What Goes on in Draft Rooms

The draft is in five days, which means that teams are beginning to gather in their respective war rooms to prepare. It’s an exceptionally busy and hectic time. Many clubs have already had smaller, regional meetings as well as private workouts for players, both en masse and of the individual variety. The magnets are all printed out and ready to go. It’s just time to line them up.

Small or Large?

Teams organize their war rooms in highly divergent ways, but the biggest current split revolves around just how big the room is in terms of attendance. Some teams only have crosscheckers and those with more senior titles attend meetings, while others bring in their entire scouting staff. During my time with the Astros, the team always conducted full-staff meetings, and the benefits were numerous and glaringly clear. Area scouts know these players better than anyone and have seen them more than anyone. They’ve talked to the player, and quite possibly the player’s family. They might have followed a college player since their high school days. They know their coaches and summer league managers. They’ve run into the player’s representative multiple times during the spring and had a few chit-chats with them. Even if theirs is not the most important pure talent evaluation (though it often is), the things area scouts bring to the table are immensely valuable. And beyond their considerable assistance throughout the entire draft process, there’s also the simple morale component. Area scouts have sacrificed their lives for six months. They’ve missed birthdays, anniversaries and little league games, recitals and parent-teacher conferences, and now they’re not allowed in the room? It never made any sense to me, and it feels like more and more teams are moving to an all-scout meeting, as they should.

Reviewing Players

The players have been seen all they are going to be seen. The models have been run. Some are purely performance-based, while others incorporate more advanced technology like Trackman or Rapsodo when available. Some also try to fold in scouting grades as part of a more holistic approach to generating a number. The magnets have been lined up in a general way, but open discussions about each player can move the needle. Video is played while the player is discussed. A scout goes through the player’s history, their 2021 season, what the players is good at and, just as importantly, what they aren’t. Questions are asked within the room. What is the player’s future defensive position? Did they change something mechanically? Is there physical projection? Analysts will chime in on how the data sees the player, and how they compare to their peers in terms of performance, spin rates, exit velocities and other metrics. Many players have done NFL combine-style work at showcases or private events, and sports scientists will chime in on the player’s overall athleticism. Makeup is also discussed.

Most Day One or Two candidates have had a sit down with the team. Some have been asked to fill out questionnaires and many have not only spoken to a scout at some point, but also a sports psychologist or mental skills specialist (the Dodgers have a program called “Strong Mind” that they lean on). Most of the talk revolves around how the player will adjust to professional baseball, how aware the player is of their own strengths and weaknesses, and what their work ethic and approach to the game is. The player’s medical history is reviewed. All draft-eligible players submit to a medical questionnaire administered by the league office, and many make imaging of important joints like elbows, shoulders, ankles and knees available as well. Sometimes a team comes away with minor concerns, while other medical histories can create more significant questions, even to the point of putting a player in a separate “do not draft” category due to long-term injury concerns. Signability is discussed, and the player’s representation is confirmed for if a call needs to be made prior to an impending pick. Has the player or agent given any indication of what it will take to sign? Some players are ready to go and will communicate back that they are good for slot money through a certain round. Others, usually high school talents, provide a specific number they will ask for regardless of draft position. All of these factors can play into moving a magnet up or down the board, and significant adjustments to teams’ rankings are made between the beginning of draft meetings and the day selections are made.

Draft Day

Look, draft day is just plain fun and exciting. Some teams have their entire staff in suits; good food is brought in. It’s a celebration of a job well done and the anticipation of adding new players to your organization is palpable. Behind the scenes, agents have been ringing scouts and executives all day to politic and posture for their clients. Some take the calls, others let them go to voice mail; I know of one executive who turns his phone off from the morning of Day One until the first pick is made. By this time, the board is lined up and teams have spoken to the clubs ahead of them to help assess who might and might not be available by the time they are put on the clock. Some teams are forthcoming with such rumor-mill level information, others not so much. The day drags, and it feels like it takes forever for the draft to actually start in the early evening. For teams with late first round picks, there’s another two or three hours to wait between the first pick and their selection.

Then the draft finally begins. Some people are assigned magnet duty, removing each player’s magnet from the board after their name is called in order to avoid the massive embarrassment of selecting a player who has already been drafted. Picks are entered on a computer via MLB’s eBIS system, then confirmed, then announced to the public. As picks come off the board, the set of players teams are thinking about for their first pick starts to dwindle. Sometimes there are still multiple options, sometimes just one, and sometimes teams have to improvise, though rarely to the point of desperation. Everyone lines up players differently and if a team picking 15th lines up their top 15 players, chances are good that between evaluation differences and signability picks ahead of them, three to seven of those first 15 are going to be on the board for them.

As a team’s pick approaches, it’s almost time for outgoing calls to begin. There is a strategy to timing here: you don’t want to start too soon and give an agent too much time to shop your offer around, but you don’t want to start too late because you need to allow some room to get a deal done. And let’s be clear. The overwhelming majority of picks you hear on Day One of the draft are made with both sides having already agreed upon a bonus before the selection. There are reasonable rules provided by MLB as to how you’re allowed to frame those negotiations, but there is still plenty of room to allow the process to play out as it does. With somewhere between five and 15 minutes to go, the calls begin. Messaging from both sides of the table can vary wildly, but most parties are honest in their responses. Often, subtle pressure is applied by teams in the form of, “We have three guys lined up and we’re offering X dollars. You’re our top guy for this offer, but if you decline, we’re going to move to the next player on our list.” The most frequent response from agents is, “I’ll call you back in a couple of minutes.” From there, agents can respond with “yes,” “no,” a counter offer, or more information, such as “Don’t worry about my player, he’s going to go a couple picks ahead of you,” or “Don’t take my player, he has a better offer in terms of money behind you.”

Once a deal is agreed upon, the pick is made and there are handshakes all around, especially for the area scout, who will now be entered as the signing scout upon execution of the contract. Scouts want their players to be drafted and have an emotional investment in them. They want those handshakes and often advocate hard for their players, but they also have to be fair to the overall player pool. Often the best advice an evaluator can provide is to tell a team not to take a player rather than push to select them.

The first day is a whirlwind, but most teams only make one or two selections. Day Two, consisting of rounds two through 10, is more hectic due to the more limited time between picks but the process stays the same. And magnet duty becomes even more of a priority on Day Three, when there is no time between picks. Prior to each day, players of interest are once again reviewed in terms of signability, as some high school players now disappointed with their outlook inform teams that they are going to school, while others, mostly of the college variety, lower their price in order to ensure a selection that is attached to a bonus slot.

The Aftermath

Once the draft is finally over, and everyone has time to take a deep breath (about five minutes or so), the administrative functions kick in. Contracts have to be generated and signed, with some area scouts driving out to a player’s home to get ink on paper quickly and ensure that the verbal agreements are honored. Physicals need to be scheduled, with top picks usually going to the ballpark for a press conference and photo op on the field, while later-round picks usually head to a team’s spring training site to get the process initiated. In the background, player development is working to decide affiliate assignments for their signed players. The influx of fresh faces has a depressing flip side to it, as the beginning of multiple career always results in the endings of others. In the weeks following the draft, player releases — which remind everyone that most picks don’t work out — come fast and furious.

The 2021 Amateur Draft will be the second-shortest ever at 20 rounds. Team personnel have put their hearts and souls into the process for the last six months, but preparations have been going on for more than a year, and the 2022 process has already begun with college summer leagues and the high school showcase circuit already well underway. The picks themselves go past like the blink of an eye, but as the process ends, new baseball careers begin and the cycle always starts anew. Actually, it already has.





Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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Thelongball24
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Thelongball24

Nice work, Kevin. I am a former agent and I can attest to the fast and furious minutes leading up to the pick. The worst is when the phone simply doesn’t ring when you thought (or had been told) it was going to. I was also blown away when a team that never had a local scout present took our guy… and it happened more than you would think… especially after round three. That was 20 years ago so I imagine things have changed a bit… but the excitement remains the same.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas

Would you mind elaborating on the agent side of things? Like a parallel timeline to this.

Joser
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Joser

Twenty years ago is ancient history in this business. I mean, that was before Brad Pitt even wrote that book that became the meme about Ron Washington telling Chris Pratt how incredibly hard it is to learn to play first base.

Thelongball24
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Thelongball24

Antonio… Joser is some bit correct, things have changed a lot from the early 2000’s. However, as agents (and I worked for a very large agency that you have heard of), we spent the years leading up to the draft being a little like a college coach. We spent lots of time at high schools, colleges and showcases scouting the players, talking to scouts, and meeting families. I even got sent to scout school (I don’t even know if the Bureau exists anymore). By the time the draft rolled around, we had invested 24 months or more trying to find the right guys to represent and convince them to trust us with their futures. Remember, 24 months in advance it is often hard to tell a 5th rounder from a 1st rounder. So we advised guys across the spectrum.

In the weeks of before the draft and the relationships are locked in, we were on the phones nonstop. The teams would talk to us as advisors and also talk the directly to the families or the kid themselves. The scouts also talk to each other. Coordinating, filtering, and sorting through the information while staying on a coordinated message was important. The relationships with the scouts and front office are integral. They want to know what you are hearing from other orgs and you want to know what they are thinking. Those relationships are key. Your job as an agent is to FILTER and not let the families get too excited or too down. You need to talk to each family and each player about their intentions/desires about playing/signing and at what thresholds. Real discussions – so that you can have real discussions with the teams. There is some posturing “I really like the idea of going to Stanford” – but most of the team appreciate straight shooting. As an. advisor, you create a reputation of straight talk, it will only help your players in the long run.

By the time of the draft, you have an idea as to where roughly in the draft your guys is gonna get popped. For instance, you have intel that your guy is projected mid-to late 1st but if “Royals” get a shot they will take him at 12 and if they don’t then they might slide to Dodgers at 28. Honestly, back then we had some major publications doing mocks… but we were hesitant to use those much as we had our own draft boards with our own intel.

On draft day, we often deployed our people to go to the houses of players while someone manned the mother ship to coordinate everyone. Lots of cell phone calls and hopefully, celebration. The surprises happen… and sometimes you are consoling a “lock first rounder” that falling to the fifth round is still incredible (you are elite) but a full scholarship to ACC college is a better platform than signing with the team. Lots of emotions. I used to always tell my guys to not get too high or low… they have work left to do.

Kevin… have things changed much? I hear that my old group has an analytics group now but I imagine our war room with the maps and dry erase boards still looks the same.