Why the MLB draft is fascinating

Posted: 05/31/2013 by levcohen in Baseball

I figured this would be as good a time as any to tackle the MLB draft. The draft is next week, and we have already seen two pitchers drafted in the 2012 draft (Kevin Gausman and Michael Wacha) called up. Gausman has had a rocky first few starts, but Wacha dazzled last night. He went seven innings, allowed two hits and one run, and struck out six. Six of his seven innings were perfect.

The MLB draft is a lot less covered than the NFL or NBA draft. And I understand that. To be honest, the MLB draft is absolutely daunting. In the NBA draft, there are two rounds. In the NFL draft, there are seven rounds. In the MLB draft, there can be more than 40 rounds. Think about how many players are chosen. Thousands! With all that said, there is a ton of strategy in the MLB draft, probably more so than in other sports. That’s true for a number of reasons.
One reason is that it takes a lot longer for an MLB-draftee to make a contribution on the Big League club than it does in the other sports. This leads to a few differences. In the NBA and NFL, especially in the first few rounds, a team is almost certainly going to draft for need over value. That’s not true in the MLB. So many things can change in the 2-5 years it takes for a player to get to the MLB (more like two for college players and five for high school players), that a team doesn’t really care about their current needs. The MLB drafts almost exclusively for value. Why not just get the best player you can and, at worst, trade him for a need later on? Baseball teams also draft more project type players. For example, the Royals drafted high school outfielder Bubba Starling with the 5th pick in 2011. This year, Starling is still playing low A ball. Seven of the top nine picks of the 2012 NBA draft are already starting. Baseball has a very deep minor leagues, and it takes a long time to iron out some guys who were drafted out of high school. The MLB drafts more for potential than for polish.

This year, like last year, the Houston Astros draft #1 overall. Based on talent, their pick should be a no-brainer: Mark Appel or Jonathan Gray? Both are starting pitchers, Appel from Stanford and Gray from Oklahoma. Appel is a polished pitcher in the mold of Stephen Strasburg (although his potential is lower than Strasburg’s). Gray has the higher potential. Nobody would fault the Astros for drafting either. The thing is, the Astros may well take someone not named Appel or Gray. Keith Law of ESPN now projects them to take third basemen Colin Moran. Moran isn’t the prospect that Gray or Appel is, but his realistic next best alternative is to go #5. Why would the Astros draft him? Well, because of the money. The #5 spot has a suggested slot bonus of of 3.787 million dollars. The #1 slot has a suggested bonus of 7.79 million dollars. The Astros can offer Moran about four million dollars, and he’ll likely accept. They’re saving four million dollars there. But that’s not because they don’t want to send money. They would be trying to save money for later in the draft, because there is only so much money a team can spend in the draft. With that extra money, the Astros will be able to go above slot in later rounds, and they can draft players that might cost more to spend (for example, players who have the talent to go in the mid first round but money questions let him drop would be targeted by teams who went below slot in the first round). Last year, the Astros drafted Carlos Correa over Byron Buxton with the #1 overall pick. They paid Correa 4.8 million dollars, saving themselves 2.4 million dollars. Buxton ended up going #2 and signing for 6 million. In the second round, the Astros drafted Lance McCullers Jr. out of high school. They paid him more than a million dollars over the slot. They wouldn’t have been able to do that if they had paid Buxton six million in the first round. McCullers, at 19 years old, has a 1.90 ERA in low A ball this year. Pretty good strategy there.

You know how everybody always complains about the Yankees and Red Sox getting all the steals in the draft? Well, that’s because they are willing to take value picks while over paying. That’s one strategy. The Astros have another one, and one is not necessarily better than the other.

The draft is also different from other sports because players don’t have to commit to the draft. They can be drafted out of high school, negotiate with a team, decide not to sign, and then go to college. That is one of the most difficult baseball decisions I can think of. Would a player really pass up a lot of money and a chance to do what they’ve dreamed of to go to college? Adding to the intrigue is the fact that, after committing to college, a player is not eligible for the draft until their junior year. So much can happen in three years, and it might be hard to pass up that money out of high school. On the other hand, if players do continue to play well in college, they’ll likely get drafted a lot higher the second time around. A player doesn’t have to sign after their junior year, either. They can get drafted again in their senior season. Mark Appel was drafted number eight last season as a junior. He would have gone higher, but there were doubts about whether he would sign. Well, he didn’t sign, and he pitched well as a senior. Now he looks like he will go top three. There are still money questions with Appel though. He was offered a hefty sum by the Pirates last year and didn’t sign, so will he expect a lot this year too? That uncertainty might allow Appel to fall yet again.

So don’t be surprised when the Red Sox draft Mark Appel number seven overall. Just saying.

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Comments
  1. philabundant says:

    Pretty intriguing stuff.

  2. Marinite says:

    Really convoluted, but you do a good job clarifying it.

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