Peter Gammons: Memorial Day MLB Draft Notes

jeff luhnow

Jeff Luhnow, Houston Astros’ General Manager

Sometimes one asks why they’re so worried about things that go bump in the night. Really, now. Why should a ping pong ball festival get as many viewers as the Major League Baseball Draft, which happens to be a lot of fun?

Sure, weeks after the pongs have pinged, the names in the NBA draft may be more recognizable, but far less than before one-and-doners made college hoops players so less visible; and Carlos Rodon is more of a face in the crowd than Dante Exum, and so is Tyler Beede, for that matter, and not just because some of us played on his prep school field on Main Street in Groton, Mass.

We’ve all been lectured about the implicit and dark reasons for fearing the trading of draft choices, but if a week from Thursday Bud Selig went to the podium and announced that Boston had traded the 34th pick and Drake Britton to the Dodgers for Andre Ethier and an undisclosed amount of cash that wouldn’t give the night a buzz?

After all, the only players in the majors two years after the 2012 draft are Michael Wacha, Alex Wood and Paco Rodriguez.

Or if Selig read off a card, “the Toronto Blue Jays have traded the ninth pick in the first year players draft to the San Diego Padres for Ian Kennedy, the Padres’ second choice and Chris Denorfia.” We’d have a lot to talk about on Inside Pitch and the overnight SportsCenter.

Because of the system agreed upon by players and owners (but not Scott Boras, as we understand), the draft is very different than in the last year of the old system, where teams could take supposedly unsignable, high ceiling players past the first round, sign them above recommended slot levels and re-load. Now, that is impossible, and losing a first round pick and the slot allowance and not being able to spend on a lower round pick has made the rebuilding process of the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners far more difficult than would have been the case. Today, the Detroit Tigers could never have gone way above slot for Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, whom they turned into Miguel Cabrera, HOF.

*******************************************************************************

People like to believe that where you pick means little, that Mike Piazza and Don Mattingly and Jose Bautista were 20th-and-later rounders. But scouting is so much more precise today, 20th rounders-turned-all-stars are lucky lottery tickets. If you do not think the rounds you see on MLB next week are significant, consider last year’s All-Star Game Roster:

First Round: 27 players.

Second Round: 12

Third-to-Fifth Rounds: 3

Sixth-to-Tenth Rounds: 4

11th Round on down: 3

International Signings: 14.

Starting Pitchers on the All-Star Rosters: 10 first rounders, four second rounders, one fourth rounder, four international signings.

Earth to accountants: Invest in First Round and International Picks. Give credit to Rick Hahn, Ned Colletti and Billy Beane for getting Abreu, Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes cheap. They had the right scouts and the guts to back those scouts.

****************************************************************************************

Most of the organizations are now back from conference and high school tournaments and all-star showcases and are bringing in their scouts to spend the next ten days rating and ranking their draft boards, as well as trying to assess what other clubs are doing and who may or may not slide a round and get preferred prospects in consecutive rounds. “The strategy here is vital,” says one general manager. “It was a big part of the draft the way it used to be set up, but it’s in the two structure draft under the new system, there’s still been strategy. The Astros did it well in 2012. The Reds have done it well. There’s so much involved. It was designed to reduce the power of agents, and what it’s done is raise the bar on mid-level free agents, and lower the opportunity for second division teams to improve quickly without hitting the free agent market like the Yankees did last winter.

As clubs gather their scouts, there is virtually no consensus on the top picks. “No one knows what the Astros are going to do with the first pick,” says one executive from a club with one of the top six picks. “They keep things close to the vest, and they are meticulous (Jeff Luhnow currently is in Japan, in fact). What they eventually do will be very well thought out, within the context of their entire allotted pool and what they may or may not be able to do lower in the draft.” Back in the spring, it was assumed that they would take North Carolina State lefthander Carlos Rodon. There have been concerns about Rodon’s use of his slider, some of his pitch counts, but he is dominant, he is strong and the slider is a wipeout pitch—with the command of his fastball differentiating whether or not he is a starter or a closer in the grind of major league baseball. “Many of the Astros people believe that picking a pitcher at the top is a gamble because of the historical predictability of pitchers,” says another club official friendly with the Houston front office. Last year, if they hadn’t been able to do a deal with (Stanford pitcher) Mark Appel, (North Carolina third baseman) Colin Moran was in their mix. I think it’s certain that Alex Jackson is a name they are looking at closely.”

Jackson is a California high school catcher/outfielder regarded by many as the best hitter in the draft, albeit a high school player far from the majors. But think about the 2011 draft, the last one under the old system, when teams knew the new system was coming, they tried to buy the top high school players out of college and now there is a lack of Kris Bryant-type power among college players. The top of that draft was pitching-heavy. Gerrit Cole was the top pick, brought carefully to the majors by the Pirates and is a number one. But Danny Hultzen, the second pick, has had should problems, the Diamondbacks traded Trevor Bauer in little more than a year, and the three top high school pitchers—Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley, Jose Fernandez—have two Tommy John Surgeries and a couple of physical setbacks between them.

Houston has been linked to San Diego lefthanded pitcher Brady Aiken and Texas fireballer Tyler Kolek, even LSU’s solid RHP Aaron Nola. The Marlins, who pick second, seem to prefer Jackson because their system is loaded with pitchers and not with bats, but they love Kolek and it would be hard to pass on Rodon, who in 2016 could be matched with Fernandez in a two Cuban rotation in Miami. The White Sox, at three, likely will go pitching, and while the Cubs need pitching and Rodon, Nola and the high school arms are tough to pass, Kennesaw State catcher Max Pentecost—likened to a 6-2 Craig Biggio—is in their mix; Theo Epstein watched him two days last week. Minnesota, with one of the game’s most underrated systems, loves Kolek, but also loves Tom Gordon’s son Nick Gordon, another highly-skilled shortstop.

Now, unlike the NFL, we know these players don’t provide instant gratification the way, in the past, Lew Krausse, Pete Broberg, David Clyde and Eddie Bane went right from signing to the big leagues. Appel was the top pick in 2013; right now, he is in extended spring training, partly the result of trying to deal with the Astros piggyback program that clearly worries the Rodon folks. The only player from last year’s draft to play in the big leagues thus far this season is Tigers pitcher Corey Knebel, who has one inning of three run relief on his ledger. The players from 2012 are Michael Wacha, Alex Wood and Paco Rodriguez.

At least two certain first round college pitchers—East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman, certain to be in the top four, and UNLV’s Erick Fedde—have had Tommy John Surgery; they both could still be first rounders like Lucas Giolito and Nick Adenhart in drafts past. Clubs have been worried about the shoulder of TCU lefthander Brandon Finnegan, who burned it for Falmouth on The Cape last summer, but one team that saw his last start reports he threw very well.

**********************************************************************************************

Yes, the best players are usually found in the top rounds. In 2011, when the Rays had 10 of the first 60 picks, Andrew Friedman said that it was a vital draft. Thus far the Rays, one of the best organizations on earth, have virtually nothing to show for that draft or 2010, when they had three first rounders. Tampa Bay is extremely cautious in development, so perhaps after years of yellow light development, they will have more to show, but at the present it has put a strain on their highly successful business model.

I polled some authoritative baseball scouting and development people on what they considered the three best drafts by teams over the last decade. The results:

  1. The 2009 Angels. “They got the best player in the game (Mike Trout) with the 24th pick,” says one GM. “They got three good big league starting pitchers (Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin) and Randal Grichuk in the first two rounds. Incredible.” For his reward, scouting director Eddie Bane was let go.
  2. The 2009 Cardinals. This is the draft that made Luhnow a rock’n analytic star, although getting players like Trevor Rosenthal and Matt Adams in the 21st and 23rd rounds is about great area scouts, and the Cardinals have a history of notable area scouts that were in place when Luhnow was banging out 4.0’s in college. They got Shelby Miller in the first round, the terrific pick of Joe Kelly—a college outfielder/reliever whose amateur numbers were pedantic and his athleticism off the charts—in the third round, Matt Carpenter in the 13th. The development of hitter drafts like Carpenter, Adams and Allen Craig into major league position players is the perfect answer to the minuet between scouting and development departments.
  3. The 2011 Red Sox. This is still a work in promise; Jackie Bradley, Jr. was the 40th pick, was thought to be a major league regular this season, and has struggled to make The Mendoza line. But after taking Matt Barnes at 19, they went above slot for three players through round five, knowing this was the end of the over-slot era—catcher Blake Swihart, LHP Henry Owens, SS Mookie Betts (as well as LHP Cody Kukuk in round 7). Swihart, Owens and Betts would all be college juniors now if they hadn’t been persuaded to change their minds, and when I asked one scouting executive where they’d fit next week, the response was “Betts would be the first player chosen and Owens and Swihart would be somewhere between two and six.”

But as one former general manager always says, “until they prove they’re players, they’re called ‘prospects’ for a reason.”

Which is why that on Memorial Day, with a two game lead in the AL East and one of the four best run differentials in the American League, if the Blue Jays could take one of their first round picks next week and trade him for Justin Masterson, they’d think long and hard about it. Ditto the Red Sox and Andre Ethier. Or the Tigers for Didi Gregorius and Gerardo Parra.

But that sort of trading of draft choices cannot happen. So, as much fun as the draft is and as well as MLB Network covers it, the theme song is “help wanted, but not enough…long distance love.”

  • dougmash

    2011 Red Sox??? What, for the .197 hitting Center Fielder or the guy with the 4.50 ERA at Pawtucket? EVERY ONE of Tampa’s drafts from 2004-on were better than that, and that’s the only team I looked at.

  • Pete Buckley

    Don’t like seeing “Abreu, Puig & Cespedes” listed in reverse order of signing.

    Never forget, Billy Beane is always the first to do anything.

  • Brian Meyer

    Kyle Crockett actually cracked the majors before Knebel this year.

  • Bernard Middlebrook

    Where’s the research and/or fact checking. Not only did was Crockett in the Majors first from the 2013 draft class, Mike Zunino (3rd overall pick in the 2012 draft) has been with the Mariners since last June. Missed that one too…

  • dwightevansfan

    While there may be some minor nits to pick in the article, I nevertheless found it informative and entertaining. Keep up the good work, Peter!

    Suggested alternate theme song for the draft: “Help!”