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Properly Analyzing The MLB Draft Requires Hindsight, Not Knee-Jerk Reactions

June 20, 2018
Some people measure time by their children's lives. Has it really been that long since your youngest was in kindergarten?

I do a little bit of that. But I also, perhaps sadly, measure time by Major League Baseball drafts. Has it really been 10 years since the Orioles took lefty Brian Matusz with the fourth overall pick, one spot ahead of San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, in 2008?

Unlike children, who shouldn't be judged until they are well into adulthood (hopefully), fans want to pick apart professional sports drafts the moment they occur.

That's ludicrous, especially in baseball, when many draftees don't make it to the majors for several years -- sometimes five or more.

That's why I laughed in early June, when the Orioles selected high school right-hander Grayson Rodriguez with the 11th overall pick and I immediately received responses on social media that the Orioles had made a mistake. 

The consensus from the keyboard general managers was that there were more proven players on the board, such as University of Florida righty Brady Singer, and that the Orioles reached with the selection of Rodriguez, who was ranked in the mid-20s by several publications.

I have a secret for you: those publications don't really know who is going to succeed in the majors. They know better than I do, of course, and they know better than you. Publications such as Baseball America invest a lot of time and resources into the draft each year, and they do a wonderful job.

Yet, simply put, it is still a total crapshoot.

I always like to remind people that Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout was the 25th overall selection in the 2009 MLB draft, and he is baseball's best player. Nearly every team in the league passed on the prep outfielder from New Jersey. His eventual club passed on him once, too. The Angels took Texas high school outfielder Randal Grichuk with the 24th overall pick, then came back with the very next selection and grabbed Trout.

In the 2010 Baseball America Handbook, published the winter after Trout was selected and batted .360 during 39 games of rookie ball, Trout was listed as the third-best prospect in the Angels' system behind catcher Hank Conger and outfielder Peter Bourjos, both of whom have ended up as big league journeymen.  

The Orioles picked fifth overall in 2009 and drafted California high school right-hander Matt Hobgood, who was the National Gatorade Player of the Year. Despite that accolade, he was considered a considerable reach at the time -- projecting as a fringe first-rounder by some publications.

Enticed by his strength and size -- he was 6-foot-4, 245 pounds in high school -- good makeup and a fastball that reached 96 mph, the Orioles signed Hobgood to a $2.422 million deal. He never flashed that kind of velocity as a pro, dealt with injuries and was out of organized ball after posting a 6.52 ERA during six relief outings at Double-A Bowie in 2015.

Hobgood, along with 2006 first-rounder Billy Rowell, who was the club's first-round pick (ninth overall) in 2006 out of a New Jersey high school, will forever be considered among the Orioles' biggest draft busts. 

Heck, some blame Rowell, whose career apex was hitting .227 during 41 games for Bowie in 2011, for keeping Trout's stock down in 2009. Highly touted New Jersey high school outfielders were viewed suspiciously after Rowell crashed and burned with the Orioles.

Both Hobgood and Rowell were selected by Joe Jordan, the Orioles' scouting director from 2004-2011. He joined the Philadelphia Phillies as farm director thereafter and still holds the position.

Jordan was widely criticized during his time in Baltimore, basically swinging and missing on first-round picks such as Hobgood, Rowell, Matusz and Brandon Snyder.

But history has been a little kinder to Jordan's reign with the Orioles. He's also the guy who selected shortstop Manny Machado, catcher Matt Wieters and right-hander Dylan Bundy in the first round and lefty Zach Britton (third round), righty Jake Arrieta (fifth round) and catcher Caleb Joseph (seventh round).

There were plenty of busts during Jordan's time, but there also were some key pieces that helped make up a core of several playoff teams.

That's sort of how these things go. You just never know.

In the 2004 Orioles' media guide, then-amateur scouting director Tony DeMacio's biography heralded his work in the 1999 amateur draft, during which the Orioles selected seven players in the first 50 picks. “The draft was widely hailed in baseball circles not just for the quantity of early picks, but for the quality of the selections," the media guide boasted.

In that draft, the Orioles took Mike Paradis (13th), Richard Stahl (18th), Larry Bigbie (21st), Keith Reed (23rd), Josh Cenate (34th), Scott Rice (44th) and Brian Roberts (50th). 

Roberts made two All-Star games and will be inducted into the organization's Hall of Fame this summer. He posted an impressive 30.4 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 14 big league seasons, according to Baseball Reference. He spent 13 years with the Orioles. Bigbie spent six seasons in the majors and posted a 2.5 career WAR. He is best remembered, however, for his prominent role in MLB's investigation into performance-enhancing drugs (the Mitchell Report).

Three of the other five selected by DeMacio in that early haul never made the majors; Reed played six games (six plate appearances) for the Orioles in 2005 and Rice reinvented his career as a reliever, pitching two seasons (105 games) for the New York Mets years after he left the Orioles' system.

DeMacio was dismissed after the 2004 season -- the year that glowing bio ran -- partially because that 1999 draft, which was supposed to set the Orioles in a new direction, set them back years. To make matters worse, the 52nd pick of that draft was outfielder Carl Crawford, who amassed a 39.2 WAR, mostly with the division rival Tampa Bay Devil Rays. 

To be fair, though, history shows DeMacio was given a terrible year in which to have seven top picks. From Paradis' selection at 13 and Roberts at 50, only 15 of the 36 draftees made the majors. Of that group, only two, outfielder Alex Rios (19th, Toronto, 27.4 career WAR) and right-hander Jason Jennings (16th, Colorado, 11.2 career WAR) posted a career WAR in the double digits.

It's just so hard to judge drafts without the assistance from hindsight -- or to truly understand whether drafting, development or both are responsible for the successes and failures of a specific system. 

Current Orioles scouting director Gary Rajsich just finished his seventh draft with the club.

Most fans will tell you the Orioles haven't prospered with what he has selected. Kevin Gausman (first round) and Josh Hader (19th round, but was traded away in 2013) are the only two notable members of Rajsich's first draft class in 2012. 

Rajsich's 2013 draft produced major leaguers in catcher Chance Sisco (second round), outfielder Trey Mancini (eighth), catcher Austin Wynns (10th) and pitchers Jimmy Yacabonis (13th) and Donnie Hart (27th). But the club's two first-round picks that year were pitcher Hunter Harvey (22nd), who has a huge upside but has been dogged by injuries, and outfielder Josh Hart (37th), who never advanced beyond High-A Frederick and is currently out of pro baseball.

Rajsich didn't have a first- or second-rounder in 2014, but fifth-rounder Davis Hess and sixth-rounder Tanner Scott, both pitchers, have made it to the big leagues. No 2015 picks have hit the majors yet, but outfielders DJ Stewart and Cedric Mullins and infielder Ryan Mountcastle are on the way. Outfielder Austin Hays, drafted in the third round in 2016, made his debut in September 2017.

The bottom line here is we all like to look at drafts and think about what could have been and what mistakes were made. But even that is hard to quantify without years to really analyze what happened. 

Photo Credit: Rich Dubroff/PressBox

Issue 245: June/July 2018