The 2020 Draft Primer

Like many of you, since March I’ve been experiencing time dilation while interacting with the gravity of our global situation. The pandemic itself, as well as the institutional frailty — and human stupidity and ugliness — it has exposed has been, to borrow a prospect writing cliche, eye opening. Unless you tied your sheets together and rappelled out of your socially distanced bedroom window to CSBI or a Prep Baseball Report event over the weekend (which I would find distasteful but also be extremely jealous of), it has somehow been three months since anyone in our industry has seen live baseball. It has felt like forever and an instant all at once. For those who derive their sense of self from the game, or who use it as a three-and-a-half hour respite from the daily drone, I imagine baseball would have been an especially welcome refuge from the global circumstances that have instead become psychologically unavoidable in its absence.

I’m hopeful we’ll get our collective acts together and that eventually there will be some better long-term outcomes for our planet as a result of this, but right now it sucks. And so here’s a two-day dose of what you need: a draft. Like everything else it has been altered, maybe forever, and it will feel bizarre to those who have been through the exercise before, but it’s still a draft. The entire industry has had to feel around in the dark looking for ways to deal with the many quandaries that arose as a result of the shutdown. Not everyone is going to have solved them. That will make the draft interesting and entertaining. The lives of many young people and their families will change for the better this week, either instantly or as their careers blossom. Some of the players drafted tomorrow will become so good that your grandchildren will know their names. It’s an unavoidably optimistic exercise. I hope you enjoy it and that this piece and the other work here at FanGraphs helps you engage with it on a deeper level.

My player evaluations and rankings are here. My latest mock draft is here.

Information Asymmetry and its Impacts

The timing of the national shutdown not only means that some players’ seasons never began, but also that people with early-round decision-making clout in draft rooms had just four weekends to see players (six if they caught JUCO action out of the chute). Teams always prefer more information, be it data or scouting reports, and team personnel agree that a contingent of high schoolers, mostly from cold weather locations, have more volatile draft stock because some teams just aren’t comfortable taking them without having seen them for eight months. My thoughts on that can be found in my first mock.

Here are the players in my top 50 to whom I think this applies:

  • Ed Howard, SS, Mount Carmel HS (IL)
  • Nick Bitsko, RHP, Central Bucks East HS (PA)
  • Tanner Witt, RHP, Episcopal HS (TX)
  • Justin Lange, RHP, Llano HS (TX)

Howard’s high school team had a couple of practices. Bitsko threw one bullpen in front of about a third of the teams. Witt and Lange were tougher to see because Texas had so many other options. This was particularly true for Lange, who often threw on the same night as Jarred Kelly, who entered the year with way more profile.

But the converse is true for the players who decision makers did see in February and early March. There were a few early-season tournaments in locations so dense with talent that I think it’s fair to assume every team had important eyeballs there, and that prominent players’ performances at those events underpinned people’s opinions about them. Teams who played in Arizona during the first few weeks of the season (Vanderbilt, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Minnesota), teams that played in South Florida during Week 2 of the season (the Miami vs. Florida matchup was the core of that weekend), and teams at the Shriners Classic in Houston (Arkansas, Baylor, Oklahoma Texas, LSU, Missouri) are all virtual locks to have been seen by heavy-hitting execs.

Windfall Clubs

Here are the teams with the most picks and pool space; they’re almost guaranteed to have good drafts barring something catastrophic:

  • Orioles: $13,894,300 (2, 30, 39, 74)
  • Tigers: $13,325,700 (1, 38, 62, 73)
  • Royals: $12,521,300 (4, 32, 41, 76)
  • Marlins: $12,016,900 (3, 40, 61, 75)
  • Pirates: $11,154,500 (7, 31, 44, 79)
  • Padres: $10,674,000 (8, 34, 45, 80)
  • Rockies: $10,339,700 (9, 35, 46, 81)
  • Mariners: $10,265,500 (6, 43, 64, 78)

Arizona, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay once again have the distinction of picking later in Round One and then again in the first Competitive Balance round, which gives them more obvious financial flexibility at their first pick than the other teams picking toward the back of the first. It makes them potential land mines for any particular prospect who one of the big pool teams above them is trying to float to their pick in the comp round. High school pitching is often the target in these scenarios, and Cleveland (Ethan Hankins, Brady Aiken) and Tampa (Matthew Liberatore) both have recent histories of scooping up prep arms who fell unexpectedly.

Additionally, the Cardinals (who have a Competitive Balance B pick and a FA comp pick at 63 and 70, respectively) have extra flexibility, and pick at 21.

Landon Knack and Valuing Relievers

One player who might be a priority underslot target is East Tennessee State senior reliever Landon Knack. Knack is a reliever who had a velo spike this year, his fastball now living in the 93-95 range with carry through the zone. He struck out 51 and walked just one hitter in 25 innings before the shutdown and if a team considers him a quick-moving bullpen piece, he could come off the board early to help facilitate overslot signings later in the draft.

Pitchers who only project as relievers will likely be valued more highly in this draft than ever before. Not only is the league moving toward deploying pitching in ways that more evenly allocate innings across their entire staff (meaning relievers throw more innings and become more important, while 200-inning starters mostly go away) but the taxi squad model of the theoretical 2020 season means some of these guys might pitch in the big leagues this year. Teams are likely to want a handful of their best prospects not on their 40-man to be on the taxi squad for developmental purposes, and some of the power college arms who go in the first two rounds of this year’s draft could be fits. They might also represent upgrades to the relievers on contending teams’ rosters. Philadelphia, especially with the Seranthony Domínguez surgery news, comes to mind.

Where Undrafted Players Diffuse

College rosters are going to overflow with players who aren’t drafted and return to school, presenting some programs with an insufficient number of scholarships for those players. Many of these situations will be resolved by players transferring, either to Division I schools where they think they have an opportunity for playing time later, or to junior colleges where they’d be draft eligible again next year. Sources told me this week that Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball is also interested in acquiring undrafted players for signing bonuses in the $200,000-$300,000 range, and that Japanese teams are specifically looking for college pitchers with arm strength, as big velo is rare in NPB.

There will only be so many fits from a talent, baseball incentive, and cultural adjustment standpoint, but it does present an interesting opportunity for players to bet on themselves and try to hit big league free agency sooner than they would if they played domestic minor league ball. Remember, players from foreign leagues are subject to the pool restrictions of MLB’s international signing rules unless they’ve played six seasons abroad. If a college player were to go to Japan this year and pitch well for the next several seasons as Carter Stewart hopes to do, he’d be an unrestricted free agent as a 27 or 28 year old. If a college pitcher signs with an MLB club, it will likely take a few years before he’s added to the 40-man, and another few months before he’s added to the active roster and his service clock is started, then it’s another six years before he finally becomes a free agent. Pitchers who belong in the fourth or fifth round on talent, even if an MLB team wants to take them, might want to consider Japan, because the eventual payoff of free agency at age 27 or 28 compared to 30 or older, would be significant.

Seniors and Weirdos in Fourth and Fifth rounds

In a normal draft year, seniors typically start coming off the board toward the end of Day 2, in rounds eight through 10. Even though there are more talented players available, these guys are picked and given small bonuses for reasons related to pool space. That’s still likely to happen this year even though the draft is only five rounds, so there will probably be some players picked in rounds four and five who haven’t been ranked or written about anywhere, be they small school seniors with weird deliveries or interesting pitch data, or guys who had strong stats at big schools. This makes it more likely that on-merit fourth and fifth round college pitchers are available to be courted by NPB.

Post-Draft Signs

Some of the seniors who go in rounds four and five may get $25,000 or $30,000, a little bump in exchange for the agency they’d be able to exercise if they’d have gone undrafted and been able to pick their employer. Those who aren’t drafted but still want to sign are only allowed to do so for a maximum of $20,000. Agents I’ve spoken with will seek to place these players with teams that they think have better player development, but those teams are also the ones less likely to have minor league roster spots for someone willing to sign for that bonus amount.

Teams whose player dev departments are more heavily involved in the draft process are probably better able to identify which potential $20,000 sign represents an upgrade to what they have at the bottom of their system. It’s possible Oakland’s initial decision not to pay their minor leaguers will impact agents’ and players’ willingness to play ball with them, but they’re also one of the teams that could probably use an injection of talent in the lower levels of the minors, as my recent A’s Top Prospects list shows.

We hoped you liked reading The 2020 Draft Primer by Eric Longenhagen!

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Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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Eric, as always, thanks for the knowledge.