One of the consequences of the decisions to create the allocated draft pool fund in 2012—intended or not—was that it essentially gave teams three choices for how to approach the draft:
Plan 1: Attack the draft early with high-reward players who will eat up most of your allocation, and then trust your scouting department to find and develop lesser-known “names” in the later rounds.
Plan 2: Take a more cautious approach early by drafting players who will sign for less on day one and raid the draft on day two and three of the remaining high-upside prospects to round out a more complete class.
Plan 3: A combination of these two plans.
I include a third plan because there have been cases since the new rules were put in place where you can’t lock a team into a certain group, but for the overwhelming majority of teams over the past three years, they fall into one of the first two categories. And while we won’t know for sure as to what exactly players will be getting in terms of their respective bonuses, we can make rational assumptions based on pre-draft rankings, and a general idea based on some conversations with advisors and front-office members.
Now that the draft is over, let’s take a look at three teams who took the big spending early approach, and three teams that chose to spend the “diversify” the cash and why—or why not—it could pay dividends down the road.
The Over Slot Early Approach
Why it could work: Simply put, no team loaded up on day one as much as the Astros did. Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, and Daz Cameron were all considered top-15 talents coming into the draft, and Houston was fortunate enough to acquire all three of them with the second, fifth, and 37th pick, respectively. Even if you’re not a fan of this class—or a fan of how the Astros were able to have these selections in the first place—there’s no denying that this is a very impressive haul.
Why it might not: The rest of the draft class however, is far less impressive. Second-round selection Thomas Eshelman has plus-plus command and 80 control, but there’s serious doubts that the stuff will play at the big-league level, and there’s concerns about his overwork at Cal-State Fullerton. The rest of the ten rounds features mostly relievers (Riley Ferrell, Trent Thornton, Zac Person) and backup catchers (Garrett Stubbs and Anthony Hermelyn), so it puts a lot of pressure on the “big three” to make this a successful class.
Why it could work: Texas had a top-five draft slot for the first time since 2001, and they made the most of it. Dillon Tate likely won’t be over slot, but as the most talented (healthy) pitcher in the class, he isn’t going to give them a massive discount. The Rangers also took two potential leadoff hitters in prep outfielders Chad Smith and Eric Jenkins, and a player who would have likely been a top five selection if not for injury concerns in Mike Matuella. In terms of quality and quantity, the Rangers did as well as any team over the first two days.
Why it might not: More so than any other class, Texas’s group is high-reward, high-risk. Tate still has to develop his change if he’s going to start, Jenkins and Smith are raw even for high school players, and Matuella has zero track-record along with a back disease and is recovering from Tommy John surgery. There’s also Jake Lemoine, a right-hander from Houston who had first-round aspirations before a shoulder impingement cut his year short in March, and he wasn’t very good in the starts before. The upside of the group is impressive, but there’s zero safety in this group, and this much volatility can’t help but make you nervous.
Why it could work: Over the past few years, Cleveland has done as well with the draft as any club in baseball, and 2015 was once again a quality effort on paper. You’ve been beaten over the head with how talented Brady Aiken is, but it bears repeating: if he was healthy, he’d be the top player in the class, and it wouldn’t be close. Cleveland also took two of the best hurlers in the state of Florida in Triston McKenzie and Juan Hillman, and Mark Mathias is one of the best hit-first infielders in the class.
Why it might not: Even if you take away Aiken, the risks here are palpable. It starts there though, as the left-hander underwent Tommy John and there are reports that there’s serious issues with the elbow that don’t make him your typical recovery. McKenzie is pure projection—he’s listed at 165 pounds but is likely 20 pounds short of that—and Hillman doesn’t offer the typical projection that you usually like from a prep starter. Really though, this draft is going to be made or broken by Aiken’s ability to stay healthy, and that’s a massive risk at this point.
The Under Slot Early Approach
Why it might not work: Fair or not, the Marlins have a reputation as a cheap organization, and their efforts from Monday to Wednesday won’t do anything to dispel that. Josh Naylor was one of the biggest reaches of the first round as a first baseman with plus-plus power that is limited to first base defensively with a hit tool that only projects as average. They also went way off the board for second-rounder Brett Lilek—a player who didn’t make my final top 125—and third-rounder Isiah White is more athlete than baseball player at this point.
Why it might: This might come across as an “appeal to authority” fallacy, but Stan Meek is a good scouting director, and the Marlins have a habit of developing underappreciated prospects into quality players. White has the athleticism and speed to be an elite defender in center field, and if Naylor is Prince Fielder—and that’s a comp I got from more than one scout I spoke with—then he’s certainly worth the 12th selection. They also picked up a potential backend starter in Justin Jacome and one of my favorite bullpen arms in Cody Poteet. A sexy class it is not, but the ends might justify the means.
Why it might not work: After a few drafts of taking high-profile prep players, Oakland went back to their college ways in 2015, and in doing so they likely saved some cash, but also didn’t accumulate great value. First-rounder Richie Martin has one of my least favorite swings in the class, and second-round selection Mikey White will almost assuredly move over to second base, and it’s no guarantee the bat will play there.
Why it might: The cash they—presumably—saved with the Martin and White pick went to work right away, as third-rounder Dakota Chalmers is one of the hardest throwing preps eligible this year, and he’ll show an above-average breaking-ball as well. Skye Bolt (pause to admire the name) is one of the most talented—if inconsistent—outfielders in the class, and Bubba Derby (pause to admire the name) is a potential high-leverage reliever despite ideal size. Are there classes with more upside? Of course, but you won’t find many first 10 rounds more complete than the one Oakland ended up with.
Why it might not work: One of the nice things about having the first pick in the draft is that you’re essentially guaranteed to have one of the highest bonus pools, and unless there’s a Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg in your class (note: there’s almost never a Strasburg or Harper in a draft class) you’re going to be able to get the first pick in the draft signed under slot. I’m just not sure Arizona fully took advantage of that opportunity. Their next picks after first-overall selection Dansby Swanson—Alex Young, Taylor Clark, Breckin Williams, and Ryan Burr—all project as likely bullpen arms, and there’s very little upside in rounds six to 10.
Why it might: I had Brendan Rodgers as the top player in the class, but the industry was basically split as to whether Rodgers or Swanson was the best player, and Swanson’s got a great chance of becoming an all-star shortstop. Young, Clark, and Williams all have a chance to start, with Young being the most likely of the three thanks to two 55 pitches in his fastball and slider. They also took a few of my favorite day-three selections in Austin Byler, a third baseman who is a three-true-outcome player from the left side, and Wesley Rodriguez, a high-upside prep pitcher who should be signable thanks to the savings with Swanson.
These are extreme examples of both plans, and it’ll be years until we find out just how effective their respective strategies were. To me though, it’s a fascinating study of how different teams go about building their draft class. And while I admire and respect the best-player-available approach, it’s easy to appreciate the value of taking a quantity approach—especially with how volatile 18 to 22-year-old prospects are.
Thank you for reading
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