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The Bard’s Take: Strategies for the Draft

The draft is just over three weeks away. It’s time to start looking at how things could play out for Arizona.

Philadelphia Phillies v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The 2017 MLB First-Year Player Draft is just around the corner, with the three-day event running from June 12-14. This season the Diamondbacks own pick numbers 7, 44, 68, and 82 in the first three rounds (105 picks). They also hold the seventh pick for rounds 4-40. The Diamondbacks will go into the draft with a bonus pool of $9,905,900, the eighth-largest pool in this year’s draft. What does all this mean for the Arizona Diamondbacks? It means that Mike Hazen and the rest of Arizona’s new front office have their work cut out for them. What does that mean for fans of the Diamondbacks and the loyal readers of the Snake Pit? It means there are an awful lot of conversations to be had about the potential scenarios and outcomes.

Between now and the draft, we will take an in-depth look at roughly 20 candidates the Diamondbacks might take with the seventh overall pick in the draft. Some will obviously be more likely than others, but we will make sure to highlight the scenarios where the players covered make the most sense. Before getting into all that though, let’s take a pause to set up the discussions by laying some groundwork. First up, is draft strategy.

Mike Hazen has managed to surround himself with people he is familiar with. This is not their first time working a Rule 4 draft. It is, however, the first time they will be the ultimate shot-caller and also probably the first time they have ever needed to consider the financial ramifications of the players they take. Because this is both a new front office for the organization and a new decision-making reality for those involved in the brain trust, it is difficult to place too much stock in what has come before to get a read on what we might expect. Since the crystal ball is rather muddy right now, we’ll start with a basic strategy comparison and highlight the different benefits each provides the Diamondbacks.

Surest Talent/Player Available

The Pros: This is the most basic and straight-forward of draft strategies. There are many reasons for that, but the simplest explanation works best. It’s all but impossible to find fault with taking the best player available at any given spot in the draft. College or high school, pitcher or position player – it doesn’t matter. The surest player available should also have the best chance of reaching the big leagues. This strategy is usually easier to employ within the first three picks of the draft, but it can be (and for the most part should be) employed at any point in the draft process. Taking the safest player available reduces many risks, but it does not eliminate them. Also, just because a player is the safest talent going into the draft does not mean that they will end up being the best player to come out of the draft once the end of playing careers roll around. In fact, they rarely are the best to come out of the draft.

The Cons: One thing about taking the safest and surest pick is that, more often than not (Bryce Harper notwithstanding), a team is trading potential upside for a lower floor. In essence, they are sacrificing getting involved in the superstar lottery in order to get some steady and reliable MLB performance from the pick. This is not always a bad thing. Few players ever become stars, even out of those with the potential to become so. There are more busts than hits when looking for stars. This approach helps teams avoid those busts. But unfortunately, this approach also limits the upside teams are going to find in the draft, forcing teams to rely more and more on trades and free agency to acquire star talent.

Other issues with going the surest route can be that the player is not a particularly good fit for the organization’s needs or philosophies. Age can be a factor, too young and perhaps the team misses out on making a splash during an up-coming window of opportunity. Too old and perhaps the player’s prime will be wasted during a longer rebuild. Then of course, there are sometimes (most especially among pitchers) injury concerns. It doesn’t matter how certain a player’s skills are to play up if they cannot get on the field and stay healthy once there.

The Take: While I could see the Diamondbacks employing this strategy, I personally hope that it is a secondary strategy if they do. There is just too much potential impact talent in this draft to not chase after a difference-maker.

Under-Slot for Over-Slot

A team that can successfully pull this off can make huge strides towards improving the farm system in a short period of time. The premise is a fairly simple one. A team selecting near the top of the draft selects someone projected to go closer to the middle or end of the first round and then signs them for more than they would have received if picked where they were projected, but less than someone projected to go in the slot would get. This becomes more difficult to do the deeper into the draft a team selects.

The Pros: A team can potentially sign three or four pseudo-impact talents in the first ten rounds instead of one or two.

The Cons: Teams must sacrifice bidding on the very best talent on the board. Also, the teams still run the risk of one or both players failing to “make it”. Also, as mentioned above, teams not selecting very close to the top are at a distinct disadvantage, as they are forced to select from deeper and deeper in the draft, meaning that both talents are likely to be bigger risks. Possibly the biggest risk of all though, is that the top pick does not sign. A perfect example of this is what the Houston Astros went through in 2014 when Brady Aiken refused to sign at #1, leaving the Astros without enough cash to sign their fifth pick, Jacob Nix.

The Take: Selecting seventh, and not having an overly large bonus pool to begin with, there is just no reason Arizona should be employing this strategy in 2017.

Highest Potential Upside

This is usually, but not always, a high school player. These are players with raw talent and athleticism enough to put up video game type numbers in the prep leagues.

The Pros: The upside is pretty easy to understand. If a team is correct in assessing the talent, there is a potential all-star to be selected.

The Cons: It is easy to select high upside and then watch it go bust, especially with four or five years of development before the prospect reaches the majors.

The Take: There is no reason for the Diamondbacks to sell-out on this strategy with the seventh pick of the draft. There is plenty of upside to be found in safer picks.

Fast Risers

This strategy involves selecting almost exclusively from the college ranks, and selecting mostly lower impact players with higher floors. Usually many of these selections are seniors, having already developed their skills fir an additional season over their junior-year peers.

The Pros: Teams can see a very quick return on their investment. Teams on or near the cusp of a competitive window can find some supplemental pieces that can possibly make a late-season contribution. These players are also pretty easily trade d, should a team want to swap such a prospect for a better organizational fit when it comes to constructing a contender. This can also be a quick way to build a power bullpen.

The Cons: A lot of talent profiles are overlooked. This strategy is heavy on college bats and relief pitchers. Prep talent is too far removed developmentally. The same can generally be said for starting pitchers coming out of college. Not all starters can be Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, or even Mike Leake. Most starters need a minimum of two seasons to build up the stamina for a full MLB season, and they also need the developmental time to polish third and fourth pitch offerings. Since fast risers are generally those that can be counted on to arrive in the first 1.5-2 years, it is difficult to find starters here.

The Take: There is just too much talent in the categories that would be ignored for the Diamondbacks to be employing this philosophy. Arizona’s farm is too barren for them to ignore entire categories of potential talent.

On the Cheap/College Seniors

Many teams will employ this strategy to one degree or another after they have made their first selection. With only the rarest exceptions, college seniors just aren’t as highly regarded as their junior peers. If they were, they would have been selected as juniors in the previous draft. Injuries or commitments to education, or pride can sometimes alter this, but those are outliers.

The Pros: As the title suggests, this is the inexpensive way to approach the draft. Seniors rarely have any leverage, as they cannot hold out to return to college. This, combined with the lack of previous demand suppress signing bonuses. Most of the time, these players can also be counted on to sign quickly, making it easier to get them some developmental innings the same season they are drafted. Money saved here can be spent on prep talent elsewhere that might otherwise go to college.

The Cons: You get what you pay for. These players are inexpensive and were previously undrafted because the upside is just not normally there to be had. Finding a middle reliever here is easy. Even finding a so-so first baseman might not be too difficult. Finding a difference maker is almost impossible.

The Take: Ken Kendrick is notoriously cheap. In fact, Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa actually left a heaping pile of cash on the table from one of their drafts. On the other hand, the Diamondbacks are in dire need of talent, and there is no less expensive way to acquire it than through the draft. The only reason Hazen and company should start mining the seniors for talent is if it frees up cash for a third impact signing elsewhere.

Organizational Need

This one is just like it sounds – a team drafts to fill holes in the organization.

The Pros: Glaring holes in the system can be addressed quickly, making future developmental decisions easier.

The Cons: This tends to be a short-sighted approach. Plenty of talent can be left unselected because the focus is more on need than on upside.

The Take: The Diamondbacks need catchers in the worst possible way. The top catching prospect in this year’s draft could graciously listed as the #40 prospect in the draft. More realistically, he’s probably closer to #50. The team has other needs, but it is this sort of disparity that should make it clear why the Diamondbacks should just avoid this strategy entirely.

There are other strategies that teams can and will employ, but this touches on the most common and easiest to identify. Most teams will employ a combination of these methods as their situations change and as the pool of available talents changes.

The Final Strategy Take: The strength of this year’s draft is college pitchers with high upside as starters. On the other side, there are few college bats with upside to be had. If the Diamondbacks want a college bat, they will need to grab one with the seventh overall pick. If they are looking for the best selection they can make though, they should be closely examining the prep and college pitchers. In the end, pitching always leads the way, and this year’s draft is likely to provide the Diamondbacks with an opportunity to get an impact arm to place at the top of their prospect leaderboard. Both the Padres and the Rays are examples of teams that could potentially shake the draft up in a big way by taking the under-for-over route to their selections. As I get to those prospects that could alter the shape of the draft for Arizona, I will discuss this in more detail.