Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Draft Review.

Well, that didn’t go according to plan.

Or did it?

As you no doubt noticed, the saga of the Royals’ first draft pick played out until the very last moment. What appeared to be a deal-in-hand with Miami catcher Yasmani Grandal either fell apart (according to some) or never existed in the first place (according to others). By late Saturday the reports came in that the Royals were back to favoring Chris Sale; by Monday morning he appeared to be a lock. I was all prepared to write a column asking the very serious question, “has any team ever had more left-handed pitching prospects in their system than the Royals do right now?”

At 4:41 Monday afternoon – less than 90 minutes before the draft – I had this conversation by text with a draft expert:

Me: At this point, I’m just hoping for Christian Colon…

Him: I’ve heard they have no interest – Sale is basically confirmed.

Yeah. The Royals didn’t play their cards close to their vest – their cards were in a secret pouch sewed into the lining of their underwear.

The question everyone has is why. Did the Royals take Colon because they truly thought he was the best player available at #4, or because they didn’t like the price tags on Grandal and Sale? In the draft position the Royals were in, where they had the luxury of choosing the player they wanted, all I really want to hear is that they took the player they truly believed was the best available. Even if they had taken Sale, I would have held off on criticizing it so long as the Royals truly felt he was the best player available – after all, while Keith Law saw him as a supplemental-round pick, both Jim Callis and Kevin Goldstein felt he was truly one of the five best players in the draft. Given the results of the last few years, I’m willing to give the Royals the benefit of the doubt on who they select, at least until we have a pro track record to look back on.

But if the Royals – or any team drafting out of the top three this year – allowed financial considerations to impact their first-round pick, they’re fools. This year provides the perfect scenario for a team to draw a line in the sand, offer their draft pick slot money (if not a little less), and say “take it or leave it”. The Royals can say that because they can mean it – the best-case scenario honestly might be that the player doesn’t sign.

After the top three picks, this year’s draft looks very weak in the first round. By comparison, next year’s draft already looks to be one of the strongest in years, possibly since the 2005 draft, when Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Ricky Romero, and Troy Tulowitzki were six of the first seven picks. Now a lot can change in a year, but it’s unlikely to change so much as to make next year’s draft weaker than this year’s. In particular, for the Royals, if their #4 pick doesn’t sign this year they get the #5 overall pick next year. There are already at least five players eligible for next year’s draft who are the equal to anyone that was available to the Royals at #4.

True, if the Royals don’t sign their pick this year, next year’s compensation pick is not protected, i.e. if that player doesn’t sign, the pick is gone for good. So the Royals would need to work out a deal ahead of time with someone who’s not quite worthy of that pick on merit. Even so, the Royals possess incredible leverage with this year’s pick. If Colon doesn’t sign, the Royals may get a better player next year. Meanwhile, if Colon doesn’t sign, he goes back into a loaded draft next year as a college senior with no leverage.

Colon’s agent, a certain Mr. Scott Boras, is smart enough to understand the implications here. Which is why, while you’ll see Bryce Harper hold out until the final 30 seconds or so, the Royals and Colon have already made statements hinting that an agreement should be in place quickly once Cal State-Fullerton’s season ends.

Now, about Colon. In my last article, I made only a brief reference to him: “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.” What I would have said if I thought there was the slightest chance the Royals might draft him is this: Colon is the shortstop version of Grandal, and just as the Royals need a long-term solution behind the plate that will remove the temptation to keep Jason Kendall past next season, they need one at shortstop to remove the temptation to keep Yuniesky Betancourt a moment longer than they are contractually obligated to.

Colon, like Grandal, was well-considered coming out of high school, but was drafted late because he seemed committed to college. Both players have been successful playing for a major collegiate program, and both players had their best seasons as a junior. Both players are expected to be able to stay at a premium position, both are considered gamers that play above their tools, and both are “safe” picks who are expected to reach the majors quickly. Like Grandal, Colon doesn’t project as a superstar player, but is a good bet to be an above-average major leaguer who contributes in both halves of an inning. Like Grandal, Colon has his own intangibles – he was named captain of the U.S. National team last summer, the first player ever so honored.

I liked the idea of taking Grandal, so obviously, I’m quite happy with the selection of Colon. While the Royals need a long-term solution at catcher, they are actually quite well-stocked in that department in the minors; even if Wil Myers has to move to the outfield, Double-A catcher Manny Pina projects as at least a solid backup, and in A-ball, Salvador Perez may be the most underrated prospect in the system, and would be my pick to be the team’s starting catcher by 2013.

But at shortstop, with Jeff Bianchi out for the season, the well is dry. Rey Navarro, who the Royals acquired for Carlos Rosa, is the closest thing to a real shortstop prospect playing in the minors right now.

From my perch, it’s very difficult to tell whether the Royals wanted Colon or just settled for him. As Bob Dutton tweeted in his typically understated way, “Royals officials contend Cal State-Fullerton SS Christian Colon was their top preference all along. If so, they sandbagged everybody.”

Call me na├»ve, but I’m inclined to think this wasn’t just a case of settling for the most signable player. If the Royals had been rumored to be considering Colon at any point in the last six months, I might say that they turned to him only because Plan A and B wouldn’t agree to terms. But precisely because their interest in Colon was such a secret, even though Colon made perfect sense to the organization, I have a feeling that Colon was in their sights all along. Given the premium Dayton Moore puts on secrecy, the very fact that this stayed a secret for so long suggests that it was real. (By the way, has anyone seen Moore and Scott Pioli in the same room together?)

The draft picked up today, and to my untrained eye the Royals had a very solid effort. With their second pick, they took college RHP/OF Brett Eibner, who was ranked #23 overall by Baseball America and was considered the best player on the board by more than one draft analyst. (I really wonder if the Royals would have taken Stetson Allie, a high school pitcher with the best raw stuff of anyone other than Jameson Taillon. Alas, the Pirates took him two picks earlier. It tells you how far the organization has come that I thought Allie, who reportedly wants $3 million to sign, was someone the Royals might pounce on.)

Eibner’s problem is that he’s a two-way player; while most scouts seem to like him on the mound more, Eibner prefers to hit, and spurned the Astros out of high school in large part because they wanted to make him a pitcher. Greg Schaum has tweeted that the Royals are committed to him as a hitter, where he has a power bat and has the glove (and certainly the arm) for right field, if not center. He’s definitely a great value in the second round, but perhaps not as good a value as if he were committed to pitching. If nothing else, he has a fallback option; the Royals have converted Tony Pena Jr. and Brian Anderson to the mound, after all.

The third-round pick, Michael Antonio, is the only pick in the first half-dozen rounds that seems a little bit of a reach. Baseball America projected him as a sixth-to-tenth round talent; he’s a shortstop out of George Washington HS in New York (Manny Ramirez’s alma mater) who looked great in showcase events last year but has slowed down considerably in recent months.

Fourth-rounder Kevin Chapman, a lefty out of the University of Florida, was one of the best college relievers in the draft, and perhaps the best left-handed reliever. The Royals used their fourth pick (in the fifth round) on LSU star Louis Coleman last year, moved him to the pen, and he’s already thriving at Double-A. I’m sure that factored into their thinking with Chapman. He’s a great value at this point; if your fourth-round pick makes any kind of contribution in the majors, it’s a success. Even if he’s just a set-up man in the majors, Chapman will do more than most fourth-rounders ever will.

And in the fifth round the Royals took my favorite pick, RHP Jason Adam out of Blue Valley Northwest HS. I wrote about this earlier this year, but the Royals have seemed to make a concerted effort to draft local talent in recent years, and that trend was even more pronounced this year. By my loose standards, Eibner (out of the University of Arkansas) qualifies as a local. So does 8th-rounder Michael Mariot, the ace of the staff at the University of Nebraska; 13th-rounder Jonathan Gray, a RHP out of an Oklahoma high school; and a number of later round picks.

But no one is more of a local than Adam; who attends the same high school that at least a few of my readers attended, I’m sure. While the Royals have drafted players from the Kansas-Missouri-Nebraska-Iowa region before, I believe this is the first time they have used a high draft pick on a kid who can be legitimately called a Kansas City native since 1981, when they used their third-round pick on Rockhurst High pitcher David Cone.

Making thing more interesting is that Adam was considered a second-round talent before the draft, but may have slipped because of bonus demands. Keith Law tweeted that he’s looking for $1 million. In terms of both his roots and his bonus demands Adam is very reminiscent of Tim Melville, who also slipped in the draft because of the money he wanted. The Royals took Melville, gave him the money (in Melville's case, $1.5 million), and have to be happy with their decision – while Melville was 9 flavors of awful in April, he’s pitched as well as anyone in the farm system over the last month. I have a feeling that the Royals know what it will take to get the local kid signed, and are prepared to give it to him.

Adam and Antonio were the only two high-school kids the Royals drafted in the first 12 rounds. While some are saying that the Royals went college-heavy so that this year’s crop will reach the majors hand-in-hand with the high school studs from past seasons, I think their tactic was much more basic than that: in a draft that’s fairly weak overall, it makes more sense to draft low-risk players who will contribute something, as opposed to drafting a bunch of lottery tickets in a year where none of them are likely to pay off.

Not much to say beyond that. I know next to nothing about the players taken in the late rounds, although 11th-rounder Alex McClure is interesting – he didn’t play at all this season, as he sat out a year after transferring from Vanderbilt to Middle Tennessee State. That he fell so far is less a reflection of lack of talent than of lack of opportunity; if he shines in summer ball, the Royals can pay him a lot more than 11th-round money to sign.

It wasn’t a perfect draft; it couldn’t be a perfect draft given where the Royals were drafting. But I think the Royals did as well as could be expected. If they were drafting second, and had been able to draft Taillon and Allie, this would be hailed as one of the best draft hauls in baseball. As it is, it wasn’t the strongest draft in the game. But given the circumstances the Royals were in, it was about as strong a draft as we could have hoped for.