As you may have heard, the MLB amateur draft begins tonight. With the 11th pick overall, the White Sox have an opportunity to inject significant talent into their system and add another building block to the rebuilding effort.
However, you’ll notice that this space has not generated the usual draft coverage you’d anticipate–who did the White Sox work out? What do public evaluators think of various prospects in the high school and college ranks? What have reporters heard from anonymous scouts and front office personnel?
With all of the information available to us in 2017, it is easy to think we have enough knowledge to identify whether teams made mistakes or savvy moves and so on. And sometimes we do–Matt Hobgood seemed like a very dubious pick at #5 overall by the Orioles and guess what, it turned out he didn’t work out at all. On the other hand, high-profile, “safe,” college performers bust. Gordon Beckham and Dustin Ackley are pretty good examples of that. When it comes to Beckham in particular, whenever I hear analysts discussing how important wood bat leagues are to teams, I think of how Beckham dominated the Cap Cod League before the draft. Still didn’t matter. Sometimes a team could make the “right” decision based on what they know at the time and just get burned anyway. Sometimes a team is gambling on a high upside and it’s totally valid to do that, and the player doesn’t reach it, and that doesn’t mean the team necessarily made a “mistake” either.
From my own perspective, there are certainly profiles that I have my own opinion about, if not specific players, and how they fit with the developmental track record of particular organizations. As an example, if Carlos Rodon hadn’t been available to the White Sox, I thought Aaron Nola‘s fastball command, good change, and unusual delivery was a promising package for Chicago to work with given their history. I also think there is value to be had where the White Sox are picking because there’s less opportunity cost in drafting a positionally-challenged college bat at 11 as opposed to number one overall. Michael Conforto comes to mind as an example of how that can work out, and there appear to be some interesting bats in this draft class that may fit that description.
But beyond general profiles and what has leaked to the public, the draft really is a black box of mystery. Evaluating how amateur players will develop is one of the hardest possible things to do. For context, analysts aren’t sure how well Yoan Moncada will hit major league pitching and that’s after he’s had multiple years of annihilating minor league pitching under his belt. Go back through any outlet’s Top 100 prospects from 4+ years ago and remember some of those names and how poorly they worked out. Remember Delmon Young? Remember Brian Matusz? Remember Jesus Montero and Brett Jackson? Again, that’s in pro ball. So what do you do with a guy with tools that aren’t as loud or whose track record is instead against college competition, or even more difficult, against high school competition? These players are even further away than the difficult land of pro prospect scouting and evaluation.
Complicating things further, players’ stock rise and fall after individual outings in college. Evidently J.B. Bukauskas is having questions raised based on his mediocre showing of late, even though all pitchers struggle sometimes. It’s only one year later and Zack Collins seems to have drastically improved his defensive projection while he’s simultaneously struggling more with his bat than would have been anticipated, and so on.
None of this is to be construed as saying the draft is random, or that some teams don’t do better jobs scouting, developing, and strategizing for the draft–nor is it true that teams can’t have good luck and bad luck in terms of how the draft falls relative to their evaluations or budget. And as mentioned above, despite of all of this, I have my own hopes for what players may be available to the White Sox at 11 and further down in the draft.
Moreover, writers like John Manuel of Baseball America and Jim Callis at MLB.com are excellent at what they do, both in terms of their sourcing, and their own individual experience and acumen accrued over years of analyzing minor league and amateur talent. It’s absolutely worth reading what they have to say, and often very fun in addition to being informative as to specific players or general draft principles. Listening to the Baseball America podcast, you could learn, for example, that Byron Buxton had faced maybe one pitcher who was of junior college caliber in his playing days in high school prior to the draft and that was the best opposition he faced.
Instead, my point is that projecting players from amateurs to the pros is a ridiculously difficult. Baseball teams are massive corporations with huge budgets and entire staffs devoted purely to scouting amateur talent for a living and the overwhelming majority of first round picks bust anyway. To try to operate from multiple degrees of separation from that amount of access and expertise yields educated guesses at best.
If you were already following the draft–awesome! It’s really fun, and I will be right there with you monitoring tonight’s draft and immediately reading everything I haven’t already read on whomever the White Sox select and think about how they might fit into the organization’s future. I will probably be a huge hypocrite and start trying to project them! That said, if the White Sox draft someone who is a “reach” based on what you’ve seen in mock drafts, perhaps take a second and remember how much evaluators–really good evaluators!–can differ on a player’s future, and how long and winding of a road it is before they reach the majors, if they ever get there at all, and take solace in how much variance remains for basically every first rounder out there.
In conclusion, the White Sox should draft the next Mike Trout.
Image credit Rick Scuteri