Astros GM James Click and his front office have had little to work with in the way of bonus money in their first two drafts together, but they’ve nonetheless managed to come away with some interesting players that should help to round out the farm going forward. The 2022 crop took a hit when the club failed to sign their second highest selection, prep infielder Alex Ulloa, but strong pro debuts from some other draftees helped to soften that blow. Perhaps the best of the bunch came from right handed hurler and compensatory fourth round selection Chayce McDermott, who had some pre-draft hype that he very quickly made good on.
A 23 year old from Indiana, McDermott comes from athletic stock, and has been on the scouting radar since his prep days. His older brother, Sean (not the Bills coach), starred on the Butler basketball team from 2016-2020, and got a free agent deal from the Memphis Grizzlies after the draft that has seen him play mostly at the G-League level. Being three inches shorter than the 6’6” Sean, Chayce’s talents seemed to translate better to the diamond, and by the end of his prep career he was seen as one of the better players in the state from his class. While he didn’t throw especially hard as a high schooler, scouts saw a lot of projection in his long, athletic frame, and he showed feel for a broad range of secondaries. Like his brother, he’d attend a D1 school in his home state, taking his talents to the MAC with Ball State.
While not a top level five-star recruit, he was definitely seen a nice get for the Cardinals, with a chance to blossom into a central cog for the club. Unfortunately, it would take longer than expected for him to start down that path, as he’d suffer an elbow injury before his freshman season that required Tommy John surgery and a medical redshirt. It was a tough blow for both player and team, as McDermott had shown out in fall practice, and was likely to fill a sizable role as a freshman. Undeterred, he worked back quickly and was ready to return to the mound early in his redshirt freshman season in 2019.
The Cardinals (responsibly) had McDermott on a strict innings limit that season, but he was nonetheless able to impress. Given a starting role, McDermott took 9 turns in the rotation (plus a bullpen appearance), totaling 42 innings pitched and struck out 54 hitters en route to a 3.64 ERA. He was a bit wobbly in the command department with 26 free passes, but that was understandable given the circumstances. The performance built some serious momentum for McDermott, who looked like he had a chance to be one of the best pitchers in the conference in short order. Unfortunately, as we all know now, the COVID-19 situation would put yet another roadblock in his path the following year.
The shutdown was particularly frustrating for McDermott, who was finally ready to pitch full-go in a college uniform in 2020 and would end up being limited to just 14 and 1⁄3 innings. He was once again tough to solve with 20 strikeouts, but he was denied the opportunity to log major innings, which would be important for his draft stock. McDermott would again show resilience in 2021 though, coming out of the gates better than ever with newfound velocity while pitching deeper into games than at any prior point in his college career. Having lived in the upper 80s as a prep player and the low 90s as a college underclassman, McDermott was now sitting 93-94 and touching as high as 98 as a junior, making serious good on the potential for velocity that scouts had long seen in him.
The added velocity came with some new sharpness on his curveball, the go-to secondary in his arsenal, and the improvements translated to a college career best ERA of 3.05, backed up by a 125/36 K/BB ratio and just 59 hits allowed in 82 and 2⁄3 frames. McDermott had done just about everything he could to improve his stock short of bringing down his walk rate a bit more, and it was a bit surprising when he made it to pick 132 and the Astros, who were thrilled to acquire the rights to sign him at that slot. They would come to an agreement soon after, and an eager McDermott reported to the FCL for a tune up before getting his pro career underway.
After one dominant rookie ball outing, McDermott was moved up to Low-A Fayetteville in mid-August, where he would finish out the season. He quickly looked up to the task, going three no-hit innings in his full season debut while striking out 6. His fastball translated immediately to the pro game, getting on hitters quickly with the help of his strong extension, and looking effective both up and down in the zone. He also showed comfort with both of his breaking balls, and while he did lose a few more pitches well outside the zone than you would hope to see, it was great to see such crisp stuff this late in the year from a player who had not had the opportunity to log many innings in the prior three years. McDermott would make 9 more appearances the rest of the way, totaling 21 and 1⁄3 innings for the season. He posted a dominating 40 strikeouts against 11 walks and 12 hits, and continued to hold his improved velocity pitching in mostly 3-4 inning stints.
Entering 2022, McDermott should have a starter’s role, or something resembling one, with High-A Asheville, and every opportunity to pitch his way to Double-A in short order with continued performance. McDermott has an athletic delivery and smooth arm stroke that should help him hold up over sizable loads as he continues to strengthen post-surgery, but there’s still ample reliever risk here in the form of below average present command and somewhat advanced age, so it’s possible that he could be shifted to that role sooner rather than later if the location doesn’t show much improvement. I’m feeling pretty optimistic that it will, though, as the athletic traits that typically portend strong command are present here, and McDermott’s experience level is quite low relative to most players his age.
Offering more upside than the typical fourth round college arm, McDermott is a player worth getting excited about as we get closer to the start of the 2022 minor league season. His fastball combines velocity and extension offering hitters little margin for error, and his tight curveball has looked the part of an above average bat missing secondary as of late as well. His slippery, horizontally oriented slider is also a very intriguing part of his bag, and a pitch that the Astros’ player development pipeline has seemed to have success working with in recent years. If the command improves as I expect, there’s enough here for McDermott to top out as a mid-rotation arm, and even if that doesn’t end up happening, he could quickly dominate out of the pen with his top end heat.