The Super Bowl is peak timing for sports clichés.
Inevitably, a player feels the need to spout off some version of the insufferable "nobody gives us any respect" platitude. And, if we’re lucky, we get players from both teams telling us how disrespected they feel.
It’s a tired line for a professional athlete competing in his sport’s championship event, but for late-round major league draft picks, this phrase does hold some merit. Whether it’s having to defer playing time or a promotion to a higher profile prospect in the organization, or getting the attention of scouts in other organizations, it’s often an uphill battle.
The reasons these players fell in the draft in the first place—often a major question about bat speed, the hit tool, fringy pitch quality (especially fastball velocity) or a mechanical abnormality—usually follow the player into pro ball. But the longer a player performs well and the higher in the minors he continues his success, the more those doubters steadily become believers.
Though the expected return on a draft pick after even the first few rounds drops precipitously, there are future big leaguers to be found in the later rounds, even excluding players who drop due to signability reasons. The 11th round of the 2001 draft produced both Geovany Soto and Dan Uggla. In 2004, Tampa Bay drafted Andy Sonnanstine in the 13th round, three rounds before the Diamondbacks snagged Mark Reynolds.
So, who might be the next late-round gem floating around the minors right now?
We’ll exclude draft-and-follows and players who signed from the 10th round and on for bonuses well above slot. Lars Anderson was a great pick for the Red Sox when they drafted him in the 18th round in 2006, but he came with an $825,000 price tag.
Here are five players drafted in the 10th round or later who have a chance to exceed expectations and become quality big leaguers.
Danny Dorn, lf, Reds: Nine hundred fifty three players went off the board in the 2006 draft before the Reds selected Dorn in the 32nd round as a Cal State Fullerton senior. Eight of Dorn’s Fullerton teammates even went ahead of him the draft. But none of them has performed as well in the professional ranks as Dorn. In a little more than 1,000 professional plate appearances, Dorn’s career line is a sweet .297/.387/.528, including a .277/.367/.539 showing last year with Double-A Chattanooga. Dorn, 24, surprised some in the Southern League with the way he hit, particularly in the second half, shortening his swing and pulling the ball with more authority. The concerns about about the lefty-hitting Dorn are whether he can replicate his offensive success at higher levels, his lack of physical projection and his defense, which limits him to left field or first base. He’s also battled some physical ailments with his leg and shoulder, but he’s already come farther than many expected in 2006.
Casper Wells, cf/rf, Tigers: Who needs the Florida State League? Wells, a 14th-round pick out of Towson in 2005, spent his first three seasons in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and short-season New York-Penn League. After opening the year with low Class A West Michigan, Wells batted .240/.351/.447 in 50 games. That might seem like a modest output, but in the cold weather months of the Midwest League, that’s not too shabby. Wells earned himself a promotion, but rather than going to the FSL, Wells skipped right over Lakeland and jumped to to Double-A Erie. And he didn’t miss a beat, batting .289/.376/.589 in 75 Double-A games. Though he was a late-round pick, Wells, who turned 24 in November, does have above-average tools. He shows strong raw power, speed (he swiped 25 bases in 33 attempts) and flashes an outstanding arm. His swing can get a little long, but his combination of tools and Double-A performance make him an intriguing sleeper prospect.
Jon Link, rhp, White Sox:
The Padres drafted Link in 2005 in the 26th round out of Bluefield (Va.) College, but Link left the organization in 2007 when the White Sox traded Rob Mackowiak to the Padres to acquire Link at the trading deadline
. Link, 24, was excellent last season for Double-A Birmingham, finishing with a 3.02 ERA in 56 2/3 innings as the Barons’ closer. Link struck out 66 batters, averaging 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Link throws three pitches for strikes: a 90-92 mph fastball with some sink, a slider and a changeup. Link goes to his above-average slider for strikeouts, but his changeup is more than a show-me pitch and is an effective third weapon. There was some talk of moving Link to the starting rotation because of his three-pitch mix, but the White Sox will leave him in the bullpen. He still has to learn to harness his control, as he walked 27 batters (4.3 per nine) last year, though he was better in 2007 in high Class A when he walked just 15 batters in 58 2/3 innings (2.3 per nine).
Drew Sutton, 2b, Astros: The Astros farm system isn’t exactly dripping with blue-chip talent, but a .931 OPS by a switch-hitting middle infielder in Double-A is worth some attention. Sutton lasted until the 15th round in 2004 coming out of Baylor and got off to a nice start in his full-season debut in 2005 in low Class A. Sutton was advanced for the South Atlantic League as a 22-year-old then, and he’s since slowly climbed the minor league ladder. Last year was his best season, as Sutton hit .317/.408/.523 in 133 games in the Texas League, his second full season in the circuit. Sutton controls the strike zone reasonably well and is a career .282/.378/.441 hitter, though he’ll have to prove he can come close to last year’s success and maintain his high OBP as he enters his peak years, given that he turns 26 on June 30.
Shawn Kelley, rhp, Mariners: The Mariners farm system is a tad light on pitching, particularly in arms acquired in the draft (though having Chris Tillman back would beef up that contingent). Kelley, a 13th-round pick from Austin Peay State in 2007, might be the team’s best pitching prospect in the upper minors, even though he is a reliever. Kelley, who will be 24 in April, joined Double-A West Tenn in June and finished the year there with a 2.11 ERA in 42 2/3 innings, 44 strikeouts and 13 unintentional walks. After the regular season, Kelley went to Venezuela for winter ball and racked up a nasty 21-2 K-BB ratio for Lara in 14 2/3 innings with a 3.68 ERA. The deception in Kelley’s delivery makes his stuff play up, but his low-90s fastball that touches 94 and hard slider give him two legitimate weapons to retire big league hitters. He should soon fit into the Mariners’ bullpen mix, perhaps as early as this season.