Friday, February 29, 2008

Reason #15: The Pick.

Here’s something that Yankee fans can’t say about their team: the Royals have drafted in the top half of the first round every year since 1996. (So there.) Unfortunately, drafting that early is hardly a guarantee you’ll land a great player. It’s drafting guys like Dee Brown (#14, 1996), Dan Reichert (#7, 1997), Jeff Austin (#4, 1998), Kyle Snyder (#7, 1999), Mike Stodolka (#4, 2000), and Colt Griffin (#9, 2001) that led to the Royals continuing to pick early in the first round.

(Take a look at that list of players again. Six straight years with Top-15 picks, the last five picks in the Top 10. Two of those guys never made the majors – Stodolka still might, but as a hitter now. Snyder might be the best pick of them all; he’s 8-17 with a 5.45 career ERA. And you wonder how the Royals lost 100 games three straight years.)

But since 2002, the Royals have drafted Zack Greinke (#6, 2002), Chris Lubanski (#5, 2003), Billy Butler (#14, 2004), Alex Gordon (#2, 2005), Luke Hochevar (#1, 2006), and Mike Moustakas (#2, 2007). Lubanski might still be a flop, and it’s too early to say much about Hochevar and Moustakas. But the other three guys alone make this run of first-round picks a success. So with the #3 overall pick this June, with guys like Pedro Alvarez and Justin Smoak available from the college ranks, and Tim Beckham and Tim Melville out of high school, the Royals are in perfect position to add another Grade A prospect to their stable.

For all the talk about competitive imbalance in baseball, the reality is that the draft remains an incredibly powerful tool to reversing that imbalance…so long as that tool is used wisely. The Rays are proof that, if you draft with even some intelligence, eventually all that sucking is going to work in your favor. It’s not just that the Rays have drafted in the Top 8 for nine straight years, and have used those picks to draft Rocco Baldelli, B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Evan Longoria, and David Price (not to mention Josh Hamilton, and there’s still hope for Jeff Niemann.) It’s that, drafting at the very top of the second round, they got first crack at the leftovers, and came away with Carl Crawford and top prospect Reid Brignac. In the third round, they got Wade Davis, and that round would look a lot better if 1) Elijah Dukes wasn’t a misogynistic, violent creep with a temper problem and 2) if they had signed Andrew Miller out of high school in 2003. Throw in 2004 fifth-rounder Jacob McGee, and five of the top six prospects in the best farm system in baseball are in this paragraph.

But you have to draft well. The Royals didn’t for many years, and they’re still trying to pick their way through the rubble. From 1994 to 2002, the Pirates drafted Mark Farris, Chad Hermansen, Kris Benson (#1 overall pick), J.J. Davis, Clint Johnston, Bobby Bradley, Sean Burnett, John Van Benschoten (who they, alone among the 30 teams, decided to use as a pitcher after he led the NCAA in homers his junior year), and Brian Bullington (another #1 pick, who their owner forced them to take over B.J. Upton.) That’s how you continue to pick at the top of the draft every year. GM Dave Littlefield didn’t seem to learn, as he used last summer’s #4 overall pick on Daniel Moskos, a perfectly good college left-handed pitcher – a left-handed reliever. To the relief of Pirate fans everywhere, that final insult seemed to be, well, the final insult: Littlefield was canned not long thereafter.

The Royals’ draft efforts from 1996 to 2001 are the reason why the Royals continued to draft high from 2002 to 2008. But the draft efforts from 2002 to 2008 may enable this cycle to finally end.

Last year’s draft, the first one with Dayton Moore at the helm, looks very strong at this point. Moustakas looks like a good pick in the first round, albeit he’s not Rick Porcello. Second-rounder Sean Runion had a decent debut for a projectable high school pitcher, and third-rounder Daniel Duffy, a lefty out of a small California high school, was a revelation in rookie ball. Matt Mitchell, another pitcher from an out-of-the-way California school, was drafted in the 14th round and Baseball America wrote this winter that “the Royals might have come away with one of the steals of the 2007 draft.” The Royals gambled $300,000 to sign their 31st-round pick, Keaton Hayenga, at the deadline.

The Royals need to keep the strong drafts coming, because there’s simply no way a small-market franchise can become a contender without a perpetual supply of young talent. To their credit, the team (or more precisely, the owner) finally realizes that, and has authorized money to be spent both in the draft and in the international amateur market. The Royals can’t afford to waste the #3 pick this June. If they don’t, there’s a good shot it will be the last time they draft that high in a long time.

***

Just a heads-up: RotR will be going dark for a few days. I should be leaving shortly for Indianapolis, where I will be appearing with Joe Sheehan and Will Carroll from Baseball Prospectus, and John Gasaway from our new Basketball Prospectus, at the Marriott downtown; come out if you live in the area. Then this weekend Joe and I will be playing in a Stratomatic tournament in Indy. Yes, I'm a geek.


10 comments:

Max said...

Any thoughts on who the Royals should pick? I lean towards Aaron Crow, but I can see a good argument for Smoak, Alvarez, Matusz, Beckham or Melville.

Nathan W said...

While I agree that the draft is the best way a small market team can make its way up, the process still favors teams with more cash by allowing kids out of high school (or college) to demand ridiculous sums of cash based solely on potential. It would have been nice to draft Porcello in the last draft, but the Royals, no matter how much the purse strings have loosened, can't afford to take $7 million gambles like that. I can't understand why MLB hasn't dumped their "suggestions" to teams about how much to pay drafted players in lieu of a concrete system of slotting starting salaries and signing bonuses, but it is way ovedue.

Nathan said...

Rany,

I have a suggestion, and I wonder what you think of it. I think the draft order should be set by payroll, rather than by record. This would punish overspending, rather than success, so that small market teams that start winning won't have the spigot cut off so quickly. Large market teams would also be at least somewhat incentivized to keep spending down. The current system benefits teams that spend a lot of money poorly at the expense of those who spend a little money well. A simple adjustment can make the draft an instrument to equalize opportunity, allowing well-run small-market teams to compete for more than just one or two years at a time.

Nathan said...

Or better yet, tie the draft order to spending efficiency! Rank teams according to the ratio of wins to expenditure. That way nobody will cut their payroll just to get high draft picks.

Carl Willingham said...

I've seen Aaron Crow pitch several times, he's a darn good pitcher but if the R's pick Crow after passing on Lincecum two years ago I'm going to go crazy. Crow is a smallish righty with good but not great stuff. I can't see anyone projecting him to be a true ace. I do think that very few people call Dayton Moore out for that Hochevar draft pick. First, there was a perception that he did not make the pick as he was hired around the time of the draft. But he did retain Ladinier. I know that part of this is people are still waiting to see how Hochevar turns out but very few people had him in the top few available talents when the Royals picked him. So it would not be hindsight to say that they should have either picked the pitcher with the best stuff and true ace potential (Lincecum or even Morrow) or if they were worried about Lincecum's size then go with Longoria, who I thought was the most logical pick. I'm sure they would say we already had a third baseman but Longoria is a right handed bat and was widely considered the best college hitter available. They just overpaid for a bad apple with steroid issues just to get a somewhat impact right handed bat. The Hochevar pick makes no sense to me, didn't then and doesn't now.

Nathan said...

I have to agree with Carl that it sure looks like it was a big mistake to take Hochevar over Lincecum or Longoria. Heck, I think a Meche-Lincecum-Grienke-Bannister rotation could compete this year.

Antonio said...

Be sure to read http://undyingroyalty.blogspot.com/

It's not my blog, but it is a very interesting read.

Also, about the seven million dollar complaint: when you look at it that way, yeah, you can consider it a gamble. But the way I choose to look at it is that for the first six years of the player's career, he's going to make a lot less than what he's worth. Even if you combine the paychecks for the first six years with the draft bonus, he's still going to be underpaid. It's not that bad of a gamble.

And even if we had a Meche/Lincecum/Greinke/Bannister rotation, we wouldn't compete. But a Meche/Greinke/Bannister rotation combined with a Gordon/Guillen/Butler/Longoria heart of the order would get us much closer to .500 if not slightly higher than.

Max said...

"While I agree that the draft is the best way a small market team can make its way up, the process still favors teams with more cash by allowing kids out of high school (or college) to demand ridiculous sums of cash based solely on potential."

The difference in the amount of money the Tigers paid Porcello and the Royals paid Moustakas is about the amount of money Brett Tomko will make.

If I were the Royals I'd be paying overslot every round on guys with "signability issues". Some of them will bomb, but its a risk worth taking. Free agents bomb too, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't go after their pricier ones. Its a higher risk with the draft, but for much, much less money.

AJ (NJ) said...

Congrats on your Strat tourney win... Now back to the countdown!

Kealee's Daddy said...

Congrats Rany! I don't know much about Strato but maybe you could give us a quick roll by roll or summary of the win?