Ten Keys to Success in the Major League Baseball Draft

With the major league baseball draft about two weeks away, there are many teams still scrambling around trying to figure out what to do.

High School versus college? Power bat versus pitcher? Immediate help or projection player?

High school or prep talent is looked upon as what is their ceiling. There is a lot of projectability here, whereas college talent usually has almost all their tools in order. They basically need some refinement.

Those teams which usually pick at the top of the draft (also known as the worst teams) usually go for the best talent but longer term projects, since one player is not likely to help the parent club very soon.

But like the Tampa Bay Rays of three years ago, you can build a nice foundation with picks, get better, and still have that one last top pick to put you over the top.

The Washington Nationals have that opportunity this draft with their second No. 1 overall pick in consecutive seasons.

Top high school players could take up to five or six years to make an impact, whereas many recent top picks have shown that highly rated college players (namely pitchers) can make a parent team better much sooner.

Because of the time involved in development, the MLB is more of a crap shoot, as players need to master various levels before making “The Show,” and then comes the biggest test of all.

Many more “can’t miss” prospects taken very high in the draft often miss badly, sometimes due to lack of ability to adjust to the many levels and just plain not having the ability to actually play baseball.

That means no baseball instincts. I feel it is always better to take the best baseball player over the best talent over athleticism.

This years draft presents a plethora of prep talent, but also word that many teams will try to take lesser talent in hopes to sign them on the cheap.

Presented are some keys to developing a major impact through the draft.

1) Everything Being Equal, Take the Hard Worker

 Eric Duncan, the New York Yankees 2003 first round pick (27th overall), was a great hitter in high school for one of the best baseball teams in the state of New Jersey.

He has a quick, power bat, but a swing with lots of holes. Those holes did not get taken advantage of in high school or the lowest level of the minors.

But the higher Duncan rose in the system. the tougher the pitching became via pitch command, and those holes in Duncan’s swing were magnified.

Duncan was informed this in the low levels of the minors, and was told he would not make it unless he worked to correct a few hitting flaws.

The former first round pick did not take heed of this advice, preferring to “stick with what got me here.”

Well, “here” is not the major leagues, and Duncan now finds himself back in Double A, but with another organization.

His inability to listen to his coaches early in his career and work hard to correct any inefficiencies in his swing did not allow his game to improve.

He is one of many highly rated players who thought that talent alone would get them to the majors.

Talent is needed, but so is hard work.

Just ask any player who hits the cages earlier than other hitters, and stays later watching video of his swing.

When a player goes onto a baseball field, they never come off the field as the same player. They either get better or get worse.

The hard-working player will get better.

2) Take the Pitcher with Command over the Power Arm

Mike Leake was drafted out of Arizona State University eighth overall in the 2009 draft. He was considered the most polished college pitcher coming out of the draft since Tim Lincecum was taken 10th overall in 2006.

Leake made the Cincinnati Reds out of his first spring training and has never pitched in the minor leagues.

Leake does not overpower hitters with blazing speed or fancy pitches. His highest velocity is only in the upper 80’s.

However, he can throw the ball where he wants and the ball always has some type of movement.

Sounds like Greg Maddux.

Compare his success with guys like Dewon Brazelton (2001 No. 3 overall to Tampa Bay) who had a big-time arm and threw gas, but did not know where the ball was going.

There are tons of those types of guys in the first round who never made an impact.

When you have command AND velocity, however, now you are really talking.

Guys like Roger Clemens and Stephen Strasburg are/will be great because they has tremendous speed but could throw the ball wherever they want.

You know what they call that?

Unfair.

While guys like Clemens and Strasburg are a very rare breed, the guy with command of his pitches and command of the strike zone will most always be the better prospect over those throwers who have the big arm.

Location, location, location is the motto for real estate, but also for a quality pitcher.

3) Take the Baseball Player Over The Toolsy Athlete 

“The New York Yankees with the 17th pick in the 2005 major league baseball draft select Carl Henry, “toolsy” high school outfielder from Oklahoma.”

Henry never made it above High A, where he really struggled.

This guy was the five-tool player who can run, throw, hit, hit for power, and field. It was all great on paper, but the athletic talent could not translate to the baseball field.

Baseball is such a difficult game that toolsy and athlete really don’t matter when the game begins. The Rays are still waiting for former No. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham to play baseball, and not show all his talent.

Also, one of the greatest athletes in the world, Michael Jordan, couldn’t make it on the diamond, but was tremendous on the hardwood.

Why do the scouting directors continually believe that tools will bring benefits?

They mostly won’t.

That is just as bad as drafting someone based upon “upside.”

4) Draft Eligible Sophomore’s – Go for the Gusto!

The Yankees took the best college closer in the 2006 draft in the 17th round.

Yes, I said the 17th round! Then David Robertson, who closed at the University of Alabama, went on the win MVP of the prestigious Cape Cod Summer Baseball League.

Then he signed for well above slot money for a chance at pro baseball.

Why did the Yankees get such a talent in the 17th round and why did they have to give him earlier round money?

He was a draft eligible sophomore (DES), a four-year college player who turned 21 within 45 days of the draft. The reason why many DES are not taken is signability, as they have negotiating leverage with the selecting team.

Because they have the opportunity to go back to school for their junior year and re-enter the draft the next summer, DES have more negotiating leverage than most college draftees.

That is why teams must give much bigger bonuses to these selections.

But these DES are well worth the money and investment.

The talent is there. Go get them.

5) Draft Committed Major High School Talent In Later Rounds

The Yankees have done a great job at this.

They target major high school talent which has been committed to major Universities. Guys who have pretty much said they will go to college.

Taking these guys in much later rounds and giving them well above bonus money (many times into the high six figures to over a million bucks), could translate into getting that committed guy to sign to go pro.

The Yankees did this with Dellin Betances in 2006 (Vanderbilt), Carmen Angelini in 2007 (Rice) and Garrison Lassiter 2009 (North Carolina).

While these three examples have not yet materialized for the Yankees, it is good if the major league team hits on one of these.

This also works in taking high first round types who might fall into the late first round due to their college commitment.

They also took Gerrit Cole low in the first round in 2008 (he was a top five type player), knowing he was going to be a difficult signing, and Cole ended up going to college at UCLA.

While that did not work for the Yankees, this tactic did work for the Detroit Tigers who selected consensus first overall pick Rick Porcello with the 27th pick in the 2007 draft.

Porcello dropped due to his commitment to North Carolina and his advisor being Scott Boras.

Just like when a football player drops for unknown reasons, take the best talent.

If a top pick falls into your lap, draft him. It will only cost money.

6) If Thinking Long Term, Draft High End Prep Talent

Going over the 2001-2006 drafts, the numbers reveal that 35 of the 76 players drafted out of high school in the first round have reached the major leagues.

And a couple more are right on the doorstep.

That equals 46 percent, and includes some great names such as Zach Greinke, Prince Fielder, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Chad Billingsley and some guy named Joe Mauer.

College first round picks totaled 103 during this span with 45 making the major leagues. That equates to 44 percent, a smaller percentage than high school talent.

But 88 percent of that high school talent which made the majors were starting pitchers or everyday players compared to 79 percent of the college talent.

While high school talent takes longer to reach the majors, the results are well worth it, especially for teams which have the time and patience for the maturation process.

7) Draft Heavy in Key Positions Most Other Teams Need

Most teams need up the middle positions. They are the backbone to a team’s defense.

Guys who are steady glove men at these historically defense-oriented positions who can also rake are the ultimate prized possessions.

That is why Derek Jeter and Joe Mauer were two of the best draft picks ever. Both the Yankees and the Minnesota Twins received tremendous offensive production and good defense at the shortstop and catching positions.

Most teams do not have a good major league catcher who is adequate defensively but can also hit.

The Yankees have stockpiled catchers in their system with drafting Austin Romine and JR Murphy but also signing Jesus Montero and Gary Sanchez to International free agent contracts.

When Mauer went down with an injury in early May, the Twins called up 22-year-old Wilson Ramos, who provided adequate support behind the plate.

The Yankees also have an abundance of pretty good second basemen in their system who can play the field and hit for average and gradually improving power.

They also have about 15 good arms in their minor league starting rotations, highlighted by Zach McAllister at Triple A, David Phelps at Double A and Adam Warren and Graham Stoneburner at High A Tampa.

The major league club has Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli manning the plate, Robinson Cano shackled at second base and 60 percent of their starting rotation signed at least through 2011.

The possibility of another free agent pitcher signing next year exists when Cliff Lee becomes available.

Since all other teams needs up the middle personnel, the extra catchers, second basemen and starting pitchers provide adequate trade chips for the major league team to trade for needed talent at other positions.

The Twins have that same issue with their young catcher who could be turned into a key piece for the 2010 pennant chase.

Keep the backbone strong and the body will take care of itself.

8) Unless a Top Five Type of Pick, Avoid Prep Pitchers

I believe maturity is the biggest issue here.

Once a top prep pitcher is taken and signs, it is probably the riskiest pick type in the baseball draft.

Within the age years of 17-22, the biggest increase in maturity exists for young men. This is the time period where they could be drafted into the armed services, they can legally drink alcohol and they become more physically able to withstand the rigors of more stress.

Stress of the pro baseball scene in both the physical and mental aspects.

Taking a kid out of high school and putting him cross-country into an instructional league, then full season baseball can lead to more blowups than any other type of drafted product.

And with pitching being the prime baseball position, if these types blow up it can push back a franchise several years.

The recent drafts have produced some pretty good young prep pitchers such as Zach Greinke, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Phil Hughes, Chad Billingsley, and Clayton Kershaw.

What those guys all have is a tremendous secondary pitch to complement a pretty good fastball. High school hitters can’t catch up to the good fastball, but pro hitters can.

These prep pitchers need a good second pitch to succeed, and if it takes a few years to develop one, the confidence level and commitment can waiver for the teenager.

But unless the maturity level is already there, for every Cain, Hamels and Greinke there is a Jeff Allison, Chris Gruler, and Clint Everts, plus many more unrefined prepsters.

Even Greinke contemplated quitting baseball at the age of 20 because of anxiety issues.

The maturity level is simply not there to take such a gamble.

9) If Thinking You Need to Win Soon, Draft College Talent

The Washington Nationals had begun to build a pretty good young team prior to the 2009 draft.

They had a cornerstone position player in Ryan Zimmerman, and a bevy of young arms ready to get major league experience. They weren’t ace material, but the talent was there.

The team needed an ace to eventually carry the staff, and the Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg No. 1 overall. He has done nothing to make the team worry about its pick in dominating every level thus far, now one step from the major leagues.

The Nationals also had another pick in that 2009 draft and selected the best relief pitcher available, projecting him to reach the majors very quickly.

Drew Storen, drafted 10th overall, has arrived in the majors and has already helped to fortify the Nationals bullpen, ranked last in baseball in 2009.

With the Nationals ready to draft another college player No. 1 overall in the upcoming 2010 draft, they might begin to contend as early as 2011.

Tim Lincecum made the same impact on the San Francisco Giants less than two-year after being drafted, as did Evan Longoria and David Price for the Tampa Bay Rays, Troy Tulowitzki of the Colorado Rockies plus Matt Wieters and Brian Matusz of the Baltimore Orioles.

No less than eight college drafted players from the 2008 draft have made it to the major leagues.

The college players are more polished, much more mature and ready to produce now in the majors.

And with the 24 hour news cycle available to all people, many teams feel the need to win now.

10) Don’t Cheapen Out

Set aside lots of cash for the draft. And spend it.

There are many instances where teams with money issues have cheapened out on their top pick, taking a player of lesser talent, with that player being easier to sign.

It will cost less in bonus money to sign lesser talent. But you get lesser talent than what is available.

The prime example of this tactic was when the San Diego Padres decided not to pay Justin Verlander’s big money demands when he was coming out of Old Dominion University.

Armed with a 99 MPH fastball and good command, Verlander was easily the best player in that draft, and his success thus far in his major league career has confirmed that suspicion.

Instead of taking the sure-thing Verlander, the Padres decided to go cheap, taking a very immature prep player named Matt Bush No. 1 overall in the 2004 draft.

(Remember our rule earlier about immaturity in high school kids)

Interestingly, while the Padres thought Verlander’s money demands were going to be very steep and out of their price range, Bush actually received a slightly higher bonus than did Verlander.

Too many teams can not compete with the big market clubs in the signing of available big-money free agents and are never able to trade for established stars already making lots of money.

The way these smaller market teams can compete is with the draft, not having to compete with other teams like the Red Sox and Yankees on players they draft.

Highly drafted players demand large multi-million dollar signing bonuses. That is a fact which is likely not going to go away.

Those who reach the majors pay for themselves as they are under team control at much reduced salary structure, while producing at the major league level.

That is saving money in the long run.

There is an old money adage that says, “You need to spend money in order to make money.” Many large companies need to invest in Research and Development in order to create many new products.

Baseball teams need to invest in highly prized drafted players in order to put a good major league team on the field.

But word is that many organizations this year will punt on certain players, and less talented kids in order to save money in bonuses.

Teams that win in the draft do not skimp on signing bonuses or punt on the best players available.

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