May 11, 2006
A Royal Blunder
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:
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:
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.