Monday, June 7, 2010

Draft day

If the formatting ends up goofy, my apologies. I'm publishing via the e-mail method...normal way is down.


Draft day is upon us, and the Dodgers have their usual pick late in the first round. This is, of course, a good thing. It reflects a successful prior season and suggests that there aren't many holes to be patched. Of course, things are not quite that easy. After this season, we'll lose Manny Ramirez and Hiroki Kuroda. The end of the 2011 season probably signals that Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake, too, are done with the Dodgers. And the farm system isn't in the greatest shape in the moment; there are no truly exciting position prospects outside of Dee Gordon, and even he has his blemishes. So it's a good thing the Dodgers' draft budget is robust, right? ESPN Los AngelesTony Jackson: 

[Y]es, [Dodgers assistant general manager for scouting Logan White] said, he does have enough money at his disposal to sign the players he drafts over the next two days -- especially because the Dodgers, as a consequence of going to their second consecutive National League Championship Series last fall, don't pick until late in the first round. 

"I think sometimes people tend to misunderstand or misinterpret that just because we're not spending the same amount of money as certain other clubs, the reality of it is that we're picking 28th." 

Logan White's done a good job picking talent over the years, so he's accrued a certain amount of goodwill, at least in this fan. But there's something decidedly, well, off about his comments here. It's quite true that the Dodgers, picking 28th in today's first round, won't have access to Jameson Taillon or Manny Machado, let alone Bryce Harper. Still, though, hard slotting hasn't come to the major leagues yet, and premium talent will be available for those clubs willing to spend.

In his final mock draft (Insider), ESPN's Keith Law has the Dodgers selecting Kaleb Cowart, a high school two-way player from Adel, Georgia. This would, indeed, be big news—Law believes that Cowart is seeking a $3 million signing bonus—well above the slot for the Dodgers' selection. It seems that Cowart, who has drawn comparisons from J.J. Hardy to Chipper Jones, has a very solid commitment to Florida State and no problem playing college ball if he doesn't get paid.

And there are probably a dozen (if not more) players just like Cowart—high first round talent, not willing to take slot money in the back half of the first round. Heck, just last year the Kansas City Royals took a player in the third round with a similarly solid commitment to play college ball. Instead, Wil Myers is carrying a .280/.390/.489 line for Class-A Burlington—at age 19. He took a bonus of $2 million to skip college.

In this unslotted world, that's how an advantage is gained: taking (and paying for) the best players. And the reality is that the Dodgers simply haven't even tried to play the game. Best I can tell, the Dodgers (under Logan White) have never gone above slot in the first round, and have exceeded slot by only a few hundred thousand dollars (and even that has been relatively rare). Especially as the team doesn't look to be a player for big-ticket free agents in the coming years, premium talent has to come from somewhere. Why not the draft?

The aversion to drafting slot isn't entirely due to financial concerns. There is pressure from Major League Baseball for teams to spend as the commissioner's office suggests. However, there's no evidence that such persuasive efforts have any teeth; going over slot is a fairly routine move now. The strategy is particularly enjoyed by consistently successful teams as a way to replenish talent despite drafting toward the end of the first round. It's one of the several ways large-market clubs preserve their competitive advantage. But what happens when a large-market club decides it wants to spend like a mid-market one?

The Dodgers happen.

I'm not saying we should judge the Dodgers for whatever decisions they make over the next two days. Or, for that matter, the bonuses they end up awarding. However, the draft is just like free agency, the trade market, and pursuit of international talent—taken as isolated events, none mean much. Read together, they show an organization's philosophy and direction. If the Dodgers want to be successful on a mid-market budget, they must spend smarter than they have been. Recognizing the value available in the draft would be a start.


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