How Will Teams Approach This Year’s Draft?

As we discussed at the site last week, the effects of COVID-19 are still being felt in the world of amateur scouting. And while the structure of this year’s draft will look a bit more like what we’re used to, last year’s shortened draft, truncated college season, and the ongoing challenges of scouting during the pandemic mean teams will have to adapt their approach to seeing players and building their boards. What follows is a conversation that we hope helps make sense of some of those dynamics.

Eric Longenhagen: I assume our readers know there’s a pandemic on, and that most of last year’s college baseball season was cancelled as a result. This year’s season will be messy and complex both from an NCAA perspective and for scouting. So, what’s missing at this point in time? At the start of a college season, how clearly defined is a team’s board? How clear was it at this time when you were in Houston?

Kevin Goldstein: Going into 2020?

EL: Yeah, if we’re about to start a new calendar year, how specific does a team’s draft board look at this point? The scouts I talk to have “groups.” They’ll put a sophomore in “Group 1,” or “Group A,” or different “follow buckets” to indicate priority to their cross-checker or director for the following year.

KG: A year ago, college baseball had started and the pandemic was seen more as something going on “over there,” as in Asia and Europe. Teams were ready to go. Most have draft meetings somewhere in the late November to early January timeframe to do just what you said: create groupings and talk about coverage. Some players need fewer looks because they are at a big school and there is going to be tons of video/data for them. Others are at schools with none of that, and of course, you need to see high school dudes. I think this year is different. Yes, there was some fall ball, and yes, there were some showcase events, but at the same time, there were way fewer of those. Teams lean on the Cape Cod League, but there wasn’t one in 2020. Plus, there is the larger issue — and we should get to it later — of just the sheer number of players to see because of last year’s shortened, five-round draft, which pissed off every team’s front office.

EL: Right, the Cape is weighed more heavily for some players than the following spring leading up to the draft. I think the single month of 2020 that we had was enough to uncover some college players for 2021’s draft, but there’s certainly a large swath of them (mostly hitters) whose names we don’t even know yet who are going to come out of the gates really hot and be tough to evaluate in the same way Andrew Benintendi was. Readers might remember that Benintendi was a draft-eligible sophomore who had a poor freshman year at Arkansas and then exploded as a sophomore. Track record is important for college hitters and in 2021 there will be lots of talented players with almost none to speak of because of the 2020 cancellations. So how long is long enough to know a college hitter is good? If we look to 2020 for some indication, maybe it is just a month? I’m thinking of Anthony Servideo specifically.

KG: You say that, but look at Zach Daniels, the Astros’ fourth-round pick last year. He does absolutely nothing as a freshman or sophomore, comes out of the gate wild, and you still don’t know. More conference games would have helped. I think for a guy like Benintendi, he starts hot, you say “Who’s this?”, and then he keeps it up in baseball’s best conference and you feel better about it. It’s tougher when they’re at a smaller school or program.

EL: Do you think the new MLB Draft League will be helpful in this regard? Pack a bunch of smaller school types into a league with a higher bar for talent for a while and learn some more about them.

KG: I think it will help, and I think the overwhelming majority of teams will be thrilled to get video/data on the guys for whom it was much more difficult in the past.

EL: It also creates a more controlled environment for the looks. Already this past weekend, we had several series either delayed, re-worked, or altogether banged because of COVID. Take LSU’s planned series versus Norte Dame. It was cancelled; they found an opponent (Air Force) last minute, but had to push everything a day. I’m sure there were a few heavy-hitters in Baton Rouge to see Jaden Hill on Friday who had planned on seeing someone else on Saturday, and instead had to decide whether to stay at LSU to see Hill Saturday. Stuff like that is going to happen all year.

KG: Coverage is going to be a mess. The only thing I ever really got screwed on was weather, but I never had the nightmare of a whole series disappearing after I arrived somewhere. That’s going to happen. Teams just have so many players to sort through right now. We lost over 1,000 picks in last year’s draft. That’s what, like, 800 kids who would have signed? I wonder if you are just going to see a run on big school names and lots of the small school and draft league guys end up as non-drafted free agent (NDFA) signs. What do you think?

EL: I think that’s going to depend on whether there’s a cap on NDFA bonuses. If they return to the max of $125,000 (more than that and it counts against the pool), then yes, I tend to agree with you. If it’s reduced back to $20,000 like it was in 2020, then I have no idea.

KG: I’ve heard rumors that there will still be a cap, but it will be slightly higher. I heard one team talk about having a higher cap for Draft League guys to help sell the league to players, but that’s just talk for now. Have you heard the rumor about an X-round draft (most likely 20) and then some sort of five round NDFA draft after with a fixed bonus?

EL: I had not.

KG: There are lots of rumors out there and teams just don’t know the structure yet. Teams found out last year’s draft was down to five rounds in early May.

EL: I think it’s ridiculous that, after the optics and righteous PR nightmare that was the minor leaguers’ salaries becoming public, that they’re having an MLB-sponsored event where they’re not paying the players. I assume tickets will be sold at these Draft League games, and they might even be streamed or televised.

KG: You can call it ridiculous, but you can’t act surprised. They also might be hampered by the NCAA there.

EL: [redacted expletive concerning the NCAA] Let’s double back to what you mentioned about the huge number of players. Because of COVID, NCAA players were all given an extra year of eligibility, and the shortened draft also meant fewer of them departed to pro ball. It has meant that there have been a ton of transfers and lots of players ended up at junior colleges. In some ways, I think this is better for scouts because the in-person look at JUCO guys is so much more important, as the tech piece is not as common (though it does exist in some places).

KG: One GM said to me, “It just feels like we have a lot more stones to uncover this year.” I think a lot of teams will really focus their in-person coverage on smaller schools and JUCOs, and lean heavily on data/video for the big conference players.

EL: You’re also not jumping through COVID-related hoops just to see a game at a school that wants to have fans. I was at Kansas State/Oregon State this past weekend and because of the combination of fans and the need to socially distance, fewer scouts were allowed in and many of them had to sit at angles that aren’t ideal for scouting the pitchers. That’s not happening as consistently at JUCO games, as in a normal year almost everyone at those games is either a scout or family.

KG: I don’t know that Arizona is a great place to measure this, because lots of scouts just live there and so the travel is easy, but how many scouts do you think were at the Friday game, which had a marquee pitching matchup?

EL: There were probably nearly 75 of them there spread throughout four sections?

KG: Wow, that’s wild. College baseball is easier to watch than ever because of all the streaming availability. I’ve been watching some major conferences and I can’t tell if there are no or very few scouts there, or if they are just, like you talked about, being forced to socially distance (which is good!) and so are not all huddled behind home plate.

EL: In this specific instance, the stream for my Friday games had no center field camera, so they had a little more reason to be there, though it was at the Royals/Rangers spring training facility, so per MLB’s data-sharing policy, they will get TrackMan data from that game. There were maybe 15 scouts there for the second game. And then we have the arcane scout limits at some of the huge schools, where only eight or 15 scouts are allowed at a time. So when Mississippi St. goes to Vanderbilt and five first round arms throw that weekend, who gets to decide which teams are there? It’d be interesting if the schools let the kids pick. Like Kumar Rocker gets to pick the 15 teams on his night to start.

KG: That would be amazing, but if Vandy is playing some other conference powerhouse, there are tons of players who need looks and while Rocker might not want a team with a single digit pick coming in, what about all of the other players? They deserve looks, too. I don’t know if anything is more fair than just some kind of random drawing, but are you going to fly a scout into Nashville for a random drawing? They have to do it way ahead of time.

EL: Scouts are also going to leverage their contacts in situations like this and end up being ushered into games by college assistants they know well, etc., even if they’re not on the official list. Which I endorse. However scouts can utilize their experience and connections to help their club in a way that the tech cannot, I’m for.

KG: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. There are lots of unanswered questions, but I don’t see any way teams are going to be as comfortable with their board in July as they are used to being. Do you agree, and do you think that leads to teams drafting more conservatively in the end?

EL: I don’t think so. I agree that teams are going to be less comfortable with their boards than ever before (less so than last year, even), but I think the minor league restructuring also impacts how teams are thinking about the draft. I think they’re more likely to use huge chunks of their bonus pool on higher upside high school types, then scoop up their favorites of the unusually-high number of very signable college guys later on. We’ve already talked about how there will be so many college players available, a lot of them older after being passed over last year, so supply/demand dynamics are at play here. I think we’ll see more drafts that look like the Mets 2019 draft and every Padres draft. Unless teams already have thought of ways to circumvent the minor league roster limits, it makes sense to put more of your bonus eggs into fewer prospect baskets now that there’s less room for the go-wide approach to farm building that a lot of teams are undertaking. And I think teams will be more confident in high school players this year relative to college players because their summer was more “normal” from a scouting standpoint.

KG: I’m just not sure. I do think you’ll get some interesting late-round situations where the area scout couldn’t travel as much, but he went to the D-II school that he can drive to four times and he feels really strongly about the lefty there.

EL: I agree with that, it’s going to be a big year for the Area Scouts, especially in areas with lots of smaller colleges they can drive to. There are going to be some weird corner cases. Like I heard over the weekend that the Angels still haven’t brought back furloughed area scouts and their entire amateur staff is like eight people, so the pro scouts are chipping in on that side for them. I guess that’s Arte Moreno for you.

KG: A lot of that will depend on how many rounds we have. I say 20. What say you?

EL: I think it’ll be 20, too.

KG: That’s 55 rounds cut off over a two-year period. It’s just kind of sad, but the new reality in many ways with minor league contraction and the forced roster limits it brings. I don’t see any scenario where the draft goes back to more than 30 rounds.

EL: Yeah, I’m not going to pretend like I know what the right number of rounds is. I’m the guy who wants to see cricketers and women’s tennis players developed on the backfields. I also know there aren’t enough good coaches to support developing as many players as I’d like to see in the minors. There aren’t enough good coaches now. We shouldn’t develop players as if there are hundreds of good minor league dev people, especially when the pool the industry selects from is so narrow from a demographics perspective.

KG: Teams are more open to small college types or even people like the folks at Driveline at least. Small victories.

EL: Eh, internet certificates do not a viable locker room presence make.

KG: But we digress. Any thoughts on how the draft moving from June to July affects things? The obvious answer is more time to evaluate, but any subtle things you can think of? Teams certainly won’t miss having the College World Series on in the draft room and watching the kid they just took in the fourth round throw 138 pitches.

EL: I think it provides more time for private workouts but I’m not sure how much those will move the needle for teams. Maybe the clubs that lean on evaluating players when the lights are brightest will get thirsty for the college guys who perform in Omaha. This is a thing that happens in the NBA Draft all the time and which baseball has never had to deal with it before, over or underrating guys because of those last couple of weeks.

KG: That’s an interesting thought. Boards were done by then in the past. Warren Morris in 1996 went in the fifth round. Does it become the third if they picked after he hit one of the biggest home runs in college baseball history?

EL: That’s a great example. I was seven or eight years old and even I know Morris went bonkers in Omaha.

KG: I was only 27.

EL: Do you think an overwhelming portion of the high school evaluations are done? Or rather, that the needle can’t move quite as much for them since the summer before, they faced elite peers rather than playing varsity ball, and that maybe the confidence teams have in high school versus college players has flipped this year?

KG: Maybe. I know plenty of teams line up their prep boards pretty early and the spring looks are to just make sure he is what you think he is and that there haven’t been any big changes. Obviously, there are always some pop up players, mostly arms you need to go see. But my overwhelming experience has been that they’re overblown in the sense that you hear about the kid throwing 97, you go, and then it’s 92-93.

EL: It might not apply to all the high schoolers, though. Because all of the summer showcase high school events took place in the Southeastern portion of our country (COVID be damned), a bunch of the West Coast prospects barely played in them (Marcelo Mayer, Tyree Reed, etc.). So those are the high-priority types for teams to see this spring.

KG: Where are we right now in terms of prep ball in California? This is going to be a big issue all spring, no? I had a scout rave to me the other day about Mayer, and just wondered how many looks he’s going to provide.

EL: Well a bunch of teams from Vegas, SoCal, and the Pacific Northwest have come down here to Arizona to play, so I imagine it’s going to be an issue and could depend on the county/city-level rules rather than anything state-wide. Some college teams are still not allowed to play home games at the moment. Mayer played last weekend in Yuma, AZ.

Alright, we are now at about 2,800 words, do you have anything we haven’t touched on yet?

KG: Wait, really?

EL: Oh, let’s talk about mock drafts. This will be the most difficult year ever for doing mocks.

KG: Yes, but can we be honest with our readers for a second? Do you like doing mock drafts? I know the readers demand them, but I think the much better information is, “this player is being talked about in this area” rather than saying, “Team X with take Player Y with the eighth pick.” I think the challenge is going to be the ranges of players. Instead of being seen as a mid-first round pick, there will be players that some teams have in the mid-first, and others don’t even have in their top 40.

EL: You can stick a player next to a team and still talk about their range, it’s just that aggregators don’t pay attention to that. At some point they become great sources of feedback. Often a day or two after I release a mock — April is typically when I think they go from being clickbait to being actually useful, though that’ll probably change because of the draft date change — I have enough fresh dope as a result of that mock to put out a new one. The component of it that stays the same is the agent piece. Teams have to talk to the agents because unlike other sports, we don’t have hard slotting, so it’s impossible for them to sequester all the information. If I were working for a team, I’d be tracking which prospects’ video the draft writers were tweeting out to know which agents they’re connected to, and try to manipulate the flow of information closer to draft time with that in mind.

KG: If you are right, and more teams draft like the 2019 Mets, there’s going to be a lot of agent calls trying to dissuade teams from taking their players.

EL: Like if you tweeted video of [redacted high school hitter] hitting last weekend, especially if several other writers also tweeted it, I’d know that you’re in DeKalb and probably got that video from his advisor, and that his advisor will probably be feeding you dope for a mock closer to the draft. That’s useful info for me.

KG: I never thought about that when with a team, but feel like I should have now.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

Thanks for all the posts this week. Congratulations to Eric for surviving, and welcome back to the astral plane.