Peter Gammons: Agents, scouts, prospects, changing trends, and the MLB Draft

The Baseball Draft was changed in 2012 because the Commissioner’s Office felt that teams like the Red Sox could use their development revenues to sign players like Anthony Rizzo in later rounds for high round contracts. The idea was to restrict signing pools based on the previous year’s standings and allow losing teams better access to the best players, so, for instance, the 2007 Padres could have drafted Justin Verlander or Jered Weaver with the first pick instead of being saddled with Matt Bush.

After four years, in which teams were accused of tanking to get higher picks and, more important, higher allowed pools, the pools for the teams drafting highest were reduced. And the evolution will likely continue next year, when there will be punishments in place to teams whose general managers make promises to players for big money if they and their agents will tell teams they will only sign for what they can get from the promising teams. Or clubs that convince agents to hold out their players so other teams can’t see them.

That practice runs contrary to the spirit of the draft, and, as several general managers point out, this practice at its basest is restricted to two National League teams. Last season, the agent for New Jersey High School lefthanded pitcher Jason Groome had a deal for $6M if he could talk Groome down to the 24th pick. Boston took him at 12 despite threats from the agent, who told some members of the media he wouldn’t sign with the Red Sox. Of course, when the Yankees went to the Groome house for their predraft interview, one Yankee official said, “everything was Red Sox. They were his team.” Red Sox scout Ray Fagnant, who knew Groome well, caught all his bullpens coaching him on the East Coast Showcase and Area Code teams, and, that team that didn’t cater to the agent got the player.

The Commissioner has taken away players signed internationally when teams were judged to have acted illegally. The same may happen in the draft, more evolution.

What is interesting in a season in which we may be headed towards record run and home run numbers and there are only 13 starting pitchers with earned run averages under 3.00, only one college starter (Vanderbilt’s Kyle Wright) was taken in the first 14 selections. Multi-skilled high school kids like Royce Lewis, taken at the top by the Twins, pure college hitters like Brendan McKay and Virginia’s Pavin Smith, went in the first seven. But several general managers noted that the rarest commodity coming out of college is righthanded power.

Hence University of California Riverside DH Keston Hiura, considered the best bat in the country, went ninth to Milwaukee in the National League despite not playing an inning in the field and widely believed headed to Tommy John Surgery, Missouri State third baseman Jake Burger, the other righthanded power bat, went 11th to the White Sox. “Hiura never would have lasted past 15 despite the fact he had a 30 arm at the Perfect Game Showcase as a high school senior,” says one scouting director. “He almost went in the top five. Burger went right where we All thought, and there is a wide range of opinions about where he’ll play.”

We get it. We read the Tommy John Surgery transactions. We see the number of pitchers on the Disabled List.

Some of us saw Mark Prior pitch for Team USA in 2000, and I remember a scout saying to me, “remember this when he gets inducted in Cooperstown.” The next spring, the Twins had the first pick, and weeks before the draft Terry Ryan admitted he was probably going to get local icon Joe Mauer “because he’s that good.” It was written that it was about money, but Ryan privately said, “it’s not about the money, it’s not about Mark Prior, it’s about Joe Mauer.” Terry Ryan never lied.

And Prior lasted five major league seasons and won 44 games. He kept trying to come back because he loved the game, earning the highest of praise from Red Sox Gulf Coast League manager George Lombard, but it never came back and Prior now works with the Padres, distinguished, intelligent and without bitterness.

A decade ago, David Price was the first pick in the country out of Vanderbilt. A year later he helped beat the Red Sox and get the Rays to the World Series. He now has 122 major league victories, and someday he likely will have won more games than any pitcher taken first in the nation. The current record holder? Mike Moore, 161-177. Second? Floyd Bannister, 134 wins.

The Red Sox, who this season have four starts and two wins from pitchers they drafted and signed, are prime examples. If Hiura had dropped to their 24th pick, he’d be in the Boston organization. The same holds for Burger. But when each was gone, scouting director Mike Rikard adjusted and went back to the board they’d worked so diligently to prioritize, as they had in 2015 when, with the seventh pick, they had Andrew Benintendi (like the Cubs and Royals) number one on their board, as they had in 2016 when Groome was their top player in the entire draft.

They need pitching, and they know it. They had to spend $213M for a Cy Young Award winner in David Price. They spent $80M for another Cy Young Award winner in Rick Porcello. They traded four kids, including two of the top prospects on the Baseball America list for Chris Sale. None of those moves could be second-guessed; they hadn’t developed an all-star pitcher since Clay Buchholz. They also traded a highly-rated prospect pitcher in Anderson Espinoza to get Drew Pomeranz.

Yet they, like so many other teams, believe the position players are better gambles. Take the Astros—they took Mark Appel and Brady Aiken in consecutive years with the first pick in the country. They see what the Cubs did—using their picks at the top of drafts on positional players (Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber) and looked for pitching in later rounds, trades, or the free agent market and minor league deals (Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta). Corey Kluber was a minor league deal. So was Robby Ray.

OK, it’s easy to point out that Goldschmidt was an eighth round pick and that he’s one of the true superstars in the game. “I don’t think Goldschmidt would last to the eighth round today,” says Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen.

What’s different about Boston’s current approach to pitchers is that they look for stuff, performance and hitability rather than classic deliveries. “I think we tried to find perfect deliveries too long,” says Rikard. “Maybe they were easy to pick up. Maybe they were too true. It’s something we discussed for a long time prior to the last couple of years.”

Indeed, Max Scherzer was traded because Arizona feared he’d blow out with a delivery that was, at the least, something in-between unorthodox and a toboggan run. In 2014, he actually manipulated my arm to recreate his delivery to prove he didn’t have strain. He does have Washington media folks discussing his Hall of Fame credentials.

Clayton Kershaw is unorthodox,” says Rikard. Indeed, and Kershaw and Rich Hill did an MLB Network interview this spring where they discussed how deliveries can be an extra pitch, and how deception is vital.

“Kluber has some parts of his delivery that scared people,” and he’s great,” says Rikard. “Madison Bumgarner was supposed to be too far across his body. There are a lot of examples.”

There were no questions in Boston’s minds on Groome, his delivery, his athleticism. This week, they took Missouri’s Tanner Houck in the first round. His delivery is across his body, but is, as Rikard values, “very good athleticism, he is in the high 90’s, and we think he is going to be a starter because he has the making of a good curveball and change. What’s also important is that he’s been one of the very best pitchers for three years in the best conference in the country. That stands for something. He’s strong, he’s got power stuff. And if he does end up a reliever, we all see the game has changed.”

Indeed, power pitchers who can go 2-3-4 innings two or three times a week are far more valued than they were 30 years ago. Two of the most interesting first round pitching picks—North Carolina’s J.B. Buskauskus (with a Chris Archer slider) was taken by the Astros at 15, and at 29 the Cubs took lefthander Brendon Little from Manitee Junior College with the hope that the changeup his college coach Don Robinson has taught him will develop to go with his fastball (98 MPH on the Cape) and what one scouting director calls “the best curveball in the draft.”

As the Red Sox bullpen has developed (one run in more than 25 innings recently) with Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly continuing their transition from starting with 96-102 MPH stuff and they work to develop relievers like Ben Taylor and Jamie Callahan, they hope their recent drafts are beginning to edge potential starters towards the major leagues, with Groome and Houck lining up for Lowell (where Groome starts Monday). Lefthander Jalen Beeks, 23, is now in Pawtucket. Travis Lakins, 22, was a sophomore-eligible draft in 2015 from Ohio State who has ridden a 98 mile per hour fastball and breaking ball to Portland. Both Shaun Anderson, a University of Florida closer transitioning to starting, and Mike Shawaryn, out of the University of Maryland, has become an arm to watch. Nick Duran, off injuries, is a big arm in Lowell.

And after taking Oregon State starter Jake Thompson, second in the Pac 12 in ERA, they took a kid out of Texas one scouting director calls “a monster”—Alex Scheff. He was supposedly headed to Texas A&M, wants to get started in pro ball, throws in the mid-90’s with a developed changeup and Rikard sees his velocity “and pitchability having great potential. He was a very big draft and sign for us.”

Gone are names like Kopech and Espinoza and Logan Allen, and now the road to finally finding starting pitchers who don’t cost hundreds of millions or their best prospects has begun with Groome and Houck, Lakins and Shawaryn and Bryan Mata and Scherff.

There are still changes that have to be made to the draft, and another list of names will be revealed when the July 2 International signings are announced. But anyone who loves baseball loves the draft, like the farmer who loves what he does, from the roots to the blossoms.

Comments

  1. Bob Cronin says:

    Peter,

    Thoughts on the Oregon St pitcher with the troubled past? Does MLB have people vetting these kids for skeletons and then advising teams what they find or does that fall to each team to vet the kids they are interested in?

    • I think it varies on a team to team basis, in that many GM’s, scouts, different front office officials have good relationships with various teams’ officials through past dealings, while many of have little to no relationships with various other teams (other than winter meetings and such). So to some extent there is communication between organizations, but to another extent there isn’t.

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