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2021 Arizona Diamondbacks Draft Preview: Surveying the Board and Process

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Weighing best player available versus highest ceiling and other considerations.

Back here, where this series began, I identified a number of names which seemed relevant to the discussion of what sorts of choices the Diamondbacks would have to make when the #6 overall pick in the draft arrived. In this installment, it’s time to take a look at how I arrived at some of my conclusions and also to evaluate just how the decision-making process looks when applied to the talent that will be on the board on July 11th.

Editorial note: This is more a process piece than anything else. If you are reading this looking for more detailed insights on each of the players reviewed, I’ll save you the time here and now and let you know that you can just skip to the conclusion section at the end.

When trying to discern what reality might look like at #6, there are four major areas of concern; Best Player Available vs Highest Ceiling, College vs Prep, Signing Bonus Strategy, and Other. Here, for ease of reference, are the 12 players from the initial introduction identified as candidates to keep an eye on ranked by Baseball America and (Fangraphs):

1- Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt (1)
2- Jordan Lawler, SS, Dallas Jesuit HS (5)
3- Kumar Rocker, RHP, Vanderbilt (2)
4- Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake HS (7)
5- Henry Davis, C, Louisville (11)
6- Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow HS (9)
7- Sal Frelick, OF, Boston College (12)
8- Ty Madden, RHP, Texas (10)
9- Gunnar Hoglund, RHP, Mississippi*
10- Khalil Watson, SS, Wake Forest HS (4)
11- Jackson Jobe, RHP, Heritage Halls HS (29)
12- Matt McLain, SS, UCLA (3)
*Gunnar Hoglund is recovering from recent Tommy John surgery, complicating his position.

Let’s jump right in.

Best Player Available vs Highest Ceiling

These two categories often have a great deal of overlap. As a rule of thumb, the lower one drops down the draft board, the more these two categories look alike. However, in the top-15 or so picks (depending on the draft) while the names may mostly match up, the order can become quite jumbled.

Ranking this draft’s prospects either by BPA or ceiling alone, results in different lists of 12 names than those already listed above. For ease of presentation though, we will restrict the scope to just those 12 names (plus a few others to consider in the conclusion). Of course, these lists are very subjective. For the rest of this exercise, we will be using my personal rankings. Here is what BPA vs Ceiling looks like in terms of ordering.

  1. Henry Davis/Henry Davis
  2. Jack Leiter/Jackson Jobe
  3. Jordan Lawlar/Khalil Watson
  4. Marcelo Mayer/Jack Leiter
  5. Kumar Rocker/Jordan Lawlar
  6. Jackson Jobe /Marcelo Mayer
  7. Brady House/Kumar Rocker
  8. Sal Frelick/Brady House
  9. Ty Madden/Gunnar Hoglund
  10. Matt McLain/Sal Frelick
  11. Khalil Watson/Ty Madden
  12. Gunnar Hoglund/Matt McLain

Out of 12 potential names, only numbers one ranks the same. For high ceiling, the upper echelons usually belong to prep players. Those are the players with plenty of raw, explosive tools that still need a lot of work and for development to go right. Whereas, on the BPA side of things, teams are usually looking for a solid mix of tools plus established development.

College vs Prep

There really is very little to discuss here. College players are typically more physically mature and tend to have faced stiffer competition. They are far and away the easier of the two categories to project, but even here nothing is certain. Prep players have youth on their side, presenting a chance to claim a star player and get them on the roster by the time they are 21 or so, the age the others are just hitting the draft. There is a ton of value in that, and not just financially. On the other hand, many of these players have seen very little in the way of extended competition against anyone close to their talent level. Then there are the added uncertainties of physical and mental maturity to consider. Finally, prep players, especially the best ones, have all the leverage in draft bonus negotiations. If teams don’t want to commit enough scratch, the prep player can always simply honor their college commitment and re-enter the draft in a later year. There are players like this in the draft every season. This season’s draft features two college stars that were both highly-touted prep arms in Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker.

Signing Bonus Strategy

In most cases, this is another simple consideration. A team starts with only so much money to spend. However, MLB determines ahead of time how much value should be placed on each slot in the early rounds of the draft. This gives a rough estimate of what the better talents at each pick should reasonably expect to come close to asking for. The one place this is not really the case is in the top 1-3 slots. Truly rare is the talent that can command full slot value there. However, there are some things that cause this to fluctuate. A prep star may be selected #10 or #11, but feel that they are actually top-5 talents in the draft. In those cases, the player may request the team go over-slot to sign them. If the team balks, the player can just go to college instead. Likewise, a team can intentionally reach further down the board and draft a lower-ranked talent ahead of schedule, looking to save some money to invest in another player later in the draft, finding a player with talent that places them far above where they are actually being drafted. This is how teams land very good, but not elite, prep players. By going under slot early in the draft, the teams have enough money left over to entice a good prep player to forgo college and turn pro straightaway.

When teams with a top-5 pick start getting fancy with their draft bonus pools. they can wreck havoc on mock drafts and war room draft boards. This season’s draft features two teams in the top-5 who could seriously make a mess of things. We’ll get to that here in a bit.

Other

This is the catch-all it sounds like. Player make-up, familial ties, team needs and team surpluses, player intangibles, and just about anything else under the sun can, and often does, influence the decision-making process. This is where the human factor, especially the “gut feeling” comes into play. For as long as there are armies of scouts and other assorted talent evaluators out there, there will be those whose gut feeling influences the ultimate decision made on draft day.


Getting to #6

What does all this mean for the Diamondbacks at #6 in the draft. Here’s a baby mock draft. This takes the above into consideration and also is influenced by industry “insiders” and their speculations. Since others have asked earlier in this series though, I will include my personal pick at the end of each entry.

#1 Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates have their pick of the board. Until about 3 weeks ago, the Pirates were considered by many to be be fairly sold on selecting Jack Leiter, with some speculating they could shift to Jordan Lawlar. Lately, there has been increasing speculation that they will pick Mayer. Let’s stick with Letier here for now. (For me, this is Davis all day, every day.)

#2 Texas Rangers
The Rangers have made no secret about their first intentions with this pick. If Lawlar is still on the board, they are taking him. What is unclear is, whether they take Leiter, Marcelo Mayer, or Henry Davis here if Pittsburgh takes their man. For now, we will assume they take Mayer. Mayer is a similar profile with high upside. (I personally would take Leiter here, but since Texas has already staked out Lawlar, I won’t rock that boat.)

#3 Detroit Tigers
This is the first of two teams in this draft which could surprise folks by doing the unexpected. They are known to love Marcelo Mayer. If he were still on the board, he would be the selection. With Pittsburgh ruining things for Texas though, the knock-on effect is that the Tigers wind up without Mayer in this scenario. That doesn’t necessarily hurt the Tigers. The Tigers are known to have been among the heaviest of scouters of Brady House. They also like Jackson Jobe and are also known to favour Kumar Rocker. If the Tigers were to select House or Jobe with this pick, they would be selecting an under-slot talent. Yet, the reach they are making is not a deep one. With Detroit’s large draft bonus pool, they could select either of those players, save money on the bonus, and still have a large pile left over to allocate to grabbing themselves a second upper-tier talent with a later pick. Let’s continue to assume that they don’t try to get cute though. In that case, they are taking Leiter. (See my comment above, but substitute Mayer here.)

#4 Boston Red Sox
This is the cosmos mocking teams which are constantly struggling just to stay in the conversation of being competitive. The Boston Red Sox are perennial contenders who have some of the deepest pockets of any franchise. Unlike Pittsburgh, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, et al. the Red Sox can afford all day long to miss with this pick. The draft is not going to make or break Boston’s future. About the only thing the draft can do, is to enrich their future. If they miss, they can simply paper over the mistake with a truckload of greenbacks. If they hit, they suddenly have great talent at a cheap price, giving them “more” money they can throw around elsewhere. Boston is the sort of team that can afford to take steep gambles on ceiling talent, or can also go under slot, looking to see if they can cash in multiple times in the draft. The mandate to get it right, simply does not exist for a team like Boston. And yet, here they are all the way up near the top with the fourth overall pick in the draft. Had 2020 been a full season, three is a very real possibility that Boston does not get a pick in the top-10. Sticking with the “straight-forward” approach though, Boston has been heavily tied to Rocker since the beginning. I, however, am going to join my colleague, Michael McDermott and ESPN’s prospect guru, Kiley McDaniel and hold out severe reservations that Boston would draft Rocker over Davis. Unless Boston is dead-set on something about Rocker they love, or they decide to get creative (perhaps going under and targeting Khalil Watson or Jackson Jobe), I just don’t see any way in which Davis falls lower than the Red Sox. (With Davis gone 1-1, I have Boston taking Leiter here, even though they are in on Rocker. I’m fairly certain the only reason Boston hasn’t been tied to Leiter more is that almost no one believes he falls this far to begin with.)

#5 Baltimore Orioles
Unless something drastic changes, the Orioles are taking a hitter here. This is the absolute floor for Mayer. Baltimore is known to really like Brady House, who just so happens to round out the top tier of talent on the board. Davis would fit here (if he dropped this far), except that they just took Adley Rutschman. There is legitimate reason to wonder if they would take a second franchise catcher here when a monster bat third baseman is available. In this scenario, they select Brady House. (For once I agree. They take Brady House.)

#6 Arizona Diamondbacks
Far and wide, it is becoming difficult to find a mock draft that does not already have Arizona selecting Khalil Watson or is not at least starting to lean in that direction. Ugh. (For me, if Kumar Rocker is still on the board, and he is in both scenarios here, I just don’t see how Arizona justifies skipping him for Khalil Watson. Kumar Rocker for Arizona.)


Conclusion

In some seasons there is such a clear-cut 1-1 that the uppermost reaches of the draft are fairly easy to predict. There was never any chance the likes of Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg were going anywhere but 1-1 in the draft. In this season, that 1-1 position is a great deal murkier. As such, Pittsburgh’s choice at #1 is going to go a long way in determining how the other four picks after them, but before Arizona shake out. Of the top talents on the BPA board, the most likely to reach Arizona seems to be Rocker, followed closely by House, and then distantly by Davis. None of the others are making it to #6.

With more and more outlets predicting Khalil Watson to Arizona, it is difficult to not start preparing for Mike Hazen to float that name on draft day. Despite Watson’s ceiling and his recent strong performances, he is still a massive boom/bust candidate. Kumar Rocker embodies much more certainty and still also has an incredibly high ceiling. Arizona is one of those teams for which missing here, with this level of pick, is simply not an option. Missing out on Watson’s upside while getting a good player in Rocker is still acceptable. Missing out and getting a bust version of Watson when Rocker, Frelick, and Madden were all still on the board really isn’t. This holds even more true when considering that Frelick and Madden would both be under slot signings, which would allow Arizona to make a play for a second strong talent later in the draft, getting a two-for-one. If the team is going to swing for the fences, Jacson Jobe truly feels like the way to go here. He has an elite present value tool that is only going to get even better. The combination of tools that lifts Watson to the top of the ceiling board is based on potential future value. Among prep players, right-handed pitchers and shortstops have some of the highest volatility in tool development. I’d rather see the team take the elite present tool.

Given the way things have been going for this team, I am preparing myself to be disappointed.