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May 11, 2006

Future Shock

A Royal Blunder

by Kevin Goldstein

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At this point, everybody knows the rumor: The Royals, picking first in next months draft, will allegedly bypass Andrew Miller, the lefthander from North Carolina, and instead go in a northwesterly direction to select University of Washington righthander Tim Lincecum.

This is a potentially tremendous mistake.

On the surface, the decision looks like a purely monetary one. Miller is expected to ask for something in the range of what 2005 Mets first-round pick Mike Pelfrey received: a bonus in the $3.5 million range as part of a major-league contract worth somewhere north of $6 million total. Yes, it's far more than what the Royals paid Alex Gordon ($4 million bonus, no major league contract), and yes, Gordon is a better prospect right now than Miller, but the Royals simply need to accept how the market works. With the above package, Miller would be getting paid fair market value. As the first overall pick, Lincecum will likely command a $3 million-plus bonus, which is overpaying for a player who on pure talent would likely go in the 3-7 range. So yes, the Royals save money in this scenario, but they also overspend for the talent they select. In addition, it could possibly set a dangerous precedent. I don't think anyone will be surprised if the Royals have the No. 1 pick again in 2007. If they take Lincecum this year, ownership would then have an incentive to ask management to play it cheap once again, even if there is a talent out there next June that is an even more overwhelming favorite for the top pick than Miller is this year.

Royals scouting director Deric Ladnier has insisted to the press that there is no obvious candidate for No. 1 and that the pool of potential candidates for the top selection is pretty wide. Based on my conversations with a number of scouts, scouting directors and front office executives, Ladnier is alone in this assertion. I have yet to talk to anyone at any level who does not see Miller as the clear choice for the top overall talent available. A 6'7" lefthander with a fastball that gets into the upper-90s, a plus slider and pretty good control is a rare player, and despite the wealth of college pitching in this draft, Miller clearly has far more ace potential than any other possible selection.

Further complicating matters and making the potential decision to not take Miller an even more damaging one is the fact that there is no obvious second-best talent. This is not a situation like 2003, where the Devil Rays had to choose between Delmon Young and Rickie Weeks, with either choice being easily defendable as the right one. After Miller, one can find highly divergent opinions on who the second-best talent is, with up to five players entering the picture. And unlike Miller--who scouts have now seen extensively throughout high school, college and the Cape Cod League--any other candidate has significant dings on his scouting reports that are cause for concern.

Beyond these opinions, there is also a pair of track records to look at that are pretty interesting.

It's rare for a college lefthander to be an elite draft talent. In the history of the draft, there have only been three college lefthanders to go in the first two picks of the draft. All of them had solid careers, and all of them were among the best pitchers in baseball at some point in their career:

  • Floyd Bannister: No. 1 overall to Houston in 1976. At first glance, you might not see this as a great pick, but Bannister's underrated career ranks with any other first-round pick from that year. He was in the majors by 1977, and was one of the top 20 pitchers in baseball (as measured by VORP) by 1980, a feat he'd reach three more times before shoulder problems all but ended his career at the age of 33. He may have a lifetime record of 134-143, but in reality, he was pretty good.
  • Greg Swindell: No. 2 overall to Cleveland in 1986. Swindell nearly went straight to the majors, starting nine games late that year for the Tribe. His first full season in 1997 was cut in half by an elbow strain, an injury that surprised few as his workload at the University of Texas bordered on criminal. Finally healthy in 1988, his 48.6 VORP would rank 11th in baseball, but Cleveland put 242 innings on his arm and his strikeout rates would never be the same again. Swindell's career slowly declined after a solid 1992 campaign, but he reinvented himself as an effective lefthanded reliever, lasting until 2002 and ranking 21st in Adjusted Runs Prevented in 1999.
  • Mark Mulder: No. 2 overall to Oakland. Mulder has been outstanding so far, reaching the major leagues less than two years after being drafted and ranking 9th in VORP in his first full season while sitting among the top 15 in VORP in each of his first three years. He was the 37th best pitcher in baseball last year, and that's a career low.

On the opposite side of things is the track record of highly drafted undersized pitchers. While Lincecum is officially listed by the University of Washington at 6-foot even, scouts universally agree that 6-foot is Lincecum's NBA height; more realistically, he's around 5'10". Both scouts and PECOTA can agree that it's not the ideal size for a pitcher, as most top pitchers, especially starters, are 6'2" and over. Why? Because:

  1. They have larger and more durable frames.
  2. They have longer arms and therefore longer fulcrums.
  3. They have the natural ability to throw on a stronger downward plane.
Teams have historically been wary of undersized pitchers, to an almost shocking extent. In the history of the draft, which dates back to 1965, a total of three under-six-foot pitchers have been taken among the first 10 picks in the draft. That's three out of 410 picks. The three are Roy Branch (1971 Royals, 5th overall), Ted Barnicle (1975 Giants, 8th overall) and Chris Smith (2001 Orioles, 7th overall). To quote Tony Kornheiser, "That's it! That's the list!" You've probably never heard of this trio, as they combined for a total of two major league games, with only the most strident of Mariners fans remembering Branch's 11.1 innings in 1979, although he did surrender a home run to the first batter he ever faced, Mickey Rivers.

So which group do you like better? The rarely seen talent profile that has produced every time out, or the physical profile that all teams have avoided except for three occasions, all of them abject failures?

While Lincecum would pretty easily become the best small pitcher ever selected in the first ten picks (not that it would take much), he'd still be facing much longer odds than Miller when it comes both to having a long career, and a peak value in the star range, especially if he ends up as a reliever who only throws 70-80 innings a year, no matter how high-leverage they are.

In the end, maybe it's all a big ruse. Maybe the Royals are refusing to admit they believe Miller is the top talent in the draft in an attempt to reduce his leverage if they select him. This tactic does have some precedent, as the Diamondbacks insisted that they were considering a number of players for the top pick in last year's draft, when Justin Upton seemed like the obvious decision. In the end, they took Upton, and in the end, it gained Arizona no advantage in negotiations, as Upton still received a record bonus.

More likely is that General Manager Allard Baird is playing a game of self-preservation. Lincecum could be up this year for the Royals, and would likely pay some immediate dividends, while Miller will likely have an ETA more like late-2007. While there is a legitimate chance that Baird won't even hold his post anymore come draft time, odds are even longer that he'll still be there to see Miller's major league debut. But as somebody who could be looking for a job soon, how should Baird want his resume to end? With a cover-your-ass move? Or with a gutsy call that is difficult on both a team and budgetary level, yet is in the best long-term interests of the franchise?

The answer seems pretty obvious to me.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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