The owners and players union remained far apart on their negotiations to return to play next month as we entered the weekend, but baseball will finally provide a live event anyway at 7 p.m. Wednesday night when it stages the first round of its draft.
Even though it’s a vital tool for building a team, the baseball draft normally generates about as much excitement as a routine pop fly to center field. This draft, which will continue Thursday, should get a little more attention and will be drastically different from any other because it has been cut from 40 to five rounds as part of a COVID-19 pact made between the owners and the players union at the end of March.
From a local viewpoint, the first round offers a lot of intrigue because it is possible that the Phillies will have the opportunity to select Nick Bitsko, a 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher from Central Bucks East High School in Doylestown, Pa.
We told Bitsko’s story in April, about how he accelerated his draft availability by a year, and it sure appears he will remain a first-round pick even though the Pennsylvania high school baseball season was erased by the coronavirus quarantine.
Because teams have had so few looks at college players and no looks at almost all high school players since last summer, this figures to be an unpredictable draft. Where Bitsko lands on the draft board might be the most unpredictable thing of all.
He could be gone before the Phillies select 15th overall, the spot where they landed second baseman Chase Utley 20 years ago. Baseball America’s most recent draft had San Diego selecting Bitsko eighth overall. He could also slip beyond the 15th pick because the Phillies reportedly have a lot of interest in Tyler Soderstrom, a left-handed hitting catcher from Turlock High School in Northern California.
It has been 10 years since the Phillies took a local player in the first round of the draft, and left-hander Jesse Biddle was no longer in the organization when he finally made it to the big leagues in 2018.
Biddle, a former star at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, knows the challenges presented to a first-round pick selected by his hometown team.
“The biggest challenge is you’re more accessible than most of the other guys you’re playing with,” Biddle said by phone from Los Angeles on Friday. “Most of the minor-league stops are within driving distance of Philadelphia and your family, so you’re not on an island like a lot of your teammates. I found myself leaving a lot more tickets than my teammates.
“But that’s also a reason why it’s a lot more fun. It gives you a great support system. You always have someone to lean on.”
Biddle said he did not really feel the pressure of pitching in his hometown until things started going south for him during the latter half of the 2013 season at double-A Reading.
“Philly is a tough market and the fan base crushed me pretty good like I probably deserved,” Biddle said. “I started out pretty well in 2013 and at the end of the year I fell off a little bit, but I thought I had a good enough year to be promoted. I was surprised they sent me back to double A.”
Biddle spent all of 2014 at Reading and, after posting a 4.58 ERA in 19 starts, he was sent back to double A again at the start of the 2105 season. He did finally make it to triple-A Lehigh Valley that year, but by October he was undergoing Tommy John surgery and a few months later he was traded to Pittsburgh before eventually being claimed on waivers by Atlanta.
Despite the turbulent times in his hometown organization, Biddle believes Bitsko should embrace the idea of being drafted by the Phillies.
“Honestly, the first thing I’d say to him would be congratulations because that doesn’t happen for kids from Philadelphia very often,” Biddle said. “That, in and of itself, would be an accomplishment.”
Biddle, in fact, is the only area player ever selected by the Phillies in the first round.
“But the real advice I’d give him is take it easy,” Biddle said. “Take time to focus on the process and enjoy the minor leagues rather than thinking you need to be in the big leagues next week. I think for me trying to get to the big leagues as fast as I could was heightened by the fact I was trying to join my hometown team. That was my dream.”
Biddle at least achieved his big-league dream two seasons ago when he made his major-league debut for the Braves in an April game against the New York Mets. He appeared in 60 games and posted a 3.11 ERA for the Braves in 2018, but he could not duplicate that success in 2019. The Braves traded Biddle to Seattle in May and he was claimed off waivers by Texas at the end of June.
“I call last season by my tour de baseball,” Biddle said. “I pitched for teams in three different time zones and I don’t know how many players have done that in the same season.”
Unfortunately, he did not pitch well in any time zone. His combined ERA in 30 appearances was 8.36.
“It was incredibly frustrating,” Biddle said. “I was given a lot of opportunity and I found myself giving up home runs with two outs and two strikes. I don’t like to make excuses, but it turned out I had a torn labrum and it had been torn for a while. My velocity had dropped pretty significantly. I had labrum surgery and right now my arm feels amazing.”
Biddle moved to L.A. with his fiancée, Annie Morrissey, a fellow Philadelphia native, two years ago. He signed with the Cincinnati Reds in mid-January and was scheduled to make his second spring-training appearance in March when the coronavirus shut down the game and the country.
If baseball returns, he’s projected to at least make the Reds’ taxi squad, but he believes at some point he’ll make an impact in Cincinnati.
“The Reds did a really good job of breaking down my analytics and they believe I was getting hurt because I had an insufficient arm path,” Biddle said. “They gave me a lot of things to work on and I really do believe my stuff and velocity is better. But who knows, I’ve been throwing off a wall in my back alley for the last three months. Hopefully they can figure something out to get us safely back and playing this summer.”