The Texas Rangers selected Texas Tech infielder Josh Jung eighth overall in last month’s amateur draft. They followed that up by taking Baylor infielder Davis Wendzel with the 41st overall pick. The Big 12 Conference co-players of the year both signed on the dotted line last week, Jung for a reported $4.4 million, Wendzel for a reported $1.6 million. Following get-ready stints at the team’s facility in Surprise, Arizona, each is expected to join short-season Spokane for the duration of the summer.
According to Rangers GM Jon Daniels, it wasn’t purely by chance that accomplished collegiate bats were his club’s top two selections.
“We didn’t make an about-face in our philosophy, but we did probably make a little more of a conscious effort to manage risk up top,” Daniels told me in mid-June. “That kind of dovetailed into where the strengths of the draft were, which in our opinion was more college than high school, and a little heavier on the position player side.”
The industry agreed with that assessment — only one prep pitcher went in the first 25 picks — but whether this was an outlier draft or not, pitchers are widely seen as riskier propositions. When I asked if that was a primary factor, Daniels delivered his answer with a wry smile.
“John Hart always used to say, ‘Pitchers, they break your heart,'” he said of his predecessor. “Even so, we didn’t think the right high school arm was there for us at the top, so we weren’t really faced with that decision. A year ago we felt Cole Winn was that guy, so we were comfortable. But it would have taken someone similar to Cole — someone we felt was a meaningful step ahead. Unless that were the case, we were apt not to go that way this year.”
Winn came into this season ranked as the top prospect in the Rangers system. With that in mind, I suggested that probably not even Hart would have bypassed the now-19-year-old right-hander in the first round.
Kasey Kiker, Blake Beavan, and Michael Main are among the high school hurlers Texas has taken in the first round since Daniels replaced Hart prior to the 2006 season. Most-notable among the college arms who have fallen short of expectations is Dillon Tate, whom the Rangers took fourth overall in 2015, and subsequently swapped to the Yankees 14 months later.
Hindsight being 20/20, Daniels would gladly accept a do-over and take Walker Buehler (24th overall to the Dodgers), or any one of several other 2015 first-rounders, instead. Even so, Tate provided a certain amount of value. The trade that sent him to New York brought back Carlos Beltran, whose veteran presence helped fortify a Texas team that went to the postseason.
Daniels may well have had that in mind when I asked how the Rangers go about reviewing recent drafts.
“That’s a great question, and it’s something that’s continuing to evolve,” answered the Cornell University graduate. “We review it right away, and then multiple times down the line. You don’t ever want to take just one snapshot of a draft. For instance, how much value do you assign a player if he carried big trade value for a period of time, even if he doesn’t end up making it? Is that a success?”
How much of a success Jung and Wendzel end up being is thus a question that won’t be answered for years to come. As for the process that made them Rangers, while the overall draft philosophy hasn’t changed, the scouting world is anything but static. Men (and a smattering of women) with weathered faces and straw hats still point radar guns and make old-school comps, but while they continue to play a meaningful role, more and more tools have become available. Quantifiable data now factors into draft-day decisions.
Kip Fagg has been the Rangers’ director of amateur scouting for the past decade, and before that spent several years as a cross-checker. Now in his mid-50s, he didn’t exactly cut his teeth on StatCast and TrackMan readings. Then again, neither did his 41-year-old boss. What matters is that they’ve both grown with the industry.
“Our processes have continued to evolve,” Daniels told me. “Kip comes from an old-school scouting background, but he’s extremely open-minded to a host of other disciplines. You’ve maybe seen some other organizations change leadership in that regard, whereas we haven’t felt a need to. Kip has embraced different ways of going about the scouting process.”
Some of the voices in the draft room have changed in recent years, largely out of necessity. Daniels pointed to the departures of A.J. Preller, Don Welke, and Thad Levine, all of whom were “key parts of our leadership, and big parts of our draft team.” The current inner circle is anything but small. Asked who is closely involved in the decision-making process, Daniels name-checked a full dozen people.
Soliciting the opinions of respected colleagues is an integral part of any general manager’s job. At the same time, the phrase “the buck stops here” exists for a reason. Come crunch time, someone has to call the shots. I asked Daniels if he’s the ultimate decision-maker on draft day, or if he’s deferential to his scouting director.
“Kip and I usually get pretty comfortable,” answered Daniels. “There’s never really been a time where I’ve vetoed anything. Maybe once or twice in the past, with a first-round pick, we wound up kind of between two guys — we were leaning in different directions. But Kip and I are generally on the same page.”
Last month, that “same page” included the names Josh Jung and Davis Wendzel. Neither was a high school pitcher, and both are big parts of the Texas Rangers future. At least that’s what Daniels hopes.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.