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Examining Possible Arizona Draft Strategies

With seven selections on the first night of the draft, what might the Diamondbacks do?

The 2019 MLB draft is a strange one in many ways. First and most importantly, the Arizona Diamondbacks have seven picks on the first night of the draft. However, there a number of other points about this draft that set it apart from other, recent drafts. Notably, this draft has some elite impact talent at the top, but then falls off into a large pool of very talented prospects with bust floors but strong ceilings. College pitching, which usually comprises close to half of the first round talent, is possibly the weakest category in this year’s draft. This draft is highlighted by college bats. It also includes not one, but two, no-doubt first round catchers with zero questions about their ability to stick behind the plate. The consensus first pick of the draft, Adley Rutschman, is considered the most complete catching prospect to enter the draft since some no-name schmuck the Giants drafted named Buster Posey. If not for the presence of Rutschman, Shea Langeliers would be the best catching prospect to enter the draft since that same guy who was so bad at his job the Giants eventually had to put him on first base instead. (Note to SBN, we need a sarcasm font for articles.) There is more ceiling in the prep arms than there is in the prep bats, but there are many more prep bats than arms, which is unusual.

With the atypical nature of this draft and the massive warchest the Diamondbacks have to work with, pegging a particular draft strategy for the team is, to say the least, complicated. However, there are a few things which can be relied upon when trying to prognosticate what Mike Hazen & Company will do. First, drafting for need is not a viable long-term strategy in MLB drafts, Given Hazen’s solid focus on building a better future for Arizona baseball, it is safe to assume he will not fall into this trap. Therefore, even though one can look at Arizona’s 25-man roster and immediately identify some glaring needs, any player drafted that fits one of those needs would likely be doing so out of coincidence. If nothing else, even the best draft candidates are likely to take at least two seasons (if not three) to arrive. Also, as we saw last season with Matt McLain, the Diamondbacks are not willing to mess about with draft signing penalties. While Arizona has the warchest to afford going over-slot on a number draft bonuses, don’t expect them to do so. It’s a fairly safe bet that anyone drafted will be asked to come in at or below the slotted bonus amount, allowing Arizona to go big on one (or more) players in the 11th and possibly 12th rounds of the draft, where the team is allowed to offer big money, so long as everything over $125,000 can be covered by leftover bonus pool money.

So, what are some possible draft scenarios? Listed below are some of the more likely possibilities and what such drafts might look like, in general terms. Later in this series, there will be closer looks at some of the more likely specific draft targets for Arizona on night one of the draft.

Safe and Carefully Measured

This particular strategy, if followed, would likely be the least exciting and also most disappointing for Arizona fans. With so many first night picks, it is easy to fall in love with the idea of adding three, four, maybe even five big-league players all from one draft, all who could come up together at the same time. While this sounds grand, the way that this strategy works is to take players with decently high floors but with marginal ceilings. These are players who have nearly developed into their full potential already. While this still doesn’t sound horrible, the end result winds up being a team full of Wilmer Floreses and Daniel Descalsos. Still, Daniel Descalso is a solid MLB player and having several of him in the system allows for the team to, in the future, trade to fill other areas of need while maintaining a steady pipeline of MLB talent that can be relied upon to be replacement level at worst. It’s not a sexy way to go about business. Nor is it foolproof. After all, Pavin Smith was a quintessential “safe and measured” pick. As regular readers of the Snake Pit are very aware, despite being the safe pick with little risk, Smith has still managed to be a bust.

It seems unlikely that Arizona will go this route. With such a large warchest, it feels almost criminal not to swing for the fences at least once or twice. However, igf they do take this approach, expect them to grab some college bats with the first couple of picks before pivoting to the best available prep bats and then college pitching. One exception might be if Carter Stewart, RHP, Eastern Florida State JC were to be available at #16 for the Diamondbacks (more on Stewart later).

Some likely names associated with this strategy would be:
Kameron Misner, RF, Missouri; Michael Busch, 1B, North Carolina; Kody Hoese, 3B, Tulane

Go Big or Go Home

This is the strategy likely to generate the most excitement among fans and is the one that many might recommend. After all, it provides the opportunity for the team to land multiple, high-impact talents all at once, almost instantly creating a core around which a future team can be built. This strategy relies upon taking prep talents with massive tools and enticing them to play ball instead of going to college. The drawback to this strategy is an easy one to see. Drafting prep talent is a crap-shoot at best when talking about non-elite talent that falls out of the top-10. While it would indeed be possible that Arizona could wind up drafting a Touki Toussaint and a Noah Syndergaard, to go along with a shiny new Christian Yelich, the chances are grossly more in favor of the team drafting seven Anfernee Griers, Socrates Britos, and Stryker Trahans.

Leveraging Signability Concerns

This particular strategy is one that many are predicting the Diamondbacks will pursue. In many ways, it makes a great deal of sense. The biggest thing that having the largest warchest in this year’s draft allows them to do is, to go grab prep talent that wants to get paid and paid well, who other teams are uncomfortable with giving that amount of cash to. At the same time though, this can be a very trick strategy. It also only take misjudging the ability to sign any one of the picks in the top ten rounds for the entire scheme to fall to pieces. Should the team fail to sign a player, the team looses all the money associated with that slot, meaning any trickle-down money to be spent on other prospects would also be gone. There are other pitfalls as well. As mentioned above, Arizona is not likely to be eager to go over-slot when handing out bonuses. Even if they do choose to do so, they will almost certainly attempt to stay under the 5% threshold. This means that someone like Jack Leiter, with a rumoured hard demand of $4 million would still be out of reach until the 11th round, providing numerous opportunities for other teams to roll the dice on him. Lastly, there is the matter of quantity. There are only so many prep talents that are going to be lured away from college by the signing bonuses Arizona has available. Eventually, when Arizona is picking in the 6tth-10th rounds, the incentive is simply not going to be as strong. Additionally, for some of the bigger signability concern prospects, money is not the only consideration. Again, Jack Leiter is an example. Not only does he have a high minimum dollar figure, but word has it that there are only a few teams he would be willing to accept the money from over the option of honoring his commitment to Vanderbilt.

Some names that will be tied to the Diamondbacks at some point with regard to this strategy are:

Quinn Priester, RHP; Matthew Allan, RHP; Corbin Carroll, CF; and Anthony Volpe, SS

Start Small and Finish Big

Where the Diamondbacks can realize the biggest advantage of having such a large bonus pool is in the 11th, 12th, and possibly even the 13th rounds. The 11th round is the round where teams with leftover bonus money are able to make a big splash. There is no cap on how much a player taken after the 10th round can be offered. The only restriction is that anything over $125,000 must be covered by the team’s remaining bonus pool.

The key to the entire scheme is having money left over to use in those later rounds. While the Diamondbacks do indeed have the most money to spend in the draft, it is an accumulation of all the slot bonuses. The more the team drops below a slot bonus to save some money, the harder it is to get premium talent associated with the slot to sign. In order to account for this, teams tend to use a combination of two strategies. First, they reach down a bit in the draft, selecting someone about 10 slots higher than they were expected to go. The team can then offer significantly more than the draftee was expected to receive, but still come in under the total slot value. The second way is to draft college seniors. College seniors, unless they are truly among the uber-elite, get the shaft when it comes to signing bonuses.Without the leverage of going back to college, teams regularly offer up a paltry $50,000 signing bonus to seniors. Even as far down as the Diamondbacks pick at #122, this sort of offering saves them $419,000. That’s a hefty amount that can be tacked on to the $125,000 non-bonus cap on selections made after the 10th round. Multiply that by three, four, or even five, and suddenly the team has a few million dollars to toss at some prep talents, paying as though they were first or second rounders without worrying about the slot value.

If the Diamondbacks do go down this road (and it is my personal opinion that this is the most likely scenario), then they can be expected to begin the draft by taking the best possible talent with the $16 pick. After that, they would likely start hunting for decent quality but non-spectacular talents, especially college senior arms. Taking a chance on some players anywhere from one to three rounds early will allow the Diamondbacks to still select from the best of the tier they are choosing from and then still not offer the full slot value. What the team does in rounds 2 - 10 would be dictated largely by how aggressive they wish to get with their signability targets.

The players most likely to be associated with this strategy are mostly the same names that are listed above when going after prospects with signability concerns. The difference here is, the team can be expected to load up on college talent early.

Some intriguing names to consider at #16 in this scenario:

Shea Langeliers, C, Baylor; Carter Stewart, RHP, Eastern Florida JC; George Kirby, RHP, Elon; Josh Jung, 3B, Texas Tech; Kameron Misner, RF, Missouri

The team could also elect to use the slot to go straight at a signability player assuming the expected price is under $4 million, since the slot value plus 5% falls just short of that number.

Regardless of what Arizona plans, draft day is always a fluid situation. It only takes one or two teams near the top doing something unexpected to entirely blow up even the best-laid strategies.

Next up: Cautionary Tales About Draft Bonanzas