If you ask anyone making decisions for the 30 MLB teams the draft, the common refrain you’ll hear is they’re looking to take the best player on their board and that a player’s bonus demands are irrelevant to the decision. While that’s not always true, a player’s tools and makeup are the main driving force behind a team’s decision to draft or not draft a player when on the clock. In certain situations, the player’s signing bonus ask will also factor into the decision as a team may look at a different approach to maximize the talent level for the dollars they’re allowed to spend.
The other approach to the draft is where a team picking high in the first round may elect to make a well-under-slot pick, then use the savings to get an impact talent who fell in the draft due to signing bonus demands. We’ve seen that approach work with the Houston Astros in their 2012 draft when they selected key contributors to their World Series championship and three American League pennants, when they took Carlos Correa first overall and used much of the savings on Lance McCullers Jr. just 40 picks later. When the process is executed well, we know it works, but it also requires having a strong player development program like Houston’s to maximize the long term value from it.
So what scenarios could lead teams to make the decision to prioritize savings with their first round selection? Usually it comes when a team has a lot of players they like at that particular spot on the board, but need something for one player to stand out. In the Astros’ famous 2012 case, the Astros had four players they liked with the first overall pick and chose Correa over other high ceiling prospects such as Byron Buxton and Max Fried. While Correa has had the best career in terms of WAR and postseason success, all three players have developed into superstars.
The portfolio approach adopted by Mike Elias is more effective when a team has a very large bonus pool to spend, which usually implies a team is picking at the top of the draft or has multiple first rounders. The Arizona Diamondbacks have a large enough bonus pool, being able to spend over $15MM on their draft class, to be able to pull off that approach if the situation calls for it. Historically the Diamondbacks have typically taken a BPA approach in the draft under current general manager Mike Hazen, due to being in great position to land a falling talent in the draft like Corbin Carroll in 2019 or Jordan Lawlar last year. Both were examples of players falling right into their laps, with the former’s lack of height and physicality a concern for teams and the latter falling simply because five teams ahead of Arizona liked other players in the same tier of talent more.
This year could present a different scenario, if Baltimore takes high school outfielder Druw Jones with the first overall pick. In that scenario the D-backs could opt to take the portfolio approach instead of taking a wild swing at a boom/bust prospect like Elijah Green. Termarr Johnson, Jackson Holliday, and Brooks Lee present a safer selection compared to Green’s high ceiling and may also come with a lower asking price. All four players have the upside to be above-average regulars, if not first division regulars (everyday player on a first place team), so the D-backs decision on who they take may be based on savings.
If Hazen elects to go for an under-slot pick with Johnson, Lee, or Holliday, then the option to get a falling high school talent with a high signing bonus demand could be in play with the D-backs other first night picks at 34 and 43. Given that the 20-40 range is a hot spot for college performers, I think the 43rd pick is the best spot to make the move. With the potential savings they would have from the under-slot pick at 2, which could be as high as $2MM depending on the player, the D-backs could take a shot at a couple high-ranked high school arms not projected to be selected in the first round such as 6’9” lefty Noah Schultz or 17-year-old righty Walter Ford. In a year where the pitching is very scarce, it‘s an approach that could very well pay off for the D-backs 4-5 years down the road.