Drafting pitchers in first round typically hasn't paid off for Twins

Kyle Gibson figures to pitch an inning for the American League in Tuesday's All-Star Game at Coors Field, vindication not only for the veteran righthander but also for members of the Twins' scouting department: They were right about him.

Yet Gibson, drafted with the Twins' first pick, 22nd overall, is also a timely and glaring reminder of how difficult it is to forecast the future of any amateur player, and particularly pitchers. Because while his rise to the top of his profession reflects well on those who scouted, drafted and signed him, it's also true that he's a rarity among Twins draftees.

Of the 56 amateur players that the Twins have chosen with their first pick in all previous summer drafts, 18 have been pitchers. Gibson is only the second such choice ever to be selected an All-Star, and neither he nor the previous highly decorated pick — righthander Dick Ruthven, chosen out of Fresno State in 1972 — represented the Twins when they were honored. Ruthven didn't even sign with Minnesota.

That's why, when the Twins exercise the 26th overall pick in Sunday's later-than-usual amateur draft, it's a good bet that the draftee will be a position player with a highly bankable bat. It's a good bet because it's a better gamble.

"The way we look at it is, it's about opportunity cost. You can take pitching in the first round, but you're missing out on those bats — the [Alex] Kirilloffs, the [Trevor] Larnachs, the [Michael] Cuddyers, [to] go way back," said Sean Johnson, in his 20th season scouting players for the Twins, and his fifth in charge of drafting them. "I mean, those guys aren't available in the second round. They're just not."

That's not to say that teams should never take a pitcher in the first round. But the risk is far higher because pitching development is far more difficult to project than hitting, as the Twins know too well. Since choosing Gibson in 2009, the Twins have used their first selection on a pitcher three times, and regretted it each time:

• Alex Wimmers was drafted with the 21st pick in 2010, and while he eventually reached Target Field for a 22-game career with the Twins six years later, future MVP Christian Yelich went to the Marlins two picks later. Pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Taijuan Walker, both All-Stars, were also selected shortly afterward.

• Armed with the fourth overall pick and a $4.5 million bonus, the Twins talked Kohl Stewart into forgoing a quarterbacking career at Texas A&M in 2013, but they let him depart in 2019 after just 17 big-league games. Shortstop and batting champion Tim Anderson and Yankees slugger Aaron Judge went later in the round.

• Lefthander Tyler Jay's stellar career at Illinois caused the Twins to choose him sixth overall in 2015, one pick ahead of Andrew Benintendi, but Jay never reached the majors and has been out of baseball since 2019. That draft hasn't produced much star power yet, though Walker Buehler went to the Dodgers 18 picks later.

To be fair, the Twins have drafted All-Star pitchers in the first round, only not with their initial pick. They grabbed Glen Perkins in 2004 as a compensation pick for losing Eddie Guardado to free agency, after having already taken Trevor Plouffe. And in 2012, after choosing Byron Buxton second overall, they selected Jose Berrios with the 32nd pick as free-agent compensation for Cuddyer.

But the Twins now believe that top-tier pitchers can be developed, if provided the right raw material, rather than merely drafted. Three of their best current minor league pitching prospects — Matt Canterino, Josh Winder and Jordan Balazovic — plus Twins rookie righthander Bailey Ober, are good examples, Johnson said. Only Canterino, a second-round selection in 2019, was taken before the fifth round.

Given their solid improvement and well-regarded future, "if we took those guys in the first or second round, you'd probably think it was a good pick. You can get pitching beyond [those rounds] because we trust our player development [department] and what they can do with those guys," Johnson said. "Canterino and Winder did not look what they look like now. That's not to say we won't take pitching in this first round, but if you miss on the bats early, you just can't get those guys later. That's the way we've looked at it for a long time."

Which is why most draft projections expect the Twins to choose a player like, say, Eastern Illinois shortstop Trey Sweeney (according to Baseball America) or South Alabama outfielder Ethan Wilson (according to The Sporting News), rather than pitching.

This year's draft will last 20 rounds over three days, with the Twins owning the 26th and 36th pick on Sunday, the latter a "competitive balance pick" awarded to lower-revenue franchises. The Twins are allowed to spend $8,101,400 on bonuses to their selections without paying a penalty, with their first pick allocated $2,653,400.

"We're wide open. We [try to] think through every option, and that might be the safe play or the upside guy who was supposed to go a few picks higher," said Johnson, who believes college pitching is unusually deep this year. "I'm more conservative, but we have plenty of gamblers in our room that balance me out, which is a good thing."