Draft Dodging

The 2009 Baseball America Top 10 Angels prospects report is out. Nick Adenhart was named #1.

Some names are on both the BA list and the FutureAngels.com list. Some are not.

All lists, both professional and amateur (I consider mine to be inbetween), are just an opinion, and opinions change over time. They also change when a different writer is assigned.

This year’s review was written by BA analyst Kary Booher, new to the Angels beat. He replaces Alan Matthews, who wrote their Angels reports the last four years.

Booher seems a bit more conservative than Matthews, who listed Korean pitcher Young-Il Jung at #4 in 2007 even though he’d never thrown a pitch in a regular season and reportedly suffered from pitcher abuse. Young-Il threw nine innings over three games with Orem in 2007, and was shut down. Nonetheless, Alan had him ranked #13 on the 2008 list.

Kary’s online chat (subscription required) on December 2 reflects a more cautious approach to his analyses. Yet he wrote that Jung still got some Top 30 consideration even though he underwent “Tommy John” surgery.

One comment I found interesting was his response to a question asking where the Angels’ farm system ranks among the thirty major league organizations. BA dropped the Angels to #10 in 2008 after being in the top five the last five years. Kary wrote:

This will be another one of the fun meetings we’ll have here at BA, handled usually be our top editors. But the sense is that the Angels will likely slip from No. 10 into the 15-20 range. Their fall is partly because of natural attrition to the majors, especially with Brandon Wood, partly because their No. 1-rated guy now in Adenhart slid in the second half and they have not had a first-round pick in three of the past four drafts. As Bill Shaikin pointed out in his interesting interview with scouting director Eddie Bane — and speaking of the past five drafts — the Angels have not signed eight players drafted within the first 10 rounds.

I found this a very curious statement, because it takes the rather simplistic approach that first-round draft picks are the measurement of a farm system’s productivity.

BA did a study years ago which found that one-third of first-round draft picks never even reach the major leagues.

But the statement also overlooks the Angels’ willingness to pursue “high risk, high reward” prospects that other organizations won’t draft, at least in early rounds.

The poster child for this philosophy is Nick Adenhart. Ranked by Baseball America as the top high school pitching prospect entering the 2004 draft, Nick blew out his elbow just as he was wrapping up his senior year at high school. The Angels were willing to draft him anyway, offering him half of a first-round bonus at the 14th round. Now he’s their #1 prospect, according to BA.

Also selected in the 2004 draft was Mark Trumbo, selected in the 18th round. Other organizations passed on Mark because he was already committed to USC. But the Angels offered him first-round bonus money to sign, and he did. Now he’s #8 on the BA list.

Kary ranked Trevor Reckling #4. (On my list, if I’d done ten more prospects Trevor probably would have been #11.) He was selected by the Angels in the 8th round of the 2007 draft out of a tiny New Jersey prep school.

BA followed up on December 9 with an article by sportswriter Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times (BA subscription required) which cites not only the loss of first-round draft picks, but also the failure to sign some of those “high risk, high reward” selections.

Shaikin cites 2008 3rd rounder Zach Cone and 5th rounder Khiry Cooper, but correctly notes that the Angels twice met Cone’s asking price. Both decided to go to college instead, with Cooper choosing to play football at Nebraska.

As I noted in my 2008 Top 10 list, this year’s draft may turn to be one of the most productive drafts for the Angels in many years.

Orem’s southpaw ace Will Smith ranked #1 on the FutureAngels.com Top 10 list. He didn’t make the BA Top 10 list, and Kary Booher didn’t mention him in the online chat. Ryan Chaffee ranked #6 on the FutureAngels.com list, but Kary didn’t mention him either other than to caution that Chaffee was hurt this year. Well, yes, but it wasn’t his arm. It was a broken foot. And he pitched for Chipola College this year with that broken foot to win the Florida junior college title.

People whose opinion I trust in the Angels organization rave about Smith and Chaffee. Ryan was chosen in the 3rd round, Smith in the 7th. One person told me he thought Chaffee’s upside might be higher than Adenhart’s — who BA ranks as the Angels’ top prospect.

There’s also a quiet groundswell of support for first baseman Gabe Jacobo, drafted in the 10th round out of Sacramento State. The 21-year old had an AVG/OBP/SLG of .327/.372/.600 in 150 AB with Orem, then moved up to Cedar Rapids where he was .320/.338/.504 in 125 AB. Of particular note is that he struck out at a rate of only once every 5.7 at-bats, combining the two levels. His college coach had Troy Tulowitzki at Long Beach state and says Jacobo’s mechanics are similar.

Tom Kotchman, in particular, has been successful at finding gems chosen in lower rounds, such as Smith, Chaffee and Howie Kendrick. Shaikin writes that Eddie Bane cites Kotch as the right way to do it.

Bane wants the Angels to talk to players — and parents, friends, school coaches, youth coaches, and anyone else who might have insight on how a kid might make a five-figure or six-figure decision.

“That’s what Tom Kotchman is so good at,” Bane said. “He’s probably the best area scout I’ve ever seen. He just digs and digs.”

That emphasis might lead the Angels to select more players from Florida, where Kotchman is based, and from Southern California, where the club runs youth teams that enable them to get to know prospects in depth.

“We’re hardly ever going to have a problem with signability with kids in Southern California,” Bane said.

Someone posted on the MLB.com Angels fan board a claim that “superstars” are only found in the first round. A silly and uneducated claim, for sure. But it led me to do a little research to show just how untrue that is.

The definition of “superstar” is open to debate, but I decided to look at the MVP and Cy Young Award winners for the last 20 years in the American and National Leagues. Some players won more than once (e.g. Barry Bonds won seven times), so any multiple-award winner was counted only one time. Here’s what I found:

  • 1st round: 16
  • 2nd round: 8
  • 3rd round: 4 (Dennis Eckersley, David Cone, Ken Caminiti, Justin Morneau)
  • 4th round: 3 (Rickey Henderson, Jeff Bagwell, Cliff Lee)
  • 5th round: 2 (Pat Hentgen, Ryan Howard)
  • 7th round: 1 (Terry Pendleton)
  • 8th round: 1 (Brandon Webb)
  • 11th round: 1 (Doug Drabek)
  • 13th round: 1 (Albert Pujols)
  • 15th round: 1 (Jake Peavy)
  • 19th round: 1 (Bret Saberhagen)
  • 20th round: 1 (Jeff Kent)
  • 22nd round: 1 (John Smoltz)

So only 16 out of 41 (39%) on that list were first-round draft picks.

But we’re overlooking another important category — players who weren’t drafted at all.

Players who don’t live in the U.S. or Canada are not subject to the draft. Technically they’re called “undrafted free agents.” They include “superstars” like Vlad Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana and Sammy Sosa. There’s also Ichiro Suzuki, who was acquired from his Japanese team. I counted 12 “undrafted free agents.”

So now it turns out that only 16 of 53 (30%) of the award winners over the last 20 years were first-round draft picks.

What’s also interesting when you look at the list is how many years passed between the year a player was drafted, and the year he won an MVP award. Many times, the player wasn’t even with his original drafting team. He moved on due to free agency or trade.

Which is another point Bane made in his Shaikin interview.

“We’ve got Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter for it,” Bane said. “I’m perfectly fine with that.”

It may take anywhere from five to ten years to look back and decide if a draft was a boom or bust. The 2000 draft, for example, was considered by many analysts to be the least talented pool of amateurs in many years. But the Angels got Bobby Jenks in the 5th round and Mike Napoli in the 17th round. So who’s to say the absence of their own first round picks in 2005-2008 made a significant difference, more significant perhaps than the free agents they signed?

If Smith, Chaffee and Jacobo reach the major leagues — which is, admittedly, a big “if” since their professional careers are just beginning — it may turn out that 2008 was a pretty good draft class after all.

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