By Rob Rains
As the afternoon turned into early evening on June 8, 2015, scouts for the Cardinals were excited as they gathered in a conference room at Busch Stadium. It’s the feeling they get every year as the amateur draft begins, the culmination of a year’s worth of work.
It was the first, and what would turn out to be the only, draft for new scouting director Chris Correa, but he was surrounded by draft veterans who had experienced the rush of waiting for the Cardinals turn to draft as teams made selections in front of them, eager to see if the picks would unfold as they expected.
For the 23rd overall pick in the first round that year, the Cardinals had identified a player they really liked, with the almost universal expectation that he would still be on the board when it came their turn to make a selection. In their discussions of prospects in the days leading up to the draft, there were conversations about a backup choice, but most deemed those talks unnecessary.
“It was an open-and-shut case of who we were taking with our first pick 10 minutes into our discussion of players,” said one person who was in the room that night but asked to remain anonymous. “We were as all-in on him as anybody I’ve seen.”
The player was Beau Burrows, a right-handed pitcher out of a Texas high school. As the first 21 picks came off the board, it was all smiles in the Cardinals’ room. Only the Detroit Tigers remained to make a selection before the Cardinals would get their player.
The Tigers took Burrows. The draft room, according to several people who were there and spoke on the condition of not being identified, fell silent.
This is the story of how that pick by the Tigers, followed by the next two selections by the Cardinals and Dodgers, might have changed the history of all three teams for years to come.
Five years later, as the 2020 draft is days away, it also serves as a reminder about why the draft is so important, and also about how the uncertainty of the draft, and perhaps more importantly what happens to players after they are drafted, will never change.
“It’s as much strategy as it is luck,” said another scout who was in the room five years ago.
The Cardinals wanted Burrows. They got Nick Plummer. They could have had Walker Buehler. Three players. Three picks. Three different results.
Burrows: “Checked the boxes”
Even with a team’s first-round pick, especially one that comes toward the end of the round, there is almost always a division of opinion on players who are being considered for that selection.
When it came to the evaluation of Burrows, an 18-year-old righthander from Weatherford, Texas, however, everybody involved in the process for the Cardinals was in agreement.
“It’s really rare to find somebody – very few times – has it ever been that unanimous in the room on a player who could potentially get to where we picked,” said one scout. “He checked the boxes for the people who liked his stuff. He checked the boxes for the people who liked the command and delivery. The people who did the bio-mechanics stuff also liked him.”
One of the people involved in the process was Paul Davis, at the time the organization’s rehab pitching coordinator who also was in charge of the then-new pitching mechanics team. Davis left the Cardinals to become the pitching coach of the Mariners a couple of years ago and is now the minor league pitching coordinator for the Braves.
“The guys making the decision were set on Burrows,” Davis said. “He was the guy.”
He had been that guy for months. One of the scouts who helped evaluate pitching prospects before that draft said, “That was the play. I liked him a lot. I thought there were things to work with. He had a strong, linebacker type body. He was physical. He checked every box for me. His stuff was premium and he had some room to grow.”
What the Cardinals apparently overlooked, however, was that they might not be the only team who liked Burrows more than other players who were in play at that point in the draft — even though he was only ranked 33rd on the final Baseball America pre-draft rankings that year and was not included in the first round of their final mock draft.
One scout who liked Burrows just as much as the Cardinals liked him was Chris Wimmer, the area scout covering Texas for the Tigers at the time.
“He was obviously at the top of my list,” Wimmer said. “He had the whole package. The easy part of scouting sometimes is the tool package that a kid has. He had that. Then it come down to doing your homework with the family and the kid.
“When you are going to give a kid that type of money you have to know what kind of makeup they have, their work ethic, how mature they are. Are they going to be able to handle the pro game? Being away from home? When all of the questions are answered, they settle in at the top of your board.”
Wimmer, who is now out of scouting and runs a training facility for baseball players and other young athletes in Oklahoma City, turned in his reports and then had to wait to see how the draft played out. What his final report told his bosses, however, likely went a long way toward making Burrows their pick.
Wimmer compared him to Justin Verlander.
“The Tigers never shied away from their philosophies of power arms, whether they were high school or college,” Wimmer said. “He was always the guy at the top. I think everybody in the organization saw him multiple times. I was in his home at least three times.”
Wimmer knew the Cardinals also liked Burrows.
“Area scouts are always asked what other teams are in the mix,” he said. “Which ones are the most interested? You kind of know who you see more and who you don’t see. They (the Cardinals) were a team that was there a lot. They did their due diligence scouting the player.
“I think there were a couple of players still on the board that people assumed or thought were higher on our board than Burrows, but the draft does funny things … you never know how it’s going to play out.”
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Burrows has yet to develop as they had hoped after signing him away from a commitment to Texas A & M following a senior high school season in which he posted a 0.37 ERA and struck out 132 batters in 72 innings. His fastball sat in the low 90s and touched 98 and he displayed the potential to develop an above-average curve ball and changeup.
Now 23, Burrows pitched most of last season for the Tigers’ Triple A team in Toledo, his first year at that level, where he was 2-6 with a 5.51 ERA in 15 starts.
His story is not that different from other high school pitchers selected in the first round of that draft. There were eight prep pitchers other than Burrows selected among the top 42 overall picks; three ahead of Burrows and five after he was picked. Only two have pitched in the majors – Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka. Another who likely will make his MLB debut sometime this year is the Cardinals’ Jake Woodford, picked 39th overall that year.
“A lot of people will talk about how the failure rate of high school pitchers who sign is high,” Davis said. “The reality is the failure rate of high school pitchers who go to college is pretty high also.
“A lot of those high school pitchers, five years down the road, they are nowhere to be found. When you take 18-year-old pitchers in general it is a risky pick.”
Plummer: “Always a Plan B”
The Cardinals did not have much time to react to the Tigers selection of Burrows. They were now on the clock and had to make their selection in just a matter of minutes.
“I wouldn’t say there was a gasp in the room, but it was like, ‘oh crap,’” one scout said.
The player who was next in line on the Cardinals big board of draft-eligible players was Plummer, a high school outfielder from Detroit who burst onto the scouting radar with an outstanding week at the East Coast Pro Showcase in the summer of 2014. He followed up that week with good performances in other events that summer.
The summer showcase circuit is a strong tool for scouts because it lets them see players compete against other highly regarded players from other parts of the country. It is even more true for a player such as Plummer, from a northern state, where players often suffer from having a short spring season with games often played in poor weather conditions, including freezing temperatures and snow flurries.
“You are getting to see the best versus the best,” said one longtime scout. “In theory if the best perform against the best, that’s a good sign of what’s to come.”
Plummer’s evaluation in the spring also was affected by the fact that his league played with an unusual format – starting hitters with a 1-1 count in order to speed up the at-bats, and thus speed up the games – both because of weather concerns and trying to finish games before it got dark.
Plummer overcame those obstacles to hit .520 with 22 doubles and also stole 32 bases in 42 games during the high school season.
Combined, his summer performance and what he did in the spring was good enough for Plummer to be ranked as the 11th-best draft prospect in the country in the final rankings by Baseball America prior to the draft. Their final mock draft projected he would be the 31st overall pick, going to the Giants.
“Plummer has one of the most advanced approaches among this year’s high school hitters with a relatively simple setup, bat speed and some leverage that gives him plus pull power,” read the Baseball America scouting report. “Generally, his swing is geared more to driving the ball up the middle with a compact stroke that gives him good plate coverage. Plummer projects as a potentially plus hitter with average to plus power.”
Internally, the Cardinals had very high reports on every aspect of Plummer’s ability and his makeup. He was committed to the University of Kentucky, but made it known that if he was drafted high enough he would sign and go pro.
One person who has been evaluating high school players for years, basically competing against pro scouts, is Tim Corbin, the successful and longtime coach at Vanderbilt, annually one of the best college programs in the country.
Each year Corbin, like the pro scouts, goes and watches high school players to see if they are somebody he wants to recruit, often knowing that a player still will choose to go pro instead of going to college. He knows scouts have a tough job, because he knows how hard it is to do his own evaluations.
Corbin thinks high school hitters often are the toughest group to analyze and correctly predict future success.
“You can see bat speed and you can see strength but bat to ball skills is so important and you can’t always determine that,” Corbin said. “You can’t always determine if the pitching that they are seeing will validate the qualities and the skills of the kid.
“That’s where it becomes difficult. If a kid goes off and plays college baseball in an environment like the SEC or the ACC or the Big 12, you get more of a chance to evaluate him against pretty good pitching.”
The Cardinals thought the risk was worth it. They took Plummer, making him the first high school player from Michigan drafted in the first round since 1997.
“I looked at the video after the draft and understood who the guy could be,” said one scout. “I think the first round might have been a little bit of a stretch, but I can say that about a lot of people who have proven me wrong.”
The transition for many high school players to pro baseball often begins slowly which is why the Cardinals traditionally do not put too much emphasis on how a player performs in his first season. They were more eager to see how Plummer performed in 2016, but a hand injury that required two surgeries forced him to miss the entire season.
At a time he badly needed at-bats and to be on the field playing, Plummer could only sit and watch. When he did return in 2017, Plummer had to regain the strength in his right arm and hand, had to find his swing again and try to make up for lost time.
He spent both the 2017 and 2018 seasons at low Class A Peoria and moved to Palm Beach in 2019, where he continued to struggle at the plate. Now 23, Plummer is all but certain to miss another full year in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic which has all but officially canceled the minor-league season.
As has happened with Burrows, the uncertainty of what can happen to hitters, especially those who become pros out of high school, has at least to this point kept Plummer from developing like the Cardinals – and other teams – thought would happen. Nobody, of course, could have predicted the hand and wrist injuries and the effect they would have on his development.
Plummer was the eighth high school position player selected in the 2015 draft. Of the seven picked ahead of him, only four have made it to the majors, two of which – Brendan Rodgers and Kyle Tucker – were among the top five picks.
“I think people would be amazed if all 30 teams lined up their top 50 guys how different those lists would be,” said one scout. “All it takes is one team ahead of you to like the player. Maybe the industry doesn’t like him, but if one team ahead of you likes him he might be gone.
“I’ve had that happen a few times. I thought I might get a guy and he gets picked right before you. That’s part of the deal.”
Buehler: “Not sure why he fell”
Marty Lamb was watching the draft on television from his home in Lexington, Ky. An area scout for the Dodgers since 1999, Lamb – like the Cardinals – had a player he really liked. As pick after pick flashed before him Lamb got a little more excited that maybe Buehler would still be there at the 24th spot in the draft.
Lamb had an advantage over many scouts of having watched Buehler not only for the three seasons he pitched at Vanderbilt, but also had seen him perform in high school. Lamb and Buehler share the same hometown.
“I don’t think we had any idea that he would end up getting to us,” Lamb recalled.
“I had a history with him. He was always skinny and in high school I know there was some worry about how big he was going to get, how durable he was going to be, that kind of thing. But the delivery, the arm action, everything was loose and easy. He could spin the ball, and he threw strikes. I want to say he was like 158 pounds coming out of high school. He was a little rail.”
Buehler got bigger during his years pitching for Corbin at Vanderbilt, and developed into a pitcher ranked as the 12th best prospect going into that draft by Baseball America, one spot behind Plummer. Their final mock draft projected he would be the 13th pick in the draft, by Tampa Bay.
“We thought he was going to go at a high level; we thought he was a first-rounder,” Corbin said. “People liked him. I’m not sure why he fell. Maybe there were concerns about the body, I don’t know. When he pitched everybody was here.”
The scouts saw the performance, but if they had doubts about Buehler’s physical stature or his makeup, and that was part of the reason he was not ranked higher, nobody mentioned those concerns to Corbin.
“I don’t know if people thought he was durable enough and big enough to be a one or two starter at the MLB level,” Corbin said. “But that kid has always had a special arm, that’s for sure.
“A coach gets a very good understanding of whether a kid is equipped for the next level, is capable of the next level. It’s pretty easy to see on a day to day basis how the kid prepares and how he prepares his mind and what’s important to him. You start to see the fibers of the kid.”
In all the years he has coached at Vanderbilt, Corbin said it remains a mystery to him why more scouts don’t seek his opinion or ask questions about one of his players that they are considering drafting, especially near the top of the draft.
“I was watching a television special with Bill Belichick and Nick Saban recently and Saban mentioned the same thing,” Corbin said. “He said, ‘You would be shocked how few calls I get about players.’ He knows his players. When he said that I felt like, ‘Yeah, it’s true.’ I get calls, but not like you would think, especially when they are spending that kind of money. Maybe they just feel awkward about calling.”
If scouts had called, Corbin would have told them how much Buehler had developed in his three years since high school, part of which was not visible to the naked eye or could not be captured on a radar gun.
“He had a good arm but he learned how to pitch,” Corbin said. “As he got stronger his arm strength continued but he added the pitchability piece. It doesn’t matter how good your arm is at the big-league level, you have to be able to command the ball, move it and spin it. And the kid is ultra-competitive.
“His brain is the thing that you can really count on. His confidence level is different than a lot of people. You could see that for sure.”
Baseball America’s pre-draft scouting report on Buehler was not overly complementary, noting that Buehler “isn’t very physical and also lacks ideal size for a righthander.” It did go on to read, “Scouts have more confidence that Buehler will be able to remain in the rotation, however, thanks to his deep arsenal, athleticism and more polished delivery.”
Perhaps because the Cardinals were so locked in on Burrows as their first choice, or perhaps there were some medical concerns, but for whatever reason several people involved in the organization’s draft process said they did not get any indication that Buehler was ever seriously considered as the team’s top pick.
That was true despite the best efforts of Davis, who saw video of Buehler and told Correa how much he liked him.
“To be honest I think I wore Chris out that spring about a couple of guys,” Davis said. “I loved Buehler. He was really good. We got a video of him, ironically pitching at Dodger Stadium, and after I saw the video I really dug in and looked at it. I remember telling somebody who was watching the video with me, ‘This is what we are looking for when we are trying to teach guys.’
“I remember calling Chris and leaving him a voice mail. We said that, ‘It (the video) was as good as it gets for us. That’s what we are looking for.”
For whatever reason, however, the message did not lead to the Cardinals giving more consideration to Buehler, a mistake that could haunt them for years, knowing he could have been right next to Jack Flaherty in the team’s starting rotation.
The Cardinals were not alone, of course, in missing out on Buehler, who quickly shot through the minor leagues and established himself as one of the top young starters in baseball. Why did 22 other teams picking before the Cardinals also pass on Buehler? It’s one of the annual mysteries of the draft. Why did 24 teams pass on Mike Trout before the Angels made him their pick in the 2009 draft?
Lamb knows those are questions no one will ever be able to answer.
“As a scout, you are always like, ‘Dang, I should have had that guy,’” he said. “It probably evens out in the long run with guys you get that you didn’t expect would get to you but did. You never know what a guy is going to do. Obviously, he (Buehler) has done very well.
“Did I imagine him doing what he’s doing right now? I guess in your crystal ball you thought he was going to be a good big-league pitcher. It’s how much will be continue to develop from there? It’s like, ‘Wow, he’s one of the top guys.’”
Five years ago, Lamb was just happy that Buehler fell to the Dodgers.
“I was pumped,” he said. “I was excited. In that scenario you think he’s probably going ahead of you. But then it got closer and closer. It was an exciting time.”
After one of Buehler’s games in the minor leagues, Davis got a phone call from a friend who was at the game and knew how highly Davis thought of Buehler.
“Trust me, those of us who really liked Buehler followed him,” Davis said. “He was as good as we thought.”
The rest of the draft
If there is any consolation for the Cardinals about not landing Buehler with their top pick, it’s that some of the picks that followed turned out to be really good selections.
Two of the other pitchers Davis really liked in that draft class were Jordan Hicks and Woodford. He also liked how Ryan Helsley threw during a pre-draft workout at Busch Stadium. All ended up with the Cardinals, as did future All-Star shortstop Paul DeJong and centerfielder Harrison Bader. Four of those players are in the majors, filling key roles on the team. Woodford should join them sometime this season.
“Scouts talk about it every day,” one scout said. “We could have had the best draft of all time. It played out how it played out. We can be thankful for who we got and maybe it opened people’s eyes about the process and maybe not putting everything in one basket from now on.
“We kind of just assumed there was no way somebody would jump up and take Burrows. But it happened.”
One of the unanswerable questions about the 2015 draft is what would have happened if the Tigers had picked a different player and the Cardinals had selected Burrows as they had planned. The general opinion among several scouts is that he would have become a major-league starter, given the organization’s success in developing young pitchers. In that scenario, the pain of not picking Buehler would not hurt as much as it does now.
“The draft is just such a flip of the coin,” Corbin said.
Said one scout, “You try to give yourselves the best odds to be successful. Nothing is ever 100 percent. Every prospect, from number one on down, nothing is 100 percent. There are so many things that could have gone in different ways.”
Three players. Three picks. Three different results.
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Photos by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports