When considered today, the Pirates' 2009 draft strategy appears to have produced a blunder. As Pirate fans know, the team took Tony Sanchez with the fourth pick in the first round, an obvious overdraft when it happened and an apparent wasted pick in hindsight given Sanchez's struggles at the plate since he played for Lynchburg. The Pirates took Sanchez in order to avoid paying over-slot bonuses to players it did not consider worthy of those bonuses. These players included the pitchers Matthew Hobgood, Zack Wheeler, Drew Storen, Aaron Crow and Shelby Miller. They also included Mike Trout, the Al Kaline of the new millennium and, perhaps, the best prospect in a draft class that included Stephen Strasburg. Trout most definitely was worth fourth pick money. He was worth Strasburg money! But few knew that in 2009. Passing on Miller also may have been a mistake. But he was a high school pitcher, and they come with a lot of risk.
The Pirates had a second reason for passing on the obvious first round talents and their bonus demands. The team could use the money it saved by paying Sanchez a near-to-slot bonus later in the draft. And that's what it did. It used this money to sign Zack Dodson, Zach Von Rosenberg, Trent Stevenson and Colton Cain. These picks and bonuses were not head-scratchers. Yet, as of this moment, the Pirates have received only a minimal amount of baseball value from them - e.g. the Pirates included Cain as a minor component of the Wandy Rodriguez trade. Assuming that Sanchez and Vic Black will make it to the major leagues for some team and that the surprising Phil Irwin recovers from what now ails him, assumptions which are now tenuous, it follows that the 2009 draft can and will not be counted a complete waste of the organization's resources. Nevertheless, for a team with the fourth pick in each round, the 2009 draft class now counts as a catastrophe for the organization.
One only needs to consider the drafted players now at Altoona and Indianapolis to confirm this evaluation.
The Pirates believed it could risk taking Tony Sanchez with the fourth pick because Sanchez would likely become an average or better Major League catcher. And they also used the money they saved when signing Sanchez to acquire what they considered "projectable pitchers" - i.e. pitchers who might add velocity while they physically matured. None the projectable pitchers taken in the 2009 class has shown these improvements, though, and it is not too early to conclude that they never will. Their struggles now define this draft class.
It is unsurprising, then, that the 2009 class has made the "overdraft-and-then-spend-later strategy" questionable for some Pirates fans. Some also question the "projectable pitcher strategy" because it was used to justify the 2009 overdraft strategy and the projectable pitchers are now non-prospects. Failure thus seemingly falsified both strategies.
But, has it? Perhaps not, for as ESPN's Jason Churchill has written:
The draft has changed in recent years, going from a best-player-available venture to one where clubs more often draft for organizational need. Furthermore, when it comes to young, promising hitters and big-time talents up the middle, clubs see very few opportunities to acquire what they are missing. Teams don't often trade these kinds of players, and rather than allowing them to get to free agency, they lock them up to long-term deals very early.
This could very well lead to more clubs looking to tab position players earlier in the draft than they otherwise might, perhaps for bonuses that fall short of MLB's recommendations, and leaning on the depth in pitching to avoid ignoring the class' strength.
"[There's] a better chance of getting that [college] pitcher with your second pick than the bat you're looking to add," said one high-ranking executive, whose club is not alone in such a realization.
Another senior scout pointed out that, "We're at the point now where it makes more sense for us to go for what we don't have." He was quick to point that, "it has to make sense, and the player has to be signable."
In other words, every team must include a number of variables when forming a draft strategy and when considering selecting a player, especially a player in the early rounds. These variables include:
- Actual talent (tools and stuff)
- Projected talent (ceiling and floor, risk and probable reward)
- Internally perceived organizational needs
- Relative position scarcity (e.g. up the middle players, high-ceiling/low-risk hitters, frontline starters)
- Slot bonuses and hard-capped bonus money
- Draftee bonus demands
- Team draft budgets
- The actual and predicted actions of the other teams
- Possible future free agent acquisitions
- Possible future trade markets
While the "best player available" rule remains appealing for the fans of Major League teams, since it reduces the complexity of player acquisition and is intuitively sensible, using this rule when selecting players can generate ambiguity and ambivalence. How so? Consider this: While it is comparatively easy to create a rank order of prospects simply by serially ordering them, the serial ordering of players A, B, C, and D in a 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 ranking may be less clear cut than this abstract representation makes it seem. For instance, players occupying ranks 1 and 2 could be nearly equal in projected baseball value but much more valuable than players the players who occupy ranks 3 and 4 while the latter two are clearly not at all equal in perceived value. Thus (1 & 2) > 3 > 4. Given this scenario, the team with the first pick can choose between two or more players, picking according to its preference while also retaining the capacity to pick the best player available. But, what if the team picking second has little need for the player ranked second? It may have more than a few similar players in its system. Or, it may not care for his bonus demands. If so, it could then take player 3 if 3 were to take a bonus lower than the bonus the slot commands. It could then use this money later in the draft, taking and signing players who for whatever reason had fallen below the ranking consistent with their perceived baseball value. It could then pay those players over-slot-bonuses, monies which reflect something near to their actual baseball and market value. The Houston Astros used this strategy last year when it passed on Byron Buxton, which consensus opinion had as the best talent in the draft class.
The upshot: The drafting of amateur baseball players has become more difficult because the current CBA has added to the complexity of the task, and thus to the risks which go along with the drafting and signing of a player. Gone are the days when a team could just throw money at national and international prospects. Today, the teams which do their homework, manage their resources well and enjoy a bit of luck can thrive. A course in decision theory could help.
The Pirates, unfortunately, were unlucky with their 2009 class. They had better luck when they took Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow, pitchers who already have vindicated the "projectable pitcher strategy" if not also the "overdraft-and-then-spend-later strategy" that, according to Churchill's report, is threatening to become the new convention.
Neil Huntington and Greg Smith - pioneers. Who knew?