Draft Recap, Part II
In this iteration of the unending process that is recapping a draft (we won’t really know what to think of it for 5 years or so!), I’d like to talk about a couple of outstanding questions about the draft and the bonus pool amount the M’s can spend. First, which players beyond the top 2 or 3 look interesting? Second, who might the M’s be saving money for; that is, where might the M’s spend some of the bonus pool that they save in the first ten rounds? Third, what have the 2nd and 3rd days taught us about the M’s draft philosophy under Jerry Dipoto? While we won’t know much about the complex interplay between amateur scouting and professional player development that ultimately produces results, we CAN idly speculate about why certain players were drafted and cobble together theories of meaning from them. It’s…questionable stuff, really, but, hopefully, fun.
1: So, the M’s selected 40 players, loading up on collegiate talent in the first 21 rounds, and then taking some flyers on high schoolers late in the draft. This is a bit more college-focused than Tom McNamara’s last draft under Jack Zduriencik, though the dynamic of the 2015 draft was considerably different, with the M’s not picking until #60 – something we’ll get into later. 2016’s focus on the collegiate ranks seems like a continuation of Jerry Dipoto’s philosophy with the Angels. The Kyle Lewis pick seems like a slam dunk – a dominant college bat who fell into the M’s lap, but you have to imagine the M’s were thrilled to still see one of the top bats available. With Corey Ray, Nick Senzel, AJ Puk and Zack Collins all off the board, I really wonder what the M’s would’ve done if, say, the Tigers took Lewis at #9 instead of a HS pitcher. Suck it up and take high schooler Jason Groome? Or dip down to take a less highly regarded collegian? THAT would tell us something about the intensity of the new regime’s preference for college-trained talent, but ultimately, I’m glad it didn’t come to that.
Starting in the 5th round and extending throughout the next few days, the M’s went bargain shopping for college seniors – the guys who have very little leverage in the signing process – drafting a grand total of 14 of them. Many of these, including Eric Filia, Ryan Fucci and Reggie McClain, are older than even most seniors, having missed time due to injuries or transfers. Filia’s name may have been called in part because he’s old enough to have overlapped with Andy McKay in the collegiate Northwoods League, back in 2012. Ryan Fucci’s another collegian who was born in 1992, and offers some HR power along with some mildly alarming strikeout totals. The one I think might add value quickly, even if only at the org level, is McClain. A right-handed pitcher out of Georgia, McClain attended the University of Georgia for his freshman year, then transferred to a community college in Florida for two years. As he redshirted at UGA, he had two years of eligibility remaining, and thus he pitched two full seasons, and over 200 IP in total, for the University of Missouri. He doesn’t have a ton of pure stuff, but he has exceptional control, as his 94:9 K:BB ratio in 2016 attests. If you want a zone controller, that’s your guy, though while he may not miss the zone much, he’ll need to prove he can make pro hitters miss every once in a while.
11th round pick Michael Koval was a DII All-American selection out of Cal Poly Pomona, and stands out as one of the view college players (outside of Lewis, obviously) to post some gaudy stats in 2016. The righty has a sparkling ERA, though he wasn’t a true strikeout guy. Interestingly, his teammate, swing man Peter Bayer (a Driveline Baseball trainee), went in the 9th round thanks to an off-the-charts K rate paired with a much worse ERA. Guile and pitchability work in college baseball, but pro teams really aren’t willing to pay for it.
2: With all of those college seniors and with the M’s having inked two of their top picks at or below slot, the M’s figure to have a decent amount of money they *could* spend on a late-round flyer. Where might they splurge? At one point, some thought that Lewis, who may have thought he’d be a top 3-7 pick, might hold out for slot value at where most thought he’d go. But the M’s quickly inked him to an at-slot bonus, so that’s obviously not the case. Much was made of Lewis’ small school, but Mercer’s Southern Conference ranked ahead of bigger names like the Big 10 when Jeff Sackman looked into it years ago. Moreover, it’s the sort of thing that becomes a catch 22: what could Lewis possibly do to prove he was worth more? If he transferred, he’d lose a year of eligiblity and that’d kill his leverage (and development). He could stay, but hitting even better wouldn’t make the “small school” talk go away, and his senior status would nuke his leverage too.
One player with a bit more leverage than many in the draft is M’s 3rd rounder Bryson Brigman, a draft-eligible sophomore. While the SS made some contact and hit for average, he didn’t log many extra-base hits, something that could send him up draft boards next year. Dansby Swanson’s sophomore ISO was just .142, but a power spike in his junior year helped him go 1-1 the next season. Brigman’s never going to have that kind of power, but an ISO of just .052, down from near .100 in his freshman year, limited his bargaining power. In the end, he signed for just under slot at $700,000. Fourth-rounder Thomas Burrows was a closer at Alabama, but as a lefty reliever with a low arm angle and an oblique injury this year, his leverage figures to be pretty limited as well. After that, the M’s seemed to go for money saving picks like Donovan Walton, Matt Festa and Jason Goldstein.
So who’s it for? One guess is 2nd rounder Joe Rizzo, who JY mentioned as a great hitting prospect. But as a guy without much of a defensive position, and whose MLB.com profile states that he may not have the “athleticism” to play LF, I can’t imagine he could command more than the $1.252 million slot value for pick #50. M’s 10th rounder David Greer may offer a cautionary tale: the 3B played at a major conference school and hit the snot out of the ball, but concerns about his position let him fall to the 10th round despite outhitting several teammates who were drafter earlier. Instead, the M’s may seek to book any savings they get from their haul of college seniors and direct it to their many late-round high school picks. Chris Crawford calls suburban Portland HS pitcher Kenyon Yovan one of the Day 3 standouts, and his slider registered was flagged as possessing one of the highest spin rates of any prospect at the Perfect Game showcase in Jupiter Florida last fall. Of course, Crawford also says he’s almost assuredly going to honor his commitment to the University of Oregon, but if the M’s offer enough, you never know.
Another Oregon commit is West Seattle HS SS Morgan McCullough, who went a round after Yovan. McCullough is small, and many see him as a pro 2B instead of a SS, but he can hit. Pitcher Will Ethridge ranked higher than Yovan and McCullough on Baseball America’s “BA 500” list, but lasted to the 34th round thanks to a strong commitment to Ole Miss. The M’s may not have enough for any of these three, or they could offer a bonus to the first one to agree to it, but we’ll have to wait and see what they can offer. As all of these picks were past the 10th round, there is no slot value for their selections, but any bonus above $100,000 counts towards their bonus pool cap.
This highlights one of the many morally suspect aspects of the process. As you can see from the BA 500 list, or Washington state’s top HS prospect Christian Jones, teams seem to have figured on a strategy to help push bonuses down for the second tier of HS players. The top 50 or 100 prospects on BA’s list generally went within 10-30 spots, or roughly on par with their talent. Right around 100 or so, things start to diverge. Many of the collegians are still picked around the “expected” slot, but several high schoolers start tumbling. #107 Zack Linginfelter fell to pick 488. Christian Jones of Federal Way (#140) was drafted at #928. Ethridge (#135) had to wait until pick 1,047. It goes both ways, of course, as a few picks around 100 found their way into the first round (perhaps after agreeing to lower bonuses), but the trend is clear: don’t sign good HS guys in the first 10 rounds when you can wait until the 20s-30s to do so. Why? Because once teams know how they can allocate their bonus pool, they can make take-it-or-leave-it offers to these players, effectively taking leverage out of the equation. The teams can honestly say that they cannot exceed an offer of $X, while the process means the HS player can only negotiate with one team. Teams may be gun-shy about negotiating with HS players before the draft after Houston’s Brady Aiken fiasco scuppered big-money deals they’d signed with late-round high school arms: when Aiken didn’t sign, his 1-1 bonus amount went with him, and that was the source of money the Astros “committed” to their late-round draft picks.
If high schoolers don’t have leverage, and if college seniors don’t have leverage, and if juniors can’t really dig in their heels because that just turns them into college seniors, uh, who has leverage in this arrangement?* The short answer is the clubs do. The draft pools were instituted to reduce spending in the amateur draft, and it’s succeeded. I think the focus of the changes were to prevent big names like Andrew Miller slipping down the draft thanks to his bonus demands, and it was partially a reaction to the sky-high bonus discussions around Stephen Strasburg and, later, Gerrit Cole. The second-tier HS player impact wasn’t really the point of the new bonus pool format, but it worked great for owners nonetheless. Think of Matt Tuiasosopo signing for $2.29m way back in 2004 as a 3rd rounder, or Josh Bell signing for $5m in the 2nd round in the final year before the pools were put in. That’s all but impossible now, and because of the strategy surrounding the pools, even the #1-2 picks can’t really hold out for much money. In fact, no 1-1 draft pick has ever signed for slot since slot values were created, let alone *more* than slot.
3: As mentioned, the M’s seemed to focus on up the middle defenders and contact in this draft, while preferring pitchers who throw strikes over guys with great arms but more developmental challenges. JY metioned the fact that the regions/schools line up pretty well with drafts past, with the M’s getting a number of guys from smaller northeastern schools, or small schools in the southeast. That said, there’s clearly more of a premium on contact and defense. In 2014 draft, the M’s went overslot for raw Canadian OF Gareth Morgan after taking Alex Jackson at #6. In 2013, they splurged on Austin Wilson at #49, then grabbed another raw Canuck in Tyler O’Neill at #88 (to be fair, this pick looks like an absolute steal now), then slugging Texas prep 1B Corey Simpson in the 8th round. Joe Rizzo has some pop, but he’s not this kind of player – he’s more polished and doesn’t have the contact worries that came with the ’13-’14 picks.
The pitching side looks more like a continuation of past practice, with plenty of high-floor arms from similar places. A few years ago it was Dan Altavilla, and this year it’s Brandon Miller and Matt Festa. The M’s liked strike-throwing Ryan Yarbrough a few years ago, and like strike-throwing Brandon Miller or Reggie McClain this year. It’ll be interesting to see how player development works with this group – they had a lot of success with Yarbrough, Andrew Moore and others in recent years, so this seems like a comparative strength.
The challenge in hitting is a bit different, and so we’ll see how the new player development instructors react. Is there something obvious they can correct to unlock some power in a Bryson Brigman or Donovan Walton? It seems easier to develop a guy like Rizzo than a more free-swinger with light tower power, but O’Neill shows that the latter group can make a big impact. Ultimately, the success of the draft comes down to these instructors, from Peoria through Tacoma, who try to shape these players. “Drafting well” may have as much to do with hiring well than it does with identifying talent.
* Driveline’s head honcho Kyle Boddy’s often talked about an alternative to college for pitchers, and his proof of concept was Christian Meister, a guy who didn’t go to college and ended up drafted by the Indians. Phil Bickford or Bryce Harper going to junior college (for different reasons) to pick their draft year and maintain leverage is another option. Some college juniors, including our own James Paxton, signed with indie league teams in lieu of signing or getting trapped in the senior-year pickle. It’ll be interesting to see if any seniors turn down $10,000 bonuses and just go the showcase route that worked for Meister, but it’s obviously a demanding path, and the lack of in-game looks may create another cap on bonuses.