The 2016 MLB Draft has concluded. 40 picks are in, and we’ll now begin assessing the newbs as they begin signing and trickling into Arizona, Orem and Burlington over the coming weeks. The Orem Owlz’s season begins this Friday, June 17th, and you can expect to see a number of the college players just inked in action as early as next weekend, while some of the new prep players (often later to sign) may begin popping up as early as Monday, June 20th, when the Arizona League sees its first games underway.
Now we’re left with just early research, first reports and insta-reaction, based on what the interwebs and scouting shouldertaps can provide. And here’s the take: all forty selections.
My first take on this year’s haul? Well, in a word, I find it a little baffling.
There’s no question that there’s been a changing of the guard under Eppler. We do see more prep picks on the whole than under Dipoto, both arms and bats, and a strong pivot toward contact hitters who don’t strike out much – consistent with a newer ‘see the ball, hit the ball’ team philosophy that has resulted in an MLB club with the lowest K% in the Majors (though the worst baserunning score and second highest GIDP rate as well).
Coming into this draft, the consistent message was that Eppler and Ric Wilson agreed on a draft strategy that would emphasize upside and athleticism, and the reports were that they were very focused on prep bats and polished college arms. When one looks at the farm, which is indeed as barren as folks say (and every single minor league club is presently a sub-.500 affair, with High-A Inland Empire and AA Arkansas looking particularly lost), the absence of two things is emphatically clear: power and advanced pitching. It’s hard to find a single player in the system that projects to be even a 15-20 HR threat on an MLB club, or something more than a back of the rotation arm. Moreover, the farm lacks any clear athletic standouts who have the speed and defense to compensate for low ceiling hit and power tools. It’s a grab bag of miscellaneous bench pieces, and one has to be a touch optimistic even in that assumption.
So the first thing that is truly bizarre in Eppler’s initial go at addressing these deficits is the utter lack of power and advanced pitching in this draft.
Let’s address the latter first. Eppler did not draft a single college starting pitcher until the 35th round, and that’s the only starting collegiate hurler he did draft. The 35th round is the point in the draft where you start selecting the friends and family of players and staff, or kids with cool names (like Scioscia or Gretsky or Torii Hunter Jr!). I’m sure the guy they chose, Sean Isaac, from the relatively obscure NAIA program of local Vanguard University, is a great guy, but the Matt Shoemaker miracles happen infrequently enough to take countermeasures in the early going.
I can’t recall a draft in the last decade where collegiate starting pitching from Division 1 schools was passed over completely. Especially when the farm system being replenished is not only arguably the worst in the MiLB for pitching, but the worst anyone can remember for many years. Eppler chose three collegiate relievers with the 10th, 12th, and 15th picks, and then didn’t choose another pitcher again until round 22, again a reliever. This is despite arms like Justin Dunn, Dakota Hudson and T.J. Zeuch being available to the Angels in the first round, and strong mid-rotation potential talent like Corbin Burnes and Zac Gallen being available as late as the third. One wonders if Eppler intends to fill a farm depleted of impact pitching at all levels with minor league free agents and independent ballers. The Angels don’t really have a Latin program strong enough to fill the pipes.
Then there’s the power question. Yes, Brandon Marsh and Nonie Williams are intriguing prepsters who might have some raw power projection, but that’s not the current calling card for either. The highest projections I've seen for each are 50 grade power (essentially average on the 80 grade scale). In the case of both, it’s their speed and arms that are their standout tools. Both need to basically build a big league swing from scratch. In fact, Eric Longenhagen called Williams "a hefty developmental project whose age relative to his baseball refinement makes him risky" – but if you want to dream, he "could grow into above-average raw power but needs significant refinement to tap into it in games". If this is where the Angels are finding power for their system, you’re basically hoping everything falls together exactly right over the next 5-6 years.
Then there’s Matt Thaiss. While, yes, he hit 10 HRs in his junior year in a pitcher's park, and there may be room for more, it’s a fool’s game to expect more. MLB grades Thaiss as a 45 on the 80 grade scale for power, and Keith Law/Eric Longenhagen agree, saying he possesses "fringe average power" and "he'll have to outhit most projections by about a half a grade to be an everyday player of some kind...if he mashes righties in the minors, then he would make for a solid platoon option who has some positional versatility and can catch in an emergency."
I’ve gone back and forth on Thaiss, willing to give this a B/B- grade yesterday, but on further reflection, this is a grade C pick. He’s a 30 grade runner (awful), a 40 grade defender (below-average), with a weak arm and average power. You’re basically buying into an advanced hit tool and expecting that he will exceed expectations in the long run by becoming Kole Calhoun in left field – that is, we’re hoping he’ll become what he currently is not, and what he is not likely to become. He could certainly beat my rap – and I hope he does – but a very, very good result at this point is that Thaiss becomes lefty Billy Butler, with a brief window of 2 WAR seasons as a high-average bat with 15-20 HR potential, and Sean Casey / Casey Kotchman like strikeout rates.
So if you agree with the prospect gurus that our first three selections have 45-50 grade power potential, this draft for all intents and purposes passed over both my power and advanced pitching requirements on first take. Selections 4-6 include two very, very raw prep pitchers, the first of whom is likely a bullpen candidate and the second even Ric Wilson calls a complete project. Meanwhile, Connor Justus is a "shortstop" who will likely move off of that position, has no one tool that grades out as better than average, and who has particular questions with his hit tool and defense. If I had to project the 7-10 selections, I think the upside view would be utility infielder, fourth outfielder, reserve catcher and decent short reliever respectively.
Consider me underwhelmed. I can give the #2/3 selections a B+ for athleticism and upside, but the rest of the draft is decidedly meh at first sight.
Now I don’t want to be a reflexive pessimist – and I don’t think I am. I wouldn’t put as much work into analyzing these drafts just for the reward of a pity party. Maybe Thaiss does develop into Calhoun or Butler, and maybe Williams sticks at short and Marsh finds a swing and becomes a post-Trout-era superstar. But a lot has to fall just right for these things to happen. Eppler took some long bets, and very few with short odds. There aren’t many quick-to-the-show plays in this draft, so in addition to passing on polished pitching and power, he also passed on using the draft as a tool for contending in the next few years. It’s a head-scratching strategy.
I’m also never one to complain without offering alternatives. There’s no sake in complaint if doom is preordained. (For much the same reason, you don’t find me complaining much about the 2016 season, because there was no reason to expect more given the state of the roster and the disabled list.) So how would I have done things differently? I think it’s important to put this out there for posterity, so I may be judged for taking the liberty of judging.
Well, we can start with my draft boards. Two of my top four choices were still on board one in round one, and most of my round two selections were also available at pick #60. Based on those options, let’s offer an array of alternatives based on some of my "best players available" that we can consider down the line:
|Round One||Round Two||Round Three||Round Four|
|Nolan Jones||Heath Quinn||Corbin Burnes||Lake Bachar|
|Bryan Reynolds||Ronnie Dawson||Zac Gallen||Conner Capel|
|Justin Dunn||Akil Baddoo||Kyle Funkhouser||Walker Robbins|
Three alternative histories. Each package attempts to mix athleticism, power upside and advanced pitching – with at least one prepster in the mix for long horizon dreaming. I particularly like following up the very athletic Reynolds or Jones with one of the 55+ power college guys in Quinn and Dawson. It'll be fun to see if they can refine their swings enough to lock into their power consistently.
Now, these scenarios just pull on my personal boards, but in this draft, like all drafts, there were highly rated players who fell to the Angels unexpectedly, and were surprisingly passed up. In the first round, the most obvious cases in the Angels' case were Blake Rutherford and Dakota Hudson, who were scooped up by the Yankees and St. Louis respectively, later in the same round. There were rumors of signability issues for Rutherford and perhaps questionable medicals for Hudson, but we really don't know for sure. They were drafted early-ish regardless. But what would things have looked like if, based on the consensus ratings, the Angels had taken one of them along with the next best players available in subsequent rounds?
Well, it might look like this:
|Round One||Round Two||Round Three||Round Four|
|Blake Rutherford||Connor Jones||Corbin Burnes||Braeden Ogle|
|Dakota Hudson||Alex Speas||Kyle Funkhouser||Connor Capel|
Basically, in either scenario, a ton of advanced pitching, and one high ceiling prep bat and arm. And what's more tradeable than upside pitching? There are merits to BPA even if the prospects don't matriculate, as we've seen with the Simmons trade this past offseason.
We'll learn what becomes of these prospects in the coming year or two. What seems optimal now may seem less prescient in 2018. But given how the draft played out, were there any other organizations who went the Way of the Turk or the BPA route above?
I think three orgs stand out: San Francisco, Cleveland, and St. Louis.
San Francisco didn't even have a first round pick this time around, but managed to grab Bryan Reynolds and Heath Quinn with their first two selections, driving me to bitter tears, while astonishing me with their luck. Theirs was a college-dominant draft, with only one prep selection among their top 20 picks.
Cleveland was even savvier, managing to seize a sliding Nolan Jones in the second round while targeting Will Benson on a potential under slot dollar play in the first round. Benson was a consensus late first-rounder, and the prep analogue to my sentimental fave, Anfernee Grier. Had they drafted Jones first, and Benson second, it would have been an absolute coup – but Benson wasn't going to last that long, and they found a strategy to get both. Impressive from the same franchise that nabbed my 2014 first-round draft target Bradley Zimmer as well.
Then there's St. Louis, who more than any other team, embraced best-player-available strategy, acquiring Dakota Hudson, Connor Jones and Zac Gallen, plus a player in Delvin Perez that was considered a top-five talent in the draft before a failed drug test at age 17. The Cardinals didn't even have a pick until #23, but they managed all of the above while reeling in two promising prep outfielders in Walker Robbins and Dylan Carlson.
Should it surprise anyone that San Francisco and St. Louis have won half of the World Series in the past decade between them, or that the Cleveland Indians are leading their division today? Maybe the Angels have it all figured out, and their unorthodox drafting strategy will reveal some hidden market inefficiency that Eppler is shrewdly exploiting. Maybe my sympathies with Cleveland's, SF's and the Cards' drafting braintrusts are really reflective of rearguard talent acquisition strategies.
Or maybe the team with worst farm in baseball is really just continuing to struggle to figure things out at the moment, and first impressions are everything they seem to be. Good luck, boys.