An All Too Brief Look at the Rays and the High Draft Pick
There are so many things that I would like to say on the topic of the draft, and the offseason, as well as, next June should prove to be fertile ground to plant these seeds. Knowing that there is plenty of time to nibble at this elephant I wanted to quickly look at an overview of how the Rays have fared with their early picks.
The basis for my methodology was an excellent study on the draft’s first-50 picks over at The Hardball Times back in early 2014. Straight up stealing some of the more salient stuff that I want to focus on we see just how important it is to net the earliest picks:
Bear in mind that a 10 WAR player over his pre-free agent years would average around 1.7 WAR per season. We think of these as success stories, but you’re looking at getting essentially a league average player only around 35% of the time with a pick in the top-five, and even that modest level of player is exceedingly less likely as you move down the round. A 3-WAR player over six-plus years is basically a guy that showed he was good enough to deserve a shot, but never really amounted to a whole lot in the Show. You can see that even these bench players follow an intuitive arc down through the picks with even the gold standard, a top-five pick, busting out nearly half of the time. Baseball is really hard and finding guys that can play it well is, perhaps, even more difficult.
Moving on to something similar, but not the same, we can gauge an idea of the difference in both production, and cost based on the range of picks. As you would expect, the higher you pick the more likely you are to get a guy that can produce, and since you’re paying the breakouts essentially the same you can imagine what that does for the surplus value. If costs are relatively constant, but production increases exponentially then you’re looking at exponentially increasing value, as well. Don’t believe me that this stuff is exponential? Here’s a chart from that article showing the accrued WAR based on draft slot:
There are so few players that profile as having a high probability of becoming elite Major Leaguers that your best shot is in the first handful of picks. Specifically, the first two picks. The Rays should be applauded for taking Ol’ Yeller behind the woodshed and putting him down for the good of the family. It’s not pretty, but the best shot at an impact talent, and soon, is by drafting very early. This does not even take into account the very real rewards of having a larger draft pool to be able to spend in the first ten rounds. There is an enormous difference between the the second pick and the seventh, and it gets even larger once you leave the top-10 and lose the ability to maintain your first round pick while signing a free agent that denied a qualifying offer even if that is out of the Rays realistic ability.
I recently looked at the 2015 bonus pools for all 30 teams, while superimposing the percent change from the current pool to the one prior. Look at the enormous fall off from four to five. That is a huge drop, that the team should be able to avoid. Tampa Bay should have close to $14,000,000 to spend on the first 10 rounds of their draft in June giving them nearly the most money to be able to try to fit in a stud prospect, but also take a chance on a guy that might have signability concerns. The model should be the Astros in 2012 when they got both Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers. The downside, of course, is emulating the Astros in 2014 when some last-minute shenanigans on behalf of the team cost them both the first overall pick Brady Aiken and an overslot fifth-rounder Jacob Nix. The team salvaged some value, if not dignity, by landing stud Alex Bregman in 2015, but there is real downside risk here. It’s a whole other gamble, but getting back on track the important thing is that you have the flexibility to play that game with the intention of getting multiple good, AND SOON, players.
So far I have looked at how the league fares with these picks, but using their overview I wanted to take a quick look at how the Rays have performed with these picks. Know that several of these players still have years and years before we will fully know how they panned out, but for now they will be included.
The Rays have done remarkably well when they have picked in the top-10, and have little to show for the rest of their top-50 picks. Again, several of these guys still have plenty of shine and time, but as they have not contributed yet we cannot call them a success. In both the top-five and top-10 ranges the Rays have done a marvelous job of identifying future stars. You start to get a sense for just how very important it is for the team to have the earliest picks when you notice that despite garnering nothing postive from the 28 picks outside the top-10 the team is still averaging four WAR per top-50 pick in franchise history. Hitting on a superstar like Price or Longoria can make up for an awful lot of shortcomings elsewhere. Getting a guy like B.J. Upton is a coup! Even players like Beckham or Niemann or Baldelli have provided value to their club and they did it during their cheapest years.
In a sport where virtually everyone fails a team’s best shot at landing a useful player is at the very top end of the draft. Sure, guys come out of nowhere all the time. The Rays can boast James Shields (16th round), Kevin Kiermaier (31st), Jason Hammel (19th, though production came elsewhere), John Jaso (12th) and Desmond Jennings (10th) as guys that defied the odds to become average or better players. At that point it is strictly a numbers game. If you look at the hundreds of picks they have made after the 10th round in franchise history they would assuredly hit on a couple of them here or there. If you want a good shot at a bullseye take off the blindfold, turn around to face the board, and take aim. Shooting in the dark is a sucker’s game.