Reds and Mets Game the MLB Draft System

Baseball teams continue to search for whatever edge they can find when it comes to bringing cheap, talented players into their organizations. The draft is one of the easiest ways for teams to accumulate talent, as clubs take turns picking the best amateur players in the country, and the Commissioner’s office, as authorized by the CBA between the players and owners, tells teams how much they are allowed to spend. Most amateur players have very little leverage, and generally sign for the recommended slot amount. Because individual draft picks receive a slotted amount, but teams are allowed to spend their entire draft pool in whatever manner they choose, money often gets moved around pick-to-pick, with those players with less leverage receiving much less than the slot amount for their pick while those players with some leverage getting quite a bit more. This year, the Reds, Mets, White Sox, and Marlins all appear to be moving significant money around in an effort to manipulate the draft system to their benefit. Is it worth it though?

While every team moves money around in the draft, these four clubs stood out for drafting hard-to-sign prep players in the early rounds, then taking college seniors with multiple picks later in the first 10 rounds. Presumably, the college senior picks will sign for amounts significantly under their slot value (you can find all the slot values here), meaning the savings can be used to sign the prep players who threatened to go to college if their bonus demands are not met. Here are the teams, players, slot amounts, and the number of senior signs for each team.

Potential Overslot Draft Picks
Team Player Pick Slot Senior Signs
White Sox Andrew Dalquist 81 $755,300 6
Reds Tyler Callihan 85 $710,700 3
Mets Matthew Allan 89 $667,900 7
Marlins Evan Fitterer 141 $390,400 7

All four players are likely to require more than their draft slot provides in order to sign a contract with their drafting teams. Tyler Callihan has reportedly agreed to a deal for $1.5 million. Allan is rumored to have an asking price of about $3 million, which might be why the Mets selected seniors with seven picks in the first 10 rounds. The slot for Evan Fitterer is pretty low, requiring the Marlins to make sacrifices with many of their subsequent picks. We don’t yet know exactly what it will take to sign all of the players listed, but we do have an idea of how much value teams gave up in later rounds, as well as the expected value of the players who were picked.

To determine the value given up, or the value the player needs to be worth in order to make up for the value lost, we perform the following analysis. First, we have the expected value of the draft picks where the teams purposely took lesser players to give a lower bonus. We will subtract the expected value of the players drafted in those slots. For the 443 players who made THE BOARD, one million dollars was set for their value, equivalent to a player taken in the 11-20th rounds. For players not on THE BOARD, $400,000 was set as the value, equivalent to a pick in rounds 21-30. Then we add the value of the pick where the overslot player was taken if we were to assume the team had played it straight instead of taking a more talented, higher-cost player. This number should help provide a break-even point for whether sacrificing multiple picks is worth it. All values are from my prior research on draft pick values.

Value Lost With Senior Signs
Team Player Value of Punted Picks Value of Seniors Picked Net Loss on Seniors Value of Overslot Pick Break-even Value Hypothetical Break-even Pick/Rank
White Sox Andrew Dalquist $11.0 M $2.4 M $8.6 M $3.8 M $12.4 M 24
Reds Tyler Callihan $5.5 M $1.8 M $3.3 M $3.8 M $7.5 M 40
Mets Matthew Allan $14.8 M $4.6 M $10.2 M $3.8 M $14.0 M 21
Marlins Evan Fitterer $16.1 M $5.2 M $10.9 M $2.5 M $13.4 M 22

Keep in mind that it is possible some of the money saved will end up going to picks after the 10th round, where bonuses are capped at $125,000 unless teams use leftover money from the first 10 rounds. Teams also might have gone underslot at other picks in the first 10 rounds without it being an obvious senior sign player, which would increase the sacrifice a team made without making it in the above table. It’s also possible some of the senior signs have values above or below where they are ranked, but this should provide a general idea about what teams gave up to go overslot. The hypothetical pick is the spot where the value of the pick meets the break-even value of the pick given up. For the Reds, if Tyler Callihan is one of the top 40 players in the draft, then the Reds’ senior sign sacrifices are worth it. The other three players need higher valuations for the teams to break even.

While the teams certainly have their internal valuations, we have ours to provide a comparison, as well as those from Baseball America, MLB, and Keith Law at ESPN. First, this is where Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel ranked these players ahead of the draft, the pick value for that rank, and the difference between the break-even value and FanGraphs’ value.

Value Gained With Overslot Picks
Team Player FG Rank FG Value Break-even Value Value Gained
White Sox Andrew Dalquist 101 $2.8 M $12.4 M -$9.6 M
Reds Tyler Callihan 25 $12.0 M $7.5 M $4.5 M
Mets Matthew Allan 20 $14.8 M $14.0 M $800,000
Marlins Evan Fitterer 94 $3.8 M $13.4 M -$9.6 M

Based on the information above without much context, it appears the Reds did very well to nab Callihan and the Mets did well to get Allan, but the White Sox and Marlins’ decisions are a bit more curious. There are some potential mitigating factors for the Marlins and White Sox, including late-round overslot picks, senior signs carrying more value than shown here, or simply a much higher valuation on the players they picked. The White Sox took three prep players among their first four picks. To provide slightly more context, here is an industry average from multiple draft evaluators.

Value Gained With Overslot Picks
Team Player FG Rank BA Ranks KLAW MLB AVG Industry Value Break-even Value Value Gained
White Sox Andrew Dalquist 101 67 45 65 70 $3.8 M $12.4 M -$8.6 M
Reds Tyler Callihan 25 37 40 35 34 $9.0 M $7.5 M $1.5 M
Mets Matthew Allan 20 16 11 13 15 $18.4 M $14.0 M $4.4 M
Marlins Evan Fitterer 94 60 UN 74 90? $3.8 M $13.4 M $-9.6 M

This is a relatively simple way to try to determine whether the overslot players are worth the sacrifices at other points in the draft. The draft isn’t a crapshoot, but rankings aren’t completely rigid as different teams and scouts see different things and evaluate players in different ways. From a relatively objective standpoint, it looks like the White Sox and Marlins gave up too much value to potentially sign overslot players, while the Mets and Reds did quite well. It should also be noted that the Padres had multiple senior signs in their top 10 rounds, but they might be trying to sign overslot players in rounds 11 and later. To make up what they have sacrificed, they would need to sign a couple of third or fourth round value players or one player among the top 50, i.e. Maurice Hampton. As Longenhagen and McDaniel noted in their review of the draft, the Cubs opted for some easier signs early in order to take younger prep players later. Both playing it straight and shifting money around have their advantages, but one isn’t necessarily better than another. Teams might look smarter by moving money around and getting better talent later than they would have otherwise, but all strategies aren’t the same, and they should be evaluated independently to better understand a team’s process.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

I think these teams have the optimal draft strategy. I think Jim Callis at MLBPipeline said that normally in a draft, only 30 players or so surpass the 2WAR threshold for their MLB careers. (It might have been only 1WAR, iirc.) If that’s true, then I think you want to front-load your draft with the best prospects possible.

The Mets and Reds did particularly well here in picking Allan and Callihan whom the media consensus loves. The White Sox and Marlins like Dalquist and Fitterer better than the media consensus, but I haven’t heard them panned by the media. It seems there’s a general consensus of who the best draftees are, but uncertainty about the order. (Certainly more so than the NFL or NBA drafts.) Over time, we’ll see if the ChiSox or Marlins were smarter than the consensus. Most likely though, none of these 4 players will achieve even 2WAR for their MLB careers but I think they have a better chance than picking guys who would accept only the slot money would have.

Anthony Princeton
4 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

Maybe I am missing something but why only mention the other prep players in passing? “The White Sox took three prep players among their first four picks.” Isn’t this a major component of their overall draft strategy which appears to be left out of the analysis? The other players are Matthew Thompson taken at 45 and James Beard, the fastest player in the draft at 110. There was also prep players Victor Torres in the 11th round and Misael González Acosta in the 12th round. I would be surprised if any of these players didn’t sign.

4 years ago

Craig is focusing on the 4 players who are known to have top-half-of-the-first-round slot demands and have the leverage to actually have the demands met. Matthew Thompson and James Beard may go slightly above slot, but not as dramatically as the 4 Craig identifies.

Anthony Princeton
4 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

I see. It should also be noted that the White Sox went over slot last year to sign prep Bryce Bush taken in the 33rd round. An unexpected signing. This year they drafted Chase Krogman 34th round and Logan Britt 35th round. Prep players requiring over slot bonuses. We shall see how it plays out.

4 years ago

Every team takes fliers on guys and sometimes they get lucky that guys who wanted a lot of money suddenly drop their demands and decide to sign with a team rather than go to college to play.

4 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

I think this also means that Craig’s study on draft pick value underestimates the 2nd-10th round picks since it doesn’t take into account the value of moving slot money around to take 1st-Round or 2nd-Round quality picks in the 3rd-10th rounds. If that’s true, I think it underscores why teams elected to wait on signing Kimbrel and Keuchel until after the draft. Adding slot money to the inherent value of the draft picks make the picks too valuable to forego even for teams with low picks in the rounds.

4 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

I’m not following this draft strategy of going back to high school players in early rounds, and why drafting college seniors is considered less valuable than taking a shot on a high school kid.

Two of the Mets most notable players (Conforto and Alonso) are college athletes. They were drafted and within 3 years were playing on the big league team, and it seemed like that was the way the team was going under Alderson. By the time a player is 22-23 years old, you can see how they’ve developed and can get a pretty good feel on whether or not they will be able to make it in the bigs. And when they get called up at 24-25, you own them through their age 30-31 season, which covers their prime years.

Contrast this to a 17-18 year old kid who isn’t even done growing into his own body, and it just seems like everything is a crapshoot. Their 1st round draft HS pick Nimmo was talked about as 4th OF material by scouts as recently as 2017.

Yea, you probably won’t find the next Mike Trout by going after collegiate athletes, but you also won’t strike out as much and you don’t have to try to project how you will manage your young talent in 5-8 years.

Yet this article seems to say that collegiate athletes are much less desirable. I don’t get it. And then we want to throw in that many high school draftees opt out to go to college, which essentially ends up with the teams wasting their picks, so the organization is going to offer over a million dollars to these high school kids (over $3M to Allan specifically), who still may never grow/develop enough to make it in big league baseball.

Anyone care to explain what I’m missing? Because I read this and conclude that the teams spending all this money to keep high school players around from early draft picks in lieu of drafting quality collegiate athletes are being really, really dumb.

4 years ago
Reply to  metsies

The difference between drafting Conforto / Alonso and the seniors the Mets took is that Conforto and most highly valued college kids come into the draft after their junior years so they have some leverage in negotiations. A college senior, as noted in the article, can usually be signed for below slot value. That will open up ability to pay over-slot money to players like Allan. Generally speaking, high school players have proven to be higher ceiling, higher risk picks than great college (junior) players. So the article is differentiating between a college senior, a college junior and a high school player.