2017 In Review: Top MLB Draft Stories
January 2, 2018
BRAVES SIGN TOP 24
Atlanta executed what every team wants to do; sign all of its top picks. In fact, the Braves signed the first 24 players that they drafted. And they did it while also signing high upside talent. After selecting arguably the top prospect in the draft, RHP Kyle Wright (Vanderbilt), with the fifth overall pick, the Braves landed highly rated OF Drew Waters (Etowah HS, GA) in the second round. They then surprised many with their third-round pick by selecting RHP Freddy Tarnok (Riverview HS, FL). It was widely known that Tarnok preferred to play a position, despite his upside on the mound. He was considered a tough sign, especially in the third round. They continued to follow up these high ceiling picks with the big arm of RHP Troy Bacon (Santa Fe CC, FL) in the fourth round and then saved bonus pool money by selecting and signing college seniors in rounds six to 10.
A’S CORNER THE SENIOR MARKET
College prospects accounted for 901 of the 1,215 (74%) total draft picks, while Oakland selected 22 college seniors amongst its 41 picks. Maybe it was to simply save money, or maybe they discovered another market inefficiency. This leads to the question—what if they did? Is the MLB success rate similar for later round college juniors vs. seniors? Generally speaking, later round college juniors typically have an above average, or two, tool. But, their game performance (statistics) may have been an issue. They are drafted in hopes a team can hit on that tool. The signing bonus is typically in the $75,000-125,000 range. Later round college seniors typically have more average tools and good baseball skills with a track record of solid performance. It stands to reason that if a less costly asset (senior) has similar overall qualities, why not buy it instead of the pricier option (junior)? Maybe the A’s have found a more efficient return on their investment by signing college seniors (I speculate pitchers, especially). Look for other clubs, especially smaller market ones, to research this for themselves and possibly follow the A’s lead once again.
WAVE OF TWO-WAY PREMIUM TALENT
Drafts have always seen two-way talents: Dave Winfield, John Olerud, Rick Ankiel, Nick Markakis, Adam Loewen, Micah Owings, John Van Benschoten and Aaron Hicks to name a few. But, the 2017 draft was unique in its depth of this talent. The second, third and fourth overall picks—pitchers Hunter Greene (Notre Dame HS, CA), Brendan McKay (Louisville) and MacKenzie Gore (Whiteville HS, NC) are all also legitimate prospects as hitters. The eighth overall pick, Adam Haseley (Virginia), was selected as an outfielder, and is also more than capable as a pitcher, winning seven games last spring on the bump for the Cavaliers. The 10th overall pick, Jordon Adell (Ballard HS, KY), who was arguably the best athlete with the biggest tools in the draft, signed as an outfielder. However, on the mound he will show a low-90s fastball with a plus slider. Shane Baz (Concordia Lutheran HS, TX), the 12th overall pick, was planning to attend Texas Christian as a two-way player before Pittsburg gave him 4.1 million reasons why he should become a Pirate pitcher instead. The 14th selection, 1B Nick Pratto (Huntington Beach HS, CA), was an accomplished pitcher for both his high school team and also for Team USA; he was the winning pitcher in the 2015 18U championship game vs. Japan. Interestingly, his high school teammate, Hagen Danner, who was selected 61st overall (second round) by the Blue Jays, is also a two-way talent. He signed as a catcher, but could end up impacting a major league roster from the mound with his mid-90s heat and a knee-buckling curveball. At this point, only the two-time winner of the John Olerud Two-Way Player award, Brendan McKay, continues to develop for a dual role. All others have chosen to concentrate on a single position.
THE RISE OF COLLEGE BATS
As usual, when the draft rolls around, college bats in major conferences who pass the analytics test, tend to gain helium and rise quickly. OF/1B Brent Rooker (Mississippi State) shot up draft boards for good reasons. After making an offseason adjustment to his posture, bending more at the waist and enabling his hips more in his swing, Rooker had one of the finest all-time offensive performances in the SEC—21 home runs and an .858 slugging percentage. He was not ranked in the preseason top 100 college prospects lists of most media publications, nor was he in many clubs preseason “to be cross-checked” lists. McKay was long considered a first round talent, but not the top college prospect. He ended up going fourth overall to the Rays and was the first college player selected. Haseley, 2B/OF Keston Hiura (Ninth overall, UC-Irvine), 3B Jake Burger (11th overall, Missouri State) and 1B Evan White (17th overall, Kentucky) were considered more as second rounders heading into the spring. Others making big jumps were SS Logan Warmoth (North Carolina) and C Daulton Varsho (Milwaukee). Warmoth was preseason rated around the 40th best college prospect, depending upon the media source. He climbed all the way to being selected 22nd overall. Varsho made the largest leap of any prospect from a mid-major program. He was ranked outside the top 100 college prospects in two publications and 98th in another. He was selected in the second round, 68th overall by the Diamondbacks.
GATORS, COLLEGE ARMS FALL
As exciting as it was to see the rise of Rooker and others, it was also saddening to see prospects fall. But, such is life, and why we play the games. Heading into the season, the Florida Gators had a roster loaded with what looked like three first round picks: RHP Alex Faedo, SS Dalton Guthrie and 1B JJ Schwarz. C Mike Rivera was also highly rated as a potential second to third rounder. Faedo began the season as the potential No. 1 overall pick. He was selected 18th by the Tigers. Guthrie suffered a shoulder injury and never got on track. He fell to the sixth round before agreeing to a deal with the Phillies. Schwarz never got in the groove offensively and fell all the way to the 38th round after signability became an issue. He did not sign and returns to the Gators lineup this spring. Rivera, too, never found his swing and fell to the sixth round by the Indians. He was preseason ranked as the 17th best college player by one publication.
Numerous college arms also took a hit with their draft stock. RHP JB Bukauskas (North Carolina), who some mock drafts had going as high as sixth overall, slid to the Astros at 15. Other RHPs Alex Lange (LSU), Tanner Houck (Missouri) and Corbin Martin (Texas A&M) saw slight drops after all three were seen as potential mid-first round picks going into the season. Houck fell to the Reds Sox at 24th overall. The Cubs selected Lange 30th overall, while Martin slid down to the second round, 56th overall by Houston. The biggest drops came from RHPs Peter Solomon (Notre Dame) and Colton Hock (Stanford). Both plummeted from potential first rounders all the way to the fourth round. Hock went 119th overall, after becoming difficult to see as the closer for the Cardinal and news of a back injury surfaced around draft time. Solomon was rated as high as the ninth best college prospect by one publication. He opened his season in spectacular fashion with a start against Incarnate Word in San Antonio. However, he could never maintain consistency and was eventually moved to the bullpen. He ended up being selected 121st overall to Houston. Draft eligible sophomore RHPs Tristan Beck (Stanford) and Blaine Knight (Arkansas) were two additional highly regarded prospects and potential first rounders. Both were selected in the 29th round. Beck missed the entire season with a stress fracture in his back. Knight fell due to signability. Both did not sign and returned to school for their junior seasons.
TALENT OVER HEALTH
Four of the top 31 overall picks were either suspended or injured. Keston Hiura (UC-Irvine) was selected ninth overall by the Brewers despite an injury to his throwing elbow and a preseason PRP injection. He was expected to need surgery before beginning his pro career, however the Brewers thought differently and so far, so good; no surgery for Hiura. RHP Clarke Schmidt (South Carolina) signed as the 16th overall pick with the Yankees. He tore his UCL in a late April game at Florida and had Tommy John surgery before the draft on May 3. He is expected to return to pitch sometime in the middle of the 2018 minor league season. LHP Seth Romero (Houston) had a yo-yo season, starting out on fire and generating buzz for the top 10 overall picks. His physical health was not an issue. Other mishaps earned him a suspension from the team. He was reinstated a few weeks later, only to be dismissed a week later due to another issue. Ultimately, Romero was selected 25th overall by the Nationals. RHP Drew Rasmussen (Oregon State) showed big stuff after returning from his March, 2016 Tommy John surgery. However, he re-injured his elbow in June and did not sign with the Rays as the 31st overall selection. He was the highest selected player who did not sign. He is eligible for the upcoming 2018 draft, but it’s highly doubtful he will pitch for the Beavers after undergoing a second TJ surgery this past July.
CONLON GRANTED UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENCY
Free agency is one thing, but unrestricted free agency, not subject to bonus pool restrictions, is a totally different thing. Some organizations may not have even known it was possible to become a free agent of this type under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) draft rules. Unrestricted free agency last happened in 2010 with Barret Loux and the Arizona Diamondbacks, but that was under two previous CBAs. Baltimore selected RHP Jack Conlon (Clements HS, TX) in the fourth round, but after issues with his physical, they did not offer him a contract. After a MLB review, he was declared an unrestricted free agent. As the summer continued he considered at least one free agent offer, but in the end, he honored his commitment to Texas A&M. He is draft eligible in 2020 and it will be interesting to follow his Aggie career.
CALIFORNIA GOES 1-1 AGAIN
For the second straight year the first overall pick was a California high school hitter. SS Royce Lewis (JSerra Catholic HS), selected by the Twins, followed CF Mickey Moniak (La Costa County HS) by the Phillies in 2016. As National Supervisor for Prep Baseball Report, Nathan Rode noted in his 2017 MLB Day 1 Draft Notes; “...the last time a four-year program didn’t produce a pick in the top three was 2010 when Bryce Harper (Nationals), Jameson Taillon (Pirates) and Manny Machado (Orioles) were selected. Harper famously was a junior college player after exiting high school early while Taillon and Machado were high school picks. This year was the first time the top three picks were all high schoolers since Chipper Jones (Braves), Tony Clark (Tigers) and Mike Lieberthal (Phillies) were taken in 1990. It’s just the third time that’s happened since 1971."
BONUSES CONTINUE TO RISE
No surprise here since the CBA mandates individual bonus slots rise with MLB’s revenue growth, but a record $287,575,870 was spent. Up from $267,451,610 in 2016, a 7.5% increase. It also marked a 38% increase from 2012 ($207,886,990) which was the inception of bonus pools as negotiated in the 2012-16 CBA.
The top three spenders from 2012-17 are the Astros ($66.1M), Reds ($60.6M), Twins ($60.2M), Padres ($59M) and Rockies ($57.8M). More recently from 2015-17 the Braves ($39.7M) lead the bonus parade, followed by the Reds ($38.5M), Astros ($36.5M), Padres ($33.5M) and Phillies ($33.4M).
GREENE GETS RECORD GREEN
In 2017, Hunter Greene established a new record, signing for $7.23 million. Unlike total team signing bonuses, which have set a new record every year since 2015, the individual bonus record has been a tougher mark to break since 2012 and the inception of bonus pools. The previous bonus pool restriction record was set in 2013 when Kris Bryant signed for $6.708 million with the Cubs. For comparison purposes, Bryant’s $6.708 million in 2013 has a present day value of $7.048 million.
In fact, 2017 set more records with five of the top nine all time bonus amounts.
* Gerrit Cole | Pirates | 2011 | $8M
# Stephen Strasburg | Nationals | 2009 | $7.5M
% Bubba Starling | Royals | 2011 | $7.5M
Hunter Greene | Reds | 2017 | $7.23M
Brendan McKay | Rays | 2017 | $7.005M
Kyle Wright | Braves | 2017 | $7M
Royce Lewis | Twins | 2017 | $6.725M
Kris Bryant | Cubs | 2013 | $6.708M
MacKenzie Gore | Padres | 2017 | $6.7M
* Signed contract previous to bonus pool restrictions
# Signed major league contract worth $15M+
% Signed contract with a two-sport provision, which spread the bonus over five years
While the Braves landed an impressive haul of talented, high upside prospects, it came with a price much greater than money. After an exhaustive MLB review into recent domestic and international amateur signing practices by the Braves, John Coppolella, who was the Braves GM at the time of the wrongdoing, was permanently banned from Major League Baseball. The international scouting director, Gordon Blakeley, was suspended for one year. Additionally, the Braves were forced to release nine of their top 2016-17 international signees, making them free agents. In regards to the amateur draft, it is alleged that the Braves spent money outside their draft pool allotment to buy their second round pick, Waters, potentially other gifts in addition to his $1.5 million signing bonus. MLB amatuer draft rules do not allow gifts or any other compensation other than a signing bonus and the College Scholarship Plan. Further information has not been released as of now, but expect the situation to be fully resolved before the 2018 draft.