By Rob Rains
It became obvious pretty early on Tuesday about what the Cardinals’ priorities were going to be on the second day of the amateur draft – pitching, pitching and more pitching, specifically college pitching.
They used their top three picks of the day on pitchers, made a brief interruption to add a catcher so they would have somebody to throw to, and then took two more pitchers in the next two rounds.
After picking an outfielder in the ninth round, the Cardinals ended the day by selecting one more pitcher.
Of their 10 picks in the first two days of the draft, the Cardinals selected seven pitchers. All but one of their 10 selections were college players with the only exception their second-round pick, outfielder Trejyn Fletcher from Portland, Maine.
“Looking at the velocity we got, mixed with some of the performance we got, I think it’s really an intriguing group of guys,” said Randy Flores, the Cardinals’ scouting director.
Flores said the selection of so many pitchers instead of position players was not entirely by design.
“There were some times when it was close, and I don’t want to say it’s a tiebreaker, but we did wind up when it was close leaning towards a pitcher,” he said.
Of all the pitchers the Cardinals drafted on Tuesday, arguably the most intriguing choice was their seventh-round selection, 6-foot-6 right-hander Jack Ralston from UCLA, which has been the best college team in the country virtually all season.
One of the reasons for the Bruins’ success has been the performance of Ralston, a redshirt junior, who was a major surprise after being basically a non-factor on the team in the first three years of his college career.
Ralston redshirted as a freshman in 2016, did not appear in a game in 2017 and in 2018 pitched a total of 36 innings, going 1-4 with a 6.44 ERA.
In a blunt assessment of the pitcher, UCLA coach Jack Savage told the Los Angeles Times a couple of weeks ago that the reason Ralston did not pitch more was “he wasn’t good enough.”
That changed this year, however, when Ralston became UCLA’s Saturday starter and went 11-0 before suffering a loss to Loyola-Marymount last Saturday in the opening game of the NCAA regionals. He lost 3-2 despite striking out 10 and issuing only one walk in 6 1/3 innings.
The reason for his success this season was apparently finally being able to get his body in sync with his windmill delivery. His fastball generally sits between 91 and 94 mph and he also has a high-spin curveball, which was a swing-and-miss pitch.
“If you watch video of him he does it a little unorthodox,” Flores said. “There’s not just a one size fits all type of delivery or body (for pitchers). His delivery, while unorthodox, is actually intriguing. It’s different.”
Because UCLA is still playing in the NCAA tournament, Tuesday was a scheduled day off for the team and the players were not allowed to do any team activities or media interviews, per NCAA regulations.
UCLA will host Michigan this weekend in the super regional with a berth in the College World Series in Omaha at stake. Ralston is expected to start one of the first two games of the best-of-three series, taking an 11-1 record and 2.55 ERA into the game.
At one point this season he did not allow a run in 27 consecutive innings between April 27 and May 23.
“He has improved over time,” Flores said. “If you follow just his biography and stat line it looks like there are some gaps there. The coach (Savage) raves about the kid and his makeup and his work ethic. He said he willed himself to the position he’s in. You add that to that unique delivery, he can still run it up to about 95 miles an hour.
“When you’re making bets on people you are making bets on improvement and aptitude. You can argue that someone who went from a spot where they could not pitch for a major D-1 school to a spot where they are a foundation of the weekend rotation shows that they do indeed have that aptitude.”
Savage and Flores have history together. When Flores was a senior at USC, Savage was the school’s pitching coach.
The Cardinals began their run on pitchers with their third-round selection of Tony Locey, a right-hander from Georgia who was 11-2 this year with a 2.53 ERA. In the fourth round, they picked California-Irvine right-hander Andre Pallante, who was 10-4 with a 2.68 ERA, not quite as good a performance as his sophomore season, when he was 10-1 with a 1.60 ERA.
In the fifth round, the Cardinals took left-hander Connor Thomas from Georgia Tech, who went 9-2 with 103 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 113 innings.
Before taking Ralston, the Cardinals used their sixth-round pick on catcher Pedro Pages from Florida Atlantic, who hit .319 this season with 43 walks and 45 strikeouts. He also threw out 17 of 26 would be basestealers.
The Cardinals added another pitcher in the eighth round, Oklahoma State right-handed reliever Logan Gragg, and then in the 10th round closed out the day by picking right-hander Jake Sommers from Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Both profile as relievers.
In the ninth round, they chose an outfielder, Todd Lott, from Louisiana-Lafayette.
One local player was selected on Tuesday. The Padres picked Saint Louis University right-hander Connor Lehmann in the seventh round.
The draft will conclude on Wednesday with rounds 11 to 40.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
photo courtesy of UCLA Athletics