Friday, June 12, 2009

Washington Nationals Draft, Was it a Success?

The Washington Nationals had two of the top ten picks (1st and 10th) in this year's MLB draft. A draft that featured pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg. The 1st overall pick they received for their league worst 59-101 record last season. The 10th pick came was a compensation pick for failing to sign their 1st round pick last year (Aaron Crow). It was the first time in baseball history that one team had two top-10 picks. Now the question is, How successful was their draft class?

As a Nationals fan and baseball observer I was disappointed and unimpressed with their draft class. I thought early on the Nationals were prone to over drafting, and selecting signable players. In the top 20 rounds (21 picks) in which usually the teams best players are found, the Nationals drafted a total of 13 collegians, 3 Junior College players and 5 High Schoolers. Of those collegians, 5 were seniors, players without leverage who traditionally sign quickly. This isn't an impressive list with a lot of upside talent. The Nationals early round picks after Strasburg left me scratching my head. Here is a look at some of the problems with those picks
  • Drew Storen-1st round (10th overall) RHP, Stanford: Don't get me wrong I like Storen, he's a good player and has a chance to be an excellent closer. Also, its good that you got a player who signed quickly (especially after last year's fiasco with Crow). I just don't think the pick makes sense for the Nationals. Spending an early pick on a closer isn't always the best move. It makes even less sense for the Nationals since they are at least a few years away from contending. Having an All-Star closer on a last place team, is like having a Pro Bowl fullback, on a team without a good running back, it doesn't really help you in the long run. What I'd have done: I would have grabbed either Kyle Gibson, Chad James, or Chad Jenkins. All are college starting pitchers, and none would have been tough signs.
  • Jeff Kobernus-2nd round (50st overall) 2b, California: Kobernus would have been a solid 3rd round pick, a good 4th round pick and a great 5th round pick. The problem for the Nationals is they took him in the 2nd round. He does help fill a need at a premium position, but he doesn't profile as a top talent. There were plenty of more talented players still on the board and this just seems like a signability pick here. What I'd have done: If I was looking for a college player, I'd probably take 1b Rich Poythress. From the H.S. ranks pitcher Brooks Pounders or SS Mychal Givens would have been good value picks.
  • Trevor Holder-3rd round (81st) RHP, Georgia: Holder is a college senior and is the very definition of a 'signable' player. Baseball America wrote about him and said, "Holder was a 10th round pick last year and should go in the same range this June." A 10th round pick, taken at the top of the 3rd round. What's worse is, that since he's a senior, he has just about no leverage. The Nats could easily have waited 4 or 6 rounds and still gotten Holder. What I'd have done: Chris Dominguez would have been a nice pick, but redundant if I'd already taken Poythress. I'd probably go with either pitchers Ben Tootle, Justin Marks, or Joe Kelly. SS Robbie Shields would be a great pick as well.
  • A.J. Morris-4th round (112th) RHP, Kansas State: Morris isn't a real bad pick here, but the Nationals may have been able to wait one more round. Morris is a good player, but there is some concern on his ability to stay healthy. But overall this is a good pick for the Nationals. At the very least he should be a quality arm in the bullpen. What I'd have done: Morris would have likely been my pick here. H.S. catcher Max Stassi or RP Jason Stoffel would have been quality picks as well.
  • Miguel Pena-5th round (142nd) LHP, La Joya H.S.: Pena was the Nationals top H.S. draft pick and does have some potential. I think Pena was a solid pick but there were more talented players still on the board. Washington could have gotten Pena or someone like him later in the draft. What I'd have done: SS Ryan Jackson would have been a steal. College arms like Ashur Tolliver or Louis Coleman would have been fine picks for that spot.
  • Michael Taylor-6th round (172nd) SS, Westminister Academy H.S.: Taylor seems like a major over draft. He wasn't written up by Baseball America,, or Keith Law, which is a bit concerning. If the Nats were high on Taylor, I'm sure they could have gotten him a couple of rounds later. What I'd have done: INF Shaver Hansen or LHP/CF Brooks Raley would have been great picks. H.S. arms like James Needy and Matt Graham would have been great additions to the Nationals farm system.
I think the Nationals dropped the ball here with this draft class. Storen and Morris were good but not great picks. While there may have been better options they are still highly justifiable picks. Players like Kobernus, Holder, Pena and Taylor all seem like signability picks. While i'm not a scout, I think it's a bad decision to draft guys multiple rounds earlier than the industry consensus. Even if all four of these guys become major leaguers its still a bad move, since you could have gotten these 'diamonds in the rough' later in the draft. The Nationals did redeem themselves with a good third day of the draft. Where they selected a number of high upside High Schoolers. It remains to be seen how many will sign, but they were great picks for a system desperate for talent. Overall though I think the Nationals missed an opportunity to be bold and have a top notch draft class. For a team that finished last in 2008, and has the worst record to date this season, that increase in talent is exactly what they needed.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Quick Thoughts on the MLB Draft

I'll do a deeper insight into the draft later, but I wanted to highlight the approach of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates had the fourth overall pick, and had an additional compensation pick (for not signing a pick last year) before the 2nd round. The Pirates with their top pick, avoided more high profile talents and choose Catcher Tony Sanchez from Boston College. Sanchez is expected to sign for around $2.5 million dollars, which is at less than half of what most players wanted at that spot. The Pirates decided to spend their money throughout the draft and not on a single player.

I think the Pittsburgh Pirates made a bold and brilliant move with this draft. They were widely criticized for their selection of Sanchez, but in the end I think it is a good move. No Sanchez wasn't a top-5, 10 or even 20 talent, but he is a good player. Position prospects were rare in this draft, and while that isn't reason enough to overdraft someone it should be considered. Furthermore, Sanchez is a collegiate player who plays a premium position. His defense is major league ready (which can be hard to teach), and he should be in the majors within 2-3 years. Though he may never be an offensive catcher in the mold of Joe Mauer, if he can just be an average hitter the Pirates got quality value here.

If the Pirates had taken the 'best player available' (BPA), they would have chosen from one of 5 top H.S. pitchers. All of those pitchers have immense talent, but they also have plenty of risk. For one thing, they have plenty of leverage in negotiations, given their college commitments. Because of that they have inflated price tags, anywhere between $5-7 million (Gerritt Cole last year didn't even sign with the Yankees despite the fact they were willing to meet his initial price). On top of that, H.S. players take longer to develop, the Pirates wouldn't see them in the majors for 3-5 years (if they make it at all). Finally, H.S. arms are much harder to project than college arms. H.S. pitchers aren't used as much in a given year, so there can be a greater risk of injury. In my opinion, that is just way to much risk to invest such a large signing bonus. Instead the Pirates will look toward spreading out that bonus money over a number of players. During the 2nd and 3rd days of the draft the Pirates took a number of high upside players, who will command over slot bonuses. While they won't sign all these guys, I'd expect a fair number of them joining Pittsburgh's system.

The Pirates are a rebuilding franchise (have been for nearly 20 years now), and have little help on the way in the minors. This draft class represents a major influx of talent (depending on who they sign). The way I look at it is there weren't any surefire superstars after the top two picks (Strasburg and Ackley), so quantity becomes more important than quality. Time will tell if the Pirates made the right decision but I like the strategy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

MLB Draft Starts Tonight

Tonight, the 2009 MLB Draft gets under way starting at 6 pm, with the Washington Nationals on the clock. The first three rounds of the 50 round draft will be tonight. The remaining 47 rounds will be split up over the next two days. Though the MLB Draft has been growing in acclaim, it still remains behind the more heralded NFL, NBA, and NHL drafts. Since its not as well known, I will give a short summary of what to expect in the draft. I will highlight some of the differences between this draft and other more well known amateur drafts, and give a quick preview of what to expect tonight.

The first major difference in this draft process is the baseball draft is held during the season. The other three major sports hold their amateur drafts after their season, and the order is based on that season's record. Given the way the amateur schedules match up with the MLB's, the baseball draft is held the following June. So this year's draft is based on last year's standings (though for good measure the Nationals still have the worst record). The next major difference is that MLB draft picks can't be traded so you are at your draft spot whether want to pick the best player available or not. Because of this and signability (which we will get to in a minute), a number of players slide in the draft.

The next issue area is signability and the slotting system. Signability is a two-fold issue, one is money and the other is the player's desire to sign right now. In other league's like the NFL and NBA, players must declare their intention to enter the draft process and by doing so they lose their collegiate eligibility. In the NBA and NHL, international players who are drafted that don't sign are still under team control for a set amount of time. In baseball, MLB teams don't have those protections. High School players may choose to go to college no matter how much money is offered to them. College players (who are eligible after their junior season) can go back for their senior year or choose independent baseball rather than signing. The other issue with signability is money. In other major sports the rule is, the higher the draft pick the higher the contract/signing bonus (with a few exceptions). In baseball's draft process, you routinely see players picked in the mid-late first round exceeding the bonuses of the top draft picks. Partly this is due to the MLB's slotting system, which is a recommendation by the league office on what the signing bonus for each player should be. This has led to major issues and fan outrage as teams pass up on more talented players because they want to 'stick with slot'. While there are plenty of cases to be made where a team hurt themselves by 'sticking to the slotting system', its not necessarily a bad thing to do. Every year plenty of players sign for the recommended slot and turn out to be tremendous ballplayers. Matt LaPorta is the perfect example, he was the 7th pick in the 2007 draft and signed just UNDER slot. Already he headlined the deal that brought CC Sabathia (and a playoff appearance) to Milwaukee and is in the big league's with the Indians.

What to Watch For: There is no surprise on who the Washington Nationals will select number 1, as RHP pitcher Stephen Strasburg dominated the college ranks all season. After that things get a bit murky. Its widely considered a good pitching draft, but an extremely weak hitting draft. There could end up being 20 or more pitchers selected in the first round alone. I think we'll see some teams avoid paying out $6-7 million bonuses early. Instead, they will invest that money in signing guys to over slot deals later in the draft. The reason is there doesn't seem to be a lot of sure fire talent in top half of the draft.

Names other than Strasburg that you should know:
-1B/OF Dustin Ackley - he's the top hitter in this draft and will likely go #2
-Zach Wheeler, Jacob Turner, Matt Pruke, Shelby Miller, and Tyler Matzek are the top H.S. arms in this draft and are all Top-15 talents
-Grant Green SS/2B - he's the top college middle infielder but had a bad year this season. He could fall into the middle of the first round.
-Aaron Crow and Tanner Scheppers - RHP's who were drafted last season but choose to play Indy ball in the hopes of increasing their draft value.
-Finally RHP Kyle Gibson - was considered a Top-5 talent but a recent injury has him sliding down draft boards. Some one could get a major steal by taking him late.

Check back later this week when we look at how teams did with their draft picks.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Trade Market: 1B Nick Johnson vs. Aubrey Huff

Today we will take another look at some potential trade targets and figure out who your favorite team should be after. We will take a look at the first baseman market and two of the top names out there, Nick Johnson and Aubrey Huff.

Teams looking for a first baseman: New York Mets (need some help until Delgado can come back), Boston Red Sox (need a DH to replace Big Papi and his .596 OPS), San Francisco Giants (DEAD LAST in home runs), Atlanta Braves (Kotchman only has two home runs this year).

Huff and Johnson are prime candidates to be traded by July 31st. Both are in the last year of the contracts, play for last place teams, and offer quality offensive upside. Right now Johnson is considered the better value on the trade market, but it may be closer to equal then most people think.

Johnson has an age and money advantage over Huff. He's two years younger than him and makes $2.5 million less this season. Johnson also has a defensive advantage over Huff, with a career UZR/150 rating of 4.7, compared to Huff's -5.3 at first base. Also Johnson has been outhitting Huff at this point in the season. Johnson has gotten off to a hot start with a .325/.427/.460 line, while Huff has been inconsistent with a .263/.326/.451 line. To the quick glance it looks as if there is no contest when figuring out who to trade for, but lets dig a little deeper and see how the match-up looks then.

Huff is not with out his advantages as well. Huff has more positional flexibility that Johnson. While he's below average defender overall he can play some third base, and corner outfield. This could be attractive to an N.L. team to give them some roster depth. Also in 2009 Huff's UZR/150 rating is actually the same as Johnson's (-9.1), eliminating some of the consideration that he is a worse defender. Another thing that Huff has going for him is his durability. Johnson missed 2/3 of last season and all of 2007 due to injury. While he's been off the D.L. so far this season, his history knocks him down a few notches. The last advantage for Huff is he's a notoriously slow starter. While that seems illogical to call that an advantage, any team trading for him needs to worry about what he'll do over these last four months of the season, and not the first two. For his career Huff's OPS numbers by month are .730/.742/.844/.836/.942/.820. So while Huff's OPS may be in the .700's now, it should be much higher by season's end.

Even though Huff is due to make an extra $2.5 million on the season, it is really a negligible difference when you think about it. MLB contracts are paid out by month, so Huff makes $1.3 million each month and Johnson $910K. That is not a huge amount of savings, if two teams traded for them on July, 31st, they'd owe Huff $2.6 million and Johnson $1.8 over the final two months of the season. That $800K isn't a big gap when you think about it. Also one advantage that Huff has in regards with his impending free agency compared to Johnson's, is that Huff will be either a Type A/B Free Agent and Johnson won't. The compensation picks that an aquiring team would get for Huff are an added bonus.

When it comes down to it, both Huff and Johnson are quality players. Neither is a complete player, so its hard to say who is really more valuable. It all depends on what your team in looking for in a player. Johnson has the benefit that he's a bit cheaper and is always on base. He will likely be valued more by teams like the Boston Red Sox because he fits their line-up better. Huff on the other hand, has fewer red flags and offers a team more power. A team like the Giants make a lot of sense for Huff, if they want to make a 2nd half run.