D’Backs Plans For the First Overall Pick Come Into Focus

I’ve written many times in the past eight months that this draft class is pretty weak and that, combined with the bonus pools that limit each team’s draft spending, will make for an unpredictable draft day filled with below-slot deals. That talk has continued here and in other places but, in the last few weeks, teams’ plans have come into better focus and the question marks now start at the very top.

I called Orlando-area prep SS Brendan Rodgers the best prep player in the 2015 class a full two years ago and he’s held serve since then, standing today as the consensus top player in the whole draft for the industry and in my recent rankings.  The assumption for most of the spring was that the Diamondbacks would take Rodgers #1 as the consensus top player in a down class. Another reason this made sense is the embattled first seven months of the Dave Stewart/Tony La Russa regime in Arizona, which have gone about as bad as possible so far, so they don’t need another off-the-board, bucking-industry-consensus decision that could draw more bad PR.

I had heard in the last few weeks that Rodgers was out of the mix for the D’Backs at #1, but until I had heard who the target was, I didn’t feel comfortable reporting that, since it could just be misdirection for negotiating purposes. I had also heard the D’Backs weren’t at many of Rodgers’ games this spring, so that put more momentum behind that buzz being real.  hen, in the last few weeks, D’Backs GM Dave Stewart and VP of Baseball Ops DeJon Watson have been seen all over the country scouting amateur players, but not Rodgers.

Over the last week or so, sources have indicated that Rodgers is out of the D’Backs mix and the presumed backup option (my #2 prospect), RHP Dillon Tate of UC Santa Barbara, also isn’t necessarily Arizona’s top target, though some scouts think Stewart sees a lot of himself in Tate, which could influence the decision.

Stewart was in last week to see late-rising Georgia prep C Tyler Stephenson and a big crowd of high-level scouts saw him yesterday, including Phillies GM Ruben Amaro and five scouting directors. Stephenson caught both ends of a double-header playoff game and hit two homers in a hotly-contested playoff series that concludes with a rubber game today. Stephenson’s second bomb came after three intentional walks in a row and iced the game for his team. Stephenson was excited:

Stephenson is rising up boards after not being seen much over the summer, now looking like a lock to go somewhere in the top 15, though more likely in the 8-15 range than the top 7. The one exception is at #1 overall, as I’ve heard from multiple sources that the D’Backs have engaged Stephenson about a cut-rate deal as the top pick in the draft. The D’Backs are also on New York prep CF Garrett Whitley, who Stewart scouted again last night and is also believed to have been approached about a cut rate deal at #1 overall as well.

The industry speculation is that the D’Backs’ preference is Whitley over Stephenson as cut-rate options at #1 overall and Georgia prep CF Daz Cameron (son of Mike Cameron) is also rumored to be in the mix.  Watson went to Cameron’s game yesterday instead of Stephenson, but the heavy hitters for Arizona have seen all three players already. At this point, I’d call the three high school players the co-favorites to go #1 overall until more information comes in, with Tate and Vanderbilt SS Dansby Swanson both longshots. It sounds like Arizona wants a hitter, but it’s clear to the industry that Arizona doesn’t know what they’re going to do yet.

The math behind this preference means the that D’Backs could have a financial hammer with their later picks. The pool value for the top pick is about $8 million and the D’Backs full pool is $13.6 million. Rodgers would likely cost at least $6 million at 1-1 and Tate would probably be just below that, but since Whitley and Stephenson don’t have a clear home in the top 7 picks if Arizona passes, they may accept a deal of about $3.5 million. This would shave about $4.5 million off the top pick that could be spent on multiple other picks. Cameron has more interest in the top 10 and would probably ask for a price between Stephenson/Whitley and Tate.

Stewart and Watson have also been seen scouting other players projected to go lower in the draft, like Florida SS Richie Martin and Georgia prep IF Cornelius Randolph in the last week, who fit generally in the middle to late stages of round one. Having that much money available at their next picks (43 and 76) would allow Arizona to offer a player his highest possible bonus 20 picks or more before Arizona is actually on the clock. This, in effect, serves to “trade down” from the first overall pick to slide up their next couple picks a number of slots.  Since MLB doesn’t allow trading of picks, moving around finances like this is the only way to accomplish that effect.

Tying the Evaluations Together

Whitley is a center fielder with 65 speed, 15-20 homer power and a linebacker build, but has a limited track record, popping up late in the summer (but performing well) and playing weak competition in upstate New York. Stephenson physically resembles Matt Wieters at 6’4/210, is a shockingly good receiver for someone his size, has a 70 arm, above average raw power and some feel to hit, but also wasn’t on the showcase circuit much and has a little too much swing-and-miss to his game for some scouts. Cameron is a polarizing prospect, hyped as a 1-1 candidate as a sophomore, but not improving much physically since then. He was just okay over the summer against top pitching and has been better in spurts this spring but hasn’t faced much good pitching. Cameron is an above average to plus runner that profiles in center field and has average raw power, above average bat speed and looseness to his swing, with multiple teams interested in him at picks 5-12, but many scouts think he’s more of a late first rounder. Tate also popped up this spring as a potential high first rounder, as he hasn’t started a college game until this spring and he’s shorter at 6’1, but has electric plus stuff, hitting 99 mph on his good days.

The connecting thread between these five players is largely ignoring the summer (Stephenson wasn’t there, Whitley showed up late, Cameron was so-so, Tate was a reliever, Rodgers was fantastic) while emphasizing the spring (Stephenson and Whitley are tool-sheds that have performed pretty well, Cameron will show you tools and performance on some days, Tate is awe-inspiring at times and Rodgers has been just okay). This may seem like an arbitrary fact to point out, but it’s something that runs counter to how most teams evaluate players these days.

Before high school showcases were so prevalent, teams mostly saw and identified high school players during the spring, using aluminum bats and facing poor competition. Now, you can identify kids years in advance and see 100 at bats against premium pitching with wood bats, playing everyday, mirroring pro baseball. There’s a reason every study shows that teams are getting better in the last 10-15 years at draft the best prep players with the top picks; teams have far more information about Brendan Rodgers, a high school player, facing top competition in his projected pro role than they do about Dillon Tate, a college player.

Stewart was hired in late September and hired his staff after that, months after summer showcase season had ended. Stewart and LaRussa are old school guys and seem to be leaning towards old school methods in all phases of how they run the Diamondbacks. That hasn’t gone well so far, but the draft is a crapshoot, particularly with a muddled class this year that lacks the multiple elite talents that teams like to see. Because of this, the industry will be more forgiving in their assessments of the D’Backs draft strategy, with a common refrain this year of “I won’t laugh at yours if you won’t laugh at mine.”

Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.

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8 years ago

“I had heard in the last few weeks that Rodgers was out of the mix for the D’Backs at #1, but until I had heard who the target was, I didn’t feel comfortable reporting that, since it could just be misdirection for negotiating purpose”

Wow, actual journalism! Seriously, in the era of sound bite reporting, I love seeing the effort to actually analyze a story. Great stuff Kiley.

8 years ago
Reply to  Mac

It’s called “checking your sources” and a lot of real journalists do it; alas they get overshadowed by the media circus that rushes to air completely unsupported “facts” that vanish almost instantly, overtaken by the latest unsupported “facts.” And we, as media consumers, are largely to blame since our short attention spans allow them to get away with it without repercussion.

That Guy
8 years ago
Reply to  Mac

Obviously, on a site like this, comments like that from Kiley above aren’t going to be ignored, but I thought the very same thing…