Just Find This Interesting
If you ask Tom McNamara, he’ll tell you he doesn’t have a philosophy on the draft. He just takes whoever he thinks is the best player on the board. Every scouting director says this.
But, of course, the best player on your board is determined in part by your philosophy. These aren’t mutually exclusive things. If you believe that pitching is 90% of the game, you’re going to have the best pitchers higher on your draft board than a guy who thinks that you win by hitting home runs. The best player available to each team is, to some extent, determined by how they evaluate various abilities and what kind of risk tolerance they have.
Mac has now been the Mariners scouting director for five drafts. In 2010, they didn’t really have a first round pick, as their first selection came 43rd overall, the pick they used to take Taijuan Walker. However, in 2009 (#2), 2011 (#2), 2012 (#3), and now 2013 (#12), Mac and his staff have been in a position to pick fairly high in the draft. And all four picks seem to have one trait in common; proximity to the Majors.
At #2 overall in 2009, they took Dustin Ackley, a polished college bat who was considered the safest bet to become a big leaguer in the entire draft. He wasn’t ever a super high upside guy, but the floor was supposed to be very high. It hasn’t quite worked out that way yet, but Ackley was a premium draft prospect because he was a pretty sure bet to make the big leagues.
At #2 overall in 2011, they took Danny Hultzen, a polished college arm who was considered the safest bet to become a big leaguer in the entire draft. Baseball America even used this exact term — “safest bet” — in their write-up on him heading into that draft. Like with Ackley, Hultzen has proven to be a little further away than first thought, but he was drafted on the idea that he would get to the majors quickly, with his high floor canceling out his lower ceiling.
At #3 overall in 2012, they took Mike Zunino, a polished college bat who was considered the safest bet to become a big leaguer in the entire draft. In their write-up on Zunino, BA said he projected to be “above average”, noting that he wasn’t as exciting as recent first round college players like Buster Posey or Matt Wieters, but was a really good prospect even without that upside. While catchers often take a bit longer to get to the big leagues, the Mariners have been very aggressive with Zunino, and he’s probably going to make his big league debut at some point later this year.
A #12 overall today, they took D.J. Peterson, a polished college bat who was considered one of the safest bets to become a big leaguer in the entire draft. That title probably belongs to Colin Moran, who went #6 overall, but Moran had been tied to the Mariners earlier in the draft season before it became clear he wouldn’t fall that far. In Peterson, the Mariners drafted another guy with a mature approach and good hitting skills but a bit less upside than other picks in that same range, as he isn’t considered a defensive asset and there is some question as to how much power he’ll hit for outside of the hitter’s haven of his college park in New Mexico.
This isn’t to say that McNamara only likes these kinds of players. After all, he’s also drafted Nick Franklin, Steve Baron, and Taijuan Walker fairly high, and the team has taken their fair share of shots on raw toolsy guys in later rounds. But, four times McNamara has had a fairly high first round pick, and four times McNamara has taken a high floor/moderate upside college guy.
Based on an n of four, it seems like Mac might like these kinds of players more than most other scouting directors in baseball. There are certainly teams that prioritize upside over all else, and some scouts much prefer to go for the home run even if it means they’ll end up with more busts overall. So far, it seems like the Mariners draft board under McNamara has been pushed a bit more by polish and proximity to the big leagues than it has been by pure upside. Or, maybe a better way of saying it is that at the top of the draft board — and relative to other current scouting directors — Mac may place a larger emphasis on present skills over potential.
Despite Ackley’s current problems and Hultzen’s command issues and now shoulder tenderness, I think I’m probably in agreement with this philosophy to a large degree. At the top of the draft, I think it’s more important to not screw up than it is to get a slightly better long term reward. For me, I think it might make sense to be a little more present value oriented with the high picks and save the lottery picks for later, which is basically what the Mariners have done under McNamara. None of this should read as a criticism, and Mac’s overall draft track record is quite strong, even if the top picks aren’t necessarily helping the Mariners win games right now.
But, as we look back at his five drafts, I do think the evidence is starting to lean towards a trend. You can only draft so many polished college guys in a row before you admit that you have a preference for polished college guys.