As the scouting director for the Kansas City Royals, Deric Ladnier has routinely had an opportunity to display his evaluation and projection acumen near the top of the draft. By most accounts, he’s shown a keen eye for talent. Since coming over from the Atlanta organization in 2001, Lanier has helped to revitalize a once-moribund farm system by selecting top-tier prospects like Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, and Luke Hochevar. He’ll get another chance in June, when the Royals have the second overall pick.
David Laurila talked to Ladnier for Baseball Prospectus about his recent drafts, taking fliers on hard signs, and going after guys who can hit big.
Baseball Prospectus: You’re responsible for the June draft. How would you describe the Royals’ draft philosophy?
Deric Ladnier: Basically, we want to take the best player available in every round. We never look for need, especially with our first pick. For instance, if a third baseman is the best available this year, we’ll take him. I suppose we’ll maybe take need into consideration a little later in the draft — if you need arms, you’ll look for them — but we never want to sacrifice talent. We pretty much line up our board with the top 120 players, based on ability, and then factor in things like health concerns, signability and character.
BP: How much influence does Dayton Moore have on the draft process, and what has changed since he became GM?
DL: I discuss everything with Dayton. It is our draft as an organization, but I ultimately run the draft process. Everyone has an opinion on who we should select in each round. The scouting director takes all into consideration and ultimately makes an educated decision on who to select in each round. As for what’s changed, we’ve put more resources into the scouting department. We now have three national supervisors and one regional supervisor along with numerous part-time scouts in densely populated areas.
BP: How accurately do feel Moneyball portrayed the relationship between traditional and more statistical-savvy scouts?
DL: I think people have always utilized stats in the evaluation process. The difference is that someone wrote a book about it. Honestly, if you look at old-school scouts, at least pro scouts, the first thing they’d do when they got to a ballpark was go to the press box to look at the stats. You might like a guy’s swing, but if he’s hitting .120 he might lack something like pitch-recognition skills, which you might not see right away. Good scouts have always recognized that you need to look at both.
BP: Following up on that, where do you stand on the relative value of tools versus performance?
DL: You have to balance them. Numbers tell you something, but it takes tools to play. Everyone in the big leagues has as least one that allows them to be successful, and many have three or four. You’ll see guys in high school and college who dominate because they have an advanced approach, but they don’t succeed at the pro level because they lack the tools to go with it. Of course, scouts dream and are often wrong because they believe in the tools but the ability to hit or throw strikes consistently isn’t there. That said, if you make a decision based solely on numbers, you’ll make a lot of mistakes that way, too.
BP: Looking at the early rounds of your recent drafts, it appears as though you place a much higher premium on offensive ability than you do on defense. Is that an accurate assessment?
DL: I’m not sure that it is. Billy Butler is the only guy I can think of who seems to fit that description.
BP: I recall seeing a report on Alex Gordon that said he was somewhat mechanical and stiff as a third baseman coming out of college.
DL: We actually looked at Alex as a future Gold Glove infielder. We could see that there were a few adjustments he’d need to make, but George Brett and Frank White worked with him and he made them pretty quickly. With his athleticism, we didn’t have concerns about his defense.
BP: What about with Billy Butler?
DL: We knew there were some inadequacies with his defense, and he still has some work to do in that area. But one thing about Billy is that he has the makeup and determination to get better, and he’s going to become as good as he’s capable of with the glove. Of course, we fully realize that it’s his bat that’s going to get him to the big leagues.
BP: In general, does offensive ability markedly outweigh defense when you’re drafting players?
DL: It depends on where you’re selecting. If you’re talking about the top of the draft, yes, you have to go with offense. A player has to be able to hit, and if he can we’ll find a way to play him. I also think that when you go a little deeper into the draft, it’s not as much of an issue because there are likely to be more questions about a guy’s bat or he would have been a higher pick.
BP: When you took Butler 14th overall in 2004, some people were surprised he was taken that high. Who was the biggest “We need to draft Billy Butler” advocate in the organization?
DL: Everyone. That was the first time I ever had a consensus in the draft room. A couple of days before the draft we were breaking down players, and the one thing that sticks out vividly is that everyone on the staff thought he was the best hitter available. Everyone thought that he’d hit big.
BP: When you took Alex Gordon with the second-overall pick in 2005, was he likewise a slam-dunk?
DL: I can’t say that he was a consensus pick, no. There were so many good players in that draft, from Justin Upton to Ryan Zimmerman to Jeff Clement to Ryan Braun to Troy Tulowitzki. There were a few different opinions in the room, but ultimately a decision had to be made. We liked all of the players who went in the first five or so picks, and we certainly feel fortunate that we went with Alex. The fact that he’s a Midwest kid is an added bonus.
BP: How about the selection of Luke Hochevar as the first pick in last year’s draft? You mentioned that you don’t believe in drafting for need, but did that come into play at all?
DL: Pitching was a big need for us, and we were fortunate that last year’s draft was pitching-heavy. It was a perfect fit for us. Had there been a shortstop or third baseman we felt was more talented, in all likelihood we would have taken him. Had they been of equal ability, it’s more than likely that we’d have taken the pitcher.
BP: Your second-round pick, Jason Taylor, was reportedly expecting to go around the fifth round. What made him a number-two in the eyes of your scouting staff?
DL: We never pay attention to where people are projecting a player to go; we just line up our board. We followed Jason for awhile, and the reports on him were strong. We think he’s another guy who’s going to hit, and hit big. Again, it was a matter of taking the best player available.
BP: Dellin Betances and Lars Anderson were considered early-round picks talent-wise, but fell to the 8th and 18th rounds respectively due to signability concerns. Somewhat predictably, they were drafted, and signed, by the Yankees and Red Sox. What are your thoughts on that?
DL: I think it’s a great tactic. Players have always slid for various reasons, and when we took Derrick Robinson in the fourth round we were getting a guy in a similar situation. We had the support of our ownership to sign him, and that’s what we did. When you think you have a chance, you take a flier.
BP: With the long odds of players taken beyond the early rounds making it to the big leagues, why don’t more teams go that route?
DL: To me, it comes down to the money you feel it will take and what type of player you think someone is. If you look at someone like an Albert Pujols, you’ll see that teams’ evaluations aren’t always right. You don’t want to say that it’s a game you play, but if you like someone in the 8th round, do you want to pass him up for a guy you don’t think you’ll be able to sign? There are always going to be guys who weren’t highly regarded that end up being productive major league players.
BP: Hypothetical question: If the rules allowed it, would you be inclined to trade a second-round pick for, say, a 10 plus a 12?
DL: If that was possible, I’d probably prefer to trade up, rather than down. I’d try to load my wagon by securing the most talented players that I could. Unless the draft was weak — then maybe trading down might make more sense. It would definitely make things interesting if that was the way it worked.
BP: Would you be in favor of an international draft?
DL: Probably not. I think it would be too difficult to implement, especially because of the different governments that would be involved. I also like the free market system. We’ve boosted our international staff, including hiring Rene Francisco, and have built a new academy in Santo Domingo, so we feel we can be successful finding talent outside of the United States.
BP: Any hints as to who the Royals will take with the second pick in the June 2007 draft?
DL: We’re looking at about 10 guys right now, and we’ll narrow that down to five and go from there. The speculation of who the most talented players are is usually pretty accurate, so it’s fair to say that we’ll be looking at many of the same guys that everyone else is. But you really don’t know until draft day. Depending on what you hear, there are about 150 guys who think they might be first-round picks, but only 30 of them will be. When we pick near the top, the list is even shorter. My job is to try to make sure we get the best player available.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Interviews from Red Sox Nation which was published in 2006 by Maple Street Press. He can be reached here.