I meant to continue with an update on the minors today, but events of the last 24 hours forced me to push my pre-draft preview up a little.
At the end of last season, once the Royals were locked into the #4 overall pick in this year’s draft, I said to a friend, “Just you wait – there are going to be three players that stand out from the pack, and there’s going to be a huge drop to whoever the fourth-best player is.” I said this without any real knowledge of the draft pool; I’ve become something of a Royals draft fatalist over the years, after multiple drafts where this exact scenario played out.
Three years ago, you may recall, Vanderbilt lefty David Price was the consensus #1 player in the land. No one had a firm grasp on who was #2. (Well, Matt Wieters was pretty close to a consensus, but no one was certain of his signability.) The Royals, courtesy of an improbable three-game sweep of the Tigers to end the season, finished one game ahead of the Rays, and let Price slip out of their hands. (I wrote about that in more detail at Baseball Prospectus. The direct link is dead, but there’s a synopsis here.)
The following year, the Royals had the #3 pick, and even before the college baseball season began it was clear that for the second straight season, the best collegiate player in the country went to Vanderbilt. Pedro Alvarez would be picked #2 overall, right behind high school shortstop Tim Beckham. If the Royals (who would have liked to draft Alvarez) had lost one more game in 2008, they would have picked #2 – but instead they picked #3, and once again there was no consensus as to who the third-best player in the draft was.
And four years ago, when the Royals did have the #1 pick in the country, there was no clear phenom, no preternatural high school hitter like Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey Jr., no major-league ready starting pitcher like Mark Prior or Stephen Strasburg available. The Royals wound taking a college pitcher who 1) was taken in the supplemental first-round just the year before and 2) was a surprise #1 overall selection.
So nothing about this season’s draft dynamics surprise me. The Royals lost 97 games last season. The Orioles lost 98 games; if the Royals had lost one more game, they would have been tied with the Orioles for the third-worst record in baseball, and they would have “won” the tie-breaker (as they would in the scenarios above) by virtue of having the worse record the year before. Instead, they draft fourth.
And sure enough, there’s a industry-wide consensus that three players are on a different tier from everyone else. Well, one player is in his own tier – Bryce Harper, the Greatest Draft Prospect In History (or at least the Greatest Draft Prospect since Stephen Strasburg last year.) If you don’t know the Bryce Harper Story, here it is in a nutshell: left-handed catcher with perhaps the greatest power bat anyone has ever seen in the draft. On the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, took his GED after his sophomore year of high school to go straight to junior college and earn his draft eligibility a year early. Played at the College of Southern Nevada, against high-caliber JuCo competition using only wood bats, and hit .442/.524/.986, with 29 homers in 62 games. (The college’s previous record for homers was 12, I believe.) He’s 17. Potential 80 arm as a catcher, but might move to the outfield as a pro. Widely considered to be a jerk.
(That last issue erupted into a point of national contention after Kevin Goldstein discussed it in an article a month ago. The inevitable pushback came from a variety of people who all have some vested interest in Harper – his agent, his coaches, etc. But within the game it’s a widely accepted fact. A month ago I was speaking with a reporter when Harper’s name came up, and he said, “yeah, the kid’s a jerk.” “Oh, you read Goldstein’s article?” I asked him. “Goldstein wrote about him? No, I’ve spoken with two different scouts who both said terrible things about his makeup.”)
I’m not here to bury the kid – he is, after all, 17, and God only knows how any of us would act if we had been anointed as “Baseball’s Lebron” before we got our driver’s license. Plenty of people who were world-class jackasses at 17 became upright outstanding citizens by their early 20s. He’s not a criminal or a thug; he just has an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.
I only bring it up to point out that even when dealing with one of the most exciting hitting prospects in draft history, there’s already a red flag. I’d love to have him, but when the Nationals call his name on Monday I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Let them glory in his potential, and let them stress over the headache.
The other two top-tier prospects are a pair of high schoolers. Manny Machado is sort of Alex Rodriguez Lite, a do-everything shortstop from Miami. He’s nowhere in A-Rod’s class as a prospect, but he doesn’t need to be to still be a potential All-Star shortstop down the road who hits for a good average, good if not light-tower power, and play good defense. The main concern is with his defense; it’s not that he doesn’t have the skills to play shortstop in the majors, but he’s so big now (6’3”, 190) that if he grows any bigger he may have to move off the position. In general I’m skeptical about this whole “too big to play shortstop” meme; ever since Cal Ripken proved he could play shortstop not just well, but at a Gold Glove caliber, I’ve felt that “he’s too big to play shortstop” is just code for “he’s too bulky and slow to play shortstop”. Size by itself is no impediment, and in fact is an asset if it allows you to hit with more power. But it does mean that Machado needs to take care of his body as he matures as a pro.
The third player – some would argue he’s better than Machado – is Jameson Taillon, one of the hardest-throwing right-handers to come out of a state (Texas) famous for its hard-throwing right-handers. He’s a monster at 6’7”, 230, and MLB.com’s scouting report puts his fastball at 94-99. A legitimate upper 90s fastball is highly unusual for a high schooler, let alone one who can also spin a nasty breaking pitch. The concern I have with him is that some reports are that his fastball is a little straight. Any time I hear about a Texas high school right-hander who throws really hard but somewhat straight, I think of Todd Van Poppel. (I would also think of Colt Griffin, but fortunately I’ve managed to repress most of those memories.) Van Poppel is just one data point – Griffin really shouldn’t count because he came out of nowhere suddenly, and disappeared almost as fast – and a lot of people compare Taillon to Josh Beckett.
Anyway, it’s a moot point, because not only are these three clearly the best players in the draft, but for the first time in ages, none of the first three teams are planning to select a lesser player for “signability” reasons. (Good for baseball. Bad for the Royals. Dammit.)
I know the Royals love Taillon, and while they’ve been coy about such things, I’m pretty certain they would take Machado if he fell to them. Harper has been linked to the Nationals since they wrapped up the worst record in baseball last season, and the Orioles lasered in on Taillon long ago. The intrigue was that the Pirates might not take Machado, instead preferring to save some money and draft Ole Miss left-hander Drew Pomeranz. That rumor has long faded away. The newest rumor was that the Pirates might pass on Machado (yay!) – to take Taillon instead (boo!) despite his higher price tag, in which case the Orioles will take Machado instead and screw the Royals either way.
So here the Royals sit, drafting fourth in a draft where there’s little difference between the fourth-best and the 20th-best player in the draft, a draft where the guy many people think is the #4 player available (Chris Sale, left-handed pitcher out of Florida Gulf Coast University) ranks #47 on Keith Law’s list.
I find myself surprisingly philosophic about this unfortunate situation the Royals find themselves in. Largely, that’s because no matter how clear a separation there is between prospects on Draft Day, inevitably players in that top tier will disappoint, and players in that second tier will rise up. The Royals can’t control who goes ahead of their pick. But no matter who they miss out on, if the player they select at #4 turns out to be the best player selected after the top three, they will have a hell of a player.
Remember my examples above? Three years ago the Royals changed their mind at the last moment; after planning to take high school third baseman Josh Vitters, the morning before the draft they decided to take Mike Moustakas instead. I’d probably still rather have Price (who does, after all, lead the AL with a 2.29 ERA at the moment), but Moustakas has played so well this year that a final judgment is still years away.
The following year, when the Royals missed out on Pedro Alvarez? They also missed out on Tim Beckham, who went #1 overall and as a high school shortstop would have filled a position of need. Instead, they took Eric Hosmer. While Hosmer is raking this year, Alvarez is hitting .267/.356/.515 in Triple-A – nothing to be ashamed of, but given that the college third baseman is likely to end up at first base in the majors, it’s not clear that he’s going to be any better than Hosmer, who’s three years younger than him. And Beckham? He’s hitting .206/.293/.375 in the Florida State League and has scouts questioning how he could have ever been the #1 pick in all the land.
And four years ago, when the Royals took a surprise player with the #1 overall pick? The reason it was a surprise was because everyone thought the best pitcher in the country was UNC lefty Andrew Miller, and the Royals took Luke Hochevar. Hochevar is still maddening, but he’s making undeniable progress. Miller, meanwhile, has a 5.50 ERA in the majors and is now trying to work his way back from arm troubles; he’s getting lit up in Double-A and may be done.
Meanwhile, the one year the top of the draft fell the Royals way was 2005, when they drafted second, and there were two players who were clearly ahead of the pack. The Diamondbacks took Justin Upton, and the Royals took…Alex Gordon, who was almost universally considered the superior of fellow college third basemen Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun at the time.
Sometimes the clear-cut choice fails, and sometimes the unconventional pick works out. The best pick isn’t the one that looks like a no-brainer on Draft Day. It’s the one that proves to be the right choice many years and second-guessers later. The Royals know both sides of that equation now, and I’d like to think that they look at their predicament not as a curse, but as an opportunity.
And that’s what it is. Precisely because there is no consensus #4 pick, precisely because the Royals could take any one of about 20 different players without having anyone seriously question their decision, the Royals are liberated to make their selection without giving the slightest consideration to who fans or their peers think they should pick. (That may sound silly, but remember that when the Royals selected Gordon, at least two members of the front office thought that Zimmerman might be the better player. But there was simply no way they could have selected Zimmerman. If they took Gordon and were proven wrong, everyone would understand – if they took Zimmerman and were proven wrong, they’d be hounded mercilessly.)
No, all the Royals have to do is simple: pick the best player. If they’re as good at scouting talent as they think they are – and as recent developments in the minors suggest they might be – this should be easy. Pick the best player, and given time, everything else will work itself out.
Just because I wrote all that, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion one way or the other on who the Royals should select.
On the contrary, the fact that the Royals have been linked to Sale for the last two weeks was a little concerning and more than a little mystifying. It’s mystifying because while I think it’s crazy for a team to have any draft philosophy other than “take the best available player”, if any draft situation called for a different plan, it was this one. I asked J.J. Picollo on this very point last week – if it’s your pick and there’s no clear consensus as to who you should select, do you take into account your specific context? Do you favor a player at a position of need, or a player who might get to the majors more quickly? And his answer, stripped down to one word, was “yes.” As it should be.
Yet there are few teams who need Chris Sale less than the Royals do. Sale is a left-handed pitcher, and as I documented even before the season, the Royals are deeper in left-handed pitching in the minors than they have in their history, and probably deeper than any other organization in the majors. Even with Noel Arguelles unlikely to pitch this season, Danny Duffy’s return along with Michael Montgomery, John Lamb, and Chris Dwyer gives the Royals four blue-chip left-handed starters, and the rapid rise of Blaine Hardy gives them at least one high-quality left-handed relief prospect. Maybe there really is no such thing as having too many left-handed pitchers – but if the Royals take Sale, they’ll probably find out.
On top of that, I share many of Law’s concerns about Sale. As he pointed out on the radio show this week, Sale throws from a low three-quarters delivery, which makes him project more as a reliever than as a starter; but while he has a good fastball and excellent changeup, his breaking stuff isn’t great, and it’s hard to excel in relief as a lefty without a breaking ball. So what is he, exactly? Law suggested that he might need a complete overhaul of his mechanics as a pro, and while that could work, that’s not something you really want to do with the guy you just selected with the fourth overall pick. Also, the fact that his long stringy body made MLB.com compare him to Andrew Miller physically doesn’t give me confidence about his ability to stay healthy.
The other options the Royals have include Drew Pomeranz, who is a lefty with a better body (6’5”, 230) and a more traditional over-the-top delivery. I’d probably be fine with Pomeranz, who has good power stuff, and whose mid-season hiccup was likely caused by a strained pectoral muscle that is no long-term concern. The biggest issue with him is command, and again, the Royals don’t need another lefty.
Taking the big picture approach, it’s important to note that the long-time advantage of college players vs. high school players has disappeared, and in fact the research suggests that of the four types of players to select – high school vs. college, pitcher vs. hitter – college pitchers are the least likely of the four to pan out. Hitters are always safer than pitchers, and high schoolers have become safer picks than their college counterparts, in part because major league organizations have an incentive to protect their investment, while college coaches have incentives to let their Friday starter throw 160 pitches and then relieve on Sunday.
But if not Sale or Pomeranz – who rank #4 and #5 on Baseball America’s list of top draft prospects – who? The Royals are focusing on college talent, and if you accept the theory of trying to time your talent to reach the majors at the same time, then getting a college player who might be in the majors by 2012 to go along with all the high school picks from years past makes a lot of sense.
There are a number of college hitters worth considering, including Zack Cox and Christian Colon. Cox doesn’t really work – he’s a third baseman at best, and a first baseman in the end, and the Royals are overloaded at both spots. Colon would be an excellent option; he’s a shortstop who can hit and can probably stay at the position. Colon went to high school with Grant Green, who was the college shortstop I wanted the Royals to take last year; Colon would give them the chance to make amends.
But the name that really stuck out for me was Yasmani Grandal, the catcher at the University of Miami. Rumors briefly had the Royals connected to him about six weeks ago, but then faded away in a flurry of denials by both sides. But he seemed to make a ton of sense. Grandal was well-regarded out of high school but was committed to college, and after struggling to hit his first two years*, has flourished as a junior, hitting .418/.546/.746 at the moment. (The U is battling in the regionals, and is a good bet to go on to the College World Series.) His defense has been considered an asset going back to high school. He’s a switch-hitter with power from both sides, though he’s considered a better hitter from the left side.
*: I read reports saying that he “failed to hit .300 as a freshman and sophomore”, implying that he only started to hit last year. Well, as a sophomore he didn’t hit .300 – he hit .299, with a .410 OBP and a .599 SLG. So it’s not fair to say he only started to shine with the bat this year.
You put his assets together – a switch-hitting catcher whose power is average to a tick above, who has taken a ton of walks throughout his college career, whose arm is slightly above-average and very accurate, who has been calling games behind the plate his entire career – and he sounds to me like a player who, at worst, projects as a major-league average catcher, a guy who can hit .270 with 15-18 homers, 50-70 walks, and good defense.
And there are the little things. He’s a little young for a college junior – he’s still just 20 – and I feel that draft age is a very underrated part of a draft pick’s profile. (He emigrated from Cuba, so it’s always possible he’s older than stated. He was just 11 at the time, though.) His Cuban background means he’s perfectly bilingual, which is a nice asset in a catcher. A guy like that should go in the top half of the first-round in a good draft – in a draft like this, he’s Top 10 material for sure.
Two years ago the Giants took Buster Posey #6 overall, and last year the Pirates used the #4 pick on Tony Sanchez, a deal they worked out to save money that could be used on players later in the draft. Posey has a career .333/.427/.542 line in the minors, and since getting called up last week by the Giants is 11-for-23. Sanchez, whose bat isn’t anything like Posey but whose defense was considered excellent, is nonetheless hitting .318/.423/.460 in high-A ball at the moment.
Grandal has a better glove than Posey and 90% of his bat, and a better bat than Sanchez and 90% of his glove. Given the early success each of those two have had, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the team that drafts Grandal now might be starting him behind the plate in the majors by April 2012.
Yet strangely, he was considered a late first-round talent as recently as six weeks ago. But as he’s continued to hit, and as the talent level in this draft continued to look sub-par, he’s moved up the rankings considerably. Baseball America has him at #13 in their final pre-draft rankings; Law has him at #9.
But for the Royals, I think he could be #4. The Royals have a premium prospect at pretty much every position with the exception of shortstop and catcher. Or more accurately, if Wil Myers can’t make it as a catcher – and he’s hitting so well that frankly the Royals might be tempted to move him to the outfield just to get that bat to the majors more quickly – then the Royals have a need there. Grandal may not project as an All-Star, but he projects as a quality major league regular. For a team that has at least one prospect that by 2012 projects to be starting in the majors almost everywhere else on the diamond, Grandal fits perfectly.
So the news late last night from both Law and Frankie Piliere of MLB Fanhouse that the Royals had a deal with Grandal almost in place came as the surprise news I was hoping for. I think the Royals’ obsession with secrecy is a little bit ridiculous at times, but when it comes to the draft it may actually have a place. If that’s the case, and if the Royals’ rumored interest in Sale and Pomeranz was just a smokescreen to get things done with Grandal, then I salute them. Getting Grandal to agree to terms early (unofficially, mind you – he’s still playing college ball) just means he’ll start his pro career that much earlier, and might arrive a little faster. 2012 is Greinke’s last year under contract, and a year where it’s reasonable to expect all of the Royals’ top prospects other than Myers to already be in the majors. Grandal, at catcher, would be the piece de resistance.
In an uninspiring draft, I think this is an inspired move. Grandal might not be the best player available when the Royals pick (although he just might.) But he might be the best player available for them. Really, that’s all you can ask for. Good for them for making the right call.