Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Draft decisions

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Draft decisions

by Matt Smith

Whilst the Biogenesis drug investigation dominated the baseball headlines last week, the more positive major story of the week came in the form of the annual amateur player draft.

In recent years MLB has done a better job of making the first draft day seem like more of an event. Baseball’s draft will always live in the shadow of the NFL and NBA equivalents, due to the low profile of the players being drafted and the length of time (often 3 years or so) it takes for them to make it to the Major Leagues.

However, MLB had acted as if they knew they couldn’t compete with the NFL and NBA hoopla and therefore didn’t bother to even try. Prior to its television debut in 2007 this important event, the first stepping stone for the stars of the future, was simply conducted on a conference call.

Many baseball traditionalists spit on the floor at the mention of the word ‘Moneyball’, yet, whilst it didn’t portray some old-time scouts in a particularly flattering way, the book unquestionably raised the profile of the amateur draft, which continues to be the most important event of the year for scouts.

It could also be argued that the ‘Moneyball’ culture – intelligent and objective analysis of data to inform good decision making – has made the draft all the more crucial.

With teams becoming ever smarter, there are fewer opportunities to ‘win’ a lopsided trade and to acquire talent relatively cheaply.   It’s increasingly difficult to win in MLB without successful drafts, whether to bring through your own young players or to have attractive trade chips to acquire established Major League players that can be difference makers when you most need them.

The free agent market can still provide a means to add quality players to a roster; however teams are doing all they can to sign their best players to extensions before their contracts expire, and in an increasing number of cases before the player is anywhere close to becoming a free agent. The Cincinnati Reds’ decision to sign MVP first baseman Joey Votto to a 10-year, $225m contract extension in March 2012 is arguably the most eye-catching example of a team that isn’t a major financial powerhouse investing a considerable sum to lock up their cornerstone player for years to come.

As the potential premium free agent class reduces in number, so the price to acquire such players goes up. Just as importantly, those players may not reach free agency until later in their careers if they have opted to take up the offer of a guaranteed contract during their arbitration years, which teams often agree to if they can buy out some potential free agent years in the process.

Albert Pujols is one of the greatest hitters in MLB history and when he hit the free agent market in the 2011/12 offseason his track record suggested he deserved one of the most lucrative free agent contracts ever signed. That’s exactly what he accepted from the Los Angeles Angels (10-year, $240m), but the big compromise the Angels had to make in acquiring Pujols was in signing him to the contract a month before his 32nd birthday.

The second half of that contract will see the Angels paying Pujols $140m during his age 37 to 41 year old seasons. They will be paying him for his exceptional performances for the St. Louis Cardinals many years earlier rather than for his contributions to the Angels at the time.  You can call it inefficient spending or ‘not much bang for your buck’, either way it’s in stark contrast to the value you can receive from a young player, even before you factor in the way a fanbase can be energized by an exciting homegrown talent coming through, such as the Matt Harvey effect with the New York Mets this season.

The Houston Astros selected pitcher Mark Appel with the first overall pick in the 2013 draft. Appel might have been the Astros’ Number One pick last year if signability concerns (i.e. how much money he wanted) hadn’t dropped him to the eighth pick, where the Pirates drafted him and were unable to come to a financial agreement.  If the Astros can strike a deal with Appel then he will join last year’s Number One pick, shortstop Carlos Correa, in a rapidly improving farm system that should bring Houston back into playoff contention in a few years’ time.

Rewarding failure in this way isn’t a perfect situation, especially in cases such as the Astros where they are deliberately slashing their Major League payroll and fielding a relatively weak team. However, the process does mean that the big spenders can’t keep on snapping up all the best talent and gives the current weaker teams reason to be optimistic that they can compete in the near future.

Number One selections Stephen Strasburg (2009) and Bryce Harper (2010) have been instrumental in raising hopes for pennant-winning baseball in Washington, whilst David Price (2007) has been one of a gaggle of young players that have turned the Tampa Bay Rays from a laughing stock to a genuine contender in the AL East division despite the presence of the powerhouses that are the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Baseball fans in Pittsburgh have had little to cheer over the past 20 years, but they’ve had a promising start to the 2013 season with a group of good young players and pitcher Gerrit Cole, their Number One selection in the 2011, is due to make his Major League debut on Tuesday.

It’s also the case that you still need to make good decisions wherever you are picking and selections in the draft can play an instrumental role in shaping a team’s future. The Detroit Tigers had the second overall selection in the 2004 draft and the team’s fortunes since then may have been markedly different had the San Diego Padres not taken Matt Bush as the Number One pick.

More pointedly, the Padres may have been a completely different MLB team in recent years had they called Justin Verlander’s name that fateful day.

All 30 teams will be hoping they made a Verlander pick, rather than a Bush pick, in the first round this year.

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