The 2011 MLB Draft was certainly one to remember for Blue Jays fans. The team held seven of the first 78 picks and was poised to add top-end talent to a rebuilding farm system. Their first seven picks were spent on high upside prep talent and a clear pattern had emerged. It wasn’t until pick #108 of the 3rd round that the Jays deviated from this strategy and drafted collegiate right-hander John Stilson from Texas A&M. At the time Stilson was regarded as a 1st round talent but the wear and tear of a deep College World Series appearance in 2011 and general overuse in the prior season left him with a torn labrum and declining draft stock. The Blue Jays took a chance on the effective college reliever. They moved him to the rotation and the results have been excellent. Before we jump into why and how Stilson has been so effective this season, let’s take a look at what got him to where he is today.
Initially a 19th round selection of the Minnesota Twins in 2009 out of Texarkana Junior College, Stilson decided to forgo the majors for a chance to further his development as part of the Texas A&M baseball program. Converting from shortstop to relief pitcher Stilson really excelled. In 2010, pitching exclusively from the bullpen, Stilson strung together a 9-1 record with 10 saves over 79 innings. His 0.80 ERA as a reliever led the NCAA and his 114 K were second most on the Aggies behind teammate and 1st round selection Barret Loux. The Aggies would go on to win the Big 12 Championship in 2010 thanks in large part to Stilson’s emergence as a relief ace and his utter dominance of opposing hitters. 2011 was much of the same for Stilson, who was now a part of the rotation. He was added to the Golden Spikes Award Watch List and was called upon to fill the shoes of the recently departed Loux. Stilson more than rose to the challenge and compiled a 5-2 record along with a 1.68 ERA over 91.1 innings racking up 92 K to help secure another Big-12 Championship and College World Series appearance.
As mentioned Stilson was regarded as 1st round talent. Prior to the 2011 draft he was rated the 23rd best player according to Baseball America and was considered a similar talent to the likes of Jose Fernandez (14th overall) and Robert Stephenson (27th overall). However, on May 5th, 2011, Stilson began to see his draft stock plummet as he began suffering from shoulder soreness after throwing five shutout innings against Dallas Baptist. Stilson would skip a start to rest the aching shoulder but upon his return he was wildly ineffective and was forced to skip his first scheduled Big 12 Conference tournament start. An MRI revealed that he had torn his labrum in his pitching shoulder and he was shut down for the season. With the news of his injury and surgery all but imminent, Stilson was dropped down on draft boards and deemed too risky by many talent evaluators. It turned out Stilson did not need surgery and instead opted for the 6-week rehab process prescribed by Dr. James Andrews. He was scooped up by the Blue Jays in the middle of the 3rd round. It is worth noting that he has not reported any trouble with his pitching shoulder since then.
Stilson signed on August 14th, 2011 with the Blue Jays for $500,000 and was aggressively assigned to the Dunedin Blue Jays of the Florida State League to start the 2012 season. Stilson is currently the youngest pitcher on the Dunedin roster (and the FSL) and has been working on a pitch count/ innings limit (no start longer than 5 innings thus far). Through 10 starts and 39.1 innings he has a stellar 2.75 ERA with 34 K. His fastball works between 91-94 MPH with movement and has been clocked as high as 98 MPH out of the bullpen. It is viewed as a plus offering. He has an advanced change-up that scouts say can be plus plus at times and he is very confident in it. He also has a slider that he mixes in as his breaking pitch. It is average or a tick below, but he is still developing this pitch. Stilson has the confidence and the skill to throw these three offerings in any count which lends credence to why he has had such success and why he was aggressively started in High-A. As of this writing Stilson is enjoying a 7.78 K/9 rate and while his walk rate of 3.66 BB/9 leaves a little bit to be desired, it is trending in the right direction as he has yet to walk more than two batters in any of his 10 starts to date. Additionally he is inducing a fair amount of ground outs (1.26 GO/AO) which bodes well for his continued development. I think as he acclimates himself to the rigors of professional baseball he will reign in his control and improve upon his ground out rate. He will prove the Blue Jays right in drafting him and aggressively starting him in High-A as a starter.
In my opinion, Stilson has the potential and the skill to be a highly valuable asset for the Blue Jays as he continues to build off an outstanding college and young professional career. I think he has the potential and determination to stick in the rotation as a starter. I can see him having a career as a middle of the rotation starter as he continues to develop his feel for pitching, but much of that will depend on how he develops his breaking pitch. Another path that might be considered for those less patient is a high leverage role out of the bullpen. The Blue Jays might be best served by transitioning Stilson to a late inning role. Especially if their many other pitching prospects develop as expected or if Stilson’s breaking pitch never fully develops as his fastball and change-up will play at the ML level now.
Update: As this goes to press, Stilson finished pitching 5 innings in his 11th start and allowed two runs and a walk while striking out two against Lakeland. He is in line for his first professional win.