is Tampa Bay. They seem to be heading in a very positive direction and seem to recognize and develop players well. Right now they have 3 pitchers — Wade Davis, Jacob McGee, and Jeff Niemann — that are consistently ranked as some of the best pitching prospects in baseball, all while having recently drafted and developed a number of other young stars. Here’s a quick list of some of the young players the Rays have either drafted or acquired via trade, and developed over the past several years:

Evan Longoria
Scott Kazmir
B.J. Upton
Delmon Young
Rocco Baldelli
Josh Hamilton
Carl Crawford
Reid Brignac
Elijah Dukes

Of course, the Rays have had the good fortune of drafting in the top 5 picks most years, but on average they have had at least one stud prospect come through every year, and at least one or two above average prospects. The list above only goes back to 1999 and is certainly the envy of many a general manager. This year the Rays snagged another uber-prospect in David Price, giving them perhaps the best projected starting rotation for the next decade — Kazmir, Garza, Niemann, Price, Davis, McGee, Shields. Among that list you have 2 established guys in Kazmir and Shields, and then you’ve got 5 other guys to fill in the 3-5 slots that would usually project as #1, 2 or #3 starters on most teams. Absolutely amazing. Most clubs are lucky to have 1 good pitcher come along every other year or so.

Okay, enough drooling. Let’s get back to Wade Davis.

Following the 1st round selection of Niemann and the 2nd round selection of Brignac in the 2004 draft, the Rays took Wade Davis with their pick in the 3rd round. Sine then, Davis has outperformed even the Rays expectations, coasting through AA ball this year with a 3.15 ERA and a 81/30 K/BB ratio in 80 innings with a groundball percentage of 50%. To give you a comparison of what Davis has accomplished, I’ll use Niemann as the first comparable:

In general, Niemann has consistently kept his ERA under 4.00 (except for his 10 IP in AA at the age of 22), but his K% has also consistently dropped while his BABIP has steadily increased. Usually when you see a K% drop and accompanied with a rise in BABIP it means fewer hitters are being fooled and are making better contact which usually translates into a higher ERA. He also isn’t a big groundball pitcher, so he has to rely on pitch selection and control to get most batters out. However, Niemann has kept his ERA low by walking fewer batters, which means his control is getting better and he’s generally throwing strikes.

The next comparison I want to make is Tim Lincecum. Both Niemann and Lincecum were highly regarded pitchers coming out of college and Lincecum’s stats provide us with an upper ceiling with which compare Wade Davis against:

Lincecum didn’t spend much time in the minors, but he really didn’t need to. His K% in the majors as a 23 year old was higher than Niemann’s K% in AAA as a 24 year old. If that singular stat doesn’t tell you all you need to know, the rest of Lincecum’s stats pretty much tell you the same thing: dominant. His A+ stats blow away Niemann’s A+ stats, and the AAA stats aren’t even close. If you’re a Niemann fan, please don’t think that I’m down on Niemann. To his credit, he did have surgery on his shoulder in 2005, and I think he’ll be a decent starter at some point, but Lincecum will be a lot better.

Niemann and Lincecum provide us with developmental curves with which to compare Wade Davis to. Lincecum, of course, is the golden standard, with a very steep developmental curve while Niemann is the average “in-system” comparison since both Davis and Niemann have gone through the Rays system. With that in mind, we can finally take a look at Davis:

Looking at Davis’ stats, the first thing I want to draw attention to is the fact that Davis is playing a year ahead of both Niemann and Lincecum. So far he’s played at every level a year younger than the other 2 guys and has done a very good job. His K% isn’t as high as Lincecum’s but it has remained steady, meaning that he is adjusting well and seeing good results for his age level. His BB% is very impressive and his ERA has stayed lower than Niemann’s, which I accredit to better control and overall better talent. He also has averaged about a 50% groundball rate, which has helped keep his ERA low as he advances to higher levels of play. If Davis spends the first half of ’08 at AA, I think we’ll probably see stats close to what he posted in A+ ball this year, which would put him squarely between Niemann and Lincecum in terms of talent and projection.

In my opinion, Lincecum projects as a #1 starter, and is the type of pitcher that will force hitters to adjust often, and usually they will be unsuccessful. In comparison, Niemann is the type of pitcher that will probably have to make his own adjustments in order to last long in the majors. I think Niemann will get better, but there isn’t much evidence to suggest he’ll be more than a #3 or 4 throughout most of his career. He’s very comparable to guys like Jo Jo Reyes who have the ability to eat innings, but allow too many runs. Davis falls somewhere in between Niemann and Lincecum, and has enough talent to be a solid #3 in the near future. He’s very comparable to a pitcher like Adam Wainwright. He also has a large frame and youth on his side, so I think he’ll have plenty of time to make mechanical and command adjustments, which could make him a good #2 starter. There is a possibility that he develops into a #1 at some point, but I really think that he projects as a very reliable #2 or 3 starter.

Before I finish up with Davis, I thought I would make a quick comparison between him and his teammate Jacob McGee:

McGee doesn’t have the same control as Davis, but he’s got better natural stuff, so I think I give the edge to McGee based solely off of potential. But they are very close, and I think at the peaks of their careers they’ll make a nice #2-3 punch, and maybe even a nice #1-2 punch depending on how they develop. Either way, they are both solid investments and should be fun to watch. McGee is very comparable to guys like Erik Bedard and Chad Billingsley, and that’s some pretty good company to be in. As long as he keeps his pitches low in the zone and continues to improve on his change-up and curve, he’ll have a lot of success at the major league level.