Tuesday, June 3, 2008

I Feel a Draft Coming On.

Now that our long national nightmare is over – at least this year’s annual nightmare – we can focus on the long term again. Appropriately enough, the draft is in two days.

“For most teams, the most important day of the year isn't Opening Day, or a day in October that ends in a dogpile, or the November day that marks the start of free-agent season. No, for most teams, the red-letter day falls on the first Tuesday of June, a day that involves sitting around a telephone, on a conference call with 29 other teams and the Commissioner's office, a day on which, if you're really, really lucky, you get to say something like this: ‘the Chicago Cubs select Redraft Number two-six-four-one, Mark William Prior, University of Southern California.’”

That’s how I opened my draft study from three years ago. Ah, Mark Prior. Those were the days. Prior is the perfect example of why the baseball draft gets so little attention relative to its football and basketball counterparts: because while it is certainly the most important day of the year, it typically takes years before you know just how well you did.

Nonetheless, this Thursday (they changed the day of the draft this season) is almost certainly the most important day of the year for the Royals. For all the complaining from Royals fans that the team has not shown much improvement under Dayton Moore, the reality is that his administration has been in place for exactly one draft so far – a draft, I might add, which looks pretty good a year later. Mike Moustakas gave us all a good scare in April when he hit .190/.253/.226, which isn’t what Scott Boras promised us. But he hit .271/.310/.525 in May, and the slugging average in particular is what you want to see from a 19-year-old in a league where no one hits for power. It was a brutally cold spring in the Midwest, so I’m willing to cut Moustakas some slack given that he’s from SoCal and had probably never played baseball in weather like this before.

Second-rounder Sean Runion and third-rounder Daniel Duffy both recently joined the Burlington Bees, which is in itself a good sign: many high school pitchers, even those drafted early, spend their first full pro season in advanced rookie ball as opposed to a full-season league. Duffy has continued his torrid strikeout pace from last season, whiffing 18 batters in 12 innings so far. They’ve joined 14th-rounder Matt Mitchell, who’s already considered one of the late-round finds in the draft, and who has 36 whiffs against 9 walks for Burlington.

But even if all four of these guys out turn out to be stars, there’s almost no way any of them set foot in Kauffman Stadium before the end of 2010. Dayton is fighting a two-front war: he has to build a farm system that produces so much talent that the Royals will be perennially competitive from 2011 onwards – and he has to make the Royals competitive enough from 2008-2010 that he’ll still be around to enjoy the fruits of the farm system.

Step 2 comes on Thursday. This year’s draft pool isn’t considered particularly deep or particularly star-laden, but neither is it the disaster that, say, the 2000 draft was. The draft pool is extremely deep in one category: one-dimensional hitters. Fortunately, one-dimensional hitters are something that the Royals could certainly use. But drafting third, they have the luxury of picking from a number of potential star players. Much like 2006, there’s no consensus #1 talent available. That’s a problem when you have the #1 pick – as the Royals did in 2006 – but it’s not nearly as problematic when you draft third.

Anyway, here’s a brief synopsis of the best players available. I am not a scout and do not pretend to have any great insight into these players. But I’ve studied the draft from a macro perspective in the past, and I can rely on my colleague Kevin Goldstein for information on each of these players. So here’s a listing of the seven guys who have a realistic shot at being taken #3 overall:

Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Vanderbilt

Pros: He’s been considered the best hitter in college and probable #1 draft pick since his sophomore season, if not earlier. He hit .329/.456/.675 as a freshman and .386/.463/.684 as a sophomore. He played with Team USA the past two summers and hit over .300 each year. There’s a debate as to whether he can play a competent third base in the majors, but he has the bat to play anywhere. Gets points for intelligence and work ethic.

Cons: Alvarez was hit by a pitch that broke the hamate bone on his right hand in the first week of the season, which caused him to miss 23 games this season, and he hit only .317/.424/.593 this season. There have been some concerns about his performance towards the end of the year,which has made him a possibility to drop a few spots in the draft. Third base might be the only position the Royals don’t need help at. Scott Boras is his agent.

Rany’s Uninformed Opinion: The guy was considered the best prospect in the land four months ago, and the only he thing he’s done wrong since is fail to get out of the way of an errant pitch. Hamate bone injuries are notorious for sapping a hitter’s power for months even after they heal, which is to say that you can pretty much throw out his junior season’s numbers when evaluating him. The Royals may not need a third baseman, but the Royals absolutely could use a first baseman who can both hit and field, and Alvarez fits that bill to a T. If he falls to #3, the Royals caught a major break.

Tim Beckham, SS, Griffin HS (Georgia)

Pros: He’s the prototypical five-tool shortstop, easily the most promising combination of tools and skills in the high school ranks. He’s been compared to the Brothers Upton; while he’s not considered in their class offensively, unlike the Uptons he’s expected to stay at shortstop in the majors. A shortstop who can play the position and can hit even .200 in the majors would be like manna from heaven in Kansas City. Scott Boras is not his agent.

Cons: Scouts think he can hit – he’s not the second coming of Matt Bush – but are divided as to whether “hit” means a middle-of-the-order presence and perennial All-Star, or if it means a .270 hitter with12 homers, a nice guy to have at the bottom of the lineup. He hit well as a high school senior but wasn’t completely studly, and you generally like your top pick to dispose of high school pitching like Niko Bellic disposes of low-level henchmen.

Rany’s Uninformed Opinion: He’s almost universally considered the best high school player available, and he plays a position of enormous need. If everything breaks right, he could be Barry Larkin – and even if they don’t break right, if he can hit .270 with 12 homers and play an above-average shortstop, that has as much value as a first baseman who hits .290 with 25 homers, which is what many of the college first basemen are projected to do. He’s the guy most likely to not be available when the Royals pick, for good reason. The Royals have to be comfortable that his bat will play in the majors, but if they are – grab him. And move Moustakas to another position post haste.

Buster Posey, C, Florida State

Pros: Posey was the breakout college star of the season. He hit an absolutely ridiculous .472/.572/.908 this season. He played shortstop as a freshman, was moved behind the plate before his sophomore season, and has taken to the position so well after moving there from shortstop that he now projects as an above-average defender in the majors. He’s athletic enough that his coach let him play all nine positions in a game this season. (His arm strength was good enough that he made eight appearances on the mound for FSU this year, throwing 7.1 scoreless innings and earning six saves.) Scott Boras is not his agent.

Cons: Much like Beckham, scouts think Posey will hit in the majors…they’re just not in agreement that he’ll hit at an All-Star level or simply at a league-average level. I’ve read multiple reports that FSU plays in a terrific hitter’s park, but Boyd Nation’s numbers disagree.

Rany’s Uninformed Opinion: Tampa Bay is still very strongly considering Posey at 1/1, but I have an uneasy feeling about Posey, albeit one not really grounded in anything rational. I just feel that he’s come on as a prospect too far too fast, and the attrition rate for catchers is pretty high. Maybe I’m biased by recent Royals history: a shortstop who hits .270/.330/.450 and plays great defense sounds wonderful, but a catcher who does the same thing doesn’t get my attention. He’s a safe pick, maybe the safest in the draft; I just think the Royals have to try to hit a home run.

Justin Smoak, 1B, U. of South Carolina

Pros: He’s a switch-hitting first baseman with Gold Glove potential, great plate discipline and power – the Mark Teixeira starter kit, in other words. He hit .383/.505/.757 this season. Scott Boras is not his agent.

Cons: While he lit up the Cape Cod League after his freshman season, he struggled with wood bats last summer as part of Team USA.

Rany’s Uninformed Opinion: Other than shortstop, there isn’t a position the Royals need filled more than first base. (Technically Butler can fill that hole, but Smoak would be a massive defensive upgrade and allow Butler to fill the hole at DH.) So in terms of pure need, Smoak is a good option. Then consider that the single most compelling conclusion of my draft study was that college first basemen taken in the first round return far more value than any other position at the college or high school ranks. Smoak doesn’t appear to be under consideration, but he should be.

Aaron Crow, RHP, Missouri; and Brian Matusz, LHP, U. of San Diego

Pros: These are the two best college pitchers in the draft. Crow is the righty with the blazing fastball and the 43-inning scoreless streak this year; Matusz is the lefty with less velocity but terrific command of three above-average pitches. Both are considered very safe picks as pitchers go, and could be starting in the majors this time next year. Scott Boras is not their agent.

Cons: While Crow and Matusz are the two best college pitchers available, they aren’t considered to be on the same level of the best college pitchers of years past, like David Price last year or Andrew Miller the year before that or Mark Prior in 2001. They’re almost certainly going to be in major league rotations for years, but they project as #2 starters at best.

Rany’s Uninformed Opinion: They’re both good pitchers, and if the Royals were drafting 6th or 7th you’d be thrilled if they landed one of them. But the consensus is that there are at least three hitters better than either pitcher, and the Royals have enough pitching – both in the majors and on the farm – that there’s little sense in using a top-three pick on another one unless you’re absolutely convinced he’ll be a #1 in the majors.

Eric Hosmer, 1B, American Heritage HS (Florida)

Pros: He’s considered to be the best hitter in any high school in the country, compared to Casey Kotchman but with more power. He’s a terrific athlete who should play very good defense at first, and could probably handle a corner outfield spot. He throws in the mid-90s and served as his team’s closer (sound familiar?)

Cons: Baseball America writes thusly: “While his approach at the plate is advanced, Hosmer's pitch recognition has been a concern for some scouts.” Scott Boras is his agent.

Rany’s Uninformed Opinion: Hosmer is the big sleeper at the top of the draft, with multiple reports indicating that the Royals are STRONGLY considering him with the #3 pick. I don’t understand why. My draft study showed that while college first basemen make terrific draft picks, high school first basemen were among the worst-performing groups.

That study may be a little dated; Kotchman and Prince Fielder have both been drafted since, along with Adrian Gonzalez and James Loney. Put these four guys together with the one draft success in my draft pool (Derrek Lee), and what they have in common is that either 1) their bat already compared to anyone in college (Fielder); 2) they were tremendously athletic for a first baseman (Lee and Loney); or 3) a little of both (Gonzalez and Kotchman.) Absolutely the last thing you want in a high school first baseman is a bat that projects to the major leagues, unless the guy is so athletic that you wonder why he was wasted at first base on his high school team. I think Hosmer falls into category 3, but I’m not 100% sure.

If the Royals think that Hosmer has the best offensive potential of any hitter in this draft, then absolutely, they should take him. But to think that in a year where you’ve got Alvarez and Smoak and Yonder Alonso and Brett Wallace…I mean, if Hosmer goes to college (which he might), if everything goes right for him, in three years he’ll be comparable to where Alvarez and Smoak are today. What are the odds that he’ll be better than they are? Whatever those odds are, they can’t be higher than the odds that he’ll fail to live up to expectations. So why are the Royals thinking about taking a guy who might be Alvarez or Smoak in three years when they can have the original article today? I don’t know.

Verdict: If I’m the Royals, I rank these guys into three tiers.

Tier 1: Alvarez and Beckham
Tier 2: Posey and Smoak
Tier 3: Hosmer and the pitchers

Last year there was one player in the draft that set himself apart from the rest, and naturally the Royals were picking second. This year, there were two players who set themselves apart, and the Royals are drafting third…except the emergence of Posey has changed the equation for the better, because it means there’s a chance that either Alvarez or Beckham falls to three.

Tampa Bay is about 90% likely to take either Posey or Beckham. If they take Posey, the Pirates are expected to take Alvarez, in which case the Royals would have to have a compelling reason not to take Beckham, given both his talent and the needs of the franchise. If Alvarez somehow falls to #3, I think you have to pounce on him no matter who is out there – Alvarez has been considered the class of this draft for two years, and that shouldn’t change just because he broke a tiny bone in his hand. Move him to first base and by the end of 2009 the heart of the order should go Gordon-Butler-Alvarez. Very nice.

If Beckham and Alvarez go 1-2, which may still happen, then the Royals have a decision to make. If you believe that Posey’s breakthrough this season is for real, then you take him – a premium bat at a premium position trumps a premium bat at first base. But you have to be convinced he can hit and that he can catch. If it turns out that Beckham doesn’t quite have the range to play shortstop, you can move him to second or third base and still retain much of his positional value. But if Posey can’t catch…he’s a first baseman. There’s almost no middle ground. (Todd Zeile moved from catcher to third base, but according to most defensive metrics he’s one of the worst defensive third basemen of the last generation.)

So if there’s any doubt about Posey, I think you go with Smoak, who ranks just a tick behind Alvarez as a hitter, and since the Royals would move Alvarez to first base anyway there’s no positional difference between the two. Both Alvarez and Smoak have at least a 50/50 shot at making multiple All-Star appearances.

As for Hosmer, Crow, and Matusz…they’re not bad players, but I see no reason why the Royals should be considering them with the third pick. Crow and Matusz, at least, would be justified if the Royals feel that either one can become a #1 starter in the majors. But the odds are small that Hosmer will develop into a better hitter than Smoak or Alvarez will. And the mere whisper that his plate discipline isn’t all that great has to scare you, because first basemen have to draw walks – it’s almost impossible to be an above-average first baseman without walking at least 60 or 70 times a season – and because the Royals are pretty much the worst organization in baseball when it comes to teaching plate discipline in the minor leagues.

Throw in the fact that he’s a high school player and further from the majors, and that Boras is his agent, and that he reportedly wants $7 million to sign…I don’t get it. If the Royals weren’t willing to give Rick Porcello $7 million last year when he was the best high school pitcher in years, why would they give Hosmer the same amount of money when equally good players are available?

The draft is a fluid process. Last year we went to bed the night before the draft with Josh Vitters penciled in as the Royals’ pick, and at the last moment they switched to Moustakas. So the rumors that the Royals will draft Hosmer are, for the time being, just rumors. But if they do take him…man, they better be right.