It’s barely February, but when you hold the number one overall draft pick in the upcoming Rule 4 Draft, it seems like the draft itself is always looming. Truth be told, there is surely additional pressure felt when a team is in that position. The Diamondbacks, of course, are that team in 2015 having lost their way to winning the first selection. People have been asking for months who that selection will be, and it makes sense for a fan base that’s been somewhat talent starved. While just Tuesday we put a bow on the D-backs Top 10 Prospects, there’s about to be another talent infusion, led in large part by who’s selected 1.1. But before diving into the names of players who may be the first overall pick, it’s important to first define the strategy of the team, something we have absolutely no idea of at this juncture.
Needs v. Talent
Let me start by saying that the MLB draft is nothing like the NFL’s, the draft that sports fans are most familiar with. In the NFL, players are usually selected, in large part, based on team need. This is because most first round draftees in football can be expected to see the field in short order, usually during the first few games of their rookie season. Baseball’s a completely different beast in this regard as college selections usually take two or three years to mature while high schoolers can take four to six. With that kind of timeline, drafting for need is almost completely out the window. The Diamondbacks could really use some help behind the plate, but drafting even the best collegiate catcher won’t fix the problem that the team will see in 2015, for example.
So if you don’t draft based on need, that leaves drafting based on talent. This is by-and-large the best strategy: draft the best possible player. Since 90+% of all players drafted will never see the majors, it makes the most sense to grab as much talent as possible and let the chips fall where they may. But defining the best talent is no sure science. You can never have enough pitching, but pitchers get hurt the most frequently. Power is a commodity in demand, but most players who produce big power have swing-and-miss concerns since they’re often selling out for the long ball and have never seeing pitching similar to what they’d face at even the High-A level. Defensive positioning is important as selecting strong up the middle talents can ensure at least the chops to contribute in the field, but will they hit enough to stick? You see where all this is going: there are a ton of moving parts and inherent risks everywhere you look, so identifying the top talent is general a matter choosing which risks your most comfortable taking, not which player has the least risk. Chop it up however you like, it’s all a gamble.
Navigating Bonus Pool Allotment Limitations
Identifying talent isn’t the only concern because, hey, that would be too easy. Since the latest iteration of the CBA, teams have been placed under new financial constraints. I’ll explain this the best I can in the bullets below:
- Each pick in the first ten rounds has a slot value assigned. The first overall pick in last year’s draft class was valued at $7.9 million, for example.
- That sum of money is totaled up and that figure represents the total amount of money a team can spend on all of it’s picks in the first ten rounds (including the competitive balance and compensatory picks). The Astros had the first overall pick last year and had a bonus allotment of $13.36 million.
- If a team exceeds that total then they face stiff financial penalties and could even forfeit future picks in upcoming drafts. The fines and penalties are stiff enough to generally keep teams in check.
- Each team can decide to spend that total allotment however it sees fit, although the agents of players are well aware of the value any player drafted at any spot in the first ten rounds, what each player is slotted to receive and, therefore, push for the largest bonus possible.
This has tended to result in two types of strategies.
- Choose the best player possible each time through, but know that you may end up running out of money before you can sign all of your picks within the top ten rounds, or
- Choose players at high value picks (such as in the first or second rounds) who are willing to sign for below-slot figures, save money, then clean up in the mid to late rounds when some expensive players are still on the board and other teams are out of cash.
Each has it’s merits and no single pick in the draft has a bigger impact on which strategy you choose than your first pick. If the first overall pick is worth approximately $8.2 million in 2015, then a team could look to find a player willing to sign for a million or more under-slot, then stash the cash to increase the signing bonuses of later picks who may be extremely talented but other teams view as too expensive to select. The Astros did this when they selected Carlos Correa first overall in the 2012 draft although Byron Buxton, ultimately drafted second overall by the Twins, was thought to be the best prospect of the 2012 class. The savings by the Astros allowed them to sign picks in later rounds that had slipped due to “signability” concerns. It obviously didn’t hurt that Correa was pretty damn good and continues to be.
But you get the idea: rather than blowing a ton of cash on Buxton whose bonus demands were higher, they nabbed a cheaper, but still premium, talent in Correa, then spread the saving out across subsequent rounds. If we think back to 2012, the motivation for doing so on the part of the Astros was apparent. They were looking to begin a deep rebuild process and wanted to acquire as many talented players as possible and avoided tying up too much money in one player (in this case, Buxton). Quality was still important to the team, but quantity was needed as the organization at the time was thin on talent at both the major and minor league levels. It’s been a success for them in several ways as they appear to be making significant progress and have a number of young, recent draftees that will see major league time in the very near future, all playing for league-minimum salaries.
So which strategy should the Diamondbacks pursue?
Clearly the D-backs have choices. Should they pursue one of the two or three top player, those with the largest expected bonus demands, then they are likely choosing to grab the best available talent despite the cost and they’ll figure the rest out as the first ten rounds progress. If they decide to try to spread the money out, well, then they’re likely attempting to grab as much talent as possible in an attempt to bolster a farm system that currently ranks in the middle of the league and will take a bit hit when guys like Archie Bradley, Jake Lamb and Aaron Blair graduate, all of which could happen in 2015.
Where we shouldn’t get overly concerned is whether they go with a college or high school player first overall. Drafting a college player doesn’t necessarily signal that the team is in win-now mode. It might just be that they believe that said college player is the best option and fit for their draft strategy. A high upside high school player, especially a position player, would surely fit something they don’t currently have, but doesn’t mean the team is drafting based on need. It just might be the right fit at the right slot. If we’re looking for signs, it’s best to read into the bonus demands of the player they select 1.1, not necessarily which position he plays or from which ranks he comes.
With the above in mind, we can begin examining draft targets, but consider that forthcoming. For now, it’s best that we start to wrap our collective heads around the way the draft works and what kinds of constraints the team is under. It’s irresponsible not to consider them. How the team decides to play the draft out and who they decide to select first overall is largely dependent on how they wish to work within the draft’s limits. While we can speculate on prospective draftees, until we know more about the overall strategy, we’re likely throwing darts at the board. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, and stay tuned, because we have darts to throw.
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